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Revisiting of Romance

Winner of Musical of Year Award in Denmark, 'Enter the Guardsman' Debuts on West Coast


An unlikely premise drives the musical comedy "Enter the Guardsman," which has its West Coast premiere this week at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater.

The time and place: Central Europe before World War I.

The protagonists: a leading man and lady of the stage, just married.

The problem: The Actor, as he is called, senses the Actress's affections are waning and wandering.

The solution: He dons a dashing soldier's garb, a foreign accent and some false facial hair and sets out to see if he can seduce her incognito, thereby testing her love and fidelity. She falls for the ruse. Or does she just play along?

The story, adapted from a 1910 comedy, "The Guardsman," by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, is no more unlikely than the initial teaming of the musical's three creators: Craig Bohmler, who did the music; Scott Wentworth, the book; and Marion Adler, the lyrics.

Unlikelier still is the way in which "Enter the Guardsman," a virtually unknown work, has been making its way in the world--and literally around the world--since its 1997 premiere in London's West End.

Like the show's plot, the story of its creation begins with a pair of newlywed actors. Wentworth, ruggedly good-looking, tousle-haired American, and Adler, blond, pretty Canadian American, met as Shakespearean actors at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, where they were company members.

Like the Actor and the Actress, this couple, within months of their nuptials, had a little problem: She had a job offer far away at the Banff Festival in the Canadian Rockies. Would the separation be a strain on their marriage?

Adler decided to take the gig in Banff; one of the reasons was she hoped to meet somebody new there with whom she could make beautiful music. A composer, that is--one willing to put melodies to lyrics she had written for a cabaret sketch she hoped to turn into a musical.

She was cast in the Brecht/Weill musical "Happy End" at Banff. She hit it off with her musical director, Bohmler, also a pianist and composer of operas. Would he take a look at her lyrics? Bohmler had heard this one before.

"I was very skeptical," said the tall, graying yet boyish-looking composer. He and Wentworth, in town to shepherd the West Coast premiere, were clad in blue jeans and sneakers as they sat for an interview on the theater's patio. "By and large, when somebody does that, it isn't very good."

Bohmler (pronounced "balm-ler") and Adler adjourned to a piano, and in an hour they had set two of her lyrics to music. Their first piece, "Gunmetal Blues," was on its way.

"I lay awake all that night and knew at that moment that my path had made a sharp turn," said Bohmler, who found the actress's writing strikingly poetic.

Lunt, Fontanne Did It First

Wentworth had been lukewarm to his wife's idea of a musical homage to the noir-detective genre.

"I'm a real private-eye buff, and I didn't want to do it unless it was a pretty serious undertaking. There had been so many good parodies, everything from 'My Favorite Brunette' to 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.' " He was reluctant to retread that ground.

When his wife got back to Stratford with five finished songs, Wentworth saw the work was serious and signed on as librettist. "Gunmetal Blues" got good notices off-Broadway in 1992, and, Wentworth said, has gone on to more than 60 productions, including a 1999 West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.

But what would they do for an encore?

"Not being what I would call real writers, all of us having other jobs, other careers and other concerns, we didn't really have a trunkful of ideas" on hand, Wentworth said.

So they read novels and plays and rented old movies, looking for a story to adapt.

Wentworth happened upon a biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, one of the stage's most famous couples. Lunt and Fontanne's breakthrough came in a celebrated 1924 production of "The Guardsman," which they repeated in a 1931 film. (Two additional movies have been made from Molnar's source material, "The Chocolate Soldier" and "Lily in Love.")

The material hit home with Wentworth. For him, "Gunmetal Blues," with its theme of romantic second chances, had reflected what he and Adler were going through as newlyweds, she having emerged from a divorce and he from a long-term relationship. Now they had been married five years, and the idea in "The Guardsman" of what it takes to keep a romantic flame burning as a marriage wears on provided a personal spark.

The elegant continental milieu also put Bohmler on familiar ground as a composer after he'd had to stretch for the jazzy blues of "Gunmetal Blues."

"I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really known what a 12-bar blues was until "Gunmetal Blues,' " he said. But pre-World War I Viennese music was one of his special interests; it would be a natural to echo the period in the music for "Enter the Guardsman."

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