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Snatched from the Jaws of Madame Guillotine

Not unlike the French aristocrats in the script, The Scarlet Pimpernel has been saved from La Guillotine by a League of Bounders. In the show, the bounders use ruses and diversions to rescue the victims, but in real life, the League used letters, word of mouth, and ticket purchases.

The Scarlet Pimpernel opened at the Minskoff Theater on November 9, 1997. It was greeted by generally mediocre reviews in the press and by cheers from the many Frank Wildhorn fans who were eagerly awaiting the newest project by the composer of their beloved Jekyll & Hyde. The show opened with two well known Broadway stars, Terrence Mann and Christine Andreas, and a newcomer to the New York stage, Douglas Sills. Although press about Sills was overwhelmingly positive, it still wasn't enough to get people in the seats.

The initial ad campaign looked promising. The Minskoff sported the largest billboard in the city, and milk cartons everywhere were sporting "The Scarlet Pimpernel" - which promptly led you to ask "Is he missing? Why is he on the face of milk cartons?" For some reason, the producers assumed that the general public recognized the famous story of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and would know exactly what their show was about - WRONG! No one knew, so no one came. This was definitely a show with an identity crisis.

Now, enter our heroes - thanks to the internet, the Jekkies had long since had their own email list on which they swapped information about all things Wildhorn. When SP opened, there were so many people on the list discussing SP, and not J & H, that a new list was born - The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. It started out as a small group, but evidently has grown to a huge fan base wielding some influence.

Like all Wildhorn fans, Leaguers are true to their show. They don't only see the show once or twice, they see it 20 times. The cast members see them so many times at the stage door that they know them by name. And each time they see the show, they bring new converts with them.

Early in the spring, League members started to get worried about their show. They kept reading newspaper articles bashing SP and predicting its demise with a sadistic gleam. They constantly wondered, "Are they watching the same show we are?" with no answers in sight. Then, a glimmer of hope - the Tony nominations. Everyone with half a brain knew that Douglas Sills would get a nod as Best Actor, but would SP be overlooked for Best Musical like J & H had been? With breathless anticipation they waited, and YES, there it was - the Best Musical nomination. Surely now someone would take SP seriously! But then they started to read newspapers all over New York report something like "The Best Musical nominees are The Lion King and Ragtime! - oh, and rounding out the category are the now-closed Side Show and The Scarlet Pimpernel." They were becoming the Rodney Dangerfields of Broadway!

By the beginning of June, the show was hanging on by a thread. The cast knew it, the press knew it, and so did the League. Since it was pretty well set in stone that they would not win Best Musical, they had to hit a home run with a dynamite performance on the telecast. And did they ever! In a cleverly edited segment, the Bounders did a portion of their dialogue setting up the purpose of the League, and then they launched into their trademark song "Into the Fire." They were then joined by the entire cast and the guillotine for the end of the song, enabling Sills to finish with a flourish and a note that he held at least 20 seconds (after dueling and jumping onto a scaffold, no less). Leaguers everywhere jumped to their feet and cheered. And it appeared that ticket sales did start to perk up a bit. But was it enough?

Word went out through the League that the producers were deciding immediately after the Tony Awards if they should pull the plug. Everyone was told to tell anyone they knew that if they were going to buy a ticket, this was the time. With incredible timing, the weekend after the Tony Awards happened to be The Scarlet Pimpernel benefit weekend for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. There was a fantastic turn-out of loyal support, and the weekend raised almost $13,000. There was a Talk-Back which was attended by almost every member of the cast, and about 200 fans. The producers watched all of this transpire before their eyes. There was chemistry that weekend, and it was just the beginning.

Since that time, a letter has been signed by most of the League and sent to the producers. The letter spoke of the love they had for the show and its cast. Leaguers found every friend they ever knew and invited them to the show. They stood at the TKTS booth, eager to jump in with a suggestion when they heard those words "What shall we see?".

So, now we come to the purchase of the show by MSG Productions, which means that The Scarlet Pimpernel will run into the next millennium. And there are two groups to thank for this, the Bounders on stage, and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

A special thanks to Nancy Rosati, a big Leaguer, for her assistance with this column and for being a supporter of this much underrated musical.

See you Sunday!


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