Ask a group of San Francisco theater enthusiasts what they think about a show and you’ll get more than an earful.
That’s what R.C. Staab found out – the hard way – when he held a reading of his new musical, Shadows of Pompeii, at 42nd Street Moon’s Moonspace last January.
In a rare move, Moon, the group that dusts off old and forgotten musicals, agreed to present a workshop production of Pompeii, which has a book by Staab and a score by Keith Herrmann, Tony nominated for Romance/Romance in 1988. That production, directed by Dianna Shuster, opens Thursday, April 16 and runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre.
But first came the reading, that painful reading.
Given Staab’s background in marketing (he works for the San Jose Mercury News), he knew exactly wanted from his capacity audience at the reading. They were instructed to fill out a detailed form immediately following each of the two acts asking about specific songs and characters, then they were asked to fill out a third questionnaire with more general comments about the overall show.
“That audience was brutal,” Staab says over coffee in his downtown San Francisco neighborhood. “One guy wanted us to change the location of the show from Pompeii to Herculaneum. Another wanted the volcano to erupt at the beginning of the show. I was fairly depressed the next day.”
A musical theater lover since his high school days, Staab got involved in theater as a performer at the University of Missouri (where he studied journalism) and then worked in a number of community theater productions in Harrisburg, Pa. When he and his wife, who works in television, were living in Raleigh, N.C., Staab decided it was time to try and write a show. Trouble was, he didn’t write music.
Through ASCAP’s Collaborator’s Corner, he was able to connect with composer Jeff Pflaumbaum and the pair wrote the musical comedy Fountain of Youth, which received a workshop production last year from American Musical Theatre of San Jose before it went belly up.
When he set out to write another show, Staab wanted to work with a Bay Area composer, so he put an ad in Theatre Bay Area magazine. One of the respondents had the idea to write a musical about Pompeii, the Roman city in the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcano that would eventually bury the city in ash and lava. That collaboration didn’t work out, but Staab was left with a working libretto and no score.
So it was back to ASCAP, where he found Herrmann, and the work continued.
With the goal of entering his new musical in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals, Staab needed the help of a member organization here in the Bay Area, which meant one of four groups: AMTSJ, Woodminster Summer Musicals, TheatreWorks or 42nd Street Moon. The deal was that Staab would pay for the production if he could present it under the auspices of a member theater.
AMT took on Fountain of Youth (which has been submitted for the 2009 NAMT festival), and 42nd Street Moon’s Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads asked their board about helping produce Shadows of Pompeii and almost immediately got the green light.
Since the January reading, Staab has been busy making changes to his show. He took the suggestions from that brutal audience quite seriously. Songs have been changed and re-ordered. The volcano eruption happens much earlier in Act 2. Character names have been made less Roman and more contemporary. And the opening number has been almost completely re-shaped.
“We never wanted this to be a toga musical,” Staab says. “It’s set in 79 AD, but we wanted it to feel contemporary. We eliminated a lot of the references to the Roman gods, which seemed kind of stilted. We wanted the story to feel more real to the present.”
Because this is a workshop production, there’s no set but there are original costumes by Maya Linke and Krista Nelson, who have taken their inspiration from the fall 2009 line by Alexander McQueen. For the leading character, a Pompeii artist named Lila, Linke was inspired by the prodigious silhouettes created by Cristobal
Balenciaga in the late 1950s and ’60s.
Composer Herrmann isn’t able to be in San Francisco for the workshop production, so Staab is, as he puts it, “the driver.” He says he has “deputized” the entire cast – which includes Russ Lorenson, Sarah Aili, Carrie Madsen and Carmichael Blankenship — to become librettists and to feel free to offer their observations, insights and suggestions for change.
“They have taken up that job with a lot of gusto,” Staab says.
And though it might mean more pain, Staab says he will be soliciting audience feedback throughout the entire run.
“When some people say they want feedback, they really just want compliments and approval,” he says. “I really want feedback. That’s the whole point.”
Shadows of Pompeii runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org or www.pompeiimusical.com for information.