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A case of self-diagnosis

A musical version of `Dr. Zhivago' is able to gather strength during a test run at La Jolla Playhouse.

May 21, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla — IF the new musical "Zhivago" is embraced, its four creators say, it will be in no small measure because they were willing to give it a four-week test run last summer when the artistic engine was still prone to sputter and cough. The stage adaptation of Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," opening this week at La Jolla Playhouse, is the latest show to have come through the playhouse's Page to Stage program, an annual showcase of work-in-progress in which writers get to see how their rough drafts play with an audience -- then linger for public "talk-back" sessions in which everyone's a critic.

The "Zhivago" partners say the experience made up in usefulness what it sometimes lacked in ego gratification.

A professor of literature came up to lyricist Michael Korie and told him that, while the show was good, the soaring verses he and Amy Powers had written to end it were "bad poetry."

Composer Lucy Simon's daughter confessed to her mom that an ardor-filled duet by the romantic leads, Lara and Zhivago, was "a little creepy," given a staging that placed death literally underfoot as the two discovered rapture.

The main problem for Lara and Dr. Z, besides being married to other people, is that their affair keeps getting fouled up by the Russian Revolution. One back-talking playgoer complained about the purging of what she believed to be an essential feature of the saga: a red balalaika. It's not in the novel, but David Lean made it a recurring motif in his epic 1965 film version of "Doctor Zhivago," symbolic of the immortal poetic unity between Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the versifying physician and his heart-rendingly beautiful muse.

The "Zhivago" creators, aiming to follow "Cabaret" and "Ragtime" into a winners' circle of critically hailed hit musicals based on serious historical fiction, were probably their own most exacting second-guessers.

Simon and Michael Weller, who wrote the musical's book, set about rewiring Act 2 after noticing that the required emotional crescendo at the end was, as Weller puts it, "not reliably overwhelming."

They also began to frown as they watched "Mother Russia," a lively, satiric number that was supposed to provide comic relief.

"As I saw more and more performances, I started to get embarrassed," recalls Simon, the even-voiced, haphazardly coiffed composer. She got her start in showbiz in a singing-sisters duo with her younger sibling, Carly -- who got along OK on her own after Lucy veered onto the mommy track in 1969. With her son and daughter grown, Simon emerged as a hit Broadway composer with "The Secret Garden" (1991). Soon after, she bought the rights to "Dr. Zhivago" from Pasternak's estate and began a more than 10-year journey to bring its pages alive on stage.

When the project stalled about five years ago, Des McAnuff, the La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, jumped in and started building a team around Simon. Weller, whom McAnuff first commissioned more than 20 years ago, is known for plays chronicling the countercultural generation of the '60s from its undergraduate years into middle age -- and for his screen adaptations of the musical "Hair" and of E.L. Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime." Korie's credits include the libretto for the biographical opera "Harvey Milk" and lyrics for "Grey Gardens," a recent off-Broadway musical. Powers was recruited to bring a female lyricist's perspective.

The "Zhivago" team convened in La Jolla last July for the uncommonly elaborate tryout that Page to Stage affords. The marriage of subject matter and play-development method gave new meaning to that grim term from Soviet jurisprudence, "show trial."


A testing ground

AFTER five years and seven workshop productions, the forum that McAnuff established with Shirley Fishman, the playhouse's point person for new-play development, has quickly won a spot on the national A-list of programs devoted to shepherding new work.

The first one they took on was an oddball entity called "I Am My Own Wife." Doug Wright, who'd worked with McAnuff in film and television, had written the first act of his single-actor show about a gay East Berlin transvestite who dodged persecution under the Nazis and communists. The playhouse provided the time, space and dramaturgical advice the playwright and actor Jefferson Mays needed to finish the piece. It was Wright's idea also to give it a trial run in front of an audience.

"They were like tasters in a test kitchen," Wright says, recalling the first slice of the public to lay eyes on a show that went on to win both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best play in 2004 as well as a best actor Tony for Mays. "They came because they wanted to see the birth of new work, not to be passively entertained."

But most important, Wright says, were the key behind-the-scenes personnel. In the theater, as in Hollywood, writers can fall into "development hell," where they are shunted from workshop to workshop.

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