An Interview with Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan
Prior to an early rehearsal, I sat down to breakfast with these two distinguished gentleman of the theatre, who, with composer Peter Sipos, are hard at work on the world premiere staging of their new musical Robin Hood-The Legend Continues.
David-Edward Hughes: Where did the idea for this show originate?
Martin Charnin: With me. I had worked with (composer) Peter Sipos on Joan of Ark in Montreal, where I directed it, both in English and in French. What we discovered was the English speaking audience wasn't there in Montreal, and it was originally going to run four weeks in French, four in English. But the advance ticket sales for the French version kept outpacing those for the English, so it ended up we played only one weekend in English, and all the rest in French, first in Montreal and then in Quebec City. And then it all just kind of fell apart. Nothing was gonna happen with it, mostly because American producers were loathe to come up and see it in French. They simply didn't see how it would translate into English. The French audiences were ecstatic, but it didn't necessarily make it relevant to American audiences. Under any circumstances, I was wildly enamored of Peter's music, which I thought was simply stunning
DEH: Is Peter French-Canadian?
MC: He's Hungarian, he moved to Canada. What I ended up saying to him was, if you ever either abandon the Joan of Ark or feel like working on something else, give me a yell. That was 1996. In 1999 the phone call came saying that he and the collaborator of Joan of Ark had parted ways. He had retained all of the music and asked if I was interested in collaborating on something. I said, well yes, but it was rather heroic music for Joan of Ark, so it would have to be something absolutely articulate to the score.
I had always been fascinated by Robin Hood, and to my knowledge there has not been a musical of it since 1891 when De Koven wrote a kind of Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy/Franz Lehar musical. Then all of a sudden there was this film festival of Robin Hood movies on television. They showed Costner's, and Errol Flynn, and one with this Brit whose name I forgot. It all was kind of a bath of Robin Hood.
DEH: Not to forget Mel Brooks' Men in Tights.
MC: Men in Tights is jokey. Silly. It's not satire, it's not funny, it's a Sid Caesar sketch drawn out to feature length. That's not what we wanted to do. But, coincidentally, Shakespeare in Love was out at that time, and I was very, very taken by Tom Stoppard's approach. How he could mix a legend with pure fiction, make it relevant to today, yet keep it in the time of good old Will. It all just kind of mushed together, and one morning I woke up and I knew what I wanted to do, to tell the story of Robin Hood, twenty years later, and make it the love story between Robin and Marian, and this offspring that he doesn't know he has. Keeping all the swash and the buckle, but there is a bit more buckle than swash, because these guys are in their fifties, so it's a little bit of the over-the-hill gang. And then, generationally, I thought it would be neat to create a group of young Merry Men, who'd be in the position to take up the mantle of their fathers.
Anyway, that's basically how it happened, and then I got Tom, who instantly cottoned to the idea. He was in the process of doing the first draft of The Producers, and Mel Brooks was taking a long time to write it, so Tom had free time. We sat and we put it together; we did a couple of readings, one in New York, and one in Daytona. It was after that I realized we had to get beyond readings. Scripts had to come out of people's hands and we had to really find out what we had. Changes were made, and then Ken Gentry and NETworks took up the option. And Cary Walker who works for Ken, who's an old friend from the Lincolnshire Marriott where we did Annie Warbucks, said he knew Robb Hunt of Village Theatre, why don't we see if we can put it on there?
In point of fact, this place is Goodspeed of the Northwest. They have subscriptions, they have lovely people working here, it's a wonderful community, they have two theatres that do musicals, and the work ethic is just what I wanted to bring us into. They're so accommodating, and beyond accommodating they're talented, which is a really nice thing. I've reached a point in my life where it's okay to work, but if you don't work with people you can at least look at after two weeks of rehearsal, then you're in deep trouble. Basically it's a text-oriented tryout. We want to know about the score and the text, and to find out whether or not the characters work, and the tone works.
DEH: And then?
MC: At that stage of the game, if God is good, we take a deep breath and go and mount a major production. In the final analysis an audience is an audience. It's like Olympic scoring. You don't pay attention to the night every number gets a standing ovation, and you don't pay attention to the night when they're getting up and walking out of the theatre before the curtain calls. It's somewhere in that convenient middle that really gives you an answer. That's what we're looking for here. And we have enough time, and the opportunity here to work on it after we open.
DEH: Your Annie Warbucks tried out here, and personally I loved it.
MC: There has been an enormous resurgence of interest in it. It got splendid reviews in a production by the Walnut Street theatre in Philadelphia earlier this year. I had a couple of problems with how it was put together, but that's usually the case. I rarely go to see things I didn't direct, because if it's done well I'm gonna be angry, and if it's done badly I'm gonna be angry. (Thomas Meehan joins us). Tom, join us, we're having breakfast. So back to Robin Hood. It's very romantic, but it's also very funny.
DEH: And you've brought in Shelly Burch to play Marian. How did that come about?
MC: She was Laurie Beechman's replacement in Annie as the star to be, then she was in the original cast of Nine, and then she spent eight years on (the ABC daytime soap) One Life to Live. One of the waitresses here recognized her from that ... didn't care about anything she'd done in the theatre, or what I'd done in the theatre, but One Life to Live, now that was impressive.
DEH: Soap fans are a rare breed.
MC: They're like Trekkies!DEH: I wanted to ask you, when did you start writing lyrics, Martin? You were in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story, were you writing even then?
MC: Even before that, in a very limited sort of way. I was really interested in writing lyrics back in '57 when I met Sondheim while doing West Side. I wrote an Off-Broadway musical that was a disaster, but I wrote it. It was called Fallout. The original title was something that the N.Y. Times wouldn't accept, so I had to change it?
DEH: And that was?
MC: Brilliant! Atkinson And they wouldn't let me do it. Brooks Atkinson was their critic, so they said no. In those days you couldn't do a lot of things. Arthur Kopit had a problem with The Day The Whores Came Out to Play. They wouldn't print it. But nowadays, Mario Cantone calls a show Laugh Whore and no problem. He's very funny.
DEH: Can you talk about how Barbra Streisand wasn't cast in your and Mary Rodgers' musical Hot Spot? Was she strongly considered?
MC: Absolutely! More than considered. She was still pretty well unknown. I saw her in the Village in a show called An Evening with Harry Stoones. Mary and I went to see her in it, and we went nuts for her, and said this is who we want to play this nut, this Peace Corps screw-up. Mary and I, and a wonderful accompanist Colin Romoff, worked with her on the songs, I worked with her on the scenes, and we brought her into the Majestic Theatre. The producers were Fryer & Carr, and Morton DeCosta was the director. Barbra sang five songs, played two scenes, and all Morton De Costa did in the end was say thank you! And she walked off, and I ran after her and asked her to wait. Mary and I went back onstage, and De Costa said "Sure, she's wonderful, but who'd believe anybody would want to kiss her?"
I remember vividly, it was the first outburst moment I had in my entire life. I raised my hands high above my head, pumping the air and saying "You are making the biggest mistake of your entire life!" Really, it's still so vivid. Mary and I went out and got drunk, immediately. And we discovered that, unbeknownst to us, they had already given the part to Judy Holliday. And Judy sold tickets. It didn't help the show. What was kept from us was that Judy had cancer. It was really difficult. She was not happy or engaged; she was joyless. And understandably so. The whole thing crashed and burned in New York.
DEH: There are so many great songs in it. What a shame it was never recorded.
TM: Have you ever talked to Encores! about it, Martin?
MC: They won't do it. I don't even know archivally if still exists. It would be an archaeological dig. And Mary is not aggressive about her writing. She is sort of a keeper of her father's flame, and yet she is much more her mother's daughter than her father's.DEH: I also admired your show The First. More great songs.
MC: That one's just been done in Chicago and some noise is starting to happen about that. The First is one of my great disappointments. I solved something in that show that I thought couldn't be solved. To put an athletic sport onstage. It had never been done except in Damn Yankees, and that was all in the locker room. Ours had a lot of moments in the field, and we solved it. And we told the story of the most significant piece of integration ... I mean, it's up there with Rosa Parks, folks. And we discovered David Alan Grier. Anyway, no matter. Life is full of many disappointments, although in point of fact, if you wait long enough maybe everything that goes around comes around.
I just came here from Cumberland, Tennessee, where Peter Stone and I spent a year prior to his death re-doing Two By Two, and it went up de-Danny Kaye-ified. All of that crap he had forced us to do - we were held hostage - that and how he sold 3.5 million dollars worth of tickets in a day and a half. That's a lot of tickets in 1970. But 34 years to the night it opened on Broadway, it opened at the Cumberland Playhouse. And it was wonderful, the reviews were sensational, and I did it the way I always wanted to, with a rainbow cast. We did this production, it was right in the belly of the beast, no offense, it was smack in the middle of the bible belt, with churches of all denominations within blocks of each other, and they have all responded quite wonderfully to it.
I have got to go to rehearsal. But Tom's got tons of stuff to say. A pleasure. If you need more, yell.
DEH: You are one busy man Mister Meehan. How do you do it all?
Thomas Meehan: Sometimes I wonder. Just got back from London (opening The Producers), spent two days in New York, and now I'm here.
DEH: The reviews in London were great. Thank God for Nathan Lane, eh?
TM: That was a tough one. All that talent in the London cast, but at the heart of it, with Richard Dreyfuss. (he pauses) Nathan saved our necks, I'll tell you that. It was so great of Nathan to do that. He'd just done The Frogs, he was pretty beat, and he had just put up a house in the East Hamptons, where he could rest up, because we've got the movie starting up soon. So he did us a big favor. He's getting paid a lot of money, which is nice, and it also gives him a chance to really get known on the West End. He's never really played the West End before. And he's playing it with Lee Evans, a tremendous young physical comedian. He's like an old vaudevillian, with his facial things and pratfalls. Nathan had to notch it up a bit, because this guy was getting a lot of laughs up there. It's like WWIII with the two of them trying to top each other, and the audiences love it.
DEH: After the film of The Producers, I doubt the Hairspray film will be far behind.
TM: We've all ready started to do that film script. We thought it was going to be a year and a half away, but now New Line, who bought it, wants to make it next August, so there's a deadline.
DEH: Do you think we'll see a resurgence of the movie musical? There's been lots of speculation ever since Chicago did so well.
TM: I hope so. I hope they work. Phantom is coming out, and I've heard good things about it. Of course Lloyd Webber was very hands-on with that. While he was doing that, I was in London, trying somehow to save Bombay Dreams, which was a monumental job. But I think Lloyd Webber has a lot of his own money in it. Well, there's the thing in The Producers, "Never put your own money in your show." I have never put money in my shows. You have to do it for love, and for art.
Now Robin Hood, for Martin, it's kind of a pet project. He's persisted with it on and off for a number of years. I don't know what will come of it. That's what we're here to find out. You don't know what you really have until you play for a paying audience. Not just friends. And we get to run it a little while. I don't want people to come up to me and say; "This is the best musical I've ever seen!" I want them to say, "Why did you do that?" So we can take all that information and, if we have to, go back to the drawing board. I don't consider this a finished work at all, but I'm glad to be working on it here with everyone.
DEH: You didn't have that much work to do on Hairspray when it premiered here at the 5th Avenue prior to Broadway.
TM: That was at a different stage of development, and it was a joy. The Seattle audiences were so welcoming to us. But we still got some good work done here.
DEH: I look forward to seeing the fruits of your and Martin's labors on Robin Hood-The Legend Continues. And, may I tell you, I'm looking forward to Young Frankenstein, too?
TM: A lot of people are. I hope we make them happy with what we do.
Robin Hood-The Legend Continues, directed by Martin Charnin, music by Peter Sipos, book by Thomas Meehan, runs December 10-23 at the Village Theatre's First Stage, Issaquah, WA. For more information go online at www.villagetheatre.org.