It’s a real homecoming for Leon, 66, of Atlanta, who rose to prominence in 1990 when he was named artistic director of the Alliance. He eventually launched his own Atlanta theater company, True Colors, and burst onto the national stage, winning a Tony Award for directing “Fences” in 2010 and a Drama Desk Award for directing “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2014, and nailing it all. he tried his hand at television musicals at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.
“I still own a house in Cobb County,” he says, back in Atlanta rehearsing the new musical. “This is the first time in nearly 20 years that I have returned to the Alliance stage. It’s a beautiful thing to come home. I feel like I’m coming home to celebrate with all the people who made me. It means a lot to me.”
Three years ago, theater producer Marc Madnick bought the rights to the film “Trading Places” with the idea of making it a Broadway musical, and brought in another production company, the Michael Cassel Group. To adapt it, they hired Lennon, who is best known for his years as Lieutenant Dangle on the TV series “Reno: 911!”, but is now primarily a writer.
“We certainly struggled for a while,” says Lennon. “If you were to take the film and do some kind of charcoal rubbing where you transfer it to another piece of paper, that wouldn’t work for an audience today. There’s some really funny stuff, but also some problematic stuff. , insensitive and just weird stuff.
The challenge was to make it fresh and relevant.
“Kenny said if we did it now, it had to say something big about now,” Lennon recalled.
“I want to make plays and stories that matter in people’s lives today,” says Leon. “I don’t want to make museum pieces. If I can make this property say something about the times we live in, then that’s exciting. Otherwise…”
Among Leon’s suggestions: Murphy’s character, Billy Ray Valentine, is now a hustler named Billy Rae Valentine (played by Aneesa Folds of the hip-hop improv musical group Freestyle Love Supreme.).
This gender shift is key to Leon. “It’s a completely different show” as a result, he says. “Black women have been through so much in this country. In many ways, they are the force and the backbone of so many political changes.
One of the film’s few likable characters, Butler Coleman, is now the series’ narrator. It starts the audience in the present, then tells the story as a long flashback to the 1980s. Keeping the story in that decade allows for plenty of big hair, shoulder pads, and retrospective humor.
Another major change is the elimination of Ophelia, the prostitute with a heart of gold played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the film. That role in the plot is now filled by a gay drag performer named Phil (Joe Montoya).
Also in the cast: Bryce Pinkham as Aykroyd in Louis Winthorpe III, Marc Kudisch and Lenny Wolpe as the Duke brothers and McKenzie Kurtz as Penelope, Winthrop’s fiancée.
The Alliance is one of the few major regional American theaters where Broadway-bound shows sometimes hit their stride, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, before taking on the really big Great White Way expenses.
Alliance chief executive Mike Schleifer said the company had staged 16 such shows in cooperation with producing partners, beginning in the early 1990s. Among the hits: “Aida”, “The Color Purple “, “Sister Act” and “The Prom”. Among the failures: A musical version of “Bull Durham”.
“Each of them is different,” Schleifer says. Producers usually approach the Alliance to propose a partnership. The Alliance is reviewing the script to see if they are interested.
“We know how much we would normally spend on a self-produced show. Then we come up with what we think it will cost to put on a big show with some Broadway expectations, some New York designers, maybe 25 people on stage and 15 people in the pit,” he explains. .
Anything over what the Alliance would spend on regular production, commercial producers pay, hoping to get their money back later.
He won’t talk about specific dollars, but says “Trading Places” costs about four times as much as a self-produced Alliance production.
There is no single formula for what makes a new musical movement successful from the Alliance to Broadway. “It has to be commercially viable, and what’s commercially viable isn’t always the highest level of art,” he says.
The creative team agrees that Broadway is the goal, but talking about it seems to make them a little nervous, like you’re talking about the Scottish play to a Shakespearean actor.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” says Leon. “I want to have a big production here, and then everything will be fine.”
But, he adds, “the piece will have a future. We’re not doing this just for Atlanta.
“Trading Places: The Musical.” World premiere. May 25-June 26. $25 – $78. Alliance Theater, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org