A forthcoming musical about Jesse "The Body" Ventura has a very important moral to impart: Success often hinges entirely on a person's stubborn refusal to be intimidated by long odds. Not only is that message apparent in the central story of Ventura, the iconoclastic wrestler-turned-Minnesota-governor, but it is just as evident offstage, in the story of the musical's writer, Stephen Dolginoff.
Last March, Dolginoff read in an issue of Entertainment Weekly that producer Pierre Cossette had optioned the rights to Ventura's life story and was looking around for authors to turn the story into a Broadway musical. Cossette won a Best Musical Tony Award in 1991 for another tuner based on the life story of an American folk hero, "The Will Rogers Follies," but was looking for someone new to do the Ventura piece, instead of the "Will Rogers" creative team of Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Peter Stone.
Dolginoff, a composer-lyricist-bookwriter who won a 1994 Bistro Award for "One Foot Out the Door" (about group therapy) and is best known for the musical "Most Men Are…," found Cossette's fax number in the Theatrical Index and fired off a quick inquiry to the producer.
Even he sounds somewhat stunned when he talks now about what followed, and how quickly it happened.
"I sent Pierre a three-line fax," Dolginoff told Back Stage, "and two weeks later I had the job."
That precis may be short, but it's accurate. The Los Angeles-based Cossette came to New York, met with Dolginoff, and offered the 32-year-old the job of writing his first musical for Broadway, where it is expected to open in the 2001-02 season.
In some ways, Dolginoff has prepared for this chance for years. "I'm very interested in politics," he told Back Stage, "and I've written two other musicals based on true-life events: 'Thrill Me,' about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, with Martin Charnin as director and producer, and 'Panic,' about the hysteria surrounding the 'War of the Worlds' broadcast."
Even so, he admits that writing about current events is different from depicting historical occurrences. Unlike other politicians who have been profiled in musicals, from Evita Peron to Fiorello LaGuardia to Jimmy Walker, "Ventura is still in the midst of his fame," the author said. "The second act is covering what happened only two years ago; the farthest back we go is to the 1970s."
Ventura's well-known propensity for saying exactly what he feels makes it more than likely that Dolginoff will hear his subject's opinions, even if they're scalding, something the writers of, say, "Evita" did not have to worry about. So far, however, the author and governor have not met.
To get a feel for his subject, Dol-ginoff listened to a tape of Ventura reading his own autobiography. "It gives a sense of how he talks," he said, "and it also shows what is important to him, not to some biographer. For instance, he is extremely proud of being a Navy Seal."
That is, in fact, where the musical begins, with an 18-year-old Jesse getting ready to go into the Navy. As Dolginoff excitedly plunges into the story, he can appreciate the young Ventura's sense of apprehension and exhilaration at that moment.
"It's a cliché," he said, "but opportunity really, really, really is behind the corner. I took a chance and I got the job. I could so easily not have spent that half a minute doing that, but to succeed, you have to be on the lookout, seize every opportunity, and go out on a limb."
Sounds like he's ready, as they say, to rumble.