Wednesday, June 22, 2016

a conversation with Peter Hill, director of LEND ME A TENOR: THE MUSICAL at Fountain Hills Theater

Peter Hill
by Gil Benbrook

Ken Ludwig's Tony winning play Lend Me a Tenor is a comedy that is produced fairly frequently, having been seen in the Valley at two theatre companies just last season. The original Broadway production was a hit, running for over a year, and was nominated for nine Tony Awards. 

Fountain Hills Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the recent musical version of the play, appropriately titled Lend Me a Tenor: the Musical, which opens on Friday and runs through July 10th.

Set in 1934, Ludwig's play features mistaken identity, romance, plenty of farce, and a world-famous Italian opera tenor who has been hired to play 'Otello' for the ten-year anniversary of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company.  When the tenor becomes unexpectedly incapacitated it requires the immediate need for a suitable replacement. But who is cavalier enough to replace him? Surely not the sheepish Opera Director's Assistant Max? Hilarity and shear panic ensue.

While Lend Me a Tenor has been enormously successful, it's also a play that has been besieged recently with some controversy. While the play isn't intentionally malicious, some critics and audience members have stated that, even though the audience is asked to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, the use of 'black face' to transform the two white tenors in the play into 'Otello' is offensive, insulting and out of date. 

So when Fountain Hills' Managing Artistic Director Peter J. Hill decided to present the musical adaptation of the play he knew he had to do something to alleviate anyone's potential concerns. He made a few small changes to the script and songs lyrics, which completely eliminated the need for 'black face,' and submitted them for approval from the company that licenses the show. He was pleasantly surprised when they were approved. Controversy happily averted.

Hill sat down to answer some questions about his experience with Tenor, the musical adaptation of the comedy and his decision behind making the changes to the script, as well as plans for Fountain Hills' upcoming 30th anniversary season. 

Is the musical version similar to the plot of the play? If not, what are the differences?

"The plot line, of course, is the same, but Peter Sham, the librettist, has expanded the locations and cast.  Events to which are only referred in the original are played out in the musical.  We see the opera in rehearsal, we see the much heralded arrival of Tito Merelli, etc. and most of these events are set to music in the wonderful score by Brad Carroll.  There are some really great tunes in this show!  For those who know the show well, they will notice a slight difference in the pairing of the couples by the end, and there is a third ‘tenor’, which makes for some great laughs. The biggest change for those who know the show is the elimination of Frank, the Bellhop. Not surprisingly, his part has been expanded to become an ensemble of singing and dancing bellhops and maids.  The role of Julia Leveritt has also been expanded to three ‘Ladies of the Opera Guild’ all of whom were, at one time or another, married to Henry Saunders, the producer.  They are all named Anna.  Anna one, Anna two, Anna three….get it?"

Have you directed the original play version of the show at Fountain Hills before?

"I directed the Arizona Premier of the show at Phoenix Theater, two productions at The Copperstate Dinner Theater, as well as a production here at Fountain Hills Theater.  I’ve also played Tito Merelli. I guess I know the show pretty well by now!"

Was the decision to write your own updated changes to the script and score simply based on the use of blackface in the original plot, which came under fire on social media last season as being very outdated when two theatres in town presented the play version of the show? Or was it something else?

"Frankly, it was the threats made to a local theater.  We felt this would help relieve any tensions. The decision to eliminate the make-up for Otello is not original with me.  I’d heard of the original being done as Pagliacci before and Diane Senffer, who appears in this production, also reminded me of it early in production."

Michael Stewart as Max, Alex Gonzalez as Tito and Roy Hunt as Saunders
photo: Patty Torrilhon
How difficult was it in rewriting the show, and how much of the piece have you updated?

"I had to make two lyric changes and about a dozen line changes.  The line changes consisted almost entirely of changing the word ‘Otello’ to ‘Pagliacci’, so it was not difficult.  The lyric changes we a bit more challenging.  I’m glad to say, I was able to do this without changing the lyricist’s intent or meaning."

What was the process like in getting the changes approved?

"I wish I could say I jumped through many hoops, but Melody at Steele Spring Theatrical Rights was a godsend.  I sent her the changes, she forwarded them to the authors who approved."

Jennifer Harrington as Maggie, Alex Gonzalez as Tito
 Janine Smith as Diana Divane
photo: Patty Torrilhon
Were you surprised that your changes got approved?
"A bit, but I’d heard that Ken Ludwig, the author of the original play, had approved this change before for his play, so I had hopes."

Since you rewrote some of the dialogue as well as the song lyrics, what type of experience do you have with playwriting and songwriting?

"I am the author of more than a dozen plays and musicals.  All of those that premiered in Phoenix have won Best Original Production and/or Original Script/Composition AriZoni Awards."

What do you hope audiences will take away from your production of Lend Me a Tenor?

"A fun night out at the theater! and a season ticket order form for 2016-17!"

Fountain Hills is coming up on their 30th Anniversary season. What special things have you planned to celebrate that anniversary?

"Our Board has several special events planned that will be rolled out as the year progresses, but our first event is a high energy, multi-media retrospective that we’ve named ’30 Years – The Show!’.  It opens August 19 and plays through the 28th.  It will feature many FHT alumni and great moments from our past.  And on Monday, Sept 12, we will be having a theater based ‘Jeopardy’- style tournament challenging our audience and performers to be contestants."

for more information on Lend Me a Tenor: the Musical, which runs from June 24th to July 10th at Fountain Hills Theater, CLICK HERE

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