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‘Prelude to a Kiss’ Reemerges in a Whole New Form at SCR

Updated: Apr 26

South Coast Repertory originated Craig Lucas’s play in 1988. Now Lucas, SCR and others have created an all-new musical version.


From the 1988 production of "Prelude to a Kiss": The wedding of Rita (Lisa Zane, left) and Peter (Mark Arnott, right) takes a bizarre turn when Julius (Frank Hamilton), a stranger, crashes the reception and asks to kiss the bride – a seemingly harmless request that has far-reaching consequences. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Cristofer Gross
 

The evolution of a new stage musical is always something complex, so you can imagine the additional layers created and intertwined when it’s based on a non-musical play that your own theatrical company first originated.


That’s exactly what South Coast Repertory has been experiencing since 2016. That was the year the artistic brain trust at SCR decided to commission, workshop, develop and stage a musical version of “Prelude to a Kiss,” the Craig Lucas play the Costa Mesa company originated and brought to its stage in 1988.


Non-theater fans most likely know “Prelude” from the 1992 film version starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan. Theater fans, though, know it as a powerful, compelling fantasy-like allegory about romantic love amidst the AIDS health crisis.


What was the original, non-musical 'Prelude' about?

In his 1988 play “Prelude to a Kiss,” playwright Craig Lucas tells the story of Peter and Rita, a couple who fall in love despite Rita’s almost debilitating fears of nearly everything around her – fears that keep her from being open to new experiences and to enjoying life.

 

At the reception after the couple’s wedding, Peter and Rita are approached by Julius, an elderly stranger who asks their permission to give Rita a kiss for good luck. The couple agrees – little realizing that Julius has caused Rita’s soul to enter his ailing frame while he now inhabits a youthful, healthy female body.

 

The now-zestful “Rita” seizes each new day – behavior so unlike her that Peter quickly surmises something perhaps unnatural has occurred. He locates Julius, realizing his beloved Rita is trapped in the old man’s body.

 

For the remainder of “Prelude,” Peter lives with and loves bride Rita despite her outward appearance as the young couple try to figure out how to engineer a reverse-switch of Rita’s and Julius’s bodies and souls. Thematically, Lucas uses the metaphysical switch to explore the nature of love, asking us to examine how much of the love we feel for our significant other is based on physical appearance, how much upon emotions, psyche, personal history and other aspects of his or her personality.

 

Because much of “Prelude” depicts a man expressing love for a person within the physical body of another male, many observers regarded the play as an allegory for couples affected by the epidemic of AIDS throughout the ’80s.



Examining the path from the 1988 “Prelude” to the show about to be unveiled reveals a fascinating creative effort shared by a sizable theatrical team. Its key players have expressed not just enthusiasm but also a sense of wonder that so many moving parts have come together to yield a completely new property for the stage.


Lucas’s connection with SCR spans nearly 40 years and seven productions, including both “Preludes,” “Blue Window” (1985), “Three Postcards” (1987) and “The Light in the Piazza” (2014).


The pedigree of “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical” is singular in that it represents two different SCR-originated works by the same playwright. The show is one of two standalone productions at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival.


Like the original “Prelude,” the musical version is an all-new entity fostered by SCR, one of dozens the company has created and shepherded from inception to completion since first opening its doors 60 years ago.


The production is the first major musical hatched within the company’s new play “incubator,” TheLab@SCR, marking the first time SCR has commissioned, workshopped and then produced the world premiere of an all-new musical. Artistic director David Ivers said he hopes this “Prelude,” and what it took to get it here will spark the creation of additional musicals spawned by the Costa Mesa company.


PHOTO 1: Broadway lyricist Sean Hartley. PHOTO 2: Composer and lyricist Daniel Messé.

Photos courtesy of South Coast Repertory

 

Seeing More in ‘Prelude’ Than Was Originally There

 

“Prelude to a Kiss” world premiered at SCR on January 15, 1988, and after Lucas made revisions to his script, the play had its official opening in New York City on March 14, 1990. The director of both productions was Norman René, a frequent Lucas collaborator on numerous projects. Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker starred in the Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated Broadway staging; Lucas then adapted the play for the 1992 film version, with René again directing and with Baldwin and Meg Ryan in the lead roles.


In the audience of the New York production in the late ’80s was Sean Hartley, who says he “loved the show.”


Hartley had yet to embark on a career as a Broadway lyricist, later crafting lyrics for the Broadway musicals “Cupid and Psyche,” “Little Women,” “Love and Real Estate” and “Sunshine.”


He told Culture OC he “thought it would make a beautiful musical,” but that impression didn’t go from vague to concrete until Hartley learned his friend (and “Cupid” composer) Jihwan Kim was working as the rehearsal pianist for the 2014 production of “An American in Paris,” for which Lucas was book writer.


Hartley said when he found out Kim was working with Craig, “my first thought was ‘he wrote “Prelude,” which is one of my favorite plays, and wouldn’t that be great as a musical.’”


Kim introduced Hartley to Lucas, Hartley saying that at a meeting in early 2015, the “generous, gentle” Lucas heard his reasons for why “Prelude” was viable in musical form.


Craig Lucas has a longstanding working partnership with SCR involving seven productions, including the original, non-musical “Prelude” and the new, musicalized version as well as the plays like 1985’s “Blue Window.” Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Bronwyn Sharp

In an e-interview, Lucas told Culture OC he “had never thought of” the 1988 show as a musical. “The play is a fable, so I suppose it already felt somewhat like a musical, if a twisted one.”


Hartley said when Lucas expressed “a few concerns” to him about the idea, Hartley asked for time to “do a little work on it and bring it to you.”


Hartley wanted to once again team with Kim, whose busy schedule precluded that plan. After a few months, Hartley could only pull “chunks from the play,” with no music, along with “summary verses saying ‘here’s where the song will go and what it will be about’ ” as well as ideas for possible lyrics and song titles, in his second pitch to Lucas.


Lucas was immersed in creating the book for the musical “Amélie,” and it was clear to him that the “Prelude” musical project needed a composer, so he proposed bringing in “Amélie” composer Daniel Messé.


Hammering Out a New Show

 

With that, Hartley, as lyricist, and Messé, as composer, set about adapting “Prelude” into a Broadway-style musical, with the full blessing from Lucas to, as Hartley states,  “go work on it (the original) and discover it.”


Messé’s penchant for writing lyrics was also tapped, and he did so here whenever and wherever he and Hartley agreed upon his suggestions. After two years, Hartley and Messé brought their work to Lucas, who began reworking his original script to suit the new material.


That process, Hartley said, included “dialogue leading into and out of songs” as well as suggesting “songs not duplicating what’s in the script.” A new key character was created in the form of Angie, a best friend to Rita, and the idea of having the story narrated by Peter was removed as an element Hartley said he, Messé and Lucas “didn’t feel we needed.”


Lucas said he was “enormously impressed” with Hartley and Messé’s initial material. Messé said he and Hartley were “always in conversation” with Lucas on the crucial subject of lyrics, noting that Lucas provided invaluable input to he and Hartley in terms of such factors as “capturing a character’s point of view or the way characters speak.”


Over the project’s five-year gestation period, Messé said he and Hartley wrote a total of roughly 50 songs. The completed playlist of “Prelude the Kiss, The Musical” amounts to 18 songs, proving that Hartley, Messé and Lucas were constantly striving to improve and perfect the new show, continuously changing the score and, therefore, undergoing dozens of false starts in terms of completing and integrating songs that were ultimately discarded. In their interviews with Culture OC, all three underscored this perfection-driven stance toward their work on the project.


How different will fans of Lucas’s original find the musical version? Lucas said the addition of songs “changed the temperature of everything in the original, and we found a new approach for who tells the story and what aspects of the narrative wanted reimagining.”

 

Enter SCR, Ivers and COVID-19

 

Lucas said in 2016, once the new project was underway, he approached South Coast Repertory “about helping develop the show.” Artistic director Marc Masterson and his staff agreed to commission the creation and writing of a new musical based on the original “Prelude,” including readings and workshops.


Ivers relates to Culture OC that during his first year at SCR, he greenlit the full development of “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical” based on “a preliminary workshop with a few songs and 14 pages or so” of the script that had been completed.


At the time, late 2018, Ivers was still wrapping things up in his previous position with Arizona Theatre Company, so when SCR held “a table reading with songs,” it made what Ivers calls “a crude video recording” for him.


Ivers said that, while watching the video, the moment he heard the song “I Haven’t Slept in Years,” he just knew SCR had to floor the project’s gas pedal from commission to full development.


“That song captures Rita’s fears about the world,” Ivers told Culture OC. “It just deeply inspired my instinct. I saw that recording, heard that song, and said ‘OK, we’re moving now from commission to development. We’re going to develop it full scale and full scope. We’re committed to the further development sequence.’” He notified his team that the project would now proceed full throttle.


Three years into the process, two things happened which affected the new musical’s fate. First off, Masterson announced he would be leaving SCR in late 2018. Ivers came in as the new artistic director in early 2019.


A year later, in March of 2020, SCR, theaters everywhere and the world were rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.


What the New Elements Add

Messé and Hartley are quick to point out that their creation of music and lyrics and Lucas’s work writing the book of an all-new musical are just the starting point of a creative collaboration that crosses multiple theatrical disciplines.


At the tip of this iceberg are composer Greg Pliska, who has arranged and orchestrated Messé’s music, and Wiley DeWeese, the production’s music director. Messé said the music director of a show like this is “indispensable” and that DeWeese has been especially so. Director Ivers seconds that view when referring to both DeWeese and Pliska while aiming praise at the presence, work and contributions of choreographer Julia Rhoads.


Ivers said choreography “is an extension of my brain. There’s a certain vocabulary this music needs, and Julia is brilliant at interpreting through me how the story is told through the music.” Messé told Culture OC, “I don’t have the capacity to visualize how people embody this music the way she does” and said Rhoads does so and also “honors the music.”


DeWeese and his assistant, Nick Kassoy, lead the eight-piece band that provides the show’s live music and accompanies the cast’s vocals. The production’s design team, assembled by Ivers in 2022, includes Scott Davis (set), Linda Cho and Herin Kaputkin (costumes), Marcus Doshi (lighting), Andrea Allmond (sound) and Yee Eun Nam (projections).


SCR’s producing partner is Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where the production will head once it has ended its run in Orange County.

 

Getting the New ‘Prelude’ Through the Pandemic

 

Lucas relates that he, Hartley and Messé “had a first draft that we performed live at SCR in 2019” –  an Ivers-directed reading at that year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival five years after Lucas and Hartley first met.


The pandemic meant four more years would pass before SCR could confidently put the new show on its season schedule.


Ivers said the presence of COVID damaged the show in that the team “couldn’t get a head of steam for continuity.” The needed momentum, he said, “started to happen last year,” with productive face-to-face meetings in New York and Chicago fueling workshops, casting sessions and concrete decisions – “enough consistent touchpoints as a team to ameliorate the previous three-and-a-half years.”


Would the show have arrived a few years sooner, and been better for it, had the pandemic not occurred?


Ivers’s reply might surprise you.


“The musical and the timing are better now than it ever would have been previously. It’s a salve for our times. It was written about a health crisis in part and now it’s emerging after another one. I think the idea in it, which asks, ‘How far would you go and what would you sacrifice to be with the one you love?,’ is better now than at any other time we could have done the show, and that makes me believe in the magic of the process – a great source of inspiration and vulnerability that I think is focal to the piece.”


Hartley, who first envisioned “Prelude” as a musical, echoes the director’s assessment: “We live in a world of hatred, greed, disinformation, surveillance, war, famine and ecological disaster. And yet people continue to meet and fall in love. Even in the harshest of times, people find beauty, strength and hope in each other’s arms.”

‘Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical’

Where: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Through May 5

Admission: $34 to $112

Information: 714-708-5500, scr.org

Key Songs from 'Prelude'

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