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Interview with Ken Davenport: Somewhere in Time

Also see David's review of Somewhere in Time

Ken Davenport
The past week was a busy and undoubtedly satisfying one for Broadway book writer and producer Ken Davenport, what with his new musical version of Somewhere in Time having its world premiere at Portland Center Stage in Portland, Oregon, and the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which he co-produced, winning a total of six Tony Awards including Best Musical and receiving major national exposure on CBS' Tony Awards broadcast. The previous Tuesday, I caught up with this busy fellow by phone in Oregon.

David-Edward Hughes:  How did Somewhere in Time as a musical come about?

Ken Davenport:  I was walking through a video store, which tells you how long ago this was, on a date night with my girlfriend. I walked down an aisle where an old, beat-up VHS copy of the movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour jumped out at me. After I read the description, I asked my girlfriend if she knew the movie, and did she think it would make a good musical? She practically melted right there in the store! We rented it, watched it, and she had obviously seen it before and well ... we had a pretty incredible date night.

DH:  How long ago was this?

KD:  Twelve years ago.

DH:  So despite what the TV series Smash tried to imply, you don' t get a musical on Broadway in a year or less?

KD:  That is exactly so.

DH:  What is the timeline on the development of the show?

KD:  It took me five years to get the rights, because first of all I had to convince the author of the book, Richard Matheson. He had always imagined it would be a musical, and had done a draft of his own several years ago. He really wanted to adapt it himself, but I just kept at him, and finally about five years in his agent called me and said "Okay, okay, he'll let you do it." And then I started searching for the right songwriting team. And it took me basically another five years to find this one (composer Doug Katsaros and lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz). I hooked up with Doug and Amanda and basically about nine months later we did our first reading of it, and that was only about a year ago.

TB:  Will Mr. Matheson see the show in Portland?

KD:  He's 87 now, so it may not be possible for him to make the trip, but he's trying.

TD:  Would you describe the score a little bit?

KD:  I say that the music of romance is timeless. Doug is a contemporary writer, but he's made it a classic contemporary musical, if you will. In the same way that Les Misérables takes place in revolutionary France, but it doesn't sound like music of that time.

DH:  How did the collaboration occur? Were you together a lot in the same room, or using Skype, email and other modern tech to collaborate?

KD:  I had a very simple working draft/outline when we first met, and they'd say, yeah, I see a song here or a song there. I loved all three of us being in a room, and what if we did this, and how about this? And so on. That is the best. But yes, we had quite a few Google hang-outs or Skype sessions, and emailing when I'd be in L.A., and Doug was in Mexico, and Amanda was in New York, but nothing was more fun than all being in the same room.

DH:  There is a strong fan base for this material, fans of either the book or movie or both. Is this where your core audience will come from, or are they the most critical?

KD:  From my viewpoint as Producer, it's always helpful to have some brand recognition or a core audience. We've seen in Portland during previews, around 35% of the audience has seen the movie, which is actually less than I thought there would be. That helps, because when you sell a ticket to a person who knows the movie, and the majority of people who knew the movie loved the movie, they are very interested in seeing our treatment of it. You may know there is a super fan club of the story, called Insight, The International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts. Thousands of people, with a website, a newsletter and they meet every year at Mackinaw Island at the Grand Hotel for a weekend, and dress up in 1912 clothing. We went to it, which was a little scary, but happily we were very well received by them, and many of the Insight group has already come to Portland to see it. It's been wonderful.

DH:  Talk about your principal performers. Andrew Samonsky (Richard), Hannah Elless (Elice), Mark Kudisch (Robinson) and David Cryer (Arthur).

KD:  They are an absolutely wonderful group of people. Andrew has actually been with the show since the very beginning. He's a friend of Amanda Yesnowitz and we were doing a reading, and she suggested we talk to him. Subsequently, he did about every reading we had, and that's how he is here now. Hannah was in my production of Godspell in New York, and she is absolutely a star to be, there is no doubt. I actually sneaked her into a reading as a supporting character, to see how my collaborators and Scott Schwartz our director responded to her. They remembered her when I brought her in to read for Elice, and she blew everybody away. David Cryer is theatrical royalty. He's the man who played Juan Peron longer than anybody, spent 18 years in The Phantom of the Opera, founded ACT before it moved to San Francisco. All of the actors listen to him sing "The Grand Hotel" in that amazing voice of his and say, man I hope I sing half as well when I'm his age. And of course Mark Kudisch. He's been a friend of mine for years, he agreed to do a reading last year, and signed on to come to Portland. It was an incredible sign that we were onto something when talents like these agree to go out of town with you, it means an awful lot.

TB:  What is it like being the book writer of the show, and also the producer?

KD:  Producing shows is a joy. I make shows happen. I don't think to myself I want to produce this show, I just think I want to make this thing happen, what I need to do. I looked for other book writers for Somewhere in Time and I never found someone who I believed in, who would be as passionate about this show as I was. Richard approved of me. If Cameron Mackintosh comes along and wants to produce it, that's fine. But I'd be on his butt the whole time because the show is so important to me. Every show kind of migrates into what it wants to be.

DH:  What future do you see for the show after this premiere in Portland?

KD:  I'm a big fan of letting the path of development lay itself out for you. Obviously, we have big long-term goals for the show and it will be on Broadway and that's just a question of when. This is early in the process. We are already learning so much about the show during the first week of performances. And audiences are loving the show, but what can we do to make them love it even more? We are freezing it in Portland once it opens, but we have made some tweaks during the previews here. Two relatively small changes that made the show run smoother. Then we see the consensus of the audiences that watch the shows here through the run, and that instructs us where to go next.

TB:  And right after Somewhere in Time opens in Portland you'll be at the Tony Awards wearing your hat as a co-producer of Kinky Boots.

KD:  That's right. I took a big gamble on that show. I didn't even see it in Chicago, but people on my staff did. I knew it was an underdog. Everything was about them bringing in Matilda and I am a big believer in the American musical and the joy Kinky Boots brings. And what a ground swell of love for the show from the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League. And we're topping Matilda in the grosses, and I just think this underdog can take the grand prize on Sunday night.

The post-script to this is Kinky Boots won six 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical. And Somewhere in Time got mixed reviews in Portland (and a standing ovation from the audience that I saw it with. Stay-tuned!

- David Edward Hughes

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