by ASHLEY STEED
[dropcap]Celebrating[/dropcap] the power of imagination, the 10th anniversary season of MainStreet Theatre Company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga continues with Mirette, a musical adaptation of Emily Arnold McCully’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, Mirette on the High Wire, running through May 8.
Set in 1890s Paris in a boarding house for circus performers, the story centers on a retired high wire walker forced out of seclusion when a precocious young girl, Mirette, convinces him to teach her the high wire.
Playwright Elizabeth Diggs first began crafting McCully’s book as a theatrical musical in the late 1990s. She knew McCully from their student days at Brown University, and when McCully’s book came out in 1993, the two discussed the possibility of adapting it for the stage. Diggs called Tom Jones (who, with composer Harvey Schmidt, wrote The Fantasticks), and asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on the musical.
“Without missing a beat, he said yes,” Diggs says. “We met every week. Typically Tom would write the lyrics and then Harvey would write the music.” They developed the piece over two years with the Sundance Playwrights Lab.
“It’s such a beautiful story that I think is universal,” says Diggs. “As a teacher [at NYU in dramatic writing], I really responded to the idea of the teacher and gifted pupil relationship.”
MainStreet had considered the musical early on in its residency at the Lewis Family Playhouse, but producing artistic director Mireya “Murry” Hepner felt that the show’s original length of two hours was too long for its young audiences.
Then Hepner reconsidered. One of the theater’s themes for the season is the performing arts, and Mirette is a story “about not only the joy [of performing],” she says, “but the struggle. It’s about a girl and her teacher and taking risks for what you love,” but it’s also “about artists, and I love that aspect of it and sharing that with kids.”
Hepner emailed Diggs to ask if she would consider reducing the musical to 60 minutes. They met at a Theatre Communications Group conference, sat down with the script and began to make cuts that resulted in a tighter focus on Mirette and her teacher.
Once they were happy with the script, Hepner hired musical director Janice Rodgers Wainwright, a veteran of six previous MainStreet productions, to match the music to the abridged narrative.
“I was handed a score that had 332 pages of music,” Wainwright says, laughing. “This is been my life’s work for the past month.” She elaborates, “I didn’t want the show to sound dissected or choppy, so I’ve had to find musical transitions and keep the integrity of the music… I don’t want anyone to ever come out of the magic of the show.” Wainwright was still working on the music four nights before opening.
Defying expectations, Hepner’s concept of a condensed Mirette delighted the playwright.
“I thought it looked much better than the longer version,” Diggs notes. “This version is more focused. Tom Jones, the lyricist, said he agreed that this is the best version thus far.”
Since its inception in 2006, MainStreet Theatre Company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga has provided family audiences, and many thousands of school children, with the opportunity to experience quality live theatre for the first time. For the past 10 years, Hepner has been single-handedly producing three shows a year, including numerous premieres — among them, the 2013 world premiere of Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga by Luis Alfaro.
MainStreet productions have garnered two LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards, and the company maintains a robust outreach program for underserved populations. (Most of the students who will attend Mirette during its 20 scheduled school performances will have never been to a theatre before.)
It was when Hepner was touring the U.S. and Australia as company manager with legendary mime Marcel Marceau that she says she learned about the power of family-oriented programming.
“Those shows were very sophisticated. They weren’t necessarily for kids, but we would have three generations coming to the shows.
“Kids are really smart,” she adds emphatically — and theatre, she feels, should treat them that way.
NOW PLAYING: MIRETTE at MainStreet Theatre Company, through May 8.
Mirette is the story of a young girl in 1890s Paris who convinces a retired high wire artist to teach her his trade, and in turn teaches him to overcome his own fear.
Editor’s Note: Full disclosure — two individuals associated with our umbrella organization, LA STAGE Alliance, are involved in Mirette. Murry Hepner sits on the Ovation Rules Committee, and performer Mark Doerr is LASA’s Technology Programs Manager.