Lyricist and book writer Steven Sater, left, and Burt Bacharach are collaborating… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Diego — — On a recent afternoon of rehearsals for his new musical, "Some Lovers," Burt Bacharach looks nothing like the hip, handsome, nattily dressed composer of an extraordinary run of pop hits in the 1960s and '70s, written with lyricist Hal David.
Instead of the stylish sweaters, crisp turtlenecks, meticulously creased slacks and cut blazers he was known for, Bacharach is outfitted in a gray sweatsuit, white socks and silver running shoes. On this day he is dressed for one thing: work.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bacharach-Sater musical: A Dec. 4 article about the new Burt Bacharach-Steven Sater musical, "Some Lovers," included a passage in which Sater quotes a line from a song identified as "A Thousand Things That Were You." The lyrics are from the song "Ready to Be Done With You." —
"I've never worked hours like these," says Bacharach, 83, in a sub-basement rehearsal space at the Old Globe Theatre complex. He is immersed in preparations for his first stage musical since 1968, when he and David set the story of Billy Wilder's classic film "The Apartment" to music and turned it into "Promises, Promises."
In front of him are the show's four actors who portray one couple, Molly and Ben, at two points in their relationship: during the youthful first blossoming of romance, and 20 years later after the bloom has faded from the rose.
Bacharach is one of about a dozen people in the room, but somehow his chair, which sits behind a utilitarian folding table serving as a production desk, becomes the center of the room.
Kneeling before Bacharach and whispering as the actors continue their lines are lyricist and book writer Steven Sater and director Will Frears. The two appear to be supplicants seeking words of wisdom from the pope.
Sater and Frears want to modify the end of the song "Every Other Hour," so that instead of a gentle fade-out, it concludes with more force.
Bacharach rises and saunters over to the piano, where musical director Lon Hoyt is accompanying the singers on the pulsing waltz-tempo number that sounds quintessentially Bacharach, sharing the insistent lilt the songwriter brought to "What the World Needs Now Is Love," a 1965 hit for Jackie DeShannon.
They discuss a few options, then Bacharach switches places with Hoyt, taking a seat on the piano bench. He puts his long, elegant fingers on the keyboard and spins out a peppy new lick that he plays twice, separating the repetition with an added rhythmic beat of silence that gives the new ending the musical equivalent of an exclamation point.
"Burt's in classic form," says Sater, the Tony- and Grammy-winning writer of the lyrics and book for the hit Broadway musical "Spring Awakening," with music from alt-rock singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik. "You hear one of these songs and you know in a heartbeat where you are."
For Sater, "it's kind of a dream" to work with the man who wrote the music for pop standards such as "Walk on By," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Alfie," "The Look of Love," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," among dozens of other Top 10 hits.
That body of work just earned Bacharach and David the distinction of becoming the 2012 recipients of the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, following previous honorees Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
For Bacharach, too, "Some Lovers" fulfills something of a fantasy.
He and Sater started writing together in 2008, initially as a pure songwriting collaboration. Soon the idea of what to do with the songs they'd been writing came up. "One day I was having lunch at Burt's house, and he said to me, 'Steven, I had a dream last night that we rented a theater and we played our songs.' I just reeled back and said, 'That's what we should do!' That was the day we decided we were going to start getting a show together," Sater said.
Sater's raison d'etre for "Some Lovers" was simple: "I wanted us to be able to write the kind of songs we were writing: Burt songs. I didn't want to write traditional musical theater songs. I wanted them to be Burt's music, and so we found a structure, a way of storytelling where you could have a kind of classic play — a memory play — happening, but it could also be a concert."
The play explores the estrangement of Ben, a songwriter, and Molly. Both have long been enchanted by O. Henry's classic Christmas story, "The Gift of the Magi," its central theme of two people sacrificing the thing that each most cherishes out of love becomes a thread that runs through "Some Lovers," informing the question of whether the couple will reconcile or split for good.
One big question facing "Some Lovers" is whether a chamber musical about a heterosexual couple's emotional journey is too staid, too retro for contemporary audiences accustomed to darker and more explicit material in shows such as "Rent," "Avenue Q," "Next to Normal," "Spring Awakening" and even TV's "Glee."