South Coast Repertory Welcomes Back an Old Friend in Musical

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SANTA ANA (CNS) - When playwright Craig Lucas began working on a musical version of his play "Prelude to a Kiss" three decades later, he felt as if he were adapting someone else's work.

"It was so long ago that I wrote it," he told City News Service about his play, which debuted at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa in 1988. "It's a lifetime. I'm not that person anymore. So it was almost like approaching the underlying material that was done by someone else, and I tend not to be someone who looks to go back or looks back or revisits productions of my old plays. It's not interesting to me. I'm very geared toward what's next."

But "Prelude to a Kiss: The Musical" isn't just a nostalgic trip for Lucas.

"It's fun to return to the story," he said. "But we also really rethought it in a way that feels new to me. There's a chorus. ... In the play, the narrative is by Peter, but in the musical it is not. It has a different framing with many aspects."

Previews begin at 7 p.m. Sunday at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, and the play will continue through May 4.

Even for audiences who may have seen a production of the original play or the movie that starred Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan, they'll be in for a new experience with the musical, Lucas said.

"What you're going to be most surprised by is two hours of music and singing, and no one's heard these songs," Lucas said. "They're thrilling. They're impactful. They're very tuneful, and a lot of them are incredibly funny, and lot of them are profoundly moving."

The songwriters -- Sean Hartley and Daniel Messe -- have added a new element to the story, Lucas said.

"I find what the songwriters brought to this was a tremendous amount of compassion," he said.

The story involves a woman who swaps body with a terminally ill man through a magical kiss at her wedding reception, and her newlywed husband's attempts to reverse it. The bride, Rita Boyle, has a pessimistic world view, but Lucas said that while she may have been viewed as neurotic in the 1980s, she might seem more reasonable to audiences now.

"There are certain things about the piece that were prescient," he said. "Women tended to find (Rita) neurotic -- charmingly so, but her worries about the world struck people as extreme and unfounded, and now the world has changed and very few people would say the fears of human extinction are radical or insane."

New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote of the original Broadway production that it was an allegory for the AIDS crisis rocking the world at the time.

Lucas praised Rich "as probably the smartest and profoundly influential drama critic The Times has ever had," and "what he saw in the piece was not so unusual. ... He knew that I'm queer and I was certainly at the epicenter of people getting sick in the beginning, but it's interesting to do the piece now because it's about shared human mortality, and it's about change and what happens when you love someone and what kind of changes love makes possible. So thematically that base was always there."

And although the AIDS crisis has subsided, the world faces other challenges, Lucas acknowledged.

"It's not just climate change," Lucas said. "The world is very perilous at this moment, and seemingly more perilous. The threat of extinction has existed since the first explosion of the atomic bomb."

Still, there are some parts of the story that remain timeless.

"Rita is gripped by fear, but she isn't sure if she wants to live her life, and (her husband) is a man who meets a woman and is desperate to have a family and kids, and he's deeply in love with her, and she doesn't want to have kids, but he loves her so much he decides to forgo that wish," Lucas said. "That ... doesn't feel antiquated."

The production was done with Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and it will be part of that company's 2024-25 season. South Coast Repertory commissioned the musical in 2016 and, three years later, artistic director David Ivers directed it as a featured reading at the Pacific Playwrights Festivals. When he took over as South Coast Repertory's artistic director in 2018, he decided to stage it in Costa Mesa, but the pandemic slowed down production.

Lucas is glad to see his original vision renewed.

"I really like the form" of musicals, he said. "I like that you can take relatively complex or real concerns in the world and elevate them through music. So there's a more passionate, thrilling thing that happens to this story when they're singing -- it grabs you by the throat and carries you forward in a way that I find really rewarding."

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