It’s increasingly rare for a musical to open on Broadway that isn’t either a revival or a jukebox musical. Rarer still are new musicals with scores that aren’t rock, rap, or country-inflected, but remind one of the great scores of the forties and fifties – when songwriters like Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe were Broadway’s leading lights.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder succeeds in sounding like one of those classic musicals, but one that is still fresh and daring and deliciously fun. While it is something of a pastiche score, with echoes of English music hall, Gilbert & Sullivan, Nöel Coward, and the aforementioned Lerner & Loewe, it does exactly what a pastiche score should do, which is improve on its models.
The craftsmanship of the lyrics is impeccable, dripping with wit, and sporting rhymes that leave one gasping in awe. The music is immediately and tunefully accessible, but listen more closely and you’ll hear harmonies, accompaniments, and flourishes that are the work of a composer with a unique voice and something to say.
Steven Lutvak, the composer and co-lyricist of A Gentleman’s Guide, will be in Washington for three days this month, giving a masterclass followed by a cabaret performance for the Young Artists of America at Strathmore program (Monday, January 25, from 7:00pm-9:30pm at St. Mark Presbyterian Church,10701 Old Georgetown Road North Bethesda), performing a Millennium Stage concert at the Kennedy Center (Tuesday the 26th at 6:00), and giving a masterclass for music and musical theater students at Catholic University (Wednesday the 27th). Meanwhile, the National Tour of A Gentleman’s Guide is running at the Kennedy Center through January 30th.
Although Lutvak has been well known in the New York musical theater world for a couple of decades – as a voice coach, accompanist, cabaret artist, songwriter, and with two CDs performing his own songs – A Gentleman’s Guide is his first Broadway show.
Its journey to Broadway was more than unusually difficult, taking over ten years, and was almost derailed entirely by a lawsuit by the film company that owned the rights to Kind Hearts and Coronets; the musical and film share the same source material, the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: Autobiography of a Criminal.
In a telephone conversation with Lutvak I asked him what had surprised him about the experience.
“Honest answer? Naïvely, I thought everything would be different. Apparently, that’s a common reaction. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with Aaron Frankel, the author of Writing the Broadway Musical. We were talking about the difference between being alone versus having a spouse or partner. He said ‘when you’re coupled you have better problems, but you still have problems.’ So, with the show, there are still struggles, just different struggles. One is, there are more and more people making decisions about your child – your show.” He also confesses that, “It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but despite the misery the lawsuit caused, I think it actually made the show better. It gave us more time and it freed our imaginations.”
Lutvak was also “unaware of the size of the potential business.” There’s already been a production of the show by an opera company in Sweden (yes, in Swedish), a Japanese production is in the works, and there are exciting discussions about a potential London production and a film. There’s also a lot of interest for when the show becomes available for school and amateur companies: “it’s eminently castable for any group. In any group there’s always the romantic tenor, the comic actor who can inhabit several characters, the soprano with the glorious voice, and the beautiful and sexy girl.” As for the National tour, “it’s going incredibly well. It was originally scheduled for 44 weeks, but they’ve been adding weeks and now it’s running at least through March, 2017.”
The show features eleven memorable characters, but eight of them are played by the same actor. On Broadway, that actor was the brilliant chameleon, Jefferson Mays. For the tour, that/those part(s) is/are played by John Rapson. Lutvak recounts: “This fellow came in to audition for the ensemble and to cover for Jefferson. But during his audition the hairs on the back of my neck stood out, and the director, Darko Tresnjak, and I look at each other and we know we’ve found our actor for the tour.” And while the part was written assuming the performer who would play it would be more of an actor-who-can-sing than a legit singer – with patter songs in something of the style of the numbers written for Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady – Rapson turned out to, not only be a wonderful actor, but also a true “singer-singer.”
According to Lutvak, “the tour is basically the New York production. It uses the original Broadway orchestrations (by Jonathan Tunick) for twelve musicians, and the music director and two pianists are touring with the show. The primary difference is the scale of the set. It’s a bit bigger and taller, because some of the theaters the show’s going into are larger than the Broadway house.”
Regarding the master classes, Lutvak says, “For 35 years, the bulk of my income came through coaching, accompanying, playing in piano bars, et cetera. Working with students, I work very much by instinct. Encouraging but firm. My voice teacher is the legendary Joan Lader. Whenever I hear people audition, I can always tell which ones are her students because they always sound like themselves. My goal is always to help a young performer to be the best them they can be. I remember Barbara Cook talking about her realization that there’ll always be somebody prettier, thinner, with higher notes, or a bigger voice, but only she could be the be the best Barbara Cook.”
Lutvak adds that his experiences as a vocal coach and accompanist also informed the writing of A Gentleman’s Guide. “I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t worked with singers as much as I have. I love writing in a way that makes people shine vocally. You also think about how the singer can get the best response from an audience. In the song ‘I’ve Decided to Marry You,” the character of Sibella is singing about her rival, ‘…why is she here in the house of a bach’lor? Of course, one could point out that I’m here as well.’ Then it occurred to me by giving her a pause between the two lines, it gives her the opportunity to play that moment of realization – giving her and the audience the laugh.”
The Broadway production of A Gentleman’s Guide closed on January 17th after a run of over two years. Lutvak describes it as both “a celebration and a mourning; but I’m unbelievably grateful. To say it has been life-changing is to understate the case.”
With the success of the show, Lutvak now has several projects in the works, most of which he’s not at liberty to discuss. But one he can is a musical version of the Peruvian film, Undertow, which he describes as a “gay/ghost/love story.” The script is being written by Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., who wrote the screenplays for Birdman and The Revenant, calling for a score Lutvak says “will show people a whole other side of me and my work.” I can’t wait.
For the YAA program, Lutvak will be working with high school students, but the event is open to the public for those who make reservations. The Millennium Stage concert, where Lutvak will be joined by members of the cast, is open to the public with no reservations necessary. And for tickets to A Gentleman’s Guide click here.