It's been five years since New York-area audiences have been treated to a new Jason Robert Brown score (Broadway's 13). This year is turning out to be a lucky one for the Tony Award-winning songwriter and his fans: The Second Stage Theatre revival of The Last Five Years yielded a recently released cast album, and Brown's adaptations of The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas are opening on area stages within months of each other.
On the occasion of Honeymoon in Vegas' premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse (which launched current Broadway hit Newsies), TheaterMania talked to Brown and director Gary Griffin about becoming involved with this new project, working with the movie's creator, and nurturing a score with influences from the Rat Pack to Ethel Merman.
"What we're getting is really a Broadway-sized production," says Brown. "To be able to do [Honeymoon] at this great theater, and it's close to home, and to get all these incredible actors here, is fantastic."
Griffin concurs: "It's my first time working here, and I'm really enjoying it. [The staff] really understands musicals and the support needed to make them happen. And the audience here loves musical theater. We think they'll have an affinity for the show, and that we will learn a lot from them about it."
Based on the 1992 movie of the same name, which the show's book writer, Andrew Bergman, wrote and directed, Honeymoon in Vegas tells the story of a young New York couple whose matrimony was long delayed due to a marriage phobia instilled in the man by his mother. When he finally agrees to get hitched in Vegas, his plans are derailed by a card shark who sets his sights on the man's fiancée. The roles of the couple and the card shark, played in the movie by Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, are here taken on by Rob McClure, Brynn O'Malley, and Tony Danza.
Brown recalls, "A number of years ago a producer presented me with a list of movie titles for adaptation. The only one that turned me on was Honeymoon in Vegas. I said, ‘Ooh, that's a good idea.' We went back to that studio, and it turns out they didn't have the rights. I said if the rights were ever to be [had], I'd want to do it only with Andy Bergman, who is one of my comedy heroes. But I didn't know Andy. And that was sort of the end of it."
Three years later, in 2003, Brown found out that Bergman was doing a reading for a stage-musical adaptation of the film, and that a songwriter hadn't yet been hired. "So I went to the reading, and I met Andy there, and I told him this whole story. And he said, ‘Well, that sounds interesting. I guess I should hear some of your songs.' I showed him some ideas, and we started working on the show together. It's just been a thrill working with him. The show is everything I could have dreamed it would be."
Griffin has been attached to the project since he directed a workshop two years ago. About the songs, he says: "It's a sexy, jazzy, swinging score. In that way Vegas works on your psyche and your soul, I think Jason's score does that same thing to you. It's a very seductive world to be in." The lyrics, he says, "surprise you all the time, really tease your brain all night long."
Brown describes creating the multiple musical worlds the show journeys through. "It's a very diverse score," he says. With action taking place in Las Vegas, New York, and Hawaii, and two young leading characters falling under the influence of a man (played by TV star Danza) whose life is dedicated to preserving his past, there is a wide palette from which he samples. The songs for Danza's character "are very much 1960s Rat Pack. Hard-edged swing. Whereas Rob McClure's character has a certain contemporary vibe, until he comes under Danza's sway, at which point he, too, tries to become a swinger.…The role that Brynn O'Malley plays is the emotional center of the show in a lot of ways. So her music is the most grounded, and has the most heart to it."
The variety of offbeat supporting characters — inhabited by actors who Griffin says are "quirky, appealing, and embrace the extreme" — gave Brown plenty of room to play around as well. "Nancy Opel plays Jack's mother, a great belting dominating mother in the classic Merman tradition. And David Josefsberg plays Tony Rocky, who's our stand-in for Steve Lawrence or Robert Goulet or any number of Vegas cats who get up on a stage with a band and swing it with all the cheese they know how to muster. Josefsberg also plays an Elvis impersonator, and that was our chance to dig into that sound as well."
Griffin has nothing but praise for both writers, commenting on the quality of the work they've created and of the collaboration itself. He also marveled at how quickly Bergman — a relative newcomer to theater, who had never before written a musical — made himself at home in this world. "Andrew has a very good sense of these characters, and he's been very good at achieving the kind of economy in the book so the songs can do what they need to do. He's found himself into the world of musical theater with surprising ease."
"What we were able to do with Honeymoon in Vegas that the movie couldn't do, is…deepen all of the characters," states Brown. "The movie is about [a] crazy plot with these crazy people. To articulate those wants [in song] and to give them voice makes you connect to the characters in a way that you couldn't really with the film."