`Rumpelstiltskin' puts new spin on an old tale

THEATER

Theater Column

October 31, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale about a little man who spins straw into gold, and local director/librettist Robert Neal Marshall hopes his new musical, Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter, will turn out to be artistic as well as box office gold.

The musical is making its world premiere Nov. 8 at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park followed by a three-week run. Adapted from a children's book of the same name by Diane Stanley, Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter has a score by New York composer Tim Battle, who co-wrote the lyrics with Marshall.

Marshall's first original musical is the culmination of a long journey - not unlike a quest in a fairy tale. A Baltimore native who was raised in New York and New Jersey, Marshall has a degree in film from New York University. He launched his theatrical career in London in the mid-1980s, first as an intern and later as assistant to the late producer Richard Armitage, best known for the hit musical, Me and My Girl.

After his mentor's unexpected death in 1986, Marshall's career took several detours. He worked as a computer consultant in California and currently runs an online collectibles company out of his home in Columbia. But theater has always lured him back.

In 1997, while living in New York, Marshall was one of 70 directors selected for the Lincoln Center Theater Directors' Lab, an intensive program that nurtures stage directors. One of his assignments was to collaborate with a composer who hadn't worked in musical theater and create a musical adapted from a non-musical prose source. "We had two days to do it and present it to the group," Marshall says.

Teamed up with Battle, a songwriter and arranger who has a long history with the Boys Choir of Harlem, Marshall came across the recently published Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter by Stanley, an award-winning author and illustrator of more than 40 children's books.

"Diane Stanley always said she hated the fact that in the classic fairy tale this miller's daughter would marry, at the end of the story, this mean, officious king who treated her like garbage. So [Stanley] wrote her own version," explains Marshall, who subsequently got to know the Texas-based author. Extending the fairy tale one more generation, Stanley created a "story about this independent, confident, determined young lady who stands up to the king to save her family and the village," as Marshall describes it.

In the lab, Marshall, Battle and a small cast performed an abridged version of the musical for the rest of the group. The reaction was encouraging. "Everybody was hyped up. They said, `You've got a backer's audition. You ought to go with this,' " recalls Marshall, who turned to Battle on the spot and said: "I'm going to make this happen."

Marshall wrote a proposal and he and Battle recorded several of the songs with some singers from the Boys Choir of Harlem. They sent it all off to Stanley, who granted them an 18-month option to develop the property. "I was delighted, and I was particularly pleased by the multi-cultural approach that they took," Stanley says from her home in Houston.

Marshall and Battle spent most of the option period in negotiations with Universal Pictures to create an animated feature. Then negotiations fell through.

"We'd nearly burned up our time. We had two months to do it or lose it," Marshall says. Their solution was a two-day workshop production at the Boys Choir of Harlem in March 2000. Stanley flew in to see it and, though she felt the second act needed work, she gave the show her approval.

Nothing more happened, however, until a year ago when Marshall, who had moved back to Maryland, played the demo CD for Wayne Shipley, executive director of the Chesapeake Arts Center, where Marshall had directed a play.

"I just kind of fell in love with the music," says Shipley. He asked for a copy of the script, read it and concluded, "This is a worthy project. Promoting new work - that's part of the vision of this center."

Shipley has demonstrated his faith by coming up with a $40,000 budget, the largest to date for the 21-month-old center, which has a 904-seat theater. He has also rounded up extensive corporate sponsorship, including more than $70,000 in airtime donated by Comcast.

"I think that this show has as good a chance as anything I've ever seen in my life of going beyond just a local venue," Shipley says. "It has themes that are contemporary; it's feministic because your hero is in fact a heroine and at the end she doesn't marry the king, she wants to be prime minister."

Author Stanley, who will be flying in for opening night, is optimistic. "I'm prepared to be impressed," she says. "I think they're a very talented team, and I think they really care about making something wonderful."

Marshall also hopes some of his contacts in New York will make the trip. But for now, he says, "This project has been my soul's blood for five years. I'm just excited that Chesapeake was willing to take a risk with this."

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