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Old Tales in a New Kingdom

A maverick team has the task of transforming 'Hans Christian Andersen' into musical theater.

August 27, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

Last spring at New York's Lyceum Theatre, an actor in a flying harness came swirling out from the wings, tumbling and flipping across the stage in a simulated act of drowning. As he undulated lifelessly just off the stage floor, three "mermaids" came to the rescue. They gathered up the man in their arms, carrying him aloft until they disappeared into the wings.

The stunning tableau was part of a flying workshop for "Hans Christian Andersen," the new musical opening Sept. 7 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. The producers are hoping that the world premiere, starring John Glover in the title role, will eventually lead to a Broadway engagement.

There's every reason to be sanguine. After all, the show is about Andersen, one of the most beloved writers in the world, whose fairy tales--"The Little Mermaid," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Little Match Girl" and "The Emperor's New Clothes"--have become classics. Moreover, the show features songs by Frank Loesser from "Hans Christian Andersen," the 1952 film starring Danny Kaye that introduced such songs as "Thumbelina," "The Ugly Duckling," "Wonderful Copenhagen" and "No Two People."

On top of that, the material has a proven pedigree. A British production, starring Tommy Steele, was a 1974 West End hit. But in the weeks preceding the first preview, scheduled for Thursday, almost everyone connected with the show was unusually anxious. For this "Hans Christian Andersen" was shaping up to be as far from expectations as possible, with no resemblance to the film apart from the songs and bearing the iconoclastic stamp of its two unlikely creators: director-choreographer Martha Clarke and Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry. Clarke is a onetime modern dancer whose experimental productions of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and "Vienna Lusthaus" earned plaudits for their grotesque and lyrical evocations of primal human passions. Barry's acclaimed "Steward of Christendom," presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featured a grizzled old man in stained, crusted long underwear babbling in a mental ward.

There was no doubt that Foy Inventerprises, the aerial special-effects wizards, could and would make the actors fly. But could the maverick team of Clarke and Barry, unproven in the musical theater milieu, create liftoff for a show about a man fixed in the popular imagination as a purveyor of simple sentiment? Would the public respond to a take on the beloved storyteller as a tormented old man, facing death and searching for the meaning of his existence in a dreamscape that weaves events of his life with tales he created?

"It's whacked, no question about it," says Michael David, head of the Dodgers, the producing entity that tapped Clarke for the project and is providing enhancement money to the ACT for the showcase. "This is nothing like I've ever done, and it's both exhilarating and terrifying. But it just seemed that these extraordinary tales and these wonderful songs needed a component to bring them to the stage. And it was pretty natural for us to go to people who could create a singular theatrical vocabulary for the material, one that could be artful and entertaining and at the same time push the envelope."

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In fact, both fairy tales and Loesser are familiar terrain for the Dodgers, as is the idea of unusual pairings. They were the ones, after all, who chose avant-garde opera director Richard Jones for their Tony-winning "Titanic," which ultimately triumphed after a much-publicized troubled development period.

They also presented "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's quirky journey into the world of the Brothers Grimm. While the show was initially considered a sophisticated take on fairy tales, it eventually drew a sizable family audience. David says that "Hans Christian Andersen" came out of discussions with Jo Loesser, the widow of Frank Loesser, after successful Dodger Broadway revivals of the composer's "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

"Frank always thought that it was a natural for the stage, and I've been approached by every producer known to man because the songs are so well-known," Loesser says. "But when I sat down with Michael, we didn't want to just repeat the London show, we wanted to do something more adventurous."

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