Jenny Powers and James Snyder in "Dangerous Beauty" at the Pasadena… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Amanda McBroom went to the movies one day and came home with an idea for a show.
"I fell in love with this film called 'Dangerous Beauty,'" says the singer-songwriter. "It was about Veronica Franco, a 16th century Venetian courtesan-poet-superstar. I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is a musical.'"
McBroom's longtime collaborator, composer Michele Brourman, agreed, listing its rich possibilities: "Depth of emotion, religion, politics, and this tapestry of time and place. There's a love story. And turmoil. And it's very sexy. I knew it would be fun to write."
The musical "Dangerous Beauty" opens Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse in a world-premiere professional production — the first new work mounted by the theater since it emerged from bankruptcy last year. The stage version attempts to reach beyond the grand romance of the 1998 film with what its creators call "a Renaissance-meets-rock mix" that marries history and politics with the passion of a heroine whose wit and charms were matched by her determination to stay true to her beliefs.
"Veronica was a complex character living in a complex time," says Sheryl Kaller, who is directing the show, which stars Jenny Powers and features music by Brourman, lyrics by McBroom and a book by Jeannine Dominy. "Figuring out the right way to tell her story requires a tricky balance."
The musical, like the movie, was inspired by the 1992 book "The Honest Courtesan" by University of Southern California professor Margaret F. Rosenthal. Dominy — who also wrote the screenplay — blended facts from Franco's life and fiction to craft a tale about an independent-minded woman who, after her family lost its fortune, saw her new trade as her best chance at making her way in a man's world.
Venetian courtesans were educated, traveled in elite circles and were allowed to do such things as visit libraries and salons — pursuits that were usually off-limits to sheltered gentlemen's wives, many of whom were trapped in arranged marriages.
"Veronica became the queen of the courtesans, which pretty much meant she was the queen of Venice," says McBroom, who is best known for writing the hit Bette Midler song "The Rose."
Franco's skill at verse and seduction brought fame and influence but did not shield her from heartbreak and peril, especially when the city was threatened by the plague, war with the Turks and the Inquisition.
The New Regency/Warner Bros. movie, which starred Catherine McCormack as Franco and Rufus Sewell as her lover, Marco Venier, received mixed reviews but developed a cult following. Dominy says the finished product was "happier and more Hollywood" than she would have liked. In fact, she says that as changes were made to the script, "I used to joke that I was afraid it was going to be turned into a musical."
When McBroom invited her to help do just that, Dominy thought "the universe was playing a wicked joke on me." But she decided that "it was better that I do it than someone else, so I said, 'yes.'"
At first, the New York writer, working on her first musical, wondered how things would go. "Sweet, lovely Amanda was enamored of the film, wanting to make something romantic, and I was like Darth Vader and wanted to write the book with the teeth back in. But everything worked out wonderfully." They have, she says, managed to keep the heart and restore the harder edges. "Who would believe it? A musical has let us go much more to the political and the feminist and be more honest than the movie," Dominy says.
The show has moved further away from the film for other reasons as well. "When you fall in love with a movie you say, 'Oh, we're going to musicalize it,'" Brourman says. "But then you realize that won't work." The Venice, Calif.-based Brourman and the Ojai-based McBroom have each written for the theater and collaborated on more than a dozen animated features, but this is the first complete stage score they've done together. "You have to make this its own entity," Brourman says. "We also found we couldn't always do what was done on camera. For instance, your understanding of any character has to be far greater than in a movie because you can't use things like close-ups."
Brourman, Dominy and McBroom put on an abbreviated version of "Dangerous Beauty" at the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles in 2004. The next year, Kaller joined the team at the suggestion of producer Susan Dietz, who McBroom says "got the ball rolling on this project." Kaller has directed the piece ever since, starting with a reading at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. Development continued in New York and at the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University.
"We keep learning," Kaller says. "Since Northwestern, we've made a ridiculous amount of changes. It's like a different play. Michele and Amanda have easily written five or six new songs. We've replaced the opening and restructured the second act."