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How a Striptease Got Dressed Up

With its story rewritten by Terrence McNally, a few new characters and a U.S. setting, 'The Full Monty' hits the stage.

May 28, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is The Times' arts writer

SAN DIEGO — It's nail-biting time in the basement rehearsal hall of the Old Globe Theatre, where the hit movie "The Full Monty" is being revamped for the stage as a musical comedy.

Two days to final dress rehearsal, four before the first audience preview and just two weeks until opening night, the 12-member orchestra has played the 16-song, all-new score together only once. And this is the first time the 22-member cast, which has been working for months with just a piano, is hearing the full orchestration. Nevertheless, they're doing a full run-through of the songs (no dancing right now) in front of the show's producers, director and everyone else involved in the production, which opens here Thursday and is expected to move to Broadway in the fall.

The band warms up, the actors start to sing, and the place is hopping. In this concrete hall with bad acoustics and even worse aesthetics, dreams are coming to life.

Nearly everyone in the room is continually jumping out of their chairs to check in with somebody else. More than a little apprehension is in the air, but that's not all. Ever present is the sense that this could hit the jackpot. Or not.

There is a lot working in the show's favor. First, of course, is its enormous name recognition. Made for just $3.5 million in 1997, "The Full Monty" not only received four Oscar nominations, but by last estimate has grossed $256 million worldwide. Further, its story would seem easy to translate into a musical because it has what stage audiences love--dance, music and good old-fashioned triumph over adversity. All this in a bunch of down-on-their-luck guys who find a fun way to make a buck by taking off their clothes.

The timing couldn't be better. Right now, there's a dearth of successful big new stage musicals, even though audiences have proven time and again that there is still an appetite for what is Broadway's mainstay, let alone that of regional theater. Films turned into musicals are actually one medium that seems to be working these days. Despite mixed reviews, "Footloose" and "Saturday Night Fever" are audience-pleasers. And of course there's "The Lion King," which has been sold out on Broadway for two years.

But you never know.

Even with favorable odds, any number of things can go wrong in a new work. Success relies most on the strength of the creative team. Here the players include some heavyweights, with one crucial unknown.

The first person on the project was Lindsay Law, the former president of Fox Searchlight who green-lighted "The Full Monty" when then-unknown screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's script first was submitted. Clearly he has always had his heart invested in this surprise blockbuster, and now he's left behind his successful film and television career to independently produce the stage show. Law, who worked extensively in the theater world when he produced public TV's "American Playhouse," claims that as soon as the film came out more than 80 theater producers from all over the world came to Fox seeking rights to turn the movie into a musical. Seeing an opportunity for the studio, Law persuaded Fox to bankroll its own production--with him on contract at the helm.

The San Diego show will cost between $1.5 million and $2.75 million, 80% of it Old Globe money and the rest from Fox. If it is successful here, Fox will provide all of the financing to market and adapt the show for a full Broadway production, with the Old Globe getting some royalties. Law won't say how much the transfer will cost, but big Broadway productions usually run between $6 million and $10 million these days, and that's in the ballpark for this show, confirms Old Globe managing director Tom Hall, a 22-year and 250-show veteran of the San Diego theater. After "Full Monty" opens in San Diego, Hall also will leave his job to produce theater independently, banking in part, along with Law, on "The Full Monty."

Rewriting the story for the new "Full Monty" is Terrence McNally, one of New York's most esteemed comedic as well as dramatic playwrights and certainly one of the most prolific writers for today's stage. In the world of musicals, McNally's turn-of-the-century pageant "Ragtime," based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, won him a Tony, as did his adaptation into a musical of Manuel Puig's political novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman." McNally's other two Tonys are for his original dramas "Master Class," about Maria Callas, and "Love! Valour! Compassion!," about a group of gay friends on a series of weekend retreats.

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