News Column

A 'Leap of Faith' from Broadway to Salisbury

October 14, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 14--SALISBURY -- Broadway musicals nominated for Tony Awards sometimes transfer to London's West End, head out on national tours or establish permanent companies in Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto.

"Leap of Faith" is going straight to Salisbury.

Let's say that again: The show about a con man posing as a revivalist preacher, which got a Tony nomination for best musical in 2012, begins its second production ever at Piedmont Players on Thursday.

The national theatrical magazine Playbill devoted an article to this remarkable event. Composer Alan Menken, who won a Tony for his "Newsies" score that year, says his gospel songs for "Leap" may find a natural home in the South. Original producer Tom Viertel hopes Piedmont's production will reveal the quality of the most puzzling financial failure in his 26-year Broadway career.

And Reid Leonard, resident director/designer of Salisbury's adventurous community theater, is feeling a little more excitement than normal.

"It's unusual to do a show nobody has seen," he says. "The audience has no preconceptions. None of the actors have done it elsewhere. That frees you up as a director.

"A musical is a machine. The fun part for a director is finding out what drives that machine, learning what works about it. But in this case, because I've never seen it -- not even on video -- I don't know for sure the machine does work. I'm trying to figure out in rehearsals what would make it succeed."

A rough ride in New York

If he does, Viertel would like to know. The producer, who has half a dozen Tonys (including two for "Angels in America"), went into the Broadway run with high expectations.

Raul Esparza, a Tony-winner himself, took the role Steve Martin played in the movie of the same name: a self-proclaimed preacher who leads a revival caravan around the country bilking the faithful, until he runs into a Kansas sheriff who may be his soul mate. Menken and frequent collaborator Glenn Slater ("Sister Act") wrote the songs; Warren Leight, a Tony-winner for "Side Man," revised the book.

Yet "Leap" closed after 44 previews and performances. Viertel and his producing partners did the longest post-mortem in their history and came up with no clear explanation.

"The story is fascinating. The music is wonderful. It (gives) a leading man a role second to none in the musical theater; if he's charismatic, it provides an unforgettable performance," says Viertel.

"It had its problems, but we were always convinced this was an incredibly strong story. If audiences that saw it hadn't responded to it, I'd know what to say. But audiences who did see it were on their feet at the end. This was a puzzling and deflating experience."

Viertel hypothesized that word of mouth may have hurt, because people were reluctant to send friends to a musical that dealt with potential miracles and religious beliefs. Menken wonders whether the structure of the show was confusing: It begins at a New York revival, with Jonas Nightingale (Esparza) talking about an event in Kansas that changed his life; the rest of the show flashes back to that event, then forward again to Manhattan.

"It occurred to me that New York City and specifically Broadway might be a tough fit," says the composer of "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." "But I also think we failed in our ad campaign (limited though it was) to communicate the overall concept. We were caught between providing an 'authentic' revival and giving a theatrical twist to the 'backstage' aspect.

"Then again, it may well be (that) the whole idea of a revival-driven musical never would have resonated at the box office in that season. It will be so interesting to see how it plays in areas where there's more familiarity with...tent revivals."

Suited to the South?

Salisbury, which sits less than 50 miles from Billy Graham's Charlotte birthplace, could be a good test case.

When planning Piedmont's season, Leonard likes to balance a well-known musical with a lesser-known one in his five-play slate. When he nailed "Chicago" down, he could gamble on a title people remembered only from the film or not at all. Menken's score, his first to use gospel material seriously (as opposed to the disco gospel of "Sister Act"), especially appealed to him.

"Musicals have gotten so massive with 'Phantom' and 'Wicked' that smaller companies can't do them," he says. "We can do 'Leap of Faith' with half a dozen principals, a 12-voice gospel choir and a small orchestra. You can't do a 'Les Miserables' that way."

When licensing agency Music Theatre International made rights available, Piedmont marketing director Josh Wainwright alerted Leonard. Playbill called. Then, Leonard says, an e-mail went around the original creative team: "Someone's doing our show!"

Leonard asked that team for permission to change elements that didn't suit his company or physical space; the creators approved some alterations. "A musical is never completely frozen," Menken says. "Things are rewritten for different mediums ...or different productions or different times."

Viertel, too, says "the whole point of wonderful shows is for everyone to have (their own) approaches. I would hate to think of a creative person who felt hamstrung by trying to replicate a production."

Does he think a successful "Leap of Faith" in Salisbury could inspire other American companies to take it up?

"Of course. There'll be some event in the life of (this show) that will do that; if this production can do it, that would be fabulous. It's one of the most underappreciated musicals in my time in the theater."

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(c)2013 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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