Usually once a play or musical has been worked and reworked in “development” in regional theaters, out-of-town tryouts, or previews in New York City, the end result is just that. That’s it. At least for playwrights and composers who are still living. (Once you’re dead, the revisions may really begin in earnest. Think Shakespeare set on a Caribbean Island or on a ranch in old Texas.)
However for prolific pop music and Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn, who never seems to stop working, once on Broadway may not be enough. In November of 1997, his musical version of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” opened to less than enthusiastic reviews. He must have begun making changes right away, because a revised “Pimpernel” replaced the first version about a month later and ran for over a year, 772 performances in all.
So it comes as no surprise that Wildhorn has reworked “Dracula, the Musical,” which opened on Broadway in August, 2004, and played through January, 2005. The new, re-crafted version makes its U.S. debut in an amateur production at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theater, opening Friday, October 20, and running through Tuesday, October 31. The perfect Halloween drama.
The original “Dracula, the Musical” began its journey to Broadway in San Diego, opening at La Jolla Playhouse in fall, 2001, under the direction of artistic director Des McAuff (who brought “Jersey Boys” to Broadway this year.) Even with a stellar cast, the critics hated it, even beginning to pan the show before it opened in New York. There was a heated exchange about “jumping the gun” with negative remarks in print, not considered fair play. However, the production was kept alive for four plus months thanks to Wildhorn’s devoted fan base.
Wildhorn, who grew up on Long Island and considers himself a “New York guy,” is a self-taught musician whose first Broadway credit was for additional songs for the Julie Andrews star vehicle, “Victor Victoria.” The following season, Wildhorn made a really big splash with “Jekyll and Hyde,” which developed a huge fan base, who became known as “Jekkies,” as they saw the musical many times and traveled far and wide to catch later productions. They were called “the world’s most devoted fan group” and were even offered special hotel rates when the show had a return engagement years later in Houston, where it had originated at the Alley Theater.
Nick Cheng, Wildhorn’s long-time assistant and a Hamilton resident, counts himself as one of Wildhorn’s fans, though he doesn’t claim the moniker “Jekkie.” His great admiration of Wildhorn began with Linda Eder, who has released a number of successful albums, starred in Wildhorn’s “Jeckyll and Hyde” on Broadway, and was once married to Wildhorn. Cheng says, “I was a huge fan of hers, went to her concerts, and bought all her solos CDs.” Much of the music that Eder sang was written by Wildhorn so Cheng became his fan as well.
While he was a college student at New York University (a short-lived experience, he says), Cheng wrangled the phone number for Wildhorn’s assistant and kept calling until he got an interview and finally a job as an intern at Wildhorn’s company. Flash forward: Cheng now basically runs the company. “I do everything from keeping his calendar to putting together his musical projects,” he says via E-mail. A phone interview was impossible due to Cheng’s busy schedule working for Wildhorn, preparing the new production of “Dracula,” and playing a few musical gigs in between.
Three years ago, Cheng and college chums Frank Ferrara and Vicky Czarnik began their own company. They had been involved with community theater and wanted to “do shows the way we wanted to do them.” Their company’s mission is to mount quality productions of “lesser known works.” This renewed and revised “Dracula” is their third production. With Cheng’s association with composer Wildhorn, he was able to get the personal involvement of the “father” of “Dracula, The Musical,” which this time around will be directed by Ferrara.
As a special event, composer Wildhorn will give a master class for theater career hopefuls immediately following the performance on Sunday, October 22. He will answer questions and also work directly with a limited number of singers. Space is limited. Those interested should register by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kelsey production will feature non-union actors. The great advantage that Cheng and Ferrara find working with these actors is that they are acting for “the sheer joy of performing and are always very enthusiastic and willing to work hard,” says Cheng. “They don’t get paid so the gratification comes from performing the show as best they can.”
The story remains basically the same as in the Dracula that we know and love. As U.S. 1 theater critic Simon Saltzman wrote in 2004, “There’s always room for one more peek into the coffin.” If there is anyone who doesn’t know the story of Bram Stoker’s novel, published in 1897, the story tells of Count Dracula, a Romanian noble (as the Wildhorn website says), “a notoriously severe insomniac, who leaves his crumbling castle for new accommodations — and a fresh menu — in London.” Yes, he’s the most famous vampire of them all. Will he or won’t he sup with young Mina and luscious Lucy?
After the original musical’s demise on Broadway, a revamped and German language version opened to much success in Switzerland. The New Jersey version, Cheng says, is more orchestral than the original “synthesizer-heavy” Broadway score. He describes the new production as “a little more rock, a little more contemporary, but still with the sensibilities that Frank Wildhorn’s music is known for.” Cheng, who made the orchestrations for this new version, notes that the Swiss version was scored for an orchestra of 40 musicians. “In Europe musicians aren’t as expensive to hire,” he says. In line with American economics, Cheng has created a score for nine musicians. “There are a few new songs, not heard in the Broadway production, so that’s exciting for us.”
Director Ferrara, also via E-mail, says that the changes include combining “the stake” to what was originally a solo for Dracula, “Loving You Keeps Me Alive,” with another song, “A Perfect Life,” to be sung by Mina and her husband. But all is not lost for the Count; a number has been added to the show, termed an eleven-o’clock number — the big attention getter just before any musical moves into its finale — entitled “At Last,” a duet for Mina and Dracula. And they haven’t omitted the aptly titled, “Life After Life.”
With a smaller cast and a more chamber-music approach, don’t expect the Broadway special effects of flying bats and people. “The Swiss production was more intimate, like a chamber musical, and that’s what we’re going with,” says Ferrara. He assures me that the story still follows the doings of the original story characters but without the large ensemble used on Broadway. Ferrara says “it was a show about a small group of people in which a huge group of people — maids, porters, wedding guests, and the like — randomly charged onstage at various intervals.” The story now focuses on the main people and vampires in the story. “Individual scenes have been rewritten to deepen the characters,” says Ferrara.
In an interview that Wildhorn had with writer Pati Buehler on Broadway.com around the time of the debut of “Jekyll & Hyde” he revealed a clue about why he is committed to “Dracula, the Musical”: “I love the gothic literature. It always has such great stories with characters bigger than life and the stakes are always high.” And sometimes those stakes can do you in if you’re one of the undead. “Dracula the Musical” is for the unafraid.
Dracula! The Musical, Friday, October 20, through Tuesday, October 31, Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Cheng/Ferrara Productions presents the world premiere of Frank Wildhorn’s newly-revised musical. $16. Master class with Wildhorn for students interested in pursuing a career in musical theater follows the October 22 2 p.m. performance. $35 includes a ticket to the performance. Register. Those interested in performing for Wildhorn at the master class must submit a headshot and resume to email@example.com. Performers will be selected at random. 609-584-9444.
Dracula, the Ballet, Saturday, October 28, 7 p.m., Roxey Ballet, Villa Victoria Theater, 376 West Upper Ferry Road, Ewing. 609-397-7616 or www.roxeyballet.com