If things had gone as planned for the musical version of Sleepless in Seattle at the Pasadena Playhouse, writer Jeff Arch would be celebrating the show’s one-year anniversary this month. Instead, the musical, directed by Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director Sheldon Epps, with music and lyrics by Ben Toth and Sam Forman, opens this Sunday and runs through June 23.
“Had the show we had last year at this time been put up, it wouldn’t have succeeded,” says Arch, who wrote the original story and co-wrote the screenplay with director Nora Ephron and David S. Ward for the 1993 romantic comedy film. “We knew there were problems. There were some not-quite-there moments, and some this-is-just-the-wrong-direction moments. The book and story have stayed true. The musical treatment and direction of the story have changed, but all for the better.”
Arch and his business partner David Shor, the musical’s producer, have been the only two consistent players in the project’s eight-year history.
“No one told me it was going to be eight years,” Arch says. “If they said, eight years, three directors, three music teams, hijacking attempts and rewrites like you can’t believe, I might have said no. Thank God I didn’t know.”
Arch sits in the Makineni Library upstairs from the Pasadena Playhouse. At first glance, you might mistake him for Richard Dreyfuss. It’s the end of April, and this is where he’ll be six days a week until opening night. Despite the show’s setbacks to get here, he’s overjoyed with the current cast and creative team and already dreading the day the show closes.
In 2008, the American Film Institute listed Sleepless in Seattle as the tenth best romantic comedy of all time. It’s a love story about two people who don’t meet until the final scene. Sam is a widower and single father living in Seattle. Annie is a reporter in Baltimore who is engaged to Walter. When Sam’s son, Jonah, convinces his father to talk about how much he misses his late wife Maggie on a radio talk show, scores of women fall in love with Sam, including Annie. She writes him a letter suggesting the two meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
Eight years ago, when David Shor found out that Sony Pictures and Arch equally owned the stage rights to Sleepless in Seattle, Arch was game to make a musical. He just didn’t plan on spending the next eight years trying to get it to the stage.
“There were times — when money came in and people were saying this isn’t going to work for us,” says Arch, “that I offered, and said ‘if it’s the book, if it’s me, I’ll go, if that’s what it takes to get this thing to the next level.’ But nobody took me up on it.”
Since the night in January 1990 when the idea for Sleepless in Seattle first came to Arch, who was a karate teacher in Virginia at the time with two young children, the story has always been like the third kid in his family. And “a parent just doesn’t insist on things when they’re not what the kid really needs,” says Arch.
“I needed to be led by someone who has musical theater in their blood,” he continues. “And they have staging instincts like I have story instincts. They know how to translate [the story] into a moving, singing, blended thing on stage.”
The role of director has changed over the years, from Joel Zwick to Lonny Price and now Sheldon Epps. The musical team switched hands from Oscar- and Grammy-winning writer-composer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse to the team of Michelle Citrin, Michael Garin and Josh Nelson to the current duo of Ben Toth and Sam Forman.
“We’ve had some really low moments,” says Arch. “One-and-a-half years ago, I had to strip out all of the music and refashion the book with no music cues. I broke the script into 18 scenes that absolutely had to happen for this story to be understood. [We got] a new music team and a new director. The new music team survived the process, the director didn’t. I knew all along Sheldon is the guy. Just like it happens in the story — when it’s the one, you know it’s the one. With Sheldon, we’re finding the musical moments more organically.”
Ben Toth and Sam Forman sort of popped up out of the blue. They had heard about the Sleepless in Seattle project and decided to musicalize a scene from the movie. Their agent submitted the audition song to Arch and Shor.
“They musicalized the first phone call scene from the movie and did a great job,” says Arch. “I talked to [Ben] on the phone, and we were talking about a different scene, and he played music for it. I could see we were each other’s voice. We are each other’s musical sounding board. He respects the story. Everyone on this show seems to get it that we’re all at the service of the story. It’s a comforting thing. It’s not always like that. Most people are pushing their own agendas as far as they can.”
Arch didn’t actually meet Toth until March. They wrote the whole show together on Skype from three to four different locations at any given time. In the musical, 80-90% of the material is new, even though to Arch, it doesn’t feel that way.
“To have the same characters to write for 20 years later is just incredible,” Arch says. “I was 35 with an infant and 4 ½-year-old. Before, it was about how I needed to convince myself that you could live a destiny instead of a life. So I wrote this story. I didn’t have any idea that that’s why I was writing it, but that’s where I was in my life. I had done everything all three characters had done. [The story is about] two people who meet on top of Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, but underneath it was this whole thing that I had done: shrugging off a normal life, stepping off the cliff, not knowing if there was going to be something to carry me or not. And 20 years later, I did the same thing, and the story was here waiting for me. I’ve created hundreds of characters since then, but nothing like those three. They’re part of me.”
Sleepless in Seattle touches on themes of disappointment, heartbreak and having to find a way out of it. According to Arch, the musical is like a 90-minute therapy session.
“There’s a spell it puts people in,” says Arch. “All the years I was failing at this thing [screenwriting], I was asking the wrong question. I was asking, how can I write movies and get famous so that people will think that I’m fascinating and do lots of interviews? That’s called being in your 20s. With this one [Sleepless in Seattle], I asked a different question the night I thought of it. How do I get two people in Finland to walk out of a movie theater holding hands?”
Arch hopes his “Sleepless” magic extends to the theatergoers at the Pasadena Playhouse. “I want to create the kind of thing where they don’t want to step off the curb when this thing is over because they don’t want to break the spell,” Arch says.
“I want to get in your brain. I want to get in your DNA. Make you take the leap. Don’t settle. Honor yourself. All of the things I did, and it paid off. There’s not a lot you can tell me about what’s impossible. I wrote a love story where the people don’t meet. And it got made. And it’s a hit. Tell me what’s impossible.”
Sleepless in Seattle, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91101. Opens Sunday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through June 23. Tickets: $30-$145. pasadenaplayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.
**All Sleepless in Seattle production photos by Jim Cox.