Broadway Preview: A Tale Of Two Cities

Just two days after Bastille Day and the start of full-cast rehearsals, the cast and crew of the new musical version of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities flung wide the gates to their not-so-revolutionary French revolution-set show, allowing the press a sneak peek into the inner workings of the first Broadway opening of the fall season.

A Tale of Two Cities, with its grandeur and attention to historical detail, hearkens back to 80s and 90s megamusicals the likes of Les Miserables and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera in its scale. But in an era where high-profile shows like The Pirate Queen (by the songwriting team behind Les Miserables) and Lloyd Webber’s own The Woman in White – not to mention the recent adaptation of Gone With The Wind in the West End – can shutter without turning a profit, can big-budget shows like A Tale of Two Cities still count on grand sets and epic themes to sweep away Broadway audiences as in days of yore?

For one thing, it’s a show that’s had a long gestation period. After nine years of workshops and backers’ presentations, a studio cast recording, and a critically acclaimed out-of-town production last year at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, featuring much of the same cast, A Tale of Two Cities finally finds itself storming the gates of Broadway. Having had several false starts on the way to New York, with several projected opening dates come and gone, this time it’s for real. Accordingly, the cast and crew were more than excited to show off the latest incarnation of what cast member Nick Wyman describes as having developed from “garage band musical” status, a show hoping to prove itself as a literary adaptation worthy of notice and a standout amidst a sea of movie-to-musical productions opening this season, including high-profile musicals like Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Shrek The Musical, and London hit Billy Elliot.

The preview event for the press, held at the New 42nd Street Studios, began with a three-song musical presentation from the 38-member cast, led by musical director Kevin Stites. Vocal props are due to the musical’s Madame Defarge, powerhouse singer Natalie Toro, who made a particularly grand show of her anthemic Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Though the tunes seemed standard Les Mis-style fare, the cast presented the score winningly, acquitting the material without any major mishaps. Rousing anthems and touching ballads are what to anticipate, but what else could be expected from a two-and-a-half hour show about a revolutionary struggle, particularly one that condenses a 500-plus-page novel into a theatrical product deemed watchable for the theatergoing public?

Against criticisms that the show is too much like Les Mis, the cast and production team were quick to jump to its defense. Nick Wyman, who plays John Barsad, and who has played Thenardier in Broadway’s Les Mis, characterized the differences thusly: “Les Mis is basically a chase story. It’s about Valjean being chased by Javert. A Tale of Two Cities is basically a monster story with a love story drafted onto it. It’s about this monster – the French Revolution – which is coming to get the people we’ve grown to care about.” Wyman was also quick to extol the virtues of the show’s libretto, which he believes features more than enough well-written scenes for its actors to tackle. Les Mis, he said, as a sung-through show, relied on “suspension of disbelief,” describing the show’s attitude as, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you; I can only sing to you,” a quality he considers inapplicable to the book-heavy A Tale of Two Cities.

Ultimately, however, the production isn’t afraid of its passing resemblance to Les Miserables. After all, its executive producers, Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe are a husband and wife team who met while playing Cosette and Marius on Broadway. Russell welcomes certain comparisons to Les Miserables, at least in terms of its power to reach audiences. “When I left Les Mis for the first time,” she told me, “I left there almost shaking, because I was so moved. I laughed, I cried, so you have every aspect there.” James Barbour, who plays Sydney Carton in the musical, however, wrapped things up most succinctly. “If we could be as successful as Les Mis,” he exclaimed, “I’ll take it!”

Following the musical presentation, I spoke with several of the show’s actors, including Barbour, about their processes as actors trying to get at the hearts of their characters. Were they guided by the original novel by Charles Dickens, I asked them, or did they trust mainly in the script for the musical by first-time librettist Jill Santoriello? Barbour said that, while the cast had been consulting director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, making his Broadway debut with this daunting project, when in doubt, “We go back to Dickens’s words.”

“A Tale of Two Cities is basically a monster story with a love story drafted onto it. It’s about this monster – the French Revolution – which is coming to get the people we’ve grown to care about.” – Nick Whyman, who plays John Barsad.

Most of the cast said they had read the novel, some repeatedly, but that the book was far from their only theatrical guidepost. Kevin Earley, who plays Ernest Defarge in the show, cited the 300-page guidelines they’d been given by Carlyle in order to gain historical perspective on their characters’ lives, which Barbour claimed contain everything from hygiene to hairstyles. Divergently, Gregg Edelman, playing former Bastille prisoner Dr. Alexandre Manette in the show, has been taking a different, more modern approach, watching clips on YouTube of Nelson Mandela and those prisoners recently released from Colombian prisons. “I started with the physicality of it all,” he told me. “What’s it like when you’re in jail? Seventeen years in a cell; what would that be like?” Despite their respective character-honing methods, however, cast member Aaron Lazar summed up their faith in Santoriello’s script thusly: “In the end, you can do as much research as you want, but there’s only what’s on the page of this show.”

Though there are plenty of known quantities associated with the production, it may just be composer-lyricist-librettist Jill Santoriello whose work is most under scrutiny here. This show is her first venture onto the boards and her distinct chance to prove her dramatic and musical mettle. In the face of a potentially epic-shy public, however, is Santoriello nervous about how her show will fare on Broadway? “No,” she told me, “I feel very confident.” With no other projects on the back burner, Santoriello, who spent over a decade in original programming for Showtime Networks while writing and composing on the side, is staking nine years of preparation on this Broadway project. These characters are close to her heart, and she’s banking on her hopes that audiences will take home a sense of that same connection. In writing the musical, she’s tried to stay true to the spirit of Dickens. “I never consciously set out to change anything,” she told me. “I resisted any suggestions that I should take it out of the time period, that I should change the story, that I should make it something new and hip and fresh, setting it on Saturn or something.”

“I resisted any suggestions that I should take it out of the time period, that I should change the story, that I should make it something new and hip and fresh”
– Jill Santoriello.

After a chance to mingle with the cast and creative team, the press were taken by bus along with the cast in order to get a sense of the bigger picture of this gigantic show by viewing its spectacular set, designed by Tony Award-winning veteran designer Tony Walton, as it was being constructed in a Secaucus, NJ warehouse. The set, which Walton said took about 15 people to construct, was designed specifically to fit the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, which features a wider stage with less space in the wings than was available during the Sarasota run. Walton said the set draws inspiration from elements of the show’s twin cities. “From London, we took the skeleton of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre,” Walton told me, “and from Paris we took the skeleton of the Bastille. Coincidentally, those two skeletons are almost identical, so I kind of crushed them together and made this the essence of those two places as well as I could.” After introducing Walton to the cast, director Carlyle next asked the performers to explore the two-tiered 5-ton metal contraption. Not long after he had them rehearsing simple blocking and maneuvering the staircases and interlocking mechanisms of the set’s four separable metal pieces, which come together to form an overall circular formation.

It’s clear that, with all these grand machinations, A Tale of Two Cities has a lot riding on its success. Aaron Lazar summed up the pressures with a touch of irony. “C’mon, man,” he told me enthusiastically, “we have the smallest show on Broadway, the smallest cast on Broadway, we don’t open early on in the fall season, it’s not a 15-million dollar production, and it’s not an epic novel! It’s scary, but it’s exciting. If you’re going to do it, do it big!” Fittingly, there was a certain reluctance amongst the cast and creative team to place any bets on the viability of the production, but Nick Wyman, who knows the Broadway business inside out, having served on the board of Actors’ Equity, said it best. “The truth is, most Broadway shows flop,” he told me. “This one, I think it’s fantastic, but I’ve been with it so long, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. Who knows whether I have any perspective left, but I think I do. And I think it’s very good.” Well, I, for one, am glad to count myself amongst those lucky enough to have gotten an early taste of the Dickensian Kool-Aid. Though it remains to be seen just how desperate the struggle will be for tickets, if size is any indication, this Tale may just have some staying power. A year from now, who knows? We just might be singing, “Viva la Revolucion.” Ultimately, it’s up to the people to decide.

Read the musicOMH review of A Tale Of Two Cities here.

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