LA STAGE Times was given permission to witness the process Dangerous Beauty underwent in the final months leading up to itsÂ premiereÂ at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 13. This is the final installment of 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. Click here to read Part I: Academia to Hollywood or Part II: Couture Costumed Courtesans.
Dangerous Beauty director Sheryl Kaller has a favorite mantra she likes to impart after making adjustments or giving notes: That is a change and change is good. The phrase could easily be a de facto motto for the musical’s 10-year journey from first note to its February 13 Pasadena Playhouse premiere.
Written by Jeannine Dominy, with lyrics by Amanda McBroom, music by Michele Brourman and helmed by 2010 TonyÂ nominee Kaller (Next Fall), it stars Jenny PowersÂ as Franco alongside principal cast members James SnyderÂ as Marco, Bryce RynessÂ as Maffio, Laila RobinsÂ as Paola, Michael RupertÂ as Domenico, Megan McGinnisÂ as Beatrice, John AntonyÂ as Pietro and Morgan WeedÂ as Giulia.
The musical is adapted from Dominy’s screenplay for the 1998 New Regency film Dangerous Beauty and sourced from Margaret F. Rosenthal’s 1992 scholarly tome The Honest Courtesan about famous 16th century Venetian poet/courtesan Veronica Franco. Her rise and fall within Venice’s literary salon society became a happy-ending love story in Hollywood’s hands rather than the strongly feminist tale originally envisioned by both women. Despite being considered a box office dud, the movie later became a cult favorite among college-age women via cable showings and DVD.
Composer Brourman estimates she and longtime collaborator McBroomÂ easily penned 50 songs, including several elaborate opening numbers, trying to craft a new female empowerment tale for Franco. First-time book writer DominyÂ drafted untold revisions since the show’s 2004 debut at the West Coast ASCAP Workshop, whereÂ an embryonic first act drew encouraging words fromÂ a panel led by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked). All admit their first attempt too closely mirrored its cinematic predecessor.
Still, McBroom says she had to convince Dominy to keep some of the movie’s romance intact. “For much of the time we were working together, Jeannine said, “˜This is not a love story, it’s a story about a woman discovering herself,’” divulges the singer/songwriter and cabaret legend over lunch in Ojai. “And we said, “˜Jeannine, if it’s not a love story we can’t write this show.’ She really wanted to take it back to what she had originally wanted: the story of a very political, much empowered woman. Marco [the movie’s love interest] was an asshole and the men don’t really count for much. Because I’m a romantic, I kept saying, “˜Oh no, no, no. I’ve got to like him. Trust me, I’ve written two other musicals. If they don’t like the guy, we’re screwed.’”
Kaller came on board by invitation of veteranÂ producer and former Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Susan Dietz just prior to the show’s next reading in 2005 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theater, which featured current Pasadena cast member Ryness as Marco. Since then, the director has acted as both the dramaturge and primary engine behind Beauty’s transformation through ensuing presentations at Vassar College’s New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Theatre Season in 2005, the National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s (NAMT) Festival of New Musicals in 2006, a four-week mounting at Northwestern University’s American Musical Theatre Project in August 2008 and a final spring 2010 workshop in New York.
“It feels important to me to speak to how beautifully these writers let me in,” says Kaller, via phone from her New Jersey home following an LA casting session in October. “How the three of them really allowed me to become part of the creative process, which was the same with Geoffrey Nauffts on Next Fall as well. Hopefully we’ll come to as good a result as we had with that.”
“We didn’t have a script yet,” explains Brourman of those early workshop years over tea at her Venice home. “Even if we had, the one we would have gotten from Jeannine at that moment in time would have been very close to the movie script. It took us all these years to deconstruct pieces of that. All of us having to let go of whatÂ we thought the story should be and asking, “˜What does it really want to be?’ Telling it the way the movie told it isn’t going to serve us.”
Brourman says the new concept shifted primary focus to the floating city’s star attractions. “If you were a courtesan in Venice at that moment, you were educated, you were powerful, you were a goddess. Those women were painted. They were sculpted. Those amazing icons you see on buildings, even now in Venice, it was the courtesans who posed for them. It wasn’t the wives. So the story we are telling goes from a moment when courtesans were at their peak of power to when they were stripped of it. And the city that made them glorious lost everything after the war, the plague and the Inquisition. We had to show that change — to make it different musically, lyrically and tonally.”
A new catalyst in the show’s musical evolution was the addition of vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo (Spring Awakening, Next to Normal) who was brought onboard after the Northwestern workshop. Audience response to a single rock song in the show revealed the need for an edgier sound, a Milazzo trademark. Dietz calls her a “freaky genius girl” because of the Grammy nominee’s instinctual ability to lay down intricate vocal tapestries without being able to read music. “She is amazing,” concurs Brourman. “Everything she does grows out of content. Her vocals grow out of the story; they grow out of the character. She is so organic and theatrical.”
“You’d have to have a lobotomy not to want to be in a room with AnnMarie Milazzo is all I can add to that,” laughs Kaller, who wants to address the issue of courtesans as sexual heroines raised by Brourman. “It’s important to me to speak to Veronica’s story through the political, social and religious repression she had to live through. We are absolutely advocating for sexual freedom. At that time in 16th century Venice, women had to have sex in order to be able to read. They had to become courtesans to read. Wives were only allowed to read the Bible. So there certainly was a price to pay for that.
“I think we’re celebrating what these women did. In the same way womenÂ in the ’60s, the suffragettes before them, opened up a lot of doors for us. I definitely believe these courtesans opened up a lot of doors for modern-day women. I don’t think we are celebrating the Pollyanna viewpoint of it. We are really clear these women were beaten. We’re really clear about the fact these women aged out at 40. Hello, Hollywood. I guess we’re doing it at the right time.”
The Road to Pasadena
When McBroom originally brought the idea for turning Beauty into a musical to then-Canon Theatre producer Dietz in 2001,Â the producer sawÂ a “metaphor for AIDS because of the plague. The right wing and its blaming of the person they consider a sexual deviant. I watched the DVD in the spring before 9/11, but there were already Christian versus Muslim conflicts in the news.”
It took Dietz and co-producer Paula Holt four years to get the theatrical rights from New Regency despite Dietz’s friendship with New Regency’s then-president Gail Berman. The company’s lawyers had no experience with theatrical contracts. There were also personnel shifts and changes. Dietz admits the road to Pasadena has been a long one.
She says, “When you work on something like this, at every juncture you think–because I’m also working on other things–if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll let it go. You begin to wonder how much can I keep investing in this, and every single time it got better. Every single time we did it, it was like, oh. This could be something. It’s not there yet but you could see it. Like a painting you keep looking at and looking at and finally you see a figure in there you didn’t see. Some things just grab you in the gut and make you want to keep going. That’s what kept me engaged.”
As to why Kaller continued to shepherd the DB flock throughout the years, she says, “First, the creative team keeps me in the room. This group of people is just so ever evolving. Every time we present it we get it smarter, better and more entertaining, which I think is very atypical. When you work on a show a lot for a long period of time, sometimes you take three steps forward, four steps back. We don’t. We keep moving forward and moving forward.
“What I do know is every time we present or perform Dangerous Beauty, we transform peoples’ lives. We’ve had women leave their husbands. Their boyfriends. We make them aware of things they weren’t thinking or feeling that day. We allow them to go on a ride with Jenny Powers that is so special and that’s why I keep on doing it.”
Channeling Veronica Franco
Perhaps no oneÂ understands the journey of Veronica Franco better than the woman who has embodied her for more than five years. Broadway veteran Jenny Powers (Little Women, Grease) began playing the role at Â the 2005 Vassar workshop and has traveled with it through every subsequent incarnation. She and Megan McGinnis were appearing in Little Women when her agent called to say the film was being made into a musical. It was one of Powers’ favorites and a hit among her Tri Delta sorority sisters at Northwestern.
“On a rainy night in Chicago, a girlfriend of mine says, let’s rent a movie,” relates the trim, curly- andÂ raven-haired beauty over salad at Hugo’s in West Hollywood last October. “Have you ever seen Dangerous Beauty? I said no. Oh my God. So she rents the film at Blockbuster and we watch it in our big den room. It started with just the two of us and ended up with 35 women all crying at the end. They just trickled down from their rooms. Amazing. My little sister watches it for therapy whenever she needs a pick-me-up. She finds it so empowering.”
Director Kaller relates the story of Powers’ audition to the Pasadena Playhouse cast on the first day of rehearsals in late December 2010. “We were at Ripley-Grier Studios on 8th Avenue and 38th Street when Jenny walked through the door. I whispered to the musical director, Brad Haak, “˜God, I hope she can sing.’ Brad very smartly did not share with me that he knew her. Her radiance was palpable. She walked into that room and I said, “˜There’s Veronica Franco.’ She sang and it was unbelievable. I said, “˜Oh God, I hope she can act.’ And she read the scenes and I said, “˜Yeah, she’s good.’”
Unfortunately Powers was still committed to Little Women, as was McGinnis who was being considered for Beatrice, Veronica’s childhood friend. Kaller knew the Louisa May Alcott musical’s attendance numbers were down and held out for the duo. As days went by, the workshop producersÂ began to get nervous and pressured her to make new choices. Three weeks before the workshop,Â Kaller was told to pleaseÂ move on to other actresses.Â That afternoon, the anticipated announcement finally materialized –Â Little Women was going to close.
Powers tells the assembled Pasadena cast, “There really aren’t words for today. The Dangerous Beauty dream team. As the Powers family would say, we’re going to slam dunk this.” McGinnis admits she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I thought this day would never come.”
Later Powers admits thatÂ the delays allowed her to grow into a stronger actress and performer. She stepped into another Broadway role as Rizzo in Grease, married Broadway star Matt Cavanaugh (West Side Story, A Catered Affair), traveled to the Middle East and grew up. “I was not the woman I am now. I’m a much more open and empathetic human being, which makes for a far richer and deeper performance.”
A former Miss Illinois, Powers is well versed in Dangerous Beauty’s message of self- empowerment through education. During her one-year reign, she delivered a similar one to school kids of all ages throughout the state. “[Chicago] Mayor Daley was so excited about it because I was basically preaching about the importance of the arts and education. His big thing was character education. To me it’s the same thing the arts do. To fulfill those duties was really empowering for me, to lend my visibility in that way. And like Dangerous Beauty will hopefully do, inspire these kids to live out their dreams, make bold choices and take big risks.”
Powers took a risk in 2008 leaving Grease to return to the Windy City and her alma materÂ in order to tackle Franco a third time under Kaller’s direction (Powers’ second workshop wasÂ NAMT in 2006). “There is something about Veronica’s courage and her honesty, how real that character feels and how timely this piece is, that sits so deeply in me. Even when I went to do Dangerous Beauty in Chicago at Northwestern, I didn’t regret leaving my Broadway paycheck, despite knowing it was really just a workshop production. I always gain so much from digging into Veronica and working with Sheryl. I think everyone who gets to work with her grows.”
“You cannot put Jenny Powers in the chorus of a show!” Kaller emphasizes. “There’s too much “˜power’ there. I’m not saying people who are in ensembles aren’t brilliant, wonderful and talented, but it’s a different energy. Jenny sucks the air out of the room. Her energy is exhausting, beautifully exhausting.”
Powers needs all she can muster since her character appears on stage 90% of the show, aging from a 16-year-old girl to a late 20s courtesan. At the Pasadena Playhouse production, she must undergo numerous costume changes, then navigate Tom Buderwitz’s elaborate two-level Venetian set complete with water-filled canals, stairs, balconies and walkways. In the process, Powers sings several key solos and duets, dances Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s elaborate choreography and, to top it off, fences with co-star Bryce Ryness during a poetry duel. She credits fight choreographer Brian Danner and Ryness with making it seem real.
“Even though it looks like he is going in for the kill, Bryce has my back and is in complete control,” Powers stresses on Monday, her first day off since performing the show with two matinees for the first time that past weekend. “I’ve worked hard to be in control and in sync with him as well but I also want to beat him! Â Our “˜Poetry Duel’ is bad-ass! That’s evident in the reactions, the wincing and gasps, from the cast on stage. I think this number fully embodies the “˜dangerous’ in Dangerous Beauty.“
When asked how she survived her first full week of previews, Powers exclaims, “I am alive! Because of the physical, emotional, vocal and spiritual demands of this role, I didn’t know if it was humanly possible to execute it eight shows a week. So far, the most challenging part has been some of the technical elements, like trusting the sound system to carry me and not pushing because I have a lot to sing. Or trusting all my costume and wig changes will be successful so I can just ride the ride.”
Riding the ride also means escaping into the music, which Powers says is more than merely thrilling to sing–it is completely transportive. “I can’t just sing those songs, I experience those songs. I sing not just with my voice, I sing with my heart. I sing with my pelvis. I sing with every chakra because the music demands it and the story demands it. What I love about the score is you have to sing it with your entire being.”
As for how she keeps her energy up, Powers says other than eating and sleeping, she is “Dangerous Beautying” all the time. “Between my dressers, the cast and the creatives, I have an incredible support network on and off stage.Â They all “˜feed’ me. And, I do eat a lot! Steak has become a staple. The zinc and amino acids are good for my voice and counter-balance all the adrenaline I’m using.”
Laila Robins plays Veronica’s mother Paola, a pivotal influence in Franco’s initiation into courtesan life. She thinks Powers has the right sort of intensity for the part. “You don’t just want to put any sort of pretty girl into the role,” she emphasizes in the green room backstage during tech week. “Jenny’s got this kind of fierceness about her. She’s tough.Â It’s a good thing for the role. My God, she’s a triple threat and yet such a generous person. It’s a delight to be her mom because ours has become such a very sweet relationship. She’s like really becoming my daughter.”
When told of Robins’ remarks, Powers returns the affection. “I love Laila and am beyond grateful to have her as a scene partner and “˜my mama’ through this process. Â She is a consummate actress and such a beautiful singer. This is her first musical! She has been an invaluable support and inspiration to me both on and off stage.”
Kaller and Dietz say it is Powers and McGinnis who have acted as team captains of this company, setting a tone of inclusiveness and camaraderie.
“In my experience, cast bonding, chemistry and morale are vital,” Powers stresses. “All of us take care of each other and cheer for one another both on and off stage. We’re in this together. I wish I had more energy and time to throw game nights and bake goodies for everyone. My mother recently asked me if I had baked my “˜Maui Wowee Bars’ for the cast. I said, “˜Mom, first I need to bake the show!’”
Dangerous Beauty, presented by the Pasadena Playhouse by special arrangement with Susan Dietz and Tara Smith in association with Sara Katz, opens Feb. 13; plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm and 7 pm; through March 6. Tickets: $49-$100. Previews through Feb. 12. Rush tickets available for $15 one hour prior to performance and subject to availability. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, 91101. Visit or call box office at 626-356-7529 or online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.