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It Was Written by Speakerphone

A New Yorker and an Angeleno talked long-distance to turn an urban myth into the Gothic tale 'Lavender Girl.'

April 22, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

There's always someone who'll swear the story is true: giant albino alligators lurking in the sewers of New York City, making house calls through the plumbing. The explosive story of the lady who bathed her pet poodle, then popped it in the microwave to dry. And the equally hair-raising tale of the woman who didn't wash her tresses for so long that spiders nested there and ate their way into her brain.

Wasn't it only a matter of time before somebody made these stories into a musical?

Probably not-if it weren't for the bicoastal collaboration of New York-based composer-lyricist John Bucchino and West Coast playwright James A. Waedekin, the team responsible for writing "Lavender Girl."

Several years ago, fascinated by such contemporary folklore, Bucchino and Waedekin, who is also an English teacher and director of the theater program at El Segundo High School, wrote "Urban Myths," a series of seven short musical pieces based on these tales of the peculiar. That show received a production at the Century II theater in Wichita, Kan., in 1998.

On that list of legends was "Lavender Girl," the story of a Princeton student who falls in love with the mysterious title character when he almost runs her down with his car.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 29, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
'3hree" identifications--A photo caption accompanying an April 29 Calendar story on "3hree" misidentified actors in "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man" portion of the musical. Eddie Korbich plays the title character, and Roger E. DeWitt plays Leonardo da Vinci. In addition, a caption and story on the "Lavender Girl" portion misidentified the book writer. He is James D. Waedekin.

Bucchino and Waedekin decided to set the piece in 1927 Alabama, because, Bucchino says, "I thought it would be fun to write a Charleston-we have a big Charleston number at a party in the show. And I wanted to write the sort of romantic, melodic songs that were written in the '20s, like classic Irving Berlin songs, or Jerome Kern. It's just a really colorful, beautiful world."

When Hal Prince invited Bucchino to write something for "3hree," he was busy composing the songs for the DreamWorks animated film "Joseph, King of Dreams," the made-for-video sequel to "The Prince of Egypt'-so he had no time to start from scratch. But Prince took a look at "Urban Myths" and fell in love with "Lavender Girl."

So Bucchino and Waedekin began expanding "Lavender Girl," adding several new songs and dialogue. Scott Schwartz, who had directed "Urban Myths," happily joined the team.

"We always felt like we were kind of the lucky ones," Schwartz says. "We would hear about 'The Mice,' and even 'Lawnchair Man,' and how they were having to write these brand-new shows relatively quickly. We always felt like we could relax a little, which of course you can't-it's an ongoing process. But we had a script and a basic structure and existing songs going into this process."

And "Lavender Girl" differs from the other two musicals because it's not a comedy. "It's a Gothic Southern romance, a memory piece, a kind of misty, Spanish moss-laden remembrance of this young man about his first love. It's a very nice middle piece to the show; in an odd way, I feel like it functions as a palate cleanser between the comedies," Schwartz says.

"We've had a blast with it-we've had deadlines, we've had pressure, but that's the production process," says Waedekin, 37, whose work has appeared at UCLA, West Coast Ensemble and numerous regional theaters. "I'll be there with my word processor, and John plays the piano, over the speaker phone. We work out scenes that way-I know, it sounds crazy, but it's too cold for me in New York."

For his part, Bucchino, 48, is comfortable leaving the book-writing to Waedekin. But he admits he's a control freak who prefers to compose music and lyrics himself. Still, he's enjoying his first collaboration with a playwright and a director. "I've been writing in a vacuum for so many years; I'd never experienced this kind of collaboration," he says. "It's an adjustment process, but it's actually a lot less lonely than doing it all by myself." Bucchino and Waedekin were first brought together by their mutual mentor, composer Stephen Schwartz (Scott's father), whose credits include the music and lyrics for "Pippin" and the animated feature films "Pocahontas," 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Prince of Egypt." Bucchino-a self-taught pianist who does not read music-credits Schwartz with rescuing him from a languishing career as a confessional singer-songwriter along the lines of Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell. Schwartz, he says, encouraged him to leave L.A. for New York's theater and cabaret scene.

"Sometimes pop songs are kind of static-they circle around an idea, they reiterate the same idea, rather than having a forward motion," Bucchino says. "One of the most important characteristics of theater writing is that the songs continue to tell the story of the show or the character. I guess that's something that I instinctively do.

"There's a gift even in the most disappointing of circumstances," Bucchino says. "For basically 20 years, I wrote in almost total anonymity, with nobody looking over my shoulder. While at the time I was really disappointed that nobody was noticing, I also think it gave me the opportunity to develop my own unique voice."

Waedekin notes that Prince's hands-off approach allowed that kind of freedom for all of the creators of "3hree." 'He honored the voice of the writers and let us create something original-he took a chance, that's what's so special," he says.

"He didn't sit us down in a room and say: 'I need a piece about this or that'-we created three totally different pieces, but I'm amazed at how they fit together," Waedekin adds. "All these writing talents were writing about dreams. We are all from the same generation, writing about our need to have dreams. It's reminiscent of old theater-but in a new, fresh way."

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