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London Theater: Martin Guerre

February 3, 1999

LEEDS, England (AP) _ The show the British theater had given up for dead has come back to life in northern England, with plans to travel to New York.

The musical ``Martin Guerre″ was thought by many to be history when it closed in the West End in February 1998 after a 20-month run.

Though it had won the Olivier Award _ London’s equivalent of the Tony _ as the 1996-97 season’s best musical, it lost nearly $8 million and never sold out.

Its financial failure, coupled with mixed reviews at best, made ``Martin Guerre″ a long shot to travel the world-beating path of ``Les Miserables″ and ``Miss Saigon,″ two earlier smash hits by the same composer-lyricist team of Claud-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil.

Its difficulties also seemed to confirm the apparent end of the British musical boom, a theatrical phenomenon of the 1980s that wasn’t holding up into the ’90s. Indeed, London hasn’t had a commercially successful homegrown musical since ``Miss Saigon″ almost a decade ago.

But such a scenario didn’t reckon with the tenacity of producer Cameron Mackintosh.

``I’m a firm believer in shows making their own life,″ said Mackintosh, who was prepared to resurrect ``Martin Guerre″ in much the same way as its title character _ a Frenchman who is presumed killed in the religious wars of the Reformation until he returns to his village of Artigat.

Film buffs may recognize the title from both 1982′s ``The Return of Martin Guerre,″ an art-house blockbuster with Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, and the less admired American version, 1993′s ``Sommersby,″ with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

It’s a 16th-century saga, with a central issue of mistaken identity, as wife Bertrande at first takes the newly arrived Arnaud du Thil for her long-absent husband, Martin.

Mackintosh thought it was ripe for the musical stage. ``If you believe in something as a worthwhile piece of writing, which I do about `Martin Guerre,′ then you keep it going,″ he said.

Accordingly, and working with an entirely fresh creative team, Mackintosh opened a scaled-down version of the show in December at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, 2 1/2 hours by train from London.

Directed now by Irishman Conall Morrison, the new ``Martin Guerre″ was met mostly with raves. The show also has its first true leading lady in rising star Joanna Riding as the emotionally conflicted Bertrande.

The musical finishes in Leeds on Feb. 13 before a six-month British tour.

After that: an American premiere (with a separate cast) Sept. 28 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, followed by a North American tour (if all goes well) to Boston, Washington, Chicago and Toronto, before opening on Broadway in March 2000.

Its creators say they feel vindicated by the hard-won success of a show that has taken more than seven years to fire up the public.

And though there remains something fundamentally dour and even ponderous about its narrative, there’s no denying the excellence of the production, which places the focus firmly on the anguished love triangle of Riding’s Bertrande, her newly passionate lover Arnaud (played by Matthew Cammelle) and Arnaud’s friend-turned-romantic rival, Martin (a firm-voiced Stephen Weller).

``They really have gone back to square one,″ said Riding, whose London credits include ``Guys and Dolls″ and her Olivier Award-winning performance as Julie Jordan in ``Carousel.″

``Once I knew that they were doing everything possible to get it right, no matter how much reshaping that took, I was convinced it was a project for me to do,″ she said.

This version puts Bertrande front and center, insofar as it is she who must decide whether to forsake her feelings for the fake ``Martin″ _ Arnaud _ in favor of the child-husband whom she barely knew (and with whom she had no physical intimacy) before he went off to war.

The story unfolds against a backdrop of the religious hysteria of the age, as transmitted by a community whose excess zealotry recalls the witch hunt that propels Arthur Miller’s classic play, ``The Crucible.″

``The whole of it now is so earthy,″ Riding said, ``so gritty. There’s nothing pretty or fluffy about it; it’s just grit _ all the blood and the spit and the gore.″

Director Morrison, 32, said he wanted to heighten the show’s ``rough, peasant angle.″ Assisting him in that goal was choreographer David Bolger, who staged the Bacchanalian dances in the film version of ``Dancing at Lughnasa,″ with Meryl Streep.

``In certain respects, the fundamental mistake was to conceive `Martin Guerre’ on the same lines as `Les Mis’ and `Miss Saigon,‴ Morrison said. ``This is a smaller, more intimate, darker story, so we needed to get back to the dark, beating heart of the piece.″

Co-librettist and co-lyricist (with Stephen Clark), Boublil said he and Schonberg were simply unable to think ahead until they had gotten ``Martin Guerre″ out of their system.

``We were trying to think about our next show, and every time we had a new idea, we came back to `Martin Guerre,‴ said Boublil, a Tunisia-born Frenchman who lives in London.

Asked to contribute something fresh for a gala tribute last summer to honor Mackintosh’s prolific career, Boublil said, ``We were going to write a song for the event, and before we knew it, we’d written something for `Martin Guerre.′ Our heads were completely into `Martin Guerre.′ ″

Now, with the show’s ever-widening exposure all but guaranteed, Boublil said he preferred to quote Mackintosh on this particular musical’s hoped-for legacy.

``We’re not interested in it being a success,″ he said. ``We want it to be a classic.″

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