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Keeping It Music to Their Ears : Stage: A pair of songwriters agree to let a Pasadena theater put on the world premiere of their musical in return for artistic control.

August 08, 1990|KAREN E. KLEIN | Klein is a regular contributor to San Gabriel Valley View

To Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch, one note means everything.

So when the California Music Theatre in Pasadena wanted to produce the world premiere of their musical, "Clothespins and Dreams," they agreed--with one condition.

"In our contract, we wrote in that not one word or one note could be changed without our permission," Miller, the lyricist, recalled. "We had a lot of paranoia about it."

The pair, songwriters who met 16 years ago at Motown Records, said they lost creative control of a musical they wrote in the late 1970s and could only watch helplessly as it was rewritten beyond recognition and then closed to bad reviews.

So when they collaborated a second time, on a musical set in a 1911 Harlem laundry yard, they vowed not to let the same thing happen.

That's where the California Music Theatre came in.

The 4-year-old resident company of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium is not nationally renowned. But it does have founder and artistic director Gary Davis, who was willing to let Miller and Hirsch look over his shoulder as he staged "Clothespins and Dreams" for the first time.

"I'm used to working with the artists," Davis said. "I think it's a shame to say, 'You put the words on the page, now go away.' "

But he acknowledges that going along with Miller and Hirsch was risky.

"We've had some real struggles (over cuts and changes in the script). We've had to sit down and talk like three Dutch uncles. I have the integrity and the longevity of the California Music Theatre to think about, long after 'Clothespins and Dreams' goes," Davis said.

The show, the theater's first world premiere, is playing to preview audiences starting tonight and will have its official opening Saturday night.

Davis said he would not have agreed to the authors' insistence on creative control if he had felt the show needed major reworking. He first saw snippets of "Clothespins and Dreams" presented at the April, 1988, meeting of the National Alliance of Music Theaters in Century City.

"What originally attracted me to this show is that there are several songs in the score that have the potential to be popular hits," Davis said. "That doesn't happen much anymore, although many of the popular songs from years back used to come from musical theater."

Davis also liked the show's warmth. "It's wonderfully human and it has tremendous heart," he said. "For a couple of years now, the shows have been high-tech and they've impressed people with spectacle. I think audiences are coming back to the point where they really want to care for the people in the story."

"Clothespins and Dreams," starring Eloise Laws, Barney Martin and Jordan Bennett, revolves around a crisis that occurs when women laundry workers are told that they are about to be replaced by automated washing machines.

Miller said he and Hirsch received several offers from theaters interested in putting on "Clothespins and Dreams," but unwilling to let the creators stay involved in the production.

However, just because Davis gave Miller and Hirsch the creative control they wanted doesn't mean that "Clothespins and Dreams" is the same musical that first caught Davis' eye.

On the contrary, two new songs have been added over the past few months and about 10 minutes was cut out of the second act alone in the past week, Miller said.

"We've made a lot of changes but, with Gary's collaboration, the end result is a better show," Miller said, yawning over a cup of coffee at a recent breakfast meeting of the show's staff. He said he had been up until 3 a.m. the night before, cutting and rewriting another scene.

Despite the hard work, Miller and Hirsch said they have enjoyed collaborating with Davis. "It's really a nice process," Miller said.

The two men are both songwriters and record producers. Miller has penned hits such as "For Once in My Life," and "Touch Me in the Morning." Hirsch wrote "Two Less Lonely People in the World," recorded by Air Supply, and "No One in the World," which recently became a hit recorded by Anita Baker.

"We're not pop writers just dabbling in the theater," said Hirsch, who wrote the music for "Clothespins and Dream."

"We love pop songwriting and we're trying to bring back the idea that we can work in both mediums--that's the way it was in the beginning (of musical theater)."

Although "Clothespins and Dreams" is the California Music Theatre's first world premiere, Davis' goal with the theater company is to give a stage to new works and to bring back seldom-produced musicals.

His season lineup is a mix of tried-and-true shows and more unusual offerings. This season's productions include "On the Town," "Annie," "Man of La Mancha" and "Iolanthe," a seldom-seen Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

The 1991 season will include the West Coast premiere of "Sayonara," a stage version of the 1950s movie of the same name.

"I would like to do one new show a season. I enjoy the process of nurturing a new work from the embryonic stages on," Davis said.

He organized the California Music Theater in 1986 with an investment of $2,500 from his own bank account and announced his first season before he had the money to finance it. "If we had waited to get the money ahead of time," he said, "we'd never have done it."

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