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Repainting 'Red Shoes' for Broadway : The popular 1948 British movie is being transformed for the stage with the talent and inspiration of 87-year-old composer Jule Styne, whose credits include "Gypsy," "Funny Girl" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

November 28, 1993|SUSAN REITER | Susan Reiter is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — From the start, the 1948 British film "The Red Shoes"--an expansive saga of the passionate and obsessive people who make up the fictitious Ballet Lermontov--has captivated people who might otherwise never have ventured near a ballet performance. Cinematically adventurous for its day, astutely cast, it weaves together a grim Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and the realistic on- and off-stage activities of a touring ballet troupe. The vibrant Technicolor period piece reaches across generations, especially to aspiring dancers.

So, at a time when an increasing number of new Broadway musicals tend to be adaptations of successful films, it's not all that surprising that "The Red Shoes" is about to open on Broadway on Dec. 16. A cast of 30 will bring the familiar story--which deals with the brilliant but heartless and manipulative impresario Boris Lermontov and the dedicated young dancer he hopes to guide toward greatness--to the stage. A creative team comprising Broadway veterans and relative newcomers is hoping that the blend of extended dance sequences with portrayals of volatile artistic temperaments that made the film memorable will have a similar impact in the theater.

The musical's road to opening night has been far from smooth, winding through a troubled rehearsal and preview period marked by significant firings, replacements and a delayed opening, all chronicled in the press. Originally, the director was Susan H. Schulman, whose credits include the 1991 Broadway musical "The Secret Garden." After guiding the show through a summer workshop, she was let go just before rehearsals began. Producer Martin Starger cited "creative differences" and put Stanley Donen, a veteran Hollywood director ("Singin' in the Rain"; "On the Town") but a Broadway newcomer, at the helm.

After several secondary roles were recast during rehearsals, the biggest change was announced just two weeks ago: Leading man Roger Rees (of "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Cheers" fame), set for the staring role of Lermontov, was out and his standby, Steve Barton, was in. For Rees, veteran of many classical and contemporary stage productions, "Red Shoes" would have marked his musical debut.

Heading the musical's creative team is Jule Styne, the venerable and much-lauded 87-year-old composer whose long list of hit shows includes "Gypsy," "Funny Girl" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who also collaborated on the recent musical "The Secret Garden," is responsible for the musical's book and (with Paul Stryker) lyrics.

Australian ballerina Margaret Illmann landed the crucial role of dancer Victoria Page, played by Moira Shearer in the film. Hugh Panaro, an alumnus of "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera," plays Julian Craster, the ambitious young composer who falls in love with her. Two former members of American Ballet Theatre also have featured roles: George de la Pena (who was Nijinsky in the 1981 film) is Grisha Ljubov, the temperamental ballet master and choreographer of the company, while Leslie Browne, who had leading roles in that film as well as "The Turning Point," is Irina Baronskaya, Lermontov's prima ballerina before Victoria Page comes along.

Styne has believed in--and fought for--"The Red Shoes" for a decade. He sought the rights to the story from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team that shared producing-writing-directing credits on the film, but found them unwilling to approve the project, even for a composer of his stature. But Styne was undeterred, and took matters into his own hands.

"Five years ago I decided I would extend myself, give a year of my life to write five ballets for the show," he recalls during an interview in his photo- and memorabilia-laden living room. "Then I invited them to come and hear why I wanted to do it. When they heard the music, they said to me, 'Mr. Styne, would you please do our show?'

"What made me want to present it on the stage was the final minute of the movie: the spotlight follows the ballerina around the set of the ballet she once performed, only she's not there. There's only the blank spaces, and a very slow curtain. It's very theatrical; it's a tragedy."

"I wrote about 80 songs for the show, to get the 14 that are in it. The show is set in the 1920s, and I tried to catch innuendoes of that period. Some of the music is very British-sounding. The ballet music is from the French school. I stayed away from the Russian sound."

For a musical in which dance plays such a major part, the question of a choreographer was crucial. "Every choreographer wanted to do this show," Styne claims. He consulted with his close friend and longtime collaborator Jerome Robbins (the two have worked together on shows dating back to the 1940s, but Robbins currently focuses on ballet projects rather than theater), who suggested the choreographer Lar Lubovitch. "I can't wait to tell him how right he was," an eager Styne exclaims.

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