Another classic American film set in Baltimore is headed for Broadway, but unlike "Hairspray" this one may be a less obvious fit.
Barry Levinson has adapted "Diner," his well-regarded 1982 movie, for the stage. With music and lyrics by rock singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, the new show is scheduled to open in New York next fall.
"The book is written," Levinson said. "And Sheryl has written about 16 songs now. What we're going to start now is to adjust and fill and see what we need to take care of."
The popular film, set in Baltimore in 1959, tells the tale of six 20-somethings who have been friends since high school. They reunite when one of them is about to get married.
The idea for a musical version of "Diner" has been floating around for several years, Levinson said.
"But I couldn't see doing it without it having a dramatic spine," he added. "I thought it still needed to be comedic-dramatic or dramatic-comedic, and not like 'Grease' or something. But then, how do you deal with the music? I just felt it needed a certain kind of sound, not just a 'Broadway sound' — that would dwarf the piece."
The Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning Levinson, who has been collaborating with Crow for about two years, found her style ideally suited to the project.
"I had always liked her stuff," he said. "And when I viewed it with this in mind, it started to click. She had a really good understanding of the material and the music. Sheryl's music has a great range to it, and that's one of the interesting things about 'Diner' and 1959. The music of the time was not all rock 'n' roll."
Levinson rattled off the eclectic list of hit tunes that year, from "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to "The Chipmunk Song."
"That range shows you how far you can go in the music for this thing," he said. "Not that we don't have rock and roll, but we do have pieces that are more like jazz and just as indicative of the time. That was fun. We had a little room to maneuver."
Any musical adaptation of a movie raises questions, said Pikesville-born Marc Platt, producer of the hit Broadway show "Wicked."
"Any film can be turned into a musical, but the more material question is should it be turned into a musical," Platt said. "What can the authors of the musical bring to the adaptation that is unique, specific and satisfying to the theatrical stage experience? What can be created that allows the source material to 'sing' and is best-suited for the stage?"
That's what Levinson considered carefully. The famous football test in "Diner," for example, given by a character who will only marry a woman who knows all about the Baltimore Colts, will not turn into a song-and-dance routine.
"You don't sing about that," Levinson said. "What you do sing about are a lot of things that are never said in the movie. In the movie, there are a lot of things, especially, that the women don't say. And the musical form opens the way … for a little bit of expansion, without manufacturing anything."
It's impossible to predict whether the new "Diner" will follow the footsteps of John Waters' extraordinarily successful musical version of his vibrant film "Hairspray," which roused Broadway and went on to be turned into a popular movie musical. Waters' other foray into Broadway, "Crybaby," generated mixed reviews.
But the signs certainly look favorable for "Diner."
"Barry Levinson is incredibly smart," Mel Brooks, the celebrated filmmaker who turned his "The Producers" into a popular musical, wrote in an e-mail. "If the music, lyrics and staging are anywhere near as good as Barry's dialogue, then I think the show has a real chance of becoming a major success."
Decades ago, Brooks heard Levinson's stories about a diner in Baltimore and prodded him to make a film about it. The film, which earned Levinson an Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay, starred Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Mickey Rourke andDaniel Stern.
Crow, a multiple Grammy Award winner, is an avowed fan of the movie.
"I knew exactly who these men and women were," she said in a statement. "Writing the score for 'Diner' has been the most challenging and fulfilling experience of my career."
The new musical will be directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall
"I'm not so foolish as to say I know everything," Levinson said. "You get a director like Kathleen, who has a very good understanding of the material, and you go from there. You're not going to do dance numbers for the sake of dance numbers. They emerge organically from the piece. Of course, we'll have a few of those sequences in it, but she's the one who's capable of sorting all that out."
Levinson and Crow will be making their Broadway debuts with their musical, which is being produced by Base Entertainment.
"The producers are very experienced and talented," said Jeff Daniel, vice president and executive director of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. "The show's got all the right elements. Dropping Sheryl Crow's name into the blender makes it even more appealing."
Cast members and a design team for the musical will be announced later, as will the location of "a limited out-of-town engagement" that the producers are planning next summer. Daniel has a ready suggestion for where "Diner" can get its test run before making the move to the Great White Way.
"It would be hard not to think that it would be a great idea to open it in Baltimore," Daniel said. "Pre-Broadway productions used to come to Baltimore, and it used to be a big deal when Baltimore got the opening of a new show. One of our goals at the Hippodrome is to bring that back. It would be wonderful to have 'Diner' here, pre- or post-Broadway."
Asked about his hometown as the try-out spot, Levinson had a quick reply: "That would be interesting."