Ben Mordecai, one of the most active producers on Broadway, has taken on his first musical.
How could the man who has helped to bring audiences such award-winning productions as David Henry Hwang's Golden Child, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and Tony Kushner's Angels in America have not yet produced a musical? According to Mordecai, he has never been drawn to "diverting entertainment," and none of the musicals he saw provided the kind of substantial content that is the trademark of his work.
That is, until he saw Heartland, the latest collaboration of Darrah Cloud and Kim D. Sherman. Perhaps best known for O Pioneers, this lyricist/composer team has now fashioned a moving, musical tale of three daughters who return home to Iowa to help their widowed mother. In the first New York staged reading for an invited audience of investors, theater directors, and friends at the Lambs Theatre, a talented cast brought the musical to life.
Mordecai first saw and loved Heartland at the Goodspeed Opera House in Chester, CT. Director Susan H. Schulman (The Secret Garden and the recent revival of The Sound of Music) eventually came aboard to present a new, staged reading for Mordecai, along with musical director Lawrence Yurman, choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, and an impressive cast. Then the two-week rehearsal and development period began.
I first worked with Ben Mordecai when he produced August Wilson's Seven Guitars on Broadway, and I met up with him again a few days before the Heartland reading to find out how he was adapting to the world of musicals.
SANDI: How do you feel about the upcoming reading?
BEN: I'm thrilled. I'm ecstatic, to be honest. We're not done. We didn't get all the way through; if the show will ultimately be two hours long, we have about 90 minutes. So we have a cliffhanger. I expect that we're going to need to do another [development] period like this before we start staging it.
SANDI: Where would you like to see Heartland performed?
BEN: Well, I'm very ambitious. I'd like to do this as a small Broadway musical, maybe in a 1,000-seat house. I'd love to put it in the Booth Theater or the Helen Hayes. (laughs) As if I have a total choice.
SANDI: So, what will happen after this reading?
BEN: I've produced a lot of plays. I'm very used to the developmental process with plays; but, if I could sort of put forth my primary theory about producing (dramatic pause), it has everything to do with time. To produce well, you need the time to develop the material properly. Some collaborators work quickly and some don't. As you know, I've worked with August on many shows, and you cannot predict when August will write. All you can do as a producer is establish an environment where the creative people feel most comfortable. In a way we've been working [on Heartland for] a year and a half, but one of the really critical moments in the process was just a few days ago. Every day there has been tremendous forward motion, but about four or five days ago, Susan [Schulman] said, "I think we should throw out the entire second act." She felt that the authors, particularly the book writer, were clinging to things they liked in that act; they were trying to fix it while saving what they liked, but really the whole thing had to be thrown out. And it took Darrah Cloud, particularly, a couple of days to be able to do that. It's painful.