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stage dive

Stage Dive: Four Odd Musical Adaptations Currently Roaming the Countryside

Marcus Lovett and Jill Paice, in Bruce Hornsby's SCKBSTD.

What’s that you smell on the occasionally warmish, pseudo-springy wind blowing down through New York City? Is it Jeffrey Tambor’s scalp rub? Harvey Fierstein’s hairspray? The ozone tang of thousands of DVRs simultaneously Netflix-ing the 1997 Larry Sanders episode where Fierstein and Tambor appear together? (The ep is titled “The Matchmaker”: Fierstein, playing himself, reveals on air that Hank Kingsley (Tambor) is unwittingly dating a post-op transsexual. Pretty sure it’s the pair’s only previous collaboration prior to La Cage aux Folles — they take over for Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge tonight.) Close, but no cigarillo. What you’re smelling is new musicals, great glistering scads of 'em! The Book of Mormon, Sister Act, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Catch Me If You Can: Spring is shaping up to be one never-ending kickline. So exciting! So glitzy! So let’s totally skip the parade and instead handicap what’s coming ... in the distant, possibly never-to-arrive future.

There’s no clear word so far on the future of Bruce Hornsby’s SCKBSTD (that’s vanity-plate-ese for “Sick Bastard”), which opened at the Virginia Stage Company last month and whose producers are now mulling their next move — possibly another regional production or an Off Broadway tryout. (The premise, about a mysterious stranger who shakes up an insular town, sounds like Next to Normal meets Middletown — or maybe just a middle-aged Footloose.) But is there room for one more BSTD on Broadway? If SCKBSTD is a hit, producers will need to clear at least a dozen other theaters for all the hip-hop musicals that’ll be sampled from it. (Sidebar: When do we get a Tupac Broadway spectacular? Isn’t it about time?)

Another musical originating from the wilds of the Old Dominion — the Kathie Lee Gifford–penned Saving Aimee, about controversial Jazz Age evangelist and proto-feminist Aimee Semple McPherson — will go to Seattle for a rehab run, signaling more serious intentions. The Washington Post described the original 2007 production at D.C.’s Signature Theatre as both “nebulous” and “opaque.” I didn’t know that combination was physically possible, but hey, leave it to Kathie Lee.

Little Miss Sunshine, from the quirky songwriting genius William Finn and his longtime wrangler, James Lapine, is now in progress at La Jolla. Finn’s faithful flock (myself included) cherish every little crumb of beautiful madness that falls from his lordly beard, so the prospect of a whole show (with Spelling Bee–esque breakthrough potential) sets knees aquiver.

But perhaps nothing has me more rapt with awe and nostalgia than the long-awaited Newsies, which will begin out-of-town tryouts at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse next fall. Adapted from the now-beloved 1992 Disney live-action flop, which starred Christian Bale at his least baleful*, Newsies is about singing, dancing turn-of-the-century paperboys who go on strike against the tyrannical Joseph Pulitzer, pharaonic publisher of the New York World. Historical factoid: While Newsies may or may not have inspired the Egyptian uprising, it definitely inspired a brilliant throwaway Darryl moment on The Office a few seasons back. In fact, it’s been bubbling in the Zeitgeist for some time. Maybe that's because, for any theatrically inclined late-eighties middle schooler raised far away from the Broadway power grid, Disney was the primary educator on the subject of musical theater. (Sure, ubiquitous Phantom and Les Miz cast albums helped, but our chief tutors were Jeffrey Katzenberg, Alan Menken, and Lumière from Beauty and the Beast.) And Newsies, in its goofy way, made animated razzle-dazzle seem achievable in the non-animated realm: Touring Broadway shows were rare and expensive, and getting to New York was practically unthinkable. Now a stage version is setting up shop a newspaper's throw from Times Square. (Though, Disney Theatricals notes, this show is not destined for the Great White Way: Like Aladdin, High School Musical and the upcoming Peter and the Starcatcher, Newsies is being developed for its earning potential as a licensed property, not as a now-and-forever Broadway mainstay produced with actual Mouse-dollars. Even Disney doesn't want to Disne-fy the theater district nowadays--that's how risky the business is. Tarzan, for example, is generating far more cash as a license than it ever lost earned at the Rodgers.)

Economics aside: Newsies is made-flesh! Does this make 15-year-old cheeseball me foolishly happy? Absolutely. What about 35-year-old slightly moldy cheeseball me? Yet to be seen. But soon, one way or another, the world will know.

*Is it just me, or is “Santa Fe” now the yearning pipe-dream anthem for every struggling journalist in New York City? Throw in a line or two about hating the Internet and wanting to raise your own organic beets and you’re there.

Photo: David Polston