By Betsy Price
The News Journal
If the air around the Delaware Theatre Company shimmers just a wee bit more in November and December, you’ll know it’s because of the star power descending on the Wilmington Riverfront to further tweak “Diner The Musical” for a move to Broadway.
The show, based on Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie “Diner,” will feature music and lyrics by singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow and will be directed by Tony-winning choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall. All three will be at the theater at various times during rehearsals and the first week of performances.
While faithful to the group of guys that the movie focuses on, the stage version expands the roles of the women, enriching the look at 1959 society. Women begin to want more than a tidy life behind an apron and men are confused about what that means.
Crow was instrumental in the refocusing. It was one of her first reactions when Levinson asked her to consider writing the music.
“Mainly because I am a woman, and I was writing for the voices of some very strong women that I felt like were symbolic of what was happening in that period,” Crow said in a phone call from her Nashville home.
In the show, housewife Beth and husband Shrevie struggle to make sense of married life. Career girl Barbara finds herself in a family way with casual boyfriend Billy, but she doesn’t want only a white picket fence kind of life. And Eddie is still insisting fiancee Elyse pass a quiz about the Baltimore Colts before he will marry her.
“Once I started writing songs for Beth and Barbara – Barbara who represented the shift toward women working and having a career of their own, I think it opened a great opportunity to sort of investigate what happens with those young men,” Crow says. “But also what was happening with young women and how that ushered in a movement in the 1960s.”
She went on to write “Don’t Give It Away,” with the women of the show banding together in a movie theater to warn the actress on screen that the man she is with only wants one thing. “Tear Down this House” is a song with Beth and fellow housewives expressing their unhappiness with their limited roles in their husbands’ and their own lives. “Darling, It’s You” is sung by Beth with ladies man Boogie and beauty shop customers. “The Games We Play” includes the men in the show and Elyse.
One version of the show had a sold-out run at the Signature Theatre In Arlington, Virginia, in December 2014.
Critics hailed Crow’s efforts.
”Crow has not just settled for a nostalgia fest,” read a Baltimore Sun review. “Her melodic lines and chord progressions have a freshness and sophistication that stands out all the more given the generic stuff found in many a musical nowadays, and her lyrics largely avoid the commonplace.”
Bud Martin, the Delaware Theatre Company’s executive director, said having Crow attached to the musical makes it much more interesting.
“I gotta tell you, she’s written some blockbuster power ballads for the women in these shows.”
Martin says he listened to two of the songs over and over for three days during auditions and never got bored.
“I said, ‘Man, this woman can write, especially for women,’” Martin says. “I think it brings a much-needed element and a lot more emotion to the play and creates conflict. The guys are not in conflict with each other. It’s the relationships with women that create the conflict.”
The show, which starts previews Dec. 2 and officially opens Dec. 12, is scheduled to close Dec. 27, but could be extended, Martin says. It had been the best selling show of the season – before “Maurice Hines in Tappin’ Thru Life” opened and extended a week before closing Oct.11.
Crow, mostly known for pop music songs including “All I Wanna Do” and “The First Cut is the Deepest,” has a classical piano degree from the University of Missouri. She hadn’t worked in theater before, but was familiar with the genre when Levinson called.
“I grew up being a huge lover of what we used to call the old song and dance movies,” she says. “They weren’t called musicals. Many were the classic musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. A lot of Cole Porter was playing in my house. I grew up knowing probably as many classic Broadway songs as I did songs on the radio.”
While Crow usually writes for herself, she found she enjoyed writing on assignment.
“I loved being able to immerse myself in the experience of these characters and be able to write it from their point of view,” she says. “There’s a lot of freedom in that for me. When you make your own music, you’re subject to having people criticize what you’re saying, and they’re trying to – I guess in some ways – interpret what’s happening in your life by what’s happening in the lyrics.”
But, on stage, the lyrics became story. Crow wanted the “Diner” lyrics to mesh with the time period. She studied the Billboard Top 100 songs of 1959. In the movie, music plays a big role, and there are references to songs and musicians.
Critics liked Crow’s music, but felt the show could use some work. Crow says it was a new experience to have reviews hold so much weight.
“They do make a big difference in how quickly you’re ushered onto Broadway,” Crow says. “But I think the thing you have to remember is that each production that’s out of town is a chance to tweak and to review and to develop, and that’s really the purpose of out of New York productions. There are many very successful musical and dramatic shows on Broadway that have been out of New York and out of town for years developing.”
Several reviewers disliked the structure of the play performed in Virginia, which had an older character acting as narrator. He had not been in a previous version of the musical, and will not be a part of the Delaware Theatre Company production. In Wilmington, the character Boogie will slip out of the action to take on some of the narrating function, Crow says.
Levinson, Crow and Marshall also have moved more of the story forward so that from the beginning the audience knows the characters. They’ve added another song, giving the Delaware version 19 musical numbers with a reprise of one.
At 20 actors, the cast is bigger than the average Delaware Theatre Company show, although “South Pacific” had a cast of 21, Martin points out. The sets will be bigger and more complicated, partly because they might be headed to Broadway.
The mother of an 8-year-old and 5-year-old, Crow will come in and out of town while the show is in Wilmington. “I have a feeling I’ll be trying to learn where the good places to eat are around the theater,” she says.
She’s enjoying working on the musical.
“It’s one of the most wonderful traditions, the whole musical theater idiom,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for a musician, someone who just loves music and loves medley to step up outside of what you are so comfortable doing and write music you hope will be sung 20 or 30 years later, and will become part of the pop culture. That’s what musical numbers have always done. That’s what you hope.”
If you go
What: “Diner, The Musical,” book by Academy Award-winner director Barry Levinson and music and lyrics by Grammy Award-winner Sheryl Crow
When: Dec. 7-27, with possibility of extension if it sells well
Where: Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington
For more information: www.delawaretheatre.org; (302) 594-1100
SOURCE: The News Journal