NEW YORK — The day after Susan Stroman took home the 2000 Tony Award for choreographing "Contact," she was on the phone to Andre Bishop, the man at Lincoln Center Theater who had commissioned her work. "I have another show for you," she said.
That show, "Thou Shalt Not," opens at the Plymouth Theatre on Thursday. It takes Emile Zola's lusty 1867 novel "Therese Raquin," moves its murderous lovers from Paris to New Orleans and sets it just after World War II. Director Stroman's choreography drives the narrative, much as it did with "Contact," and veteran librettist David Thompson has crafted the book. But the music and lyrics mark the Broadway debut of 34-year-old singer-songwriter-actor--and New Orleans native--Harry Connick Jr.
Never mind that two-time Grammy winner Connick had never written a Broadway score. Bishop, who took a risk on the unconventional "Contact," was apparently ready to risk again. "Thou Shalt Not's" tale of uncontrolled passion and its consequence stars Kate Levering as Therese Raquin, Craig Bierko as her lover, Laurent LeClair, and some 15 Connick songs ranging from jazz and blues to standards, funk and big band numbers.
"I think most people aren't aware of what a consummate musician Harry Connick is," Bishop says. "Yes, he is a novice to the theater, but who better to guide him through its perilous shoals than Susan Stroman?"
Actually, Stroman didn't just guide Connick--she pursued and wooed him. She hounded his management. And when those attempts failed, she sent Connick a copy of the Zola book, the show's treatment and, later, even an invitation to see "Contact."
Reminded of that later, Connick candidly admits he knew a lot more about music, film and TV than theater. So he called upon an expert--his high school drama teacher, Sonny Borey. "He was the only guy I knew who would know who she is," Connick says. "I said, 'Who is Susan Stroman?' He asked why I wanted to know, and I said, 'She wants to do this show with me.' He said, 'Do the show."'
"I just didn't know if I wanted to sit around at rehearsals and do all this," says Connick, more accustomed to movie sets, recording studios and concert halls, "but I'm having a blast. Susan and Tom [Thompson] both put a lot of pressure on me, and I happen to love that."
The tall, lanky interpreter of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin is the first to say he never thought he'd be collaborating on a Broadway show, although he's done nearly everything else show business offers. In fact, says Connick, he actually loves "to see who can get to the creative finish line first."
"I'll write music that I don't think she'll be able to choreograph to, that I think will be way over her head and she'll come in here and tell me things that are extremely challenging to write music to. She'll say, 'I need this here and see you later.' It's like she's saying, 'You want to play that game? OK, I'll play that game.' We're feeding off each other's energy."
After a rehearsal one morning, for instance, the three co-creators are talking about a particular stretch of music. It is just days before cast and crew move to the Plymouth Theatre. Stroman turns to Connick and says, 'Show me what that sounds like, Harry.' Connick goes to the piano and plays a couple of bars for her.
Then, perhaps 10 minutes later, it's his turn. He asks about pallbearers in the funeral scene who, he says, "hold the coffin sort of like they're holding a pizza box." Stroman shakes her head, turns to her assistant, Tara Young, and asks her to check a reference in their source book about funerals.
"Every time I have these conversations with them, I always apologize because I don't want to feel I'm overstepping my bounds," Connick says later. "I mean, who am I to tell Susan Stroman [what to do]? But she made me very comfortable making suggestions, \o7 and \f7 she has no qualms about saying, 'Harry, that lyric's no good there."'
Connick's song "All Things" replaces another song called "How About Tonight," and he says, "I still, to this day, think the song there before was more appropriate for the character. But I understand why they want the new song. I'm not the director of this show. I could pack my things and leave, or I could say [to myself], 'OK, write another good song.' And I think I did."
After all, since his teens, Connick has turned out a dozen top-selling albums, including original as well as covered music. His work runs the gamut from blues, jazz and funk to big band and mellow standards.