A troubled musical that never made it to Broadway is getting a second chance in London, counting on the Midas touch of director Trevor Nunn.
Nunn has made international hits out of "Cats," "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables." Now he has turned his attention to "The Baker's Wife," an American show which closed on the road over a decade ago and has yet to be seen on Broadway."I really do think it can give pleasure; I know that it can work," said Nunn during rehearsals before the show opened Nov. 27 to mixed reviews.
Based on Marcel Pagnol's 1938 French film "La Femme du Boulanger," with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Godspell") and a book by Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"), the musical is playing at the Phoenix Theater.
Sharon Lee Hill, who is married to Nunn, plays the eponymous baker's wife, an adulterous young bride in 1930s Provence, in southern France.
Alun Armstrong, the original innkeeper Thenardier in "Les Miserables," is the cuckolded French baker, and Drue Williams plays the proverbial other man.
The original production, starring Topol in his American stage debut, opened in Los Angeles in the summer of 1976. By the time it closed in November at The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, it had been through so many rewrites, directors and cast changes that its creators forbade the show to move to Broadway.
It was meant to open at the Martin Beck Theater the week of Nov. 15 as then-producer David Merrick's 90th Broadway show.
"By that time, we felt the show was not ours any longer," recalled Stein. "Traumatic is a little too strong a word; it was a painful experience.
"The show we are now opening is very much the show we had hoped to have originally." The 77-year-old Stein added that it has affinities to his two biggest hits, "Fiddler on the Roof" (1964) and "Zorba" (1968).
"It's about how an experience of some people in a village changes the community," said Stein, whose last Broadway show was the ill-fated 1986 "Rags," with Teresa Stratas.
"It's like `Fiddler' and `Zorba' in that this is a community of very simple, rather rudimentary people with elementary passions both comedic and serious."
Nunn said both Stein and Schwartz had to be talked into reapproaching their show: "It was a wound they didn't necessarily want to reopen, and therefore being true to the material has been the most important task.
"I felt if ever Stephen and Joe thought again that those people presenting the show were being random, were being panicked, were concerned with results rather than intentions, then their hearts would be broken."
His company, Homevale Ltd., has an undisclosed investment in the production, as does Broadway producer James M. Nederlander.
Nunn first encountered the music from "The Baker's Wife" at Broadway auditions for "Cats" in 1982. He heard it again three years later at New York auditions for "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables."
The show was recorded privately following its pre-Broadway run, with Paul Sorvino and Patti LuPone singing the main roles. Its best-known number, the lilting "Meadowlark," is featured on Sarah Brightman's new album "The Songs That Got Away."
Nunn acknowledged "The Baker's Wife" marks a change from his past spectaculars. "It's a traditional Broadway book musical. .. . I myself hugely enjoy that moment where music enters, and there's a frisson, a wonderful tingle."
The director has staged two other London shows this year: Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Aspects of Love," and Shakespeare's "Othello," with Ian McKellen and Willard White.
"Aspects of Love" is scheduled to open April 3 on Broadway, but Nunn feels it's too early to say whether "The Baker's Wife" will follow suit.
"The show has a wonderful community feel," he said, "but that's not at all the same as the considerations that come in to doing something on Broadway where everyone says, `Yeah, but is it new? Is it revolutionary? Is it the talk of the town?"'