June 01--Ken Davenport sits in the lobby of the Gerding Theater and flashes back to a moment of inspiration more than a decade ago.
"I was walking through a video store -- that gives you a sense of how long ago this was -- and my girlfriend and I were looking for something to watch for date night," he recalls.
They happened to notice the movie "Somewhere in Time," a romantic fantasy from 1980 starring Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with the photo of an early-20th-century actress, played by Jane Seymour, and finds a way to travel back in time to pursue her. "I looked at it and said, 'I wonder if this would make a good musical?'
"So, we rented it, and we had a very good date night," he says, as though still relishing the memory. "And the next day I started pursuing the adaptation rights."
Flashforward to a few years from now: Davenport walks the opening-night red carpet as producer of a new Broadway musical. The show is a smash; very good date nights abound. And a little bit of the resulting fame and fortune find their way back to Portland.
Back to the present, where a lot has to happen to make that future real. The biggest step comes on Wednesday, when Portland Center Stage presents the world premiere of "Somewhere in Time," the musical.
Davenport, who is librettist as well as producer, says that he's focused for now on presenting the best possible show at the Gerding. But he's hoping eventually to add to a Broadway producing resume that includes the 2011 revival of "Godspell," the Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein hit "Kinky Boots," Alan Cumming's current star turn in "Macbeth," and other shows.
For Portland Center Stage, the project has several benefits: the prestige of presenting a world premiere, added resources to give its patrons a lavish production, a chance to get on the map of regional theaters developing significant new shows, and -- should "Somewhere in Time" turn into a hot property -- a financial stake in its success.
"That's like winning the lottery," Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman says. The chance that the show could move on to New York and succeed there is "a total crapshoot," he says. However, he notes that when the original production of "Rent" was running strong on Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop, the Off-Broadway house where the show originated earned about a $500,000 a year in profit participation.
"It's like getting an endowment," Coleman says. "It's very much the exception to the rule, but it's a possibility."
Davenport has reasons to be hopeful about the musical's prospects.
The movie version wasn't a box-office success, but over the years has gathered a devoted following, including a fan club (International Network of "Somewhere In Time" Enthusiasts, or INSITE) so ardent and active that it publishes a quarterly magazine and hosts an annual fan convention at one of the film's settings, the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island. A big believer in market research, Davenport presented a long list of titles to a focus group several years ago, asking the participants to rank the stories they'd most like to see made into a musical. "Somewhere in Time" turned out to be the top choice, he says, ahead of several others that already have been brought to the stage since.
Davenport sees the story as a great romance with universal appeal. "Imagine someone fighting the laws of nature to be with you. It's a fairy tale, and this guy's moat -- what he has to cross to get to the princess -- is time itself."
Wading into his own moat back in 2001, Davenport approached Richard Matheson, who wrote the story first as the novel "Bid Time Return," then as the "Somewhere in Time" screenplay, and also originated such hits as "What Dreams May Come" and "I Am Legend." Though Matheson had thoughts of making his own musical adaptation, Davenport says the author eventually "realized that I was nearly as passionate about the story as he was. He knew I would take care of his baby."
It took five years to gain Matheson's confidence, then more time to find the right creative collaborators.
"We call it a romantic fantasy, and I needed to hear that in the lyrics and the music," Davenport says. "The show is magic. It needed to sparkle."
Things finally clicked with composer Doug Katsarosand lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz. Scott Schwartz, son of the songwriter Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin," "Wicked"), signed on as director.
Musical theater, though, is devilishly difficult art form to get right, requiring the harmonious interaction of not just writers, but producers, directors, choreographers, designers and orchestrators. As Davenport puts it, "Imagine ten people trying to paint the Mona Lisa."
Says Coleman, "It takes a ton of trial and error and negotiating -- 'That's a great song, but maybe it's in the wrong place.' Or, 'That's a great melody, but does the lyric say the right thing for that moment?' It's complex from every angle. And you can't really know how it all works unless it's up on its feet."
All the fine tuning and retooling can be expensive, and shows need to be in fighting trim to have a chance at making it to Broadway, where the overhead can be a major investment. According to a 2011 story by The New York Times, large-scale musicals tend to cost $10 million to $15 million to mount.
"Most of them wouldn't get born if there wasn't a regional company helping the process along," Coleman says. "The big musicals in the past 20 years have mostly come from either regional theater or from a big non-profit in Britain." Some are developed on New York's Off-Broadway circuit, but Coleman says "Somewhere in Time" is too big and high-profile a project for that approach.
Part of Portland Center Stage's strategic plan in recent years has been to join the handful of regional theaters -- including San Diego's Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle's Intiman and 5th Avenue, the Goodman in Atlanta -- known for launching such projects. After losing rights to a show based on the music of the Doors, then briefly slotting in an Ella Fitzgerald tribute, PCS decided last summer to help launch "Somewhere in Time."
"For our audience and for the company, this felt like a better opportunity," Coleman says.
Not only does PCS get to mount a lavish show, with three Tony nominees among the creative team (on scenic design, lighting design and choreography), and potentially raise its profile in the eyes of national funders, it gets to stretch in operational terms.
"We're learning an enormous amount," Coleman says. "There are so many moving parts and things to figure out -- more rehearsal time, more tech time, more preview time -- than we normally would have. We've never asked our production team to do such a big show at the end of the season, after they've already done nine other shows. There's a healthy degree of tension/overload for us as a company."
Says actress Hannah Elless, who stars alongside Andrew Samonsky, about developing the show in Portland, "We really couldn't be more blessed. The staff here is so supportive. I'd use the word symbiotic."
And though the costs are high and the odds are long, Davenport has faith in his latest potential Broadway baby.
"I'm a big believer in the idea that if you build it, they will come," he says.
He's not the only one, after all, who wants an entertaining and romantic date night.
-- Marty Hughley
(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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