He has a hand in it all

THEATER

Three productions offer Maltby's work

Theater Column

January 02, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

I'm sort of the Benedict Arnold of the American musical theater," Richard Maltby Jr. kids.

The New York-based lyricist and director is referring to his role as the American collaborator on two musicals imported to Broadway during what came to be known as "the British invasion."

The musicals are Tell Me on a Sunday, which arrived on Broadway in 1985 as the first act of an Andrew Lloyd Webber double bill called Song & Dance, and Miss Saigon, which opened on Broadway in 1991.

Productions of both are currently in the area. Tell Me on a Sunday continues through Jan. 12 at Washington's Kennedy Center, and Miss Saigon runs through Sunday at the Lyric Opera House. In addition, on Jan. 10, a co-production of Maltby's 1978 Tony Award-winning Fats Waller revue, Ain't Misbehavin' , begins performances at Center Stage; it will have a subsequent run at Arena Stage in Washington in the spring.

This trio of musicals typifies two distinctive specialties of Maltby's. The first might be called the "Americanization" of European musicals; the second is the creation of revues.

His work on Tell Me on a Sunday - which is credited as "American adaptation and additional lyrics" - came about after Lloyd Webber showed him a videotape of the British production of Song & Dance. The video was something of an afterthought; they were discussing another show at the time. But after watching the tape, Maltby recalls, "[Lloyd Webber] said, `We want to do in it in the United States, but it needs someone who can both be a director and also a writer, someone like, oh, you, Richard.' I really believe it occurred to him on the spot."

At that point, the musical consisted of two unrelated acts: Tell Me on a Sunday, a one-person song cycle with lyrics by Don Black about a British woman in New York, and a ballet choreographed to Lloyd Webber's Variations on Paganini's A-Minor Caprice.

As Maltby writes in the liner notes for the Broadway album, Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to bring the show to New York, but felt it needed to be reconceived, "preferably by an American director who could give the whole evening an American sensibility."

"The basic shape of the evening didn't change, but all the details did," Maltby explains. Those details included everything from "inventing a storyline that linked the first and second acts" to giving the character in the first act a name. "All of those things seem like they're sort of easy, but finding a name for her was quite hard. You have to figure out where you're going to use it and then it has to have the right number of accents," he says.

In the case of Miss Saigon - loosely based on Madame Butterfly, updated to the fall of Saigon in 1975 - Maltby was brought in by producer Mackintosh after the show's French composer, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and lyricist, Alain Boublil, had written a first draft.

"Cameron felt the show needed an American collaborator on it, and I think he was right. I don't think Europeans understand what Vietnam meant to the Americans," says Maltby, who worked side by side with Boublil.

He considers his major Miss Saigon contribution to be the title character's love interest, a Marine named Chris, whom he envisioned as sympathetic, unlike his counterpart in the opera. The project's greatest challenge was "giving it an American vernacular," he says. "Sometimes the music had a European feel to it. When they wrote Americans, we often had to really work to find a locution that was American, that fitted those rhythms."

Ain't Misbehavin' presented an obstacle of another nature. Maltby has written and directed a number of successful revues, including Starting Here, Starting Now; Closer Than Ever (both with his frequent collaborator, composer David Shire); and most recently, the 1999 Tony Award winner Fosse. But he insists, "I don't like revues. I'm good at them because I don't trust them."

Ain't Misbehavin', he explains, "looks like a revue and officially is a revue, but it has several things most revues don't have. One is consistent characters; [the cast's five] performers are characters all evening. It is organized thematically as a biography of Fats Waller, although, again, it's never stated, and it has a dramatization, in its fragmented parts, of this immense personality that is Fats Waller. So when the show is over, you feel you've been in the presence of somebody, even though he's never been on stage. All these things no revue ever thought to do."

Co-conceived by Murray Horwitz, Ain't Misbehavin' started out as a traditional book musical. "But Fats Waller doesn't have a good second act. He died young and started a lot of things that never went anywhere. So we dropped it," Maltby says.

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