Irving — Twenty-two years ago, Steven Jones had an idea: produce a musical that had rarely been seen in North Texas. That year he created Lyric Stage, which held the regional premiere of Romance/Romance. Lacking any sort of budget or funding, it was a four-character musical by necessity. Lyric needed a show not dependent on technical elements. It was a perfect opportunity to showcase the performers. It was a success.
Jones has a soft spot for musicals, and he wants to see them done properly. This has been the mission of Lyric Stage since that very first production in 1993, the mission has been to the preservation of the musical art form through producing new and rare works, and later restorations of classics. In 1997 Lyric had its first world premiere musical, After the Fair, based on a Thomas Hardy short story. It went on to play off-Broadway.
2007 was a turning point for the company. Its full-orchestra production of Carousel caught the attention of a local donor. It was also a year that Lyric began to receive better support from the City of Irving, as well as artistic grants. It marked a change that allowed the company to pick larger musicals to stage.
The decision to seek out little known classics to restore has been tricky at times, says Jones. Getting attention for a musical many people have never heard of can be hard. “It’s a balance of finding a title that gets people in the door and something that needs to be seen but may not be well known.” Hits like Into the Woods are easy draws, but demanding to pull off.
That September production was critically loved. Prior to that show The Golden Apple (directed by University of Dallas drama professor Stefan Novinski), based on Homer’s epic poetry, was the first to feature a full 36-piece orchestra playing Jerome Moross and Hershy Kay’s original orchestrations. In February of 2015 it was announced that the first ever complete cast recording of Golden Apple would be produced based on Lyric’s production; that recording has since caught the attention of NPR’s Fresh Air and other national media.
It is no surprise that Lyric will once again roll the dice on a modern classic you probably haven’t seen in these parts: Grand Hotel, which hasn’t had a professional production in North Texas since 1993, when Casa Mañana in Fort Worth staged it.
Grand Hotel is based on the 1929 novel by Austrian writer Vicki Baum and was later adapted into a play, Menschen im Hotel by the same screenwriter who turned it into a movie. In 1932 the movie premiered (which won an Oscar) starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. In 1989 it debuted on Broadway starring Michael Jeter as well as a young Jane Krakowski. It earned 12 Tony Award nominations and won five, including best direction and choreography for Texas native Tommy Tune. The musical has a book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Yeston, the composer of Nine, was called in by Tune to fix an awful first run of the show and add additional music and lyrics. The show was a hit.
Jones and his production team have created an homage to that original production by giving as faithful a recreation as they possibly could. Director Len Pfluger, who returns after last season’s South Pacific, says the Grand Hotel set is based exactly on the original set, which is, of course, a big hotel. The surprise is there’s nothing except chairs onstage.
“It is a very minimal and extremely faithful production. The choreography is Tommy Tune’s original idea, which is exciting because this never gets done,” says Pfluger. “I think it will be great for audiences today, who are used to so much scenery and so much flash to see how simple flash can be. And it also keeps the story on the characters rather than relying on tricks. But it’s also so imaginative.” Pfluger is referring to the stunning dance numbers in the show. A YouTube search will bring up a number of outstanding performances from the original, including Michael Jeter’s legendary dance at the hotel bar. It is certainly an ambitious feat to attempt.
“It is a theatrical experience,” says musical director Jay Dias. “The audience is forced to participate in the story—they become a part of it. You can’t sit back and become a passive observer.” Dias will conduct the 32-piece orchestra.
“The novel is not linear, Tune wanted to make [the musical] more cinematographic, to have the action appear in flashes,” Dias says. “The team created this kind of storytelling with the music. They blended it together to sound like one composer did it all. It’s truly brilliant.”
Neither Dias nor Pfluger will say much about the chair choreography, afraid of spoiling what they promise will be a truly magical experience. “What they do with the chairs, it’s just incredible,” says Dias, “Tommy Tune wanted a minimalistic experience, but what it achieves with so little is unbelievable. It’s incredible.”
Pfluger and Dias are a great team, both rattling off in German from time to time. They are eager to see this unique and rarely staged show come to life. Dias even saw the original production on Broadway, “many years ago. Well, not that many,” he laughs.
The show will be one to see, they say, with many of the original production’s team traveling to Dallas from New York for the opening, including the original music director. “No pressure!” interjects Pfluger.
“It’s an extraordinary score. If you’re a musical theater fan it’s very, very powerful. They’re all coming out of the woodwork to see Grand Hotel!” says Dias, who is thrilled to celebrate with the visiting New Yorkers in Irving.
Grand Hotel recalls much of the feel of Cabaret, of pre-war Germany and a celebration where anything can happen. The characters, many of them misfits, are blissfully unaware of the horror ahead. It is a fascinating time-stamp of a play, all occurring within the lobby of a hotel. The characters each bring a different dream to the lobby. Some of the dreams are budding hopes in the hearts of the characters, and some are the memories of a life that’s already passed them by. It is the action that happens before the doors are closed.