Mounting a new musical work is a long and often arduous process requiring an unflagging commitment on the part of its creators. LA STAGE Times was given permission to witness the process Dangerous Beauty underwent in the final months leading up to its world premiere opening at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 13, 2011. This is the first in a three-part series of articles prepared via interviews with producers, the creative team and cast, as well as onsite reporting that began with the first group sales presentation in October 2010.
January 2011. It’s been a balmy 76 degrees in Pasadena, the kind of weather Tournament of Roses Parade promoters have touted since the Valley Hunt Club dreamed up the now iconic event in 1890 to sell their snowbound East Coast brethren on wintering in the “Mediterranean of the West.” The moniker is particularly prophetic as competing sets of street light banners currently line the city’s Arroyo Parkway promoting two shows set in Renaissance Italy: “Beauty & Power” at The Huntington and the world premiere ofÂ Dangerous Beauty at the Pasadena Playhouse.
While the Huntington exhibition deals with bronze sculptures, its title neatly encapsulates the dueling themes running beneath the playhouse’sÂ musical depiction of the famous 16thÂ century Venetian courtesan/poet Veronica Franco. TheÂ February 13 opening of Dangerous Beauty officially signifies the rebirth of the recently bankrupt Pasadena Playhouse as a producing entity.
Written by Jeannine Dominy, with lyrics by Amanda McBroom, music by Michele Brourman and directed by Tony Award nominee Sheryl Kaller (Next Fall), it stars Jenny Powers (Grease) as Franco. Other principalÂ cast members are James Snyder (Crybaby) as Marco, Bryce Ryness (Hair) as Maffio, Laila Robins (Heartbreak House) as Paola, Michael Rupert (Sweet Charity) as Domenico, Megan McGinnis (Daddy Long Legs) as Beatrice, John Antony (Passion) as Pietro and Morgan Weed (Next to Normal) as Giulia.
Franco’s rise and fall withinÂ Venice’s literary salon society was, until recently, an obscure historical footnote. Â She reigned as both a star attraction and anÂ acclaimed confidante to the floating city’s most powerful men. ButÂ war with the Turks, bubonic plaque and the Inquisition conspired to strip her of both position and property.
The 1992 publication of Margaret F. Rosenthal’s award-winning scholarly biography The Honest Courtesan ignited a modern-day fascination with her story, which led to a 1998 film entitled Dangerous Beauty, written by Dominy and starring Catherine McCormack, Jacqueline Bisset, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt and Fred Ward. Though not considered a commercial box office success, the movie developed a cult following in the ensuing years especially among young college-age women such as future DB producer and Tony nominee Tara Smith (Xanadu, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, The Seagull).
Lyricist/singer/songwriter McBroom (Golden Globe winner for “The Rose”) caught the film during its initial release and instantly saw its potential as a musical in the genre of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. She asked singer/songwriter and longtime collaborator Michele Brourman (“My Favorite Year”) to confirm her judgment. After viewing the once fiercely feminist tale now squeezed into a sumptuous studio-sanctioned love story, Brourman agreed.
Three years later McBroom brought the project to veteran Los Angeles (Canon Theatre, Reprise Theatre Company) and New York producer Susan Dietz (three time Tony winner Fela!, The Little Dog Laughed, Topdog/Underdog). The two were longtime friends who had worked together doing Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin in repertory when Dietz was artistic director of the Playhouse from 1986-90.
Returning to the official state theater of California is a poignant homecoming for Dietz and McBroom, whose father David Bruce had performed there. So did DB cast member Michael Rupert — heÂ wrote the score and starred in the world premiere musical Mail during Dietz’s tenure (it later transferred to Broadway). RupertÂ also appeared on its stage as a teenager.
Dietz watched the film on DVD and asked the duo to write three songs. “Tapestry,” “The Art of Seduction” and “Art” were the initial result. The three women, along with then co-producer Paula Holt (LA’s Tiffany Theaters), invited Rosenthal to lunch to discuss musical rights and whether she thought screenwriter Dominy was the person to pen it. None realized at the time that a 10-year journey to the Playhouse had begun.
That it took a decadeÂ is indicative of the gauntlet musical theater developers must run today to put up new work. That Dangerous Beauty’s highly accomplished team of all-female producers and core creators should be inspired to doggedly shepherd a piece about a Renaissance courtesan/poet through an endless parade of readings and workshops signals a subject that has struck a deeply emotional resonance with everyone concerned.
Former co-stars of Broadway’s Little Women, Powers and McGinnis have remained devoted to the characters they originated during a Kaller-directed 2005 workshop at Vassar College’s New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Theatre Season, despite intervening projects. Two-time Emmy Award winning costume designer Soyon An (So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol), who makes herÂ theatrical costume debut with Dangerous Beauty, identifies with Franco’s self-made rise — she’s a media success story herself at age 29.
All are aware that having Franco’s 16th century tale of female empowerment via education and self determination re-emerge now,Â when honor killings or stonings, fear of Muslim terrorists and the political filibustering of right-wing fundamentalist Christians still make daily headlines, isÂ synchronistic.Â That its message should remain so shockingly contemporary is sobering. To the show’s creative team, Dangerous Beauty offers a sequel to the girls who grew up “Defying Gravity” with Wicked and who are now ready as young women to embrace Veronica Franco’s 11 o’clock number, “Confession.”
The Honest Courtesan
“I first became interested in Veronica Franco when I was a graduate student,” states The Honest Courtesan author Rosenthal, a professor of Italian at the University of Southern California. She’s atÂ a book-signing event held Monday night at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, standing alongside a panel featuring the DB team of Dietz, Brourman and Kaller. “If I had known then I was going to spend the next 30 years of my life thinking about Veronica Franco, I think my parents would have said, are you crazy?
“Every time I thought I was finished and declared I’m moving on to another part of my academic career, I’ve had the most wonderful opportunity to be pulled back into the creative world. No one I know who is an academic has had a major motion picture made from his or her PhD dissertation! Or had the opportunity to work with a creative team who is going to put on the stage, from a woman’s point of view, her life.”
Rosenthal was a graduate student at Yale in 1977 when she first discovered Franco, who became the dissertation topic that opened unforeseen doors to two books, the movie and now a musical.
“One of the things I love about Veronica Franco from the time I found her was that she understood our world as women is made up of not just women but of men,” Rosenthal emphasizes. “She wanted that world of men and women to live in mutual respect and reciprocity with one another. She wanted that more than anything else. She did not want to live as a woman separate and apart from the world. She wanted to be a part of the world.”
One of Franco’s lasting legacies involved empowering women less fortunate than herself. In 1577, she proposed to Venice’s city council that a halfway house for poor young women at risk for prostitution be established. It was not approved then, but later noblewomen took up Franco’s cause and ultimately created a charitable home called Casa delle Soccorso.
“Even when she became famous in her own day, Franco never forgot women who didn’t have a voice, who were up against the most extraordinary obstacles to being able to have a creative life or express themselves as she does so beautifully in her poems and letters.”
A Dangerous Beauty or Pretty Woman in Venice?
Another woman who had no idea she was about to undergo a 17-year journey with Veronica Franco was a young screenwriter named Jeannine Dominy.
Like Rosenthal, Dominy was also a Yale graduate, with a double major in English and History. She also studied theater and dramatic literature at U.C. Berkeley, and received an M.F.A from Columbia University Film School. Her first script, God’s Mistress, was a gender-bending medieval love story inspired by the legend of Pope Joan that won numerous screenwriting awards.
Sarah Kaplan, director of development at Bedford Falls Productions, Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick’s production company, had been handed a copy of Dominy’s script via CAA and wanted to work with her. Concurrently, Kaplan had also read an early copy of The Honest Courtesan and pitched the idea to Herskowitz. According to an interview with the director on the Veronica Franco Project website, she said: “Here’s a story: prostitute, brilliant poet, put on trial by the Inquisition and is acquitted.” His reply, “I’m making that movie!”
Kaplan sent Dominy stacks of coverage, prepared as possible Bedford Falls projects, and asked her toÂ look for one that might interest her. “In that stack I found one for Tita’s [Rosenthal’s] book, which was really surprising to me back then because I didn’t know they did movie coverage for academic books,” admits Dominy via phone from her NYC home where she was busy with re-writes for the stage musical. “It actually turned out not to be that accurate. But it was the one I liked and I said to Sarah, “˜Okay, I like this one.’Â Sarah’s lovely, and she at the time said, “˜Well, you know, period stuff is difficult but I like it plus Marshall and Ed have some interest in it.’
The two partners agreed to see if they could sell it if Dominy could come up with a pitch. “I then had to read Tita’s book, figure out how to write a three-act dramatic story that was translatable.Â I was a lit major, but figuring out how to sell it required a different way of thinking about the material. I hoped to be true to the spirit of this woman, but it required making up a lot because we don’t really know what conversations they were having behind closed doors back then. I had to collapse a tremendous amount. I also read other books on courtesans, Venice and the politics at the time, sort of a broader sweep of historical research, so I’d know what I was doing.”
The Bedford Falls team liked her pitch well enough that they flew Dominy out to do it. “I’d never been sort of shot around the studios to do a dog-and-pony show and try to sell something before. We did and New Regency bought the pitch that I wrote. That’s how it got started.”
According to Rosenthal, New Regency asked her to read Dominy’s script for God’s Mistress to see whether she thought her a good fit for Franco’s story. She thought it was great and that they should work with her. She also liked her first two drafts. “She got Veronica Franco the way I wanted it to be. There were things I knew she’d changed, because it wasn’t going to work visually or it would have been hard for the audience to understand, but they made sense to me.”
Dominy admits what was most difficult for her about writing Franco’s story was as someone raised to be fiercely independent and a feminist, sheÂ had to get her “head inside that of a woman who had to sleep with men for money. When I finally sat down to write it in 1994 I thought, “˜Oh good grief, what have I done?’ It took me a long squinting at this, trying to figure it out from this day and age. Imagine you live in a time when the only way you could be educated was to become a courtesan, what would you do?Â How would you look at it from that perspective? She had more lovers but in fact it’s no different than marriage was at that time.Â Perhaps it was a way to expose the hypocrisy involved in marital life as it was constituted back then.
“Even if you were a wife you were a prostitute because you were married as part of a contract. It was about money and land and status and power. One way to change the marriage side of that and what it did to women was to look at the other side. At least Veronica was to some degree freer. So that’s how I kind of got my head into it.Â And while I think some mothers at the time did very unfairly force their daughters into doing it, they also unfairly forced their daughters into hideous marriages.”
Dominy says what finally made it to the screen was a much happier, romanticized version of the story she wrote, which had a darker Amadeus-like ending. In Herskowitz’s version, Franco became a sexually liberated woman who offered an example to her modern-day contemporaries. The screenwriter knew something had changed when she arrived at Rome’s famous CinecittÃ studios, where the movie was beingÂ shot on some of Fellini’s old sets, and heard it being dubbed Pretty Woman in Venice.
“Marshall was a nice man, we just had a different sensibility,” emphasizes Dominy, who had originally envisioned a film in a more European styleÂ rather than a commercial Hollywood love story. “Some of us would joke on the back of the set at a certain point when it seemed to be getting too fluffy, ‘oh they’re going to turn it into a musical. They’re going to drag Jackie Bissett into Veronica’s bedroom for a song.’ So two years after the film came out, I get a call from Amanda McBroom to meet for coffee because she loved my movie. She sat down and said, ‘We want to make it a musical’.”
“I don’t remember if I laughed out loud but I know I started to crack up certainly, thinking, “˜Oh the universe is a bitch and has a wicked sense of humor.’ I love some musicals, but musical theaterÂ can also very easily lead you over towards the commercial and the simplistic unless you have a really good team together. Amanda asked if I was interested in writing the book. I thought to myself, “˜Well, the only thing potentially worse than writing the book to the musical on this is somebody else doing it.’Â So I said, ‘OK, but promise me no singing teapots.’”
To her surprise, over the course of the musical’s journey Dominy came to see that with this group of women, both her and Rosenthal’s original vision for Franco’s story was about to be more fully realized.
“Sheryl Kaller was brought on fairly early to direct and when she started talking about [Bertolt] Brecht, I thought OK, I have an ally!” Dominy laughs. “I began to realize that the universe had actually been kind, not wicked to me, because it may be that surprisingly enough, in musical theater we were going to be able to write much closer to the story I wanted than we had in the film. I was right to assume in most cases, a musical theater piece wouldn’t necessarily make it harder-edged. But in this case, we were able to figure out a way to find what Amanda had loved about the film but still infuse it with what I believed it should have been.”