Jefferson Performing Arts Society Makes a ‘Scandalous’ Wager

At this moment, somewhere in the world, a hopeful devotee of musical theater is attempting to write the next blockbuster. Hunched over a piano, brow furrowed, coffee gone cold, the composer plucks at the keyboard and scribbles on sheet music, struggling to produce a series of catchy songs that, when strung together, tell a compelling story. In the back of the composer’s mind are more ambitious thoughts, with names like “Cats,” “Rent” and “Phantom.”

The road to the Broadway of those titles is long and hard. Glyn Bailey says he sees the hurdles but is making progress. “I like to say it’s like climbing Everest,” he says with a laugh. “We’re definitely well beyond base camp.”

It’s been nine years since Bailey, a native of England who now lives outside of Covington, La., hatched the idea of developing a musical based on the life of early 20th century writer D.H. Lawrence. The poet and novelist was long deceased when Bailey, now 58, was born, but the two shared common roots. Both grew up in Nottingham, England, and Bailey heard about Lawrence and studied his work throughout his own early life.

Much later — long after Bailey had decided against an opera career and instead become a full-time cabaret entertainer performing on luxury cruise ships —thoughts of Lawrence returned.

“One of the things that kept coming back into my mind about Lawrence was the fact that he had an ambivalent relationship to his home town of Nottingham, which in some ways I had. When Lawrence was away, he couldn’t stop writing and thinking about Nottingham, and when he visited home, he couldn’t wait to get away,” Bailey says. “I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story here that could be turned into a musical.’ ”

Bailey began developing the musical and continued as his cabaret career morphed into an entertainment booking business in New York. He kept at it as he and his wife, the former Anne Johnsen of New Orleans, later found themselves drawn south. When New Orleans-based Delta Queen Steamboat Co. asked Bailey to become manager of entertainment for its cruises, he, Anne and their two young children settled into the countryside north of Covington.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s pet project grew into 24 songs and a story written for a 20-person cast and a 14-piece orchestra. The “biomusical” traces the life of Lawrence and his then-controversial exploration of human sexuality in novels that included “Sons and Lovers” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

The first song Bailey wrote for the work was “Country of My Heart,” which explores the theme of being drawn back toward one’s roots. He says the musical as a whole tells the story “of a very interesting man who had the guts to go against society at a time when anything having to do with human sexuality was taboo.”

The musical received three stagings in England and went through two name changes before the composer settled on the title, “Scandalous!”

“Its first proper presentation was in 2000, in Nottingham,” Bailey says. Keith Thomas directed that drama-concert version of the work. Later, Theasa Tuohy signed on to help Bailey and Thomas write the book, or libretto. They garnered further input during workshops in London and New York, then did the show again, at Bellair Playhouse in Guildford.

Finally, last summer, Scandalous” got a bigger staging, this time at Nottingham Playhouse, which Bailey describes as one of the top regional theaters in England. “It went very well indeed,” he says. He decided the work was ready for a U.S. debut.

Enter Dennis Assaf. The longtime musical director of Jefferson Performing Arts Society first met Bailey when the latter helped direct a 2005 JPAS production of “Evita.” (Bailey had appeared in the original production in London.) Bailey asked Assaf to take a look at “Scandalous!”

“Glyn brought the score over, we sat down at the piano, and he played through it and I sang,” Assaf says. He was sold immediately. “It’s a fascinating subject. It’s good music and, as a conductor, I could see where I would have fun conducting it,” he says. “It’s going to be a really nice piece of theater.”

Good musical theater doesn’t come cheap. To give “Scandalous!” the staging it deserves, Assaf and Bailey decided they needed star power in the lead roles. Bart Shatto, who starred in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, will play Lawrence. Lindsay Hamilton, a veteran of London’s West End, will play Lawrence’s wife. Stephen Duckham will co-direct the work with Keith Thomas.

“The greatest expense is the talent,” followed by marketing, orchestra and costuming, Assaf says. The total cost to present four nights of “Scandalous!” may approach $100,000. “It is a tremendous risk,” he says.

Assaf admits that JPAS has occasionally taken a financial beating on musical productions, but he thinks cost should not always determine what gets staged. He says he tries to present new works as often as possible at the society’s theaters in Metairie and Westwego because he wants JPAS to be seen as a “proving ground” for original works.

“It’s got to be done, that’s the way I look at it,” he says. “We have to be out here doing bold, exciting things.”

Not to mention, if “Scandalous!” does land on Broadway at some point, the theater world will know who had it first. “From here, wherever “Scandalous!” goes, it will always be on the first page of the score: ‘U.S. premiere at Jefferson Performing Arts Center,’ ” Assaf says.

Bailey is working to persuade several New York producers to attend the premiere of “Scandalous!”

“I’m not saying this is make or break, I’m not giving up on this, whatever happens,” he says. “But if producers do come down, it’s a chance to get this to Broadway or back to London, or on tour.”

Mel Marvin, resident composer and director at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, says it’s not unusual for plays to launch toward Broadway from small regional theaters. “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” for instance, came out of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, as did Marvin’s own musical version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“I think New Orleans is a great place to open something commercial and bring some people in to see what you’re doing,” Marvin says.
But he warns that “it’s a tricky time” on Broadway. For one thing, corporate producers now predominate. Take Disney, with “The Little Mermaid,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King.” The kinds of splashy productions and technical wizardry that attract today’s audiences require mega-bucks to stage, Marvin says.

Also, getting a theater in New York is harder than it once was, “and the money is simply not there the way it used to be,” Marvin says.

Last year, just 13 new musicals opened on the Street of Dreams. One of the shows closed within a few weeks of its opening, another went dark within a few days. It’s hard to predict what the coming year may bring on Broadway, “but right now there’s a crisis,” Marvin says.

Even in the face of a sour economy, Bailey believes “Scandalous!” has a future. “People think it’s Broadway or nothing, but you can have a very successful enterprise by going on tour,” he says. “We’re looking at all options.”

In addition, Bailey says that even as the U.S. debut of “Scandalous!” approaches he is working on other musicals. “I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket.”

Local audiences soon will have a chance to make their own judgment about “Scandalous!” The musical opens on March 21.•

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