Jekyll and Hyde’s

Quick Changes

Chicago-based producers Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals’ biggest gamble to date–the $6.2 million musical Jekyll and Hyde–has finally arrived on Broadway. But by the time you read this, the show’s fate may have already been sealed.

Jekyll and Hyde opened last Monday amid a crowd of big, splashy musicals rushing to beat the May 1 deadline for the Tony Awards. Most of these shows–including Titanic, Steel Pier, and The Life–have been universally trounced by the New York press. By comparison, Jekyll and Hyde came out smelling like a rose: its reviews have been mixed. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the musical “leaden,” saying Frank Wildhorn’s score “makes Sunset Boulevard sound like Parsifal.” He recommended lead actor Robert Cuccioli for a Tony for “best use of a head of hair.” But New York Daily News critic Howard Kissel was more positive–he wrote that Jekyll and Hyde “looked good” in light of Broadway’s recent offerings. If faint praise doesn’t draw crowds, Broadway may be without a major hit this season.

But how important are the critics? With $2 million in advance ticket sales and a plot familiar to the many tourists attending Broadway shows this summer, Jekyll and Hyde may be unstoppable. It already has a cult audience, dubbed “Jekkies,” developed over the musical’s long and tortuous march to Manhattan. First produced in 1990 at Houston’s Alley Theatre, Jekyll and Hyde seemed designed to capitalize on the success of British musicals based on 19th-century melodramas like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Even as the show headed back into development, the score was partially recorded in London by Linda Eder, the play’s star, and Colm Wilkinson, fresh from his success as Jean Valjean in the original London and New York productions of Les Miserables. Five years later Jekyll and Hyde was remounted in Houston, where it once again closed after receiving a mixed reception. That didn’t stop the release of a second, more lavish recording featuring Eder and Australian stage star Anthony Warlow. “This was the first time a show bound for Broadway had two studio recordings made of it before opening in New York,” says Leavitt, who adds that a third recording is already planned.

Two and a half years ago, Fox Theatricals partner David Faye played the score for Leavitt on a car stereo. “David played 15 seconds of one of the songs–one that is now not in the show–and I immediately told him we should try to get involved,” Leavitt says. They discovered Pace Theatrical Group, one of the nation’s largest theatrical touring organizations, had gotten there first. Eventually, it was decided that Pace and Fox would become equal partners in a Jekyll and Hyde production that would tour nationally before heading for New York. But the 26-city, 34-week tour had problems. “The purpose of the tour was to sort out what needed to be done to the show before we moved it into New York,” explains Leavitt. Mixed notices and mediocre ticket sales led the partners to decide that a lot still needed to be done. They demanded a major overhaul of the show. At the end of last year, original director Gregory Boyd was replaced by Canadian Robin Phillips, perhaps best known here for his touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, which played the Civic Theatre several years ago.

Phillips reshaped the script with librettist Leslie Bricusse; they created a new opening, and Jekyll’s best friend turned into a much older father figure. All told, Leavitt says, the new Jekyll and Hyde is about “30 percent different” from last year’s touring production. Phillips also brought in new designers to provide a more Victorian look, says Leavitt. “You now get a real sense of the period.” He also credits Phillips with improving star Linda Eder’s performance.

Whether or not Jekyll and Hyde takes off in New York, it looks like Leavitt and Fox Theatricals may be pulling out of Chicago, at least for the foreseeable future. Two of its last three local productions–Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Neil Simon’s London Suite–lost money and closed sooner than expected. Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile just completed a successful five-month run at the Briar Street Theatre, though Leavitt had hoped it might run longer. The show will now tour nationally. Next up for Leavitt and Fox is the delayed premiere of a musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Dennis DeYoung of Styx. The show was scheduled to open this fall in Saint Louis and then move to Chicago before heading to New York. But its book is still being refined, and the producers have had a hard time keeping a director. The musical is now expected to debut next September at Nashville’s Tennessee Repertory Theatre, with the company’s Mack Pirkel signed on as director.

Leavitt and Fox have also acquired the rights to the critically acclaimed And Neither Have I Wings to Fly, a 1995 hit for Chicago’s Seanachai Theatre Company, and Alan Menken’s musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which debuted 16 years ago in New York City and quickly disappeared. No decisions have been made about where these plays will be mounted first. For now, Leavitt has his hands full. On Tuesday morning he was set to unleash a major ad campaign for Jekyll and Hyde, confident the New York Times won’t scare away the common man. “The intelligentsia won’t make this show a success,” he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Michael Leavitt by Nathan Mandell.