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A Little Duke Musical

It's Friday the thirteenth, but Zannie Voss is all smiles.


 A day earlier, the producers of "Little Women," a musical adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, announced to the world that they had finally landed their star. Sutton Foster, who just a few days later took the final bow in her Tony Award-winning performance as the lead in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," will fill the cornerstone role of Jo, the headstrong, tomboyish leader of the four March sisters who come of age in Civil War-era America.


 "[Foster] is a phenomenal talent," gushes Voss, producing director for "Little Women," director of Theater Previews at Duke and associate professor of the practice, as she excitedly hands over a print-out of's article on the Foster announcement. "She is well-known in New York right now; I think it won't be long before her name is a household name around the country."


 Not to mention in Durham, N.C. Before New York and the rest of the world see Foster's follow-up to her "Millie" turn, she will nail down her lines and perfect her solos in the friendly confines of Duke's Reynolds Theater.


 The producers had long sought Foster, who's blessed with a goosebump-enducing voice and standing-ovation beauty, but although she loved the role of Jo, Foster could not leave "Millie" in time to make "Little Women's" planned opening in mid-February.


 Well, actually, it was today--Friday the thirteenth of February--that Jo would have made her debut.


 Sitting comfortably in her Bivins Building office on East Campus, Voss steals a glance at a nearby calendar and smiles wryly at the irony that if things had initially worked out with Foster, curtain would be in six hours and she'd be drowning in last-minute preparations.


 It begs the question: Why in God's name would the creators and producers--some of whom had already invested almost seven years of their lives into getting "Little Women" off the ground--ever want to open their show, their love, their baby on Friday the thirteenth? Might as well run a black cat across the Reynolds stage during the overture or make the cast warm up their voices by do-re-mi-ing over and over the word "Macbeth."


 Voss has an easy answer: It was the only day that would have worked, taking into account the desire to open on a weekend, as well as the availability of Reynolds and the Washington Duke Inn, where Theater Previews always holds its opening night parties.


 "It was a choice--be superstitious or bite the bullet and open on Friday the thirteenth," Voss says.


 But a Friday-the-thirteenth curtain never did happened because the producers decided that rather than cast another actress, they would wait for Foster to end her run in "Millie."


 And although she doesn't tell me, Voss has learned on this supposed-to-be-unlucky Friday that "Little Women" has also secured its second holy grail--a guaranteed theater on Broadway in February 2005.


 The Sutton casting generated buzz up and down Broadway, and New York theater conglomerate Jujamcyn suddenly found prime real estate--but it wasn't right. The producers turned down the space, hoping for a better fit.


 "Sure enough, by end of day Friday, we got a phone call from [producer] Randall [Wreghitt] saying that [Jujamcyn] had guaranteed us a theater." The one they wanted.


 A star and a theater in two days--not bad as a couple of early Valentine's Day gifts.


 Jack Lemmon. Kevin Spacey. Jason Alexander. Marlo Thomas. Jason Robards. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Julie Harris. Nathan Lane.


 At only 28, Foster hasn't quite gained the reputation of this Who's Who of theatrical elite, but come this fall, she will join their ranks as top stage stars who have performed in Broadway-bound productions on Duke's campus.


 In the mid-1980s, legendary producer and Duke adjunct professor Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg, along with famed playwright and friend Neil Simon, founded the Broadway Previews series at the University. The program first brought Azenberg's Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starring Lemmon and Spacey, to Reynolds in 1986. Over the next seven years, a flurry of award-winning productions began their journeys at Duke, including Simon's "Broadway Bound" and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor;" "Metamorphosis" with Baryshnikov; and Tom Stoppard's "Artist Descending a Staircase."


 Broadway Previews afforded the opportunity to not just see Broadway's biggest names right on campus, but to have the chance to intern on Azenberg's and others' productions.


 And now, more than a decade later, two Duke graduates--Dani Davis and David Richards--who once stared in awe at the grandeur of "putting it together," are poised to call the shots.


 "Manny had a passion for theater that I think is contagious," says Richards, general manager for "Little Woman" and a house manager intern for "Metamorphosis" back in 1989. "It was that passion and that commitment as well as the real vision that you could earn a living not on the stage, but still being a part of that sort of drove me to follow it as a career."


 When rehearsals begin Sept. 7, Richards hopes to offer current students the same experience.


 "Whether you're sitting there with the lighting designer, whether you're sitting there with the technical director, or whether you're sitting there with the manager or producer--it sort of gives you a flavor of what the business is like and what they do," he says.


 Davis, point producer for "Little Women," who did her own internship on a Broadway Previews production, also remembers the enthusiasm of these productions, which eventually led her to shift from from dancing and acting on stage to developing and coordinating.


 "I'm really excited about creating that again with undergrads because I know that it was very influential for me--not necessarily professionaly but just in life--to have that," she says. "There you are in North Carolina--and a lot of times you think you are in the middle of nowhere and the fact is, you're not--but to have the world come to you is exciting."


 It's one thing to have the world come to you, but another thing to make the world aware of you. Azenberg and Duke were determined to do just that.


 During the heyday of Broadway Previews, Zannie Voss was working at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and recalls constantly hearing about Azenberg's efforts at Duke.


 "I can remember reading articles about Duke University getting all of this national recognition for launching projects that were going into New York," Voss says. "That's a big deal for a university to do that. Most university departments are wonderful at educating young people but don't take the leap at figuring out how to connect the education with a professional theater world."


 After "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" premiered in 1993, the series hit a lag, and in 1996, the drama program's Richard Riddell offered Voss a position at Duke and the chance to rethink Broadway Previews so that Duke would not just benefit from the tail end of a project right before its opens, but would take a more active producing role in the projects and, in turn, create a richer experience for students.


 What they came up with was Theater Previews at Duke. The professional producing arm of Duke's department of theater studies, Theater Previews brings new musicals and plays with Great-White-Way aspirations to Duke to be developed in a laboratory environment. Shows can mature away from the often-searing spotlight of New York, and students can intern with playwrights, composers, actors, directors, designers, managers, technicians, you name it.


 By 1998, Duke was co-producing "Kudzu" with Ford's Theater of Washington, D.C., and the program was alive and kicking. Today, Voss' office receives some 50 new scripts a year, before narrowing them down to about five, and ultimately one, two or sometimes none. Indeed, one of the great freedoms of the artistically-motivated Theater Previews is that it does not need to produce a six-show season each year like other non-profit theater companies, and that it can take a year or two off if the right material doesn't present itself.


 There are some requirements for any show accepted by Theater Previews. The works must be new and the playwright has to work and live in residence at Duke during development and production, thereby complementing the University's research mission and fostering new development just as the University fosters new discoveries in the sciences.


 "We're looking for works of theater that have a lot of meat," Voss explains. She looks for plays with intellectual components to generate discussion on and off campus, and producers willing to offer student internships. "[We want] things that are well written, and are also looking for pieces that still need a little bit of work, so that we can put Duke's resources behind really making a contribution to the further development of a new work."


 Supported by the theater department, the president's and dean's offices, and local donors, corporations and foundations, Theater Previews typically puts up betwen $130,000 and $250,000 to co-produce this first stage of shows. Once "Little Women" reaches Broadway, Duke will no longer serve as an acting producer and will begin taking a royalty of about 1 percent of profits. (Only one Theater Previews show, "A Thousand Clowns," has ever actually reached that stage, and Duke puts those royalties back into the program, particularly helping in the funding of workshops, which bring in virtually no revenue.)


 Although capitalization for the entire production will run about $5.6 million (that's the estimated cost through opening night on Broadway--relatively low for a musical), the pre-production and run at Duke will cost a little more than $800,000--a number that Voss says would likely be much higher elsewhere.


 So that's reason one for beginning a show's journey at Duke, far from the neon lights. It's cheap.


 But producers are also drawn to Duke because of what a university community offers and because Durham is not, well, New York.


 "We get to partner with someone who has a good audience for the show already," says "Little Women" producer Randall Wreghitt, a Tony Award winner who also produced Theater Preview's last project, the Marlo Thomas- and F. Murray Abraham-vehicle, "Paper Doll." "There are financial breaks by working out of town, and it lets us develop out of the glare of New York. New York is very harsh on new musicals. You don't really get that opportunity to try things. Out of town, we'll get to do that."


 Richards echoes those sentiments, particularly on the ability to experiment.


 "The New York environment at times can be looking for shows to fail or looking for problems and wanting to report them, and I think getting outside of New York hopefully creates an environment where you can try something one night," Richards says. "You can put a new song in and see if it works, and if it doesn't work, you take it back out. And you can't do that easily in New York, because if there is a problem with it, it gets around pretty quickly."


 The change of venue also allows the artists involved to focus on their task at hand. Relatively isolated in Durham, artists do not have the distractions that they do at home. There's no need to pick up the kids from basketball practice or run off to an audition. Their only purpose is to concentrate on their work. Ultimately, Voss says, the artists and producers also seem to get reinvigorated by their interaction with students on campus--via the internships, guest lectures, panel discussions and visits to theater classes--and the results are almost always evident in the final product.


 The trees just would not move.


 The opening of Hoof 'N' Horn's 1987 production of "Brigadoon" was less than a week away, and the moveable trees that the student musical theater group's set designer had built for the show simply refused to slide smoothly on their tracks.


 Needless-to-say, the characters weren't exactly winding their way through a lush, breathing forest, as envisioned. Rehearsals became tree-centric, with the other elements of the performance--the dancing in particular--taking the back burner.


 Davis, a junior at the time, was choreographer of "Brigadoon," and now, as she prepares to once again work on a show at the Univeristy, she recalls the tree experience as one of her craziest with the typically-zany Hoof 'N' Horn--perhaps mostly because a musical's choreography isn't quite the same when its moving scenery isn't, well, moving.


 "Our trees sort of chugged along in a very jerky fashion. They were enormous, you couldn't avoid them, and they were everywhere," Davis says, punctuating each memory with an enthusiastic laugh. "Our set designer was so intent on their working, he refused to cut the moving of the trees.... I had to keep cutting back choreography because we spent so much time in tech we didn't have the time to rehearse anything."


 Davis still remembers the "Brigadoon" review that appeared in The Chronicle soon thereafter: "[It] said that the choreography was 'statuesque.'"


 The next year, Davis became Hoof 'N' Horn president, taking helm of all the group's productions, while still acting on stage herself.

"That was just crazy because I felt like I was wearing lots of hats; I wasn't just assigned one role to play in this mechanism," Davis says almost 17 years later, from her Manhattan apartment. "That was probably my first exposure to what I do now--which is that juggling and wearing so many hats."


 Davis, teamed up with former Hoof 'N' Horn-er Richards, is now juggling the responsibilities of a show slightly bigger than "Brigadoon" and "Baby"--namely, the $5.6 million Broadway-bound, "Little Women." And Richards, once a "statuesque" actor whom Davis choreograpraphed in the face of the arbol adversity of "Brigadoon," is overseeing much of the rest--budgeting, contracting, insurance, union negotiations and the like. Once upon a time, Richards says he "pitied Dani for watching me dance," and now the two of them are back at Duke, watching "Little Women" weather its own equivilent of stationary trees.


 A little math reveals that "Little Women's" Broadway debut will take place almost exactly a year from when it was originally supposed to open at Duke and about seven years since Davis first discovered Allan Knee's libretto and decided that she would not stop until she saw the title on a marquee in Times Square.


 As Wreghitt will remind you, at seven years, "Little Women" will beat the Broadway average of eight years from discovery to opening night. Its journey to that point, however, has been a little bit more tumultous than the typical musical--and delaying six months to land Foster as the lead was the least of those challenges.


 In 1999, after "Little Women" had been in development for about a year with its original bookwriter, composer, lyricist and director, Davis and Wreghitt held the first workshop in New York--a typical step to generate interst in the production, in which actors read the script for a select audience.


 "We invited every industry person possible, and we had people at intermission coming to us saying, 'I want $250,000,' 'I want $500,000,'" Davis says of the first offers of investment. "Randall Wreghitt and I stood outside of that workship looking at each other only to know that the other person felt like the show wasn't ready to move ahead. And here were all these people responding and neither of us was responding."


 What didn't work to the producers was the score and the lyrics, and so they took the rather difficult step of firing the composer and lyricist.


 "Prior to that workshop we knew that the development was kind of going nowhere," Davis adds. "We knew that the writers had sort of done the best work they could do, and we knew that the best work they could do wasn't going to be good enough to make this thing last for 100 years or more. Ultimately, we had to let go of them."


 In the business, when you fire your songwriters, they take their songs with them. In stepped composer Jason Howland, a former producer on the show, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, to take over, and about two years later, when they had devised an entire new score for the show, Davis turned her eye back toward Duke. The Theater Previews production of "A Thousand Clowns," had been pushed back a few months, leaving a window of opportunity for a second workshop of "Little Women."


 "We wanted to get out of New York and put it up on its feet and see what it was," Davis says. "We got down to Duke, and the score was terrific, book's great, but we realized that the director was still directing the old show."


 She lets out a laugh that rings somewhere between genuine amusement and reserved frustration.


 "That was thrilling. It was pretty crazy," she continues. "We come back to New York, and we say to our director, 'Do you think you can move this forward?' And he said, 'You know what? I don't think I can. I think I have an allegiance to what it was.'"


 And so, the producers made another risky call: They fired their director.


 "Along the way way we've made some really tough decisions," Wreghitt, a seasoned veteran of the theater, explains. "It was no reflection on talents--as the project changed, it became something different."


 Susan Schulman was hired as the new director, and as she worked closely for a year with Knee, Howland and Dickstein, the "Little Women" team, including Ken Gentry as another principle producer, looked to find a way to get their show to Broadway.


 Davis once again turned to her alma mater, and Voss eagerly welcomed "Little Women" as Duke's latest Theater Previews venture. Very soon, however, Voss needed to break a bit of bad news: they did not actually have a theater. At the time, the new parking garage and a theater department addition to the Bryan Center were under rather cacophonous construction, and trucks could not even reach Reynolds' back stage loading dock, deeming a production of "Little Women" impossible at that moment. Voss suggested the producers consider moving elsewhere, but they decided to hold out for a September 2003 rehearsal period and October opening--long after the obstructing projects were expected to be completed.


 "As construction projects are wont to do, this one went over schedule just a little bit," bumbing back "Little Women" to a January to February 2004 window, Voss says. That was, of course, if they could land their star in time.


 "Sutton said there was no way she could leave 'Millie' and come directly into 'Little Women,'" Davis says. "But she said if we decided to move it to the fall, would we please let her know. And at the time, I'm sitting there saying, 'Well, we're not gonna do that.' You'd think I'd learn by now.


 "I called [Voss] five weeks away from rehearsal and I said, 'You know, we don't have a Jo, and we can't do a show without a lead,' and so we moved it, again.'"


 And now, all the elements are finally in place: the libretto, score and lyrics are works-in-progress, but are on good footing; the 15-member ensemble is totally cast; the preview theaters in Durham and New Haven, Conn., are booked; and the final New York house is guarunteed.


 "We are over the moon that a year out, we know where we are going," Davis says.


 So how good are "Little Women's" prospects, considering the vast majority of Broadway musicals close before they recoup their costs?


 Ask Dani Davis, and she'll tell you that in 75 years the theater world will still be talking about the musical that survived the firing of the original composer, lyricist and director, not to mention an overdue construction project behind the Bryan Center.


 All parties involved think the themes of the show--and indeed of the source material that they have worked so hard to honor--will continue to resonate with a wide range of theatergoers, many of whom grew up reading Alcott's children's novel.


 "The first whole half of the book is about a family coping with a father away at war and a country at war and there's a great many people unfortunately right back in that circumstance--single parent at home, coping with this sort of thing," explains Wreghitt. "And then, of course, the issues that the heroine and her friends all go through--timeless issues like growing up, moving on, what are you going to amount to in the world and so on."


 Indeed, those yet-to-be-selected student interns and those undergraduates who will venture to Reynolds come Oct. 13 to catch the show's unveiling may recognize themselves in Jo and the other characters.


 "It's a piece where we could have audience members of all ages coming, but at the same time, where Duke students can really relate to this point in somebody's life--that sense of exploring who you are and where you're going to venture out to--where your future's going to be," says Voss.


 For Davis and Richards, the debut will be a homecoming as they venture back to where stilted trees and Manny Azenberg's Broadway previews ignited their passion to produce.


 "'Little Women' is a very unique American story: There is nothing and out of nothing comes way more than something," Davis says.


 With a little bit of luck, "Little Women" will really be something--and opening night in New York won't fall on Friday the thirteenth.


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