In 1947, lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick J. Loewe were looking for a new show. Their first three collaborations, "Life of the Party," "What's Up?" and "The Day Before Spring" had either flopped or done only modest business. They would score a monster hit together when they adapted George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" into "My Fair Lady," but "The Street Where You Live" still was nearly a decade away. "Camelot" would not show up until 1960, by which time the men were on a roll.
But even in 1947, Lerner and Loewe well knew that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had just done very well with "Carousel," suggesting an American appetite for serious, emotional musicals. On the other hand, weary Americans were still recovering from the travails of World War II. Serious themes were a tough sell.
So Lerner came up with the idea for a romantic fantasy set long ago in Scotland, a country in which Americans, given the dawn of trans-Atlantic air travel, were increasingly fascinated. He came up with the idea (or maybe he borrowed the idea) for putting a pair of Americans not in Paris but in the Scottish Highlands, where they encounter a tartan-loving village that only appears from the mist for one day every hundred years. He called the show and the village "Brigadoon," a title with a nice lilt in a Scottish brogue. And Loewe obliged with some of his best exportable songs, including a very successful little ditty called "Almost Like Being in Love."
"Brigadoon" was the first true Lerner and Loewe hit. But it has not proved as resilient to the passage of time as "Carousel" or, indeed, "My Fair Lady." These days, it's rarely produced and widely seen as a show with a superlative score and a creaking book, likely unproducably so. All of which explains why Lerner's daughter, Liza, is on a mission to rehabilitate "Brigadoon," a process that began Friday with a preview at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Kevin Earley, Curt Bouril and Jennie Sophia are in the lead roles.
"It had started slipping," Lerner said of the title, over a recent lunch in downtown Chicago. "People began to perceive 'Brigadoon' as old-fashioned. So I decided it needed rejuvenation."
Part of the perception of the tiredness and artifice of "Brigadoon" comes, of course, from the 1954 MGM musical, starring Gene Kelly. That Vincent Minnelli movie still has its fans, but it was filmed entirely on an MGM lot and is characterized by (as Lerner puts it) "dancers stumbling over papier-mache rocks." The look hardly is au courant.
Rehab for old tuners is not a new idea, of course. Many old musicals have been retooled to juice their viability and increase an estate's income. Lerner herself was one of the producers of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," another of her father's old shows (although with music by Burton Lane). In 2011, that 1965 musical was radically revised for a production that featured Harry Connick Jr. in the lead role. The revival was a flop and a disaster in most creative ways. But it did launch the Broadway career of a young Chicago actress named Jessie Mueller, whose father, Roger Mueller, is in the cast of Rachel Rockwell's new Goodman production.
Although Lerner has an obvious inside track, she still had to get the permission to rework "Brigadoon" from her fellow family members, who make collective decisions for the Lerner estate. She is one of four children, who are the offspring of three different Lerner wives. Alan Jay Lerner, who died in 1986 at age 67, enjoyed one of Broadway's most colorful personal lives, marrying eight times. Many of his wives were actresses; they mostly were much younger than he was. In his autobiography, he famously confessed to not being much good at marriage.
"He was a gigantic romantic," Lerner said of her father. "He really had a very old-fashioned point of view about marriage, actually. You can he hear it in his lyrics, like "Why can't a woman be more like a man?' But there was a big part of him that really wanted to get it right every time."
Alan Jay Lerner may have been no good at marriage. But he could write musicals.
Liza Lerner got the go-ahead for the "Brigadoon" rehab from her fellow family members. And, she said, she now has the benefit of the cloudy "Clear Day" experience to guide her. She is setting about to revise "Brigadoon" without making the show so different that it ruins an appeal that, fading or not, still resonates widely.
"I have said," she explained, "let's make sure we don't change it so much that people will not recognize it as the 'Brigadoon' they know and love." For sure, this is a title that puts a smile on the faces of those of a certain age, even if the details of the memory are sketchy.
Lerner went looking for a director ("someone beyond the usual Broadway A-list names," she said), and she found Rockwell, a Chicago director and choreographer emerging on the national scene. When they talked about the potential project, the two women sealed the deal around the idea that the plot of the show actually could be rendered not as some superficial mist-crusted, haggis-filled fantasy but as an emotional story with real human stakes.
"Imagine what it must be like to only see someone you love only every 100 years," Rockwell said at that same lunch. "In the story, 'Brigadoon' will disappear for good if anyone tries to leave. Imagine how that must feel to everyone there."
Brian Hill, a young book writer, has been hired to retool the Lerner book with those guidelines (as in "be respectful of the appeal of the original") in mind.
"We're holding on to the spirit, magic and passion of the piece," Hill said in a phone interview. "We're not trying to create a revisionist 'Brigadoon,' but we are trying to bring it into a storytelling form for a contemporary audience. In 1947, they wanted it to be an escapist piece of theater, as the wounds of the war still were so raw. But now we feel like we can dig a little deeper."
The new "Brigadoon" also aims to be more, well, authentically Scottish, as distinct from serving up the kind of Scotland you find only in a mail-order catalog marketed to Americans. The piece will make reference to actual Scottish history, and it does so in a resonant moment, with the upcoming vote for Scottish independence this fall.
Rockwell says one of the other aims is to "shave off a bit of the 1940s musical sound and make the orchestrations feel more authentic." Thus, the 13-piece orchestra will include a bagpipe.
This is not a pre-Broadway tryout in the formal sense; there is no deal yet for a New York theater, and there are other obstacles to climb. Revivals are usually tougher sells to investors, since they don't tend to run as long as original hit musicals, and they don't offer lots of post-Broadway ways to make back money one might lose in New York. But Lerner clearly hopes that the show that opens officially July 7 at the Goodman will, at least, become the licensable "Brigadoon." And if the show is a hit, Broadway interest is inevitable.
"I think that when you stop making the show about happy, dancing townspeople and start making it about being glad you're alive," Rockwell said, enthusiastically, "then it really becomes something."
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