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This article by Deb Cooperman was prepared for the January 5,

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Paper Mill’s "Harold and Maude"

To say I had mixed feelings when I learned that Paper Mill Playhouse would be presenting a musical based on the 1970s cult film "Harold and Maude" would be an understatement. Opening on Wednesday, January 5, "Harold and Maude: The Musical" – with book and lyrics by Tom Jones, the co-writer of "The Fantasticks," and starring Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons – has a fine pedigree before it even gets out of the gate. And Paper Mill is certainly known for its high quality productions. Yet I couldn’t help feeling apprehension about it. As an enthusiastic theater lover, I’ve seen plenty of films turned successfully into musicals (and visa versa), but I wasn’t sure I’d want to see this show adapted for the stage.

Because, you see, I am one of the leigons of people who made "Harold and Maude" the cult favorite that it is. I’ve seen the film so many times that I can recite entire scenes, and I quote it with the regularity that some Trekkies quote their beloved "Star Trek." When dating, "Harold and Maude" became something of a litmus test for the men I’d meet. If a guy loved the movie it probably meant that the themes of the film resonated with him, so that put him up a few notches in my book, and if he didn’t like it, his chances were not that good. (If a man had never heard about the movie, there was still a possibility if I could get him to see it and he liked it.)

When I accidentally spilled coffee on my video copy of it a few years back – wrecking, as some would say, "only" the last minute or so of the movie that leads into the credits – I had to get another one. I just had to. Because as any true fan of "Harold and Maude" would tell you, that last couples of minutes of the movie are really key. But then, all of it is. Each element in this quirky story of two unlikely friends whose lives are changed by their even unlikelier romance is so perfect and poetic that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

Anyone but Ruth Gordon as the plucky, life-loving Maude? Can’t picture it. Who but Bud Cort with his huge saucer-like eyes as the comically death-obsessed Harold? It just wouldn’t work, would it? And what would the movie be without Cat Stevens’ soundtrack perfectly complementing the film’s every moment?

To some of us, "Harold and Maude" is not just a movie, it’s a manifesto. It is about living life to the fullest and celebrating uniqueness, and it is told in a quirky, subversive, funny, lyrical, and tender way.

When it comes to "Harold and Maude," I am not simply a fan, I am a bit of a fanatic. That can be a dangerous thing. But like most fanatics, I am also a sucker for all things "Harold and Maude," so I found that I couldn’t help be curious – compelled even – to find out more about the musical version that is receiving its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse.

How would the creative team translate the intimate, sometimes outrageous story to the stage? (And Paper Mill’s huge stage at that?) Would they get the rights to Cat Stevens’ music, and if so, how would they weave it into the action? Or would they do without his music entirely? And how could they come up with actors powerful (and brave) enough to step into the shoes of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort?

For Tom Jones, musical theater writer and co-creator of "The Fantasticks," (not, as some might assume, the Welch singer of "It’s Not Unusual" fame) the creation of "Harold and Maude: The Musical" has been a unique labor of love.

"If we do it right," says Jones, speaking to me on a break during rehearsals of the production in New York in late December, "it will be different, its own thing." Adapting such a popular film had its challenges, "it was a matter of trying to compress and distill the piece," he says. "Hopefully we’ve found the essence."

Composer Joseph Thalken agrees. "To make the leap to the musical stage, it’s a whole different animal. We’re staying true to the spirit of the film, but with any adaptation, and particularly one as beloved as ‘Harold and Maude,’ people will miss certain parts. But it’s so exciting to see it take on a life of its own."

"For me," says Jones, the story "reached me on a level I didn’t quite understand. I love the film – I had to, since I’ve spent nearly four years working on adapting it – and I feel like there’s some kind of ancient, primitive parable at work in it." The story of these two different souls at different stages in their lives "reached across time," he says. Maude is about to turn 80 in the play and Harold is in his early 20s; Jones turns 77 in February and "I still have two teenaged sons," he says. "It means a lot to me – thinking about what I can teach them and what they can teach me." This same theme, Jones says, is part of what drives Maude to befriend Harold.

"I think people will be pleased," says Paper Mill’s Maude, Estelle Parsons. "Pleased and surprised. It’s an incredible adaptation. Tom is a genius." Known for her Academy Award winning turn as the crazed Blanche in "Bonnie and Clyde," and for Tony-nominated roles in "Miss Margarita’s Way" and "Mornings at Seven," as well as her run as Roseanne’s mother, Bev, on television’s "Roseanne," Parsons actually got her start in musical theater, playing in "Happy Hunting" with Ethel Merman. The return to musical theater is a real treat for her. "I love to be funny, and I love to sing and dance," she says. Getting to collaborate on a new musical and playing Maude "is great fun; I’ve never been so happy."

According to Eric Millegan (Harold), working on the play is "wonderful" and working with Parsons is "a dream."

"I remember when I auditioned," he says. (Parsons had already been cast as Maude.) "I got in there and she went along with whatever I’d do. She was very accessible; I love her." When he got the role, Parsons took him to lunch. He then went to see her in another show she was doing at Primary Stages in New York, and they spent some time talking afterward. So when the creative team arrived in New York at the end of December to begin rehearsals, the pair already knew one another.

The 30-year-old actor (who looks at least 10 years younger) says he is often told that he looks too young to play certain parts, but "that he is glad he stayed young enough to play the part of Harold, a teen-ager. "It’s such a beautiful story," he says.

Adding to the beauty of the story in the film was Cat Stevens’ music – as essential to the mood of each scene as the Bee Gees’ music was in "Saturday Night Fever." Yet for the Paper Mill production, the writing team decided to start from scratch. Why? "I’m a big fan of Cat Stevens’ music," says composer Thalken, "and I love the music in the movie." But in his opinion it is evocative, rather than essential to the story. "It doesn’t move the plot forward," he says. Jones and Thalken decided to musicalize moments that expressed the characters’ inner thoughts and yearnings. "I made a conscious choice not to mimic Cat Stevens’ style," he says, "so the music would be fresh, and not a bad imitation of Cat Stevens."

Another change in the play repairs the one spot in the movie that has always been tough to swallow (even for fanatics). On the eve of her 80th birthday, Maude, who is in love with life – and, as she calls it, "the cosmic dance" of change – decides to commit suicide. The character says she doesn’t want to end up old and infirm, but in the hands of impish Ruth Gordon, "old and infirm" seems a very long way away for Maude, so the choice to end her life seems arbitrary and is hard to take.

To make the twist work in the musical, Jones decided to add another layer to Maude’s story. "In the movie she’s this life-giving force," he says, and her decision to end her life was hard to understand. Jones’ small additions don’t "trade on tragedy" he says, but they give Maude a more obvious motivation for her decision, one that, in Maude’s own lingo, would be more "organic."

In the film, the Bay area around San Francisco is another character, with rolling hillsides, fog-covered graveyards, and misty, deep redwood forests adding to the texture of the story. Jones says that these were the easiest things to let go of. "I didn’t want to try to re-create that in any way; I want you to be aware that you’re in the theater," he says. Paper Mill’s cavernous stage, used to hosting enormous casts with massive set pieces, has been "brought in" according to Jones, to make it feel more intimate. "We have some ‘theatricals’, but the best experiences in the theater happen," he says, when the audience reacts to what is going on on the stage in a personal way. "The parable underneath the story opens you up in some way."

For Parsons the parable underneath the play is extremely timely. Maude invites Harold to explore a new way of looking at the world and she invites him to embrace life in all its precious paradox. "It’s so hard these days for people to be willing to be unique," she says, "The message is everywhere: ‘You don’t dare to be different!’" Through Maude, Parsons says, Harold’s eyes are re-opened and she gives him his life anew.

The creative team of Jones and Thalken, along with actors Parsons and Millegan, seem to be holding the essence of Harold and Maude’s story with the preciousness of a real gem. And for this fanatic, they seem to be the perfect stewards to introduce the story to a whole new audience, and to let them see the world anew through the fresh eyes of Harold and Maude.

– Deb Cooperman

Harold and Maude: The Musical. Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. To February 6. Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Thursdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $31-$68. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.

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