A royal family takes its bow at Barrington Stage Company
The accompanying Onstage box has been changed to correct the spelling of Edna Ferber's name.
PITTSFIELD — William Finn feels like he's living his life backwards.
"I've reversed careers," explained the Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist of "Falsettos" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." "People start out writing traditional musicals, then 30 years later they write something that's revolutionary."
"I began with something revolutionary, and now I'm writing a traditional show."
His latest musical venture, "The Royal Family of Broadway," receives its world premiere Wednesday at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. Previews begin Thursday.
The cast of Broadway veterans includes Barrington Stage headliners Harriet Harris ("Sweeney Todd"), Will Swenson ("The Pirates of Penzance") and Alan H. Green ("Broadway Bounty Hunter"), performing alongside Arnie Burton, Kathy Fitzgerald, Laura Michelle Kelly, Hayley Podschun, AJ Shively and Chip Zien.
During a break in rehearsals — and from the overhead clatter of tap shoes echoing through BSC's Wolfson Center — Finn sat at a conference table with his award-winning creative team, librettist Rachel Sheinkin, director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse.
"Royal Family" reunites Finn with Sheinkin for their first new musical since they brought "Spelling Bee" to life in 2008 at BSC's then-home, the Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett Regional High School in SDheffield. before moving on to New York.
Their new show is based on the 1927 play "The Royal Family" by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and an original adaptation by Richard Greenberg.
In a parody of the legendary Barrymores, considered Broadway royalty of the time, the Cavendish clan is a song-and-dance family as well as dramatic actors.
Led by an aging grande dame, they include a dissolute leading man with eyes on Hollywood, romance-seeking Broadway diva and starry-eyed ingenue. They inhabit a musical world of the late 1920s that is at once touching, romantic and hilarious.
"It just delights you and tears your heart out," said Finn.
The story follows the family as it reaches the peak of Broadway success and starts to fall apart and move on, Rando explained. "Kaufman was able to capture wonderfully complicated exotic families, especially in New York City."
There's a zany quality to it — Kaufman wrote for the Marx Brothers — with lots of satire about Hollywood, Rando added.
Finn spent two decades working on this musical, starting long before "Spelling Bee." During that period he lost the rights to the play, then regained them. "It takes me a long time to do some shows," he said.
Unlike other lyricists who know where they're going and work backwards, Finn starts writing with the first line of the song.
"The words are the most fun for me," he said, "I try hard to be funny."
Sheinkin took over the book from original librettists Richard Greenberg — "he was glad to get out with his life, [the early process] was so distended," Finn recalled — and Finn's longtime collaborator James Lapine.
"Bill asked me to help him finish it up," Sheinkin explained, "I'm the closer going for the save!"
They met while Finn was teaching at New York University. "She was an impossible student, always defending other people's work," Finn recalled, "but her work was excellent."
"Except when you called it sub-English," Sheinkin said, eliciting laughter.
They went on to write the hugely successful "Spelling Bee" during a snowy Berkshire winter.
This time round they have teamed up with Rando and Bergasse — who first collaborated on BSC's "Guys and Dolls" — and music director Vadim Feichtner.
"They make anything we give them work," Sheinkin said.
"We just keep passing the buck onto each other," Rando demurred.
"Passing the buck until it's right," Finn remarked.
With no preexisting choreography or audience expectations, Bergasse enjoys the greater creative freedom. He has worked with many of the cast before and knows what their bodies can do. His dances are rooted in classic Broadway styles of tap and vaudeville, with a nod to Fred Astaire movies and old MGM musicals. "You'll see a lot of that style in there," he said.
Finn's music "makes it feel period and of our time," added Rando. "It's fully informed by his contemporary musicality."
"Wait till you see the opening number," said Finn.
"It's such a celebration of the old-fashioned joys of theater," Sheinkin added.
"We're lucky [BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd] wanted to start this show here," Rando said. "It's a wonderful place to develop new work."
The condensed three-week rehearsal period — eight weeks is typical in New York — meant actors had to adapt quickly to any rewrites that flew off the typewriter. Being out of town, however, helped them concentrate by isolating them from usual daily distractions, Finn said, "like not having to say hello to people who live next door."
With relationships at its core, the show is expected to have broad audience appeal. It doesn't matter if theatergoers don't know who the Barrymores are.
As Sheinkin observed, "we all have crazy families."
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