Although the tragic tale of the doomed love between King Edward II and Piers Daniel Gaveston has been told before, it's never been done as a musical. Until now. Ken Prestininzi (libretto and lyrics) and Christopher Winslow's (music) work is having its world premiere at the Celebration Theatre, directed and produced by Celebration's Managing Artistic Director Derek Charles Livingston. He sees Gaveston as a fresh take on the old story.
"Edward II is a true story," he says. "So [Prestininzi and Winslow] went back and, rather than adapting the plays by [Christopher] Marlowe or [Bertolt] Brecht, they read the original accounts and wrote a whole new story based on it. What I really like about this version, as opposed to the Marlowe version which is really the most famous, or even the Derek Jarman film, is that you find the people who are opposing Gaveston and Edward to be much more complex characters. They don't come off quite as villainous. That's always much more interesting to me and much more interesting for actors to play, when characters aren't simply motivated by Machiavellian ends."
Livingston has chosen to stage the production in modern dress, for a couple of significant reasons and not just to make the old tale contemporary.
"It's far more politically based than that," he says. "There are two reasons, really. One was just economics. By setting it in the present, it afforded us [the possibility] to produce the show. That's the minor consideration. At the time this piece came to me, [San Francisco mayor] Gavin Newsome had just started marrying gay couples in San Francisco. We saw that Massachusetts was just months away from having same-gender marriage. We saw the country in an absolute uproar. At the time I started casting this piece, we had 11 states join two other states this year in passing constitutional amendments banning same-gender marriage. So the resonance of a nation in an uproar over two men loving each other was just too rich to pass up."
Gaveston is not a typical musical, and Livingston took that into account while casting the production. "It's one of the most challenging things I've cast since I've been at Celebration," he says. "We needed people who could handle this type of music. The composer was influenced by Brahms piano quartets while writing the music. It demanded singers who could handle almost classical music. Some of the song styling and phrasing that we accept in musical theatre as part of character wouldn't necessarily work with this piece. We had to have good singers, and good singers who were also good actors. Those were what I was strongly looking for in terms of casting this piece. I didn't worry about if they could dance or not; there's no big dance number in it. Those other two requirements are really demanding requirements, and I can go forward from there."
When asked how he got the performances he wanted from his cast, Livingston is comedically blunt. "Other than yelling at actors and threatening them? I'm a big muscular guy, so I threaten actors all the time," he says, laughing. "Fortunately I have an excellent musical director, Darryl Archibald, and that helped tremendously, because Darryl not only understands music but also understands how music needs to work in terms of telling a story. As the director I like to talk about, 'What does this mean, what's going on with this character, where is this character coming from emotionally, what does this character need, and what does this character want?' I try to get the actors to draw on experiences in their own lives that are appropriate in this, and then say, 'If this character wants or needs this, how does he go about getting it, and how do you draw on what you've done to go about getting it?' In a piece like this, where the music is continuous and so passionate, [I try to] make sure the characters are going for their objective with the greatest amount of passion possible. So there is truth in it, but the stakes have to be high continuously. There are times when I'll see something that's stylized, or I'll ask the actors to push the emotional content higher because the music gives us permission to do that in this piece. It really does."
In an uncertain political climate, the question of the show's heterosexual crossover appeal is there, but Livingston feels confident that good quality will serve the piece well.
"We've reached the point where we always have some crossover appeal, and it's because we do good theatre," he says. "Seeing gay and lesbian characters onstage is not such a strange idea that heterosexuals will stay away from it. If the theatre is good, people will show up. We certainly found that true when we did Pinafore! and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When we did Insurrection, half the people who attended didn't know what an insurrection was, but they heard it was a good piece. I'm always concerned that [with this show] that people will hear 'opera-like' or 'operetta' and shy away from it, but if people think about what Baz Luhrmann did with La Bohème, they should look at it as an exciting thing to come and see."
"Gaveston, Favourite of the King" will be presented by and at the Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jan. 14-Feb. 20. $20-25. (323) 957-1884.