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by Timothy Kuryak
We all know the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." But after sitting down and speaking with the creative team behind the new stage musical, "Dorian," which is making its West Coast debut at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood, I think the same saying could be used to describe the creation of a musical. It certainly takes a village, and perhaps even more.
The creative team of "Dorian," which consists of James James J. Mellon (co-book writer, co-composer, co-lyricist), Scott DeTurk (co-composer, co-lyricist) and Duane Poole (co-book writer) are certainly an energetic bunch. Even though they had been open less than a week, and were about to start a rehearsal where they were going to implement some slight changes to the piece, they were all anxious to talk about how they came to finally present their production in Los Angeles, almost 10 years after James Mellon first began adapting the famous Oscar Wilde novel, "The Portrait of Dorian Gray."
James Mellon credits his Aunt with giving him the inspiration to adapt the famed novel. He offered to stay home with her one night to keep her company, and she had rented the film, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." As the end credits rolled she exclaimed, "Now that's a musical." James, always a fan of the book, agreed and began writing the show.
James, however, was no stranger to the world of musical theatre, having been Riff in the Broadway production of "West Side Story," as well as having worked for some of Broadway's greatest directors, from Jerome Robbins to Michael Bennet, Hal Prince to George Abbott. So in 1995, after working with another collaborator, James presented a workshop of "Dorian" in New York City, where he invited friends and colleagues to hear his work.
Stephen Schwartz was in attendance, and after hearing the piece pulled James aside and told him, "You've got two great songs, but" - and it was big but - "throw everything else out."
Those two songs, which are still in the show today, were enough of a driving force for James to continue working on the show. But when he moved to Los Angeles, he put the piece aside until he met fellow composer DeTurk, who listened to the piece and told him, "You're crazy if you don't do something with this."
But back then, the show was completely different than the self-described Rashomon- type story as it appears on stage today. It was a completely different show, recalls Mellon, more of a "musical comedy."
So DeTurk came aboard and began to write with Mellon. Despite sometimes being on opposite coasts, the two would work on songs, and sometimes when apart, without knowing it, would compose essentially the same song. Mellon recalls a time when he called DeTurk saying, "I have a song," and DeTurk would say the same thing. They would both play what they had written for each other, and "it was the same, except for a few notes."
After preparing another version of the show for a 2001 reading in New York, it wasn't until after a few days into rehearsals that they realized that the show needed a rewrite. "It didn't flow . . . the characters weren't flushed out," they recalled. And it was then that they decided to shift the show's locale to New Orleans. This change in location gave them a great many creative possibilities, that were flushed out when Duane Poole, a successful M.O.W. writer (but lover of musicals) joined the team, and did a complete rewrite of the book.
Poole credits Mellon, however, with being a generous partner, both as a writer and director, adding that the show was almost "written by itself."
After the reading in New York at the Lambs Theatre, the musical angels of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts swooped in and agreed to produce a fully staged production, as a co-production with Randy Weeks and Denver Center Productions.
While some critics acclaimed the piece, Mellon himself was not fully pleased with the show. "It was very traditional," and in some ways, "too safe." He was disillusioned somewhat with the piece, because it didn't take many risks, instead following a very safe, tried and true linear, book-musical story arc.
"The problem with Dorian, if you go back to the original book is that he is selfish with a selfish wish – he wants to be young," said Mellon. A selfish protagonist, however, doesn't make for a compassionate lead character that the audience can feel for. So the team decided to focus not on the youth of Dorian, but on his absence of pain, which is perpetuated by today's society. Society has a number of ways for people to avoid reality and to feel a kind of false emotion, whether through drugs, sex or shopping to name a few. These are all vices in some ways that people use as a way to avoid feelings, or to deal with emotion. It was this element, the author's felt, would help propel the story of Dorian forward.
To achieve this, a bit of Dorian's back-story was introduced. So now, in the first scene of the musical, we learn that Dorian's mother killed herself. In a touching song called "You Can Save Me," Young Dorian signs to a portrait of his mother, longing to have someone to love, care for, protect and nurture him. It is an effective way to begin the show, and immediately hooks the audience.
It wasn't until 2003, when a revised reading was held at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, that the team realized that all their hard work had paid off. Even an executive with the Denver Center, how hadn't been a strong fan of the show when it played Denver, thought the new show was better than some of the shows he had seen that week on Broadway.
Other presenters, as well, loved the new work, and clamored to get it for their theatres. But Mellon was nervous. Although they reaction was powerful, and it was exciting to have people really connect to the piece, he worried that it might not be right for some of the 2800 seat theatres he was being offered.
And he's right. The show itself is much more like a chamber piece than a typical chorus driven show. More "Passion"-like than "The Phantom of the Opera."
So they set up shop in the beautifully restored NoHo Arts Center, where even today, they admit, "We're not done."
It is an ongoing journey, and a never-ending creative process for the authors, for even from this new production they have learned that while Act One focuses on Dorian, Act Two, "is about the portrait." And what really became a focal point, and what is one of the strongest elements of the show, is that the portrait is played an actor.
I know I was nervous when I was sitting in the audience watching the show, somewhat horrified that there would be a "Jekyll & Hyde" moment, where there would be a duet between Dorian and the portrait. However, the moment when Dorian and the Portrait do sing to each other is perhaps the strongest part of the show. It breaks your heart and truly, finally, helps you – as well as Dorian – clearly see his pain.
"We're going to keep going . . . there are still things to fix," the team admits.
And true to their word, the actors began to drift in for a quick one-hour rehearsal, where they were going to begin to work on some changes in the ongoing evolution of "Dorian – the Musical."
"Dorian – The Musical," is currently playing at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., in North Hollywood, CA, through November 21, 2004. It stars Max von Essen ("Dance of the Vampires") as Dorian, and Kevin Bailey ("The Lion King" – Los Angeles) as Henry Lord, the portrait artist. Go to TheatreMania.com for information on tickets and performance dates and times.