In 1989, William Finn wrote the musical "Romance in Hard Times" with the Joseph Papp's "musical laboratories." It was staged off-Broadway in the Public Theatre in the spring and fall. One of the leads won an Obie award, but each run lasted barely a month. It was never revived.
A quarter century later, Finn has returned to the show, bringing in a proven collaborator, Rachel Sheinkin. She wrote the book for his score of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which won two Tonys including Best Book and was already in its second production four years after its premier.
"I actually had never seen the original ["Romance in Hard Times"]," said director Joe Calarco. "But it's a legendary piece. People who saw it loved it... They talk about how much they loved the show and how they saw it three, five, seven times."
The new production of "Romance in Hard Times," like the first production of Spelling Bee, is taking place at the Barrington Stage Company, through their Musical Theatre Lab. Once again, Finn has written the score and Sheinkin the book.
"Romance in Hard Times" tells the story of a pregnant woman, played by Christina Acosta Robinson, who refuses to give birth to her child until she sees enough hope in the world to justify it.
"Do you respond to the world with hope or despair," Sheinkin asked, "when there are so many reasons to despair?"
According to the theater's press release says the musical's revival is "for new hard times," referring to the context of the recession.
"It's a show I've wanted to do for a long time," Finn said,. "Rachel's made sense of the whole thing."
By producing this show at the BSC's Musical Theatre Lab, they have abbreviated the process, going from their first full run-through Sunday to opening tonight. Actors did not receive the script until the night before the first rehearsal, and Finn and Sheinkin are still rewriting as rehearsals continue.
"They're going to have books in hand" for rehearsals, Sheinkin said. "They all knew what they were getting into though."
This sort of process provides advantages beyond expediency.
"You find what you hope are better answers," Sheinkin said. "When you can hear the words being spoken as you write them. You can immediately find out what is or isn't natural sounding."
"We'll be doing changes throughout the first week of performances at least," Calarco said. "[The audiences are] seeing a show that will be changing and they're part of that creative process by showing us what might be working well and what might still need to be clarified."
"[Finn] has such a strong voice," Sheinkin added. "To figure out how to frame it is a challenge, a fun challenge."
Acosta Robinson compared the show to her mother making dinner when she was a child. "We would have like four things in the cupboard. Popcorn, eggplant, jelly, just random things. By the end of the day we'd have this amazing dinner. She was such a good cook. We'd be eating leftovers for the next three days. That's what this feels like. Just a bunch of quirky things you donít think will go together, then they do. The audience is going to leave full."
Finn and Sheinkin have made a number of changes to the show for the new production beyond Sheinkin rewriting the dialogue.
"There was a love triangle at the center, and the audience didn't know which couple to root for," Sheinkin said, so they took out one of the couples entirely, clarifying the plot.
They've also "created a whole new character ... of a writer who is looking back at this piece that he wrote. How do you look back at your past and at what was perceived as a failure and move on from that? That is something everyone can relate to," Calarco said.
"The musical is about second chances," Sheinkin said.
Sheinkin and Robinson both said it's a difficult show because it is unusual. When Sheinkin was approached to work on the show, she said, she was told, "There's handcuffed sisters, a man who stopped talking, a woman who's 20 months pregnant and Eleanor Roosevelt in a soup kitchen."
"We're writing something that's not real -- but she makes it real," said Sheinkin.
"I have a 2-year-old child [and] a husband," Robinson said, but "the rest I just use my imagination. With really good writing like this it's easy to just live in the piece and see where it takes you."
If you go ...
What: Barrington Stage Company's ‘Romance in Hard Times'
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydell and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
When: Aug. 14 - Aug. 31
7:30 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday
3 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays, Thursday Aug. 28
Conversation: The Process is the Thing (Part 2): Reimagining Romance in Hard Times: 4 p.m. Aug. 21, free admission
Admission: $40, $15 for youths and for previews Aug. 14-15
Information: 413-236-8888 or barringtonstageco.org