The author and playwright. (Ralph Nelson )
"2116," a musical Ray Bradbury wrote more than 50 years ago for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, will have its long-deferred premiere Jan. 16 at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ray Bradbury: An article Dec. 13 incorrectly identified the composer hired during the 1950s to work on a musical written by Ray Bradbury that the author recently revived as "Ray Bradbury's Wisdom 2116." The composer was not Tin Pan Alley songwriter Ray Henderson, whose songs include "Bye, Bye Blackbird." A different Ray Henderson, a composer and pianist, worked on the earlier and never produced version of the Bradbury musical. —
Even without the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Bride of Frankenstein, it's an occasion: It is the first story the 89-year-old L.A.-based author wrote as a musical.
In past musical adaptations of his novels, such as "Fahrenheit 451," "Dandelion Wine" and "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," Bradbury has written lyrics and new dialogue.
As a warmup, the 81-seat Fremont Centre offered three Saturday night preview performances this month, all sell-outs, under the title "Ray Bradbury's Merry Christmas 2116." Last month, audiences saw a workshop run at the Forum Theatre in Laguna Beach. The eight-member cast will perform to recorded music.
The original plan in the mid-1950s was for Laughton and his wife, Lanchester, to perform the show, then titled "Happy Anniversary, 2116," as part of an evening of one-act musicals staged in London.
James Whale, who had directed Lanchester and Boris Karloff in the movie "The Bride of Frankenstein" (after making its precursor, "Frankenstein") and Laughton in " The Old Dark House," was going to stage the production. ( Ian McKellen portrayed the director in the 1998 film "Gods and Monsters.")
Veteran Tin Pan Alley songwriter Ray Henderson ("Bye, Bye Blackbird") was engaged to set Bradbury's lyrics to music.
But Whale's suicide in 1957 sidetracked those plans and Laughton's death in 1962 seemingly finished them.
Until, that is, Bradbury dusted the script off early this year as a potential project for his own stage troupe, Pandemonium Theatre Company, which last year offered a long-running, non-musical version of "Fahrenheit 451" at the Fremont Centre.
Alan Neal Hubbs, Pandemonium's artistic director, turned to director-choreographer Steve Josephson to realize the piece using new music. By late spring, Josephson had found a composer who feels a strong connection to Bradbury's oeuvre in John Hoke, an L.A.-based musician who became a fan of Bradbury as a boy growing up in Nebraska.
Hoke first met with Josephson at a Starbuck's in Norwalk, where he played some of the music he'd set to the Bradbury lyrics he'd been sent.
"It was a perfect match," Josephson said. "He saw the story in the context of Ray's entire works. I knew he would capture it perfectly, and that's how it's been through the entire process."
The story, which may owe a debt to O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," concerns a loving couple, married 40 years, who separately hit upon the same idea for a Christmas gift: buying younger, nearly-human "marionette" versions of themselves, so the recipient can enjoy once more what time has eroded.
"Marionettes, Inc.," a tale from Bradbury's 1951 collection, "The Illustrated Man," presaged the musical with its depiction of what happens when two husbands buy duplicates of themselves for their wives, but it's much darker than the show.
Josephson said he did have one fresh assignment for the author: write a Christmas carol.
The result, "Christmas Comes," is in the show.
When it opens next month, the seasonal "Merry Christmas 2116" will have its name abbreviated to "2116." It will be performed with a non-musical companion piece by the author, "Wisdom (1916)." The production's overall title will be "Ray Bradbury's Wisdom."
After its premiere run ends, Josephson says he'd like to expand this hour-long version of "2116" into a full-length musical, incorporating story lines and characters from other Bradbury writings.
Bradbury's new collaborators say the author is happy with what they've done with his long-aborning work. When Bradbury introduced the show one night during its Laguna run, Hoke said, he wore the medal he received in 2007 when the French government appointed him a commander in its Order of the Arts and Letters.
"He held up the medal and said, 'I now command you to love this play,' " Hoke said.