A Grand Experiment Broadway-bound: 16 years after idea was born, 'Jekyll & Hyde' at last seems headed for big lights of New York.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It has spawned two record albums, several hit songs, a World Wide Web site and a 35-city national tour. Tickets have been scalped for 10 times their face value. Audience members have shown up waving banners and wearing costumes, and during the show some have even fainted.

But despite all this hoopla, the musical "Jekyll & Hyde" has had one of the longest and most unusual evolutions in pre-Broadway history. More than 16 years after the idea for the show dawned on composer Frank Wildhorn, the musical is finally approaching the Broadway finish line.

Well, almost. "Jekyll & Hyde" was originally scheduled to open on Broadway immediately after its two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre, which begins March 26. Now its Broadway debut has been delayed until fall.

At this point, its creators pop music composer Wildhorn and librettist Leslie Bricusse, a Broadway and Hollywood veteran are accustomed to waiting. They're even looking forward to an extra six months for refinements, rewrites and major design changes.

And after all, what's six more months when you've been waiting 16 years? This is an extremely long haul even these days, when mounting a musical on Broadway is more difficult and costlier than ever. Fewer and fewer shows can afford the time-honored practice of out-of-town tryouts. Instead, many musicals have lengthy preview periods in New York. When a show does begin out of town, it usually plays only one or two cities. Or, as is increasingly the case, it may begin at a regional theater and attract the attention of commercial producers, who move it to Broadway within a season or two.

In contrast, "Jekyll & Hyde's" origins date back to 1979, when Wildhorn, then an undergraduate history major at the University of Southern California, saw the Broadway production of "Dracula" starring Frank Langella.

"I loved the fact that they took the Gothic literature and did a really highly stylized, sexy, modern production that was hip and wasn't just another interpretation of a classic," he says.

Together with another student, Steve Cuden, Wildhorn decided to create a sexy, modern, hip, Gothic musical. As their source, they chose Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

The first line written for that musical was: "The only thing constant is change." Appropriately for a show that has gone through so many permutations, the line remains in the text to this day.

Titled "Jekyll & Hyde," this college musical received a staged reading at USC, after which it was consigned to a drawer while Wildhorn pursued a highly successful career as a pop songwriter, composing, among other top 10 hits, Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" in 1988.

He and Cuden went their separate ways, but Wildhorn never forgot "Jekyll & Hyde" or his interest in the theater. "I had a nice run with the pop stuff. Whitney Houston sold 16 million records. That bought me the financial freedom to go back to what I wanted to do, which was theater," he says.

Six years ago, a theatrical producer Wildhorn had met through his pop music career gave the demo tape of "Jekyll & Hyde" to Bricusse, a two-time Academy Award winner whose Broadway credits include "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" and "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd" (both with Anthony Newley) and this season's "Victor/Victoria."

"The first thing that attracted me to it [was] the realization that nobody had ever made a musical of it," Bricusse says of Stevenson's 1886 novella, which has been adapted repeatedly for the stage and made into dozens of movies.

He was also struck by Wildhorn's contemporary-sounding music, which combined "a powerful gift of melody and a romantic, theatrical approach to the music."

'Back to square one'

When it came to the plot, however, "We went back to square one. I felt it had no correct structure dramatically," Bricusse says. "Since the original Robert Louis Stevenson book is such a tiny novella, you can, in fact, do what you want, as all the film versions prove."

The college script was about a Jack the Ripper-style Hyde who murders prostitutes. Bricusse scrapped that idea and made Hyde "the judge and jury," taking revenge on Jekyll's enemies, specifically, the board of governors at Dr. Jekyll's hospital, who refuse to let him continue his experiments, which leads him to experiment on himself.

Bricusse also enhanced the romantic angle. Women are virtually nonexistent in the Stevenson novella, but in the musical the protagonist has two love interests Lisa, Jekyll's fiancee, and a woman of ill repute named Lucy.

These women, Wildhorn points out, also reinforce the show'stheme that "there are two sides to all of us. Lucy and Lisa could have been the same person, except for fate." The show's creators considered having one actress play both parts, just as one actor plays both Jekyll and Hyde. But in the end, Bricusse says, "We thought that was a little too smart."

"Jekyll & Hyde" was ready to be tried on an audience, and that opportunity took two forms. First, RCA released a CD featuring 17 of the show's songs performed by Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables") and Linda Eder, a 12-time "Star Search" winner who is also Wildhorn's companion.

Second, the musical came to the attention of Gregory Boyd, an unabashed fan of the Gothic milieu who was in his first season as artistic director of the Alley Theatre, a regional theater in Houston. The Alley does not have an orchestra pit, and therefore had never staged a musical. But that didn't stop Boyd, who was impressed by "Jekyll & Hyde's" "wonderful schizophrenia in the score between theater music and wonderful stand-alone pop standards. That appealed to me because the story, of course, is schizophrenic."

With the help of a grant from AT&T;: OnStage, the Alley's $465,000 production of "Jekyll & Hyde" opened on May 24, 1990. The biggest hit in the theater's history up to that point, it was extended three times. "We could have run forever," says Wildhorn, adding that police were brought in at the end of the run for crowd control.

"People were pretty rabid about getting in," Boyd confirms. "A lot of people were fainting during it. It was the kind of reaction in the theater that you don't see. Sometimes you see it at rock concerts. People were standing on their seats screaming. We've seen it all across the country, too. There's no question this show has some kind of chemical something that makes people do this."

After that response, Wildhorn says, "We thought we were off and going" off to Broadway, that is.

What happened instead was a 1992 New York workshop "that was a major mistake," in Bricusse's words. A new producer and new director "started to de-musicalize it. The book became fatter," he explains. Convinced this was the wrong direction for the show, Bricusse and Wildhorn decided to wait until they could regain control of the rights, which had been temporarily signed over to the workshop producer. That took more than two years.

In the interim, Wildhorn struck a deal with Atlantic Records to produce a complete double CD of all of the music he and Bricusse had created so far 35 songs sung by Australian star Anthony Warlow in the title roles, Eder repeating her 1990 performance as Lucy and Broadway legend John Raitt in a supporting role.

"It enabled us to tell the story totally in music," Bricusse says. And, in contrast to the 1992 workshop, "Jekyll & Hyde" has become more musical and less scripted as it has progressed. He estimates that music currently makes up 85 percent of the show.

The opportunity to mount a second, fully staged production coincided with the release of the double CD. Back under Boyd's direction, the musical was co-produced by the Alley, Houston's Theatre Under the Stars and the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre in Seattle. It opened Jan. 20, 1995, at Houston's 3,000-seat Music Hall. The budget climbed to $1.5 million.

A new star

Chuck Wagner, who had been a student at USC with Wildhorn and created the title roles at the Alley in 1990, was now in "Beauty and the Beast," so the dual star parts went to Robert Cuccioli, who had played Javert in "Les Miserables" on Broadway for more than a year.

There were also song changes, as there have been all along the way. "This show has the biggest trunk in show business," Boyd says, using the theatrical term for rejected musical numbers. "An elephant's trunk," Bricusse jokingly calls it. "We've got enough songs for three other shows. There are over 60 songs."

The production gained a new duet, "Take Me As I Am," sung by Jekyll and his fiancee, Lisa, in place of "Love Has Come of Age." And Lisa was also given a duet with Lucy, "In His Eyes."

When the show moved to Seattle, the PACE Theatrical Group joined the producing team and announced a 35-week tour beginning in Dallas in August. The budget for the touring production rose to $2.1 million, although the set used in Houston and Seattle had to be scaled down to tour, according to PACE executive vice president Gary Gunas.

Critical response to the touring production has been mixed, despite audience enthusiasm. Early on, Bricusse says, critics objected to the generic, pop quality of the score. But this is something he and Wildhorn adamantly defend.

"I'm not going to lie to you. Whenever there is a moment to do two things at once serve the piece and come up with a big commercial hit, I'm going to go for it," says Wildhorn.

Now that "Jekyll & Hyde" songs like "This Is the Moment" have become standards it's been sung at two Winter Olympics, the World Series, World Cup and Super Bowl and is a favorite with ice skaters and Miss America contestants and the show has done what Gunas calls "some amazing business" on the road, Broadway would appear to be the next logical step. But, Gunas says, "Even though Broadway has been limping for years, suddenly they have a booking jam."

Delaying the opening until a theater is available in the fall will allow time for further work, but it also means losing Boyd as director. The Alley Theatre is about to begin its 50th anniversary season, and Boyd feels he can't afford any more time away from home base.

"One has to be both philosophical and pragmatic in the theater," he says. "As much as it's important to stay in the 'Jekyll & Hyde' family, I can't be hands on. At a certain point you have to do other things."

Boyd remains a consultant, however, and has been involved in the search for a new director. Gunas hopes to announce the outcome of that search, along with the date of the Broadway opening, when the show is in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the changes "Jekyll & Hyde" will undergo between Baltimore and Broadway will include "an entirely new design sets and costumes," according to Gunas. The new design will replace the stylized, abstract touring sets with something more concrete and period specific.

There will probably also be more song changes, as well as some additions to the book. Wildhorn would like to enhance the mystery angle, and Bricusse hopes to restore some of the humor that was deleted before the tour.

And even before the Broadway opening, negotiations are under way for foreign productions in countries from Germany to Australia.

Having already achieved so much recognition and success, why risk the perils of Broadway?

"I have 16 years of my life in this show on and off. Linda [Eder] has seven or eight of hers. Its time has come," says Wildhorn. "Every decision I've had to make has been so this show is guaranteed to open on Broadway in the fall."

For Gunas, the reason for going to Broadway is simple. "It's that golden ring," he says. "It's hard not to go for it when you get that close."

A 'Strange Case'

1885: Bournemouth, England, Robert Louis Stevenson's wife awakens him from a nightmare, out of which he creates a horror story. His wife objects to the story and he burns it. January 1886: The new version of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is published, quickly becoming Stevenson's best selling work in his lifetime. 1887-1888: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is adapted for the stage and performed by popular British actor Richard Mansfield.

1912: The first of dozens of film versions is released, among them the 1920 silent film starring John Barrymore, Mamoulian's 1932 version for which Fredric March won an Academy Award, and the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy. In the past seven months, "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde" (Tim Daly and Sean Young) and "Mary Reilly" (John Malkovich and Julia Roberts) have been added to the list.

'Jekyll & Hyde'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: March 26-April 7. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $32.50-$52.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from the soundtrack of "Jekyll & Hyde," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6148. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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