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THREE FOR THE SHOW

They Scurried to Tell This Tale

With just two days to 'The Mice' workshop, writer and lyricist pulled an all-nighter. Then came the music.

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

Up until the last minute, it looked as though the new musical "3hree" might have to change its name to "2wo."

Only a few days before the workshop reading of "3hree" last spring, the young creators of "The Mice" still didn't have an opening number.

Loosely based on a story by Sinclair Lewis, "The Mice'-book by Julia Jordan, music by Laurence O'Keefe and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, O'Keefe's fiance, and produced by Hal Prince-tells the darkly comic tale of a mousy exterminator and his mousy sweetheart, each married to horrible spouses, and the vermin-infested events surrounding their love affair.

The writers seemed to be able to finish the piece; they just couldn't get it started.

"It was actually kind of dramatic," says Jordan, who grew up in Minnesota, the setting for "The Mice." 'Hal had us rewrite the piece over and over again. It got down to the wire, where we didn't even know if the show was going to go up or not. Right before the workshop production, he basically said: 'You've got one night to fix it.' "

This situation was also stressful for director Brad Rouse, 29, who had worked as an assistant to Prince for about five years when Prince offered him the opportunity to organize a creative team, put together a show and, if it was good enough, direct it.

For music and lyrics, Rouse tapped fellow Harvard alumni O'Keefe and Benjamin, both writing veterans of the university's annual Hasty Pudding Theatricals show. They had never worked together because O'Keefe usually writes music and lyrics ('It's infuriating that the person I'm marrying is the only person in the world who writes better lyrics than me," O'Keefe jokes). O'Keefe is also a graduate of USC's film scoring program and composer-lyricist for the award-winning "Bat Boy: The Musical," for Actors' Gang in Hollywood.

Then Rouse called on Jordan, a Juilliard-trained playwright, to write the book. Rouse had directed one of Jordan's plays, "Tatiana in Color," but Jordan had never written the book for a musical before.

It was a dream team. But suddenly, it seemed, they couldn't write a simple song, and, recalls Benjamin, she found herself listening to Rouse wailing over the phone: "In nine months, I can't pull together a 20-minute musical!" 'So Nell and I got on the phone and we brainstormed," Jordan says.

Jordan, who says she's in her early 30s, lives in New York City. Benjamin, 29, and O'Keefe, 31, live in Los Angeles. O'Keefe couldn't set the words to music until Jordan and Benjamin came up with them, so while he slept, Benjamin and Jordan, linked only by phone, worked until after 3 a.m.-that's 6 a.m. in New York-to finish writing the words for the opening number, which came to be titled "Mice!" O'Keefe may have gotten a good night's sleep, but this left him only two days before the workshop to compose music, and director Rouse an equally short time to stage it. "It was not until the last minute that Hal finally said: 'All right. You've got a show. Congratulations,' " Rouse says.

Adds Jordan proudly: "Basically everything we did that night and everything Larry wrote in the next day or two, we kept all of it in the show. We made almost no changes after that. We definitely work well under pressure."

And Benjamin adds that despite the pressure-cooker of their first collaboration, her engagement to O'Keefe is still on. "It actually didn't work out badly at all-although Larry probably had to let go a great deal," she says, laughing. "The only thing we fight about is writing-not where we're going to go on vacation or who's going to do the dishes."

Indeed, all four artists say the showcase "3hree" provides is worth any amount of stress.

"It's incredibly common for young writers to get their work read, or 'workshopped'-it's becoming a verb now in New York, much to my dismay," says Rouse, who got his job assisting Prince right out of Harvard just by writing a letter of inquiry to the legendary director. "To actually get a production is an entirely different experience, a rare opportunity, and an incredible gift from Hal and the Prince Music Theater."

Rouse notes that no workshop can prepare a composer for the realities of the business. "In workshops, you are not playing to real audiences, it's a sort of horrible mix of friends and supporters, and cold possible-investors," he says. "It's the worst chemistry for an audience, and possibly the most unreal one.

"Plus, in a workshop, that composer might not know that someone might turn to him and say: 'I need eight more bars to make this transition work,' and have to come up with them on the spot," he says. "That's what separates a musical theater composer from a songwriter."

And, at least in the case of "3hree," it's what keeps writers up past 3hree a.m.-and what separates a Prince musical from the pack.

'Hal Prince really believes in old-fashioned, 32-bar songs with hummable melodies, simple ideas-get the thought across," O'Keefe says. "Four groups of eight bars-there's a sort of tensile strength to that, a bedrock structure that the human brain and feet seem to react to.

"It's a very symmetrical thing that people like to hear-promise and deliver. They want to feel the underlying structure, they want to be taken care of. A lot of musicals these days ask a great deal from the audience. I seek out stories that can be delivered in clear song form. But overall, it has to tell a story well. The book came first."

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