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A Feat as Unusual as Piloting a Chair

'Flight of the Lawnchair Man's' creators are both from Iowa, but it took a New York pro to pair them up.

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

Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote the music and lyrics for "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man," and Peter Ullian, who wrote the book, had a history with Hal Prince before he tapped them for this musical.

Prince paired them up for their first collaboration, "Eliot Ness in Cleveland," performed in 1998 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and in 2000 at the Cleveland Playhouse. The musical was produced under Prince's auspices and based on Ullian's play "In the Shadow of the Terminal Tower."

Musical theater aspirations brought both men to New York, but each has roots in Iowa. Nassif, 41, was born in Cedar Rapids; Ullian, 34, attended the Iowa Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City. They were working independently when Prince suggested that Nassif set Ullian's play to music. "The odds against two guys from Cedar Rapids being put together in New York are as tronomical," Nassif observes. "I like to think that means something."

Kind of like the odds against more than one person trying to fly by attaching balloons to his lawn chair-and yet it happened.

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.

The story has been variously reported, but according to his Times obituary, North Hollywood truck driver Larry Walters piloted a lawn chair attached to helium weather balloons 1,600 feet into the air on his way from Long Beach to San Pedro in 1982. (Walters committed suicide in 1993 at age 44.) In England, another man attempted a similar feat by tying hundreds of helium balloons, the birthday-party variety, to a piece of furniture and taking off. Both acts of gravity-defiance were spotted by the very surprised pilots of commercial jets.

Nassif came up with idea of a musical based on such a flier-fleshed out with the Lawnchair Man meeting the great aviators of the past as he climbs ever higher into the sky. He also added the subplot of a 747 pilot who sees this armchair pilot out his airplane window and suffers an identity crisis.

"Different teams work in different ways," Ullian says. "With Rob, I will write a first draft of the book as if it's just a play, without thinking: 'This is where the song goes.' And then Rob will take the play that I wrote, go off by himself, find where the songs are hidden, buried, and sort of excavate them. For instance, when the 747 pilot sees the Lawnchair Man, originally that was written as a scene. But Rob took the basic arc of the scene-the emotion-and replaced it with a song." Though they were used to collaborating, Nassif and Ullian say there's a big difference between working under the auspices of Prince and actually having him direct a show. Each found the experience to be a revelation.

"When you work with Hal as a mentor, you go out and work and rehearse, and then bring in what you've done. Here, you are working with Hal one-on-one; there was more of a sense of him as a colleague," says Ullian. "It was more of a hands-on experience, less theoretical and more practical."

Some reviewers have called "3hree" old-fashioned-in a nice way. "Hey, They Do Write 'Em Like They Used To," said the New York Times headline for the paper's review of the 2000 production at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. But Ullian says Prince never forced his hand on that matter, either.

"I think our approach was to write it as the material demanded, and I think what's gratifying about that headline is that I hope, in some way, all three shows have managed to tap into and honor what is great about the musical tradition," Ullian says.

"For instance, our show has a lot of musical underscoring [music composed for background] during the dialogue scenes, it's a musical architecture for the whole piece, and I think that's true of the other pieces as well. It's a little different from the tradition of shows like 'Guys and Dolls' that are song-scene-song.

"And there are moments when there's a song, then a little bit of a scene during a bridge, the songs and the book are integrated in a way that, while I wouldn't say it's radical, it's a little bit different. But we're not trying to do a sung-through musical like 'Evita' or some of those others, or a rock musical like 'Rent.' In that sense, we have definitely embraced the traditional book musical.

"I read a quote from Hal somewhere in which he says that actually a traditional musical is more difficult to write. There is nothing more difficult than writing the book to create a point where the song can come through as logical, where you've 'earned' the song. Earning the song is not an issue when you are singing all the time."

Nassif calls Prince the "invisible master hand" when it comes to directing. "He sets you in the right direction; a fine director doesn't tie your hands, he frees you.

"I think we really need brave producers, not just corporations," Nassif adds. "Musical theater has become so expensive-some wonderful shows like 'Lion King' can come out of it, but I think we also need brave producers of vision. It is the unique shows, I think, that last. Shows that a committee recognizes as 'produceable' do not necessarily have an enduring life. There has to be a vision."

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