David Lee, the distinguished writer/producer/director, whose many television projects (including Frasier, Wings, The Jeffersons) have netted him nine Emmys and 18 nominations, has unofficially taken on a new mantle in L.A. He's become a key figure in revisiting seldom-performed vintage musicals. This started in 2000 with his Garland-winning Pasadena Playhouse staging of the Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim tuner, Do I Hear a Waltz?, which netted widespread acclaim for its rediscovery of a buried treasure, bolstered by Lee's revisions. For Reprise! he helmed Cy Coleman's On the Twentieth Century and two Sondheim classics: Assassins and the recent Company. He recently penned an adaptation of Cole Porter's Can-Can for the New York Encores! concert series. And he's now back at Pasadena Playhouse, staging another lesser-known show, the 1963 Broadway scorcher 110 in the Shade, by composer Harvey Schmidt, lyricist Tom Jones, and librettist N. Richard Nash.
"This show was actually going to be scheduled last year," says Lee. "But it was for a winter slot, and Sheldon [Epps, the Playhouse's artistic director] felt it really needed to be done in the summer." The story takes place in a drought-stricken, unspecified Western town, where the lonely and repressed spinster Lizzie meets a mysterious stranger named Starbuck who claims that he is a rainmaker. Is he for real, and is he the man who can end her prolonged emotional dry spell? "This romantic musical is driven by the metaphor of a drought and the great desire for rain," Lee elaborates. "Those familiar with the work of Schmidt and Jones will recognize the musical styles—their use of symbolism and a sort of magical realism. The play takes place within a 24-hour period. The first act is daytime, and the second act occurs that night. Nash's adaptation follows his play almost precisely."
Nash based the book on his 1952 teleplay, subsequent stage play, and 1956 screenplay, each titled The Rainmaker. He's also noted for writing the librettos for Coleman's Lucille Ball vehicle Wildcat and for The Happy Time, with score by Kander and Ebb. Schmidt and Jones are best known for their two-person musical I Do! I Do! and for The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical in New York history, which ran Off-Broadway from 1960 to 2002. Shade, Schmidt and Jones' first Broadway effort, is less obscure than Waltz but has not been produced in L.A. in many years. According to Lee, he is making very minor tweaks to the material. "The creators already made quite a few revisions for the production last year at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., and this production will include those changes. The music fits into the story so well that there isn't really a need for any jury-rigging." Lee indicates that he didn't see the original Broadway production, which starred Inga Swenson, Robert Horton, and Lesley Ann Warren. He fell in love with the show when he first heard the original cast recording in 1970. "I love its gorgeous score and beautiful book—book-writing is almost a lost art form, plus I love doing musicals that aren't often seen. This isn't really typical of the musicals of its period. It opened the same season as Hello Dolly! and Funny Girl and got lost amid all that thunder, even though it had very good reviews. It's more of a character-driven show. There is one major production number and a small chamber number. The rest are all character songs."
For Waltz, Lee signed up Broadway legend Carol Lawrence as well as noted Broadway performers Anthony Crivello and Alyson Reed. In 110, he again brings star power to the Playhouse with his casting of Marin Mazzie as Lizzie. She won Tony nominations for Ragtime, Sondheim's Passion, and Kiss Me, Kate. "I'm delighted we were able to sign her on," says Lee. "She is co-starring with her husband, Jason Danieley [as Starbuck]. I met them at a dinner party last year and offered them these roles." In this production, Lee continues his loyalty to his rep company of designers. Set designer Ray Christopher, who worked with Lee in television, designed both Waltz and Lee's non-musical effort at Pasadena, Light Up the Sky. Costumer Randy Gardell also has a history with Lee, as does the Playhouse's oft-used lighting designer, Michael Gilliam.
Lee says he's relishing the rehearsal period at Pasadena after his crash schedules at Reprise. "We've been rehearsing three-and-a-half weeks already and haven't even had an audience yet," he notes. "This gives us more time to explore the characters and nuances in this wonderful musical." His next musical will be the seldom-revived Charles Strouse/Lee Adams 1970 Tony-winner Applause at Reprise, and next season he plans a change of pace by directing a non-musical at Pasadena. "I'm taking a break from TV for a while," Lee concludes. "Frasier has just ended, and I'm having a great time getting back to what I originally wanted to do in the first place—live theatre."
"110 in the Shade" will be presented by and at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. June 25-July 25. $50-60. (626) 356-7529.