Nan Knighton had temporarily forgotten about the Tony Awards when she learned she had received a nomination for her libretto for "The Scarlet Pimpernel."
The Baltimore native had a good excuse, however. She was hard at work on her next musical -- the stage version of "Saturday Night Fever," for which she also wrote the book -- which opened at London's Palladium the day after the nominations were announced.
"I was on the stage of the Palladium, in the middle of rehearsing a scene," Knighton said from London. Then she spotted her husband, New York theatrical attorney John Breglio, in the wings. He had rushed over to the theater to tell her that not only had she been nominated, but the show had been nominated for best musical.
"I leapt into the air and yelled," Knighton said. "I was over the moon."
The nominations were vindication for a show that has been fighting an uphill battle against the critics. And, they were an endorsement of Knighton, 51, who feels her whole career has led up to "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which was both her Broadway debut and her first full-fledged musical.
The New York-based writer grew up in Roland Park and !c Baltimore County and graduated from Bryn Mawr School, where she gained her first theatrical experience acting in school plays.
Her interest in the arts appears to have a genetic link. Her mother, Janice Proctor, is an art teacher who taught at Bryn Mawr and the Baltimore Museum of Art for years and teaches at the Renaissance Institute at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Her father, Dr. Donald Proctor, studied voice at Peabody Conservatory and considered a career in opera.
Knighton wrote for TV, film, industrial shows and Radio City Music Hall before sending some sample lyrics to "Pimpernel" composer Frank Wildhorn ("Jekyll & Hyde") in 1989. She was hired as the lyricist of "Pimpernel," but ended up writing the musical's book by default.
In 1993, after going through four or five book writers, including playwright Arthur Kopit and British actor and writer Stephen Fry, "I just got fed up and I said I'm going to try and write this thing myself," Knighton recalled. "I rough-drafted it in a weekend in July."
That script, with revisions, received the nomination. But Knighton says she's even happier about the nomination for best musical than she is about her own. "I knew this was a show people loved and that made people happy. The main reason for leaping in the air was: 'Thank God. This will give us a longer run and more people will be able to see it.'"
As to "Saturday Night Fever," for which she adapted the $H screenplay, Knighton said, "Ever since the 'Pimpernel' reviews I don't anticipate anything."
And, for someone who dreamed of writing for the theater since she saw "Bye Bye Birdie" at Baltimore's old Ford's Theater as a child, she's still reeling over the good fortune of opening two fTC major musicals in less than six months. "It's been an unbelievable year," she said.
The three winning plays in Center Stage's annual Young Playwrights Festival will receive staged readings at the theater tonight. This year's winners are: "Comfortable Things," a domestic drama by Michelle Agostini, a sophomore at Springbrook High School in Prince George's County, winner of the high school division; "Dick Swade Private Eye," a tale of intrigue by Rosezell Boseley, a seventh-grader at Harford Day School in Harford County, winner of the middle school division; and "Stuck," a comedy about sibling rivalry by Allison Welling, a fourth-grader at Fifth District Elementary School in Upperco, winner of the elementary school division. Tonight's festival, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m., when Maryland's first lady, Frances Hughes Glendening, will present the awards. The winning scripts were chosen from more than 500 entries, a record number for the 14-year-old festival.
Last season, Arena Players produced Judi Ann Mason's comedy, "Livin' Fat," and the playwright was so pleased with the production, she allowed the theater to stage the world premiere of her next play, "Livin' Right."
The new play is a domestic comedy about a family whose lives are turned upside down when the daughter's scholarship to Harvard University suddenly dries up. Desperate for tuition and determined not to worry her mother, the daughter, Tyra, lets her best friend talk her into a shady business deal. But the plan backfires when Tyra's twin brother, a seminary candidate, intervenes and unexpectedly winds up in jail.
The entire play feels like a TV sitcom -- from its predictable plot to its broad humor and didactic conclusion. But under Robert E. Russell's direction, the creditable work done by the cast makes this an enjoyable evening. Notable performances were delivered Cheryl L. Waters and Corey Douglas as the twins, Cynthia Forbes as their mother and newcomer Ina McLean as Tyra's warm-hearted but not-too-bright friend. And Arena veteran Verna Day has a grand time depicting the twins' wise, crotchety grandmother.
Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through June 7. Tickets are $18. Call 410-728-6500.
Pub Date: 5/18/98