LA JOLLA — Superstition insists that none dare speak its name.
"It" is the Great White Way, Broadway, the promised land, which is beckoning "Elmer Gantry," a musical adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel that has its West Coast premiere tonight at La Jolla Playhouse. Like actors in "Macbeth" who fearfully call Shakespeare's accident-cursed tragedy "the Scottish play," the production team for "Elmer Gantry" believes the mere mention of the "B" word might sabotage this very promising, very ambitious and very American venture.
Unlike the spectacle-oriented British musicals "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera," no helicopter or chandelier hovers over the Playhouse production of "Elmer Gantry."
Director Des McAnuff, in tandem with set designer Heidi Landesman, is keeping the focus on the story's theme of sexual obsession and religious martyrdom. John Bishop's book, like the popular 1960 film version, depicts the section of the novel where "born-again" preacher Gantry seduces the evangelist Sharon Falconer. But unlike the film, Bishop introduces black gospel singers and a Jim Bakker-style religious retreat. He's made the sinner Gantry more sympathetic, both victim and exploiter of the savior Falconer. By moving the action from the World War I era to 1933, Bishop allows for inescapable comparisons between today's recession and yesterday's Depression.
The Mel Marvin/Bob Satuloff score also emerges from grass-roots America: bluegrass, gospel, country, folk, jazz and blues. "The genre is what I call natural American forms," explains composer Marvin, adding a crucial description: "unmanipulated."
Above all, this "Elmer Gantry" has soul. The cast is populated with true believers and Bible Belt veterans. Mark Harelik brings to Gantry his exposure to Christianity in rural Texas. Sharon Scruggs brings to the Falconer role her own childhood background as the daughter of a Southern fundamentalist preacher. Devout Christian Darlene Love, who came to prominence singing "He's a Rebel," finally makes her West Coast stage debut as one of Gantry's gospel belters.
Won't all this make Broadway believers beckon with open arms and investment monies?
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"Lately it's been a principle around the Playhouse that nobody talks about it, nobody really cares about it," says McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director. "If it happens, great; if it doesn't, great."
McAnuff knows the American musical landscape, having triumphed in 1985 with "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the musical that earned seven of Broadway's Tony Awards. If McAnuff believes the "B" word should go unspoken, so be it. "Part of me would love to be 21 again and believe in Santa Claus," McAnuff says, "but right now we're just trying to create and hoping it goes well here. If you second-guess what might work in a commercial house, then you start making choices for the wrong reasons."
If "Elmer Gantry" does reach Broadway, it will be for the second time. In 1970, a version simply titled "Gantry" made its Broadway debut. Despite stars Rita Moreno and Robert Shaw, this pop-oriented production closed after 28 previews and four performances at the George Abbott Theater. That production had different composers and a different author, but the same producer who lost $400,000 on Broadway in 1970 is funding La Jolla's version in 1991.
To say that 67-year-old producer Joseph Cates believes in "Elmer Gantry" is an understatement. He first acquired the theatrical rights from the Sinclair Lewis Estate in 1967, convinced by his experiences as a television producer of country music specials in the South that the novel would make "an indigenous American musical. I became really aware while working down there of the impact of 'born-again' Christians and the Evangelists. But the 1970 production didn't do justice to the basic material. And I hurt that first attempt badly by miscasting it. (Robert) Shaw just wasn't right as an American."
However, Cates never lost faith in its potential and continuously optioned the rights. A decade after the Broadway failure, he decided that the musical adaptation was flawed. He hired playwright John Bishop to write an entirely new book. Meanwhile, Cates, a New Yorker and always a lover of Broadway (he now produces the televised Tony Awards for CBS), accepted the brutal reality that "developing a musical takes years. It just takes years. These are long labors of love. In the meantime you have to find other ways to make a living."
Among Cates' many producing efforts was the annual television fund-raiser for Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. In 1985, Ford's executive producer Frankie Hewitt attended a run-through of the new "Elmer Gantry."
"I loved the book and hated the music," says Hewitt. She persuaded Cates that the musical needed a new score and enlisted Marvin and Satuloff, who had been collaborators since 1969.