From a producer’s point of view, now might be just about the best of times to float a Broadway musical based on “A Tale of Two Cities,” the Charles Dickens classic. With the long-running show “Les Misérables” safely in mothballs, the niche is wide open for a tuneful epic of injustice and retribution played out against the backdrop of France in chaos.
Not that the self-taught Jill Santoriello, who wrote the new show’s book, lyrics and music without one previous theatrical credit to her name, was driven by such calculations. She began the score during the first Reagan administration.
That, Ms. Santoriello said recently on the lobby steps in the Al Hirschfeld Theater as the company rehearsed in the auditorium, was after her equally stage-struck brother, Alex Santoriello, today an actor and producer, had gently suggested that her musical of “Wuthering Heights” — completed in her teens, now lost — was just too depressing. “A Tale of Two Cities,” Ms. Santoriello decided, was more “uplifting and redemptive” source material.
Now in previews, her show opens on Thursday. Signs all over town urge the public to “Join the Revolution!”
Still in grade school in Berkeley Heights, N.J., Ms. Santoriello got a first taste of Broadway when her mother took her to “Shenandoah” and the first revival of “The King and I,” still starring Yul Brynner. In her teens she was smitten by Angela Lansbury in the 1983 revival of “Mame.” More momentous still was her discovery of Stephen Sondheim, especially “Sunday in the Park With George.”
“I got all his records from the library and wore them out,” Ms. Santoriello said. “I was blown away. How does one man create all this? I never dared to aspire to create at his level, but I wanted to touch people the way he touched me.”
Out of college, Ms. Santoriello settled into a day job in development and programming at Showtime, assigned to original series like “Queer as Folk” and “Dexter,” while continuing to work on her musical by night. A concept album ensued, and, last fall, a premiere engagement in Sarasota, Fla.
Despite Ms. Santoriello’s passion for Sondheim, the obvious influence on “A Tale of Two Cities” (readily acknowledged) was “Oliver!,” with book, lyrics and music by Lionel Bart. Which raises a curious point. As readers of Dickens seldom fail to notice, his fiction is drenched in histrionics, fueled by melodrama, chockablock with eccentrics who cry out for the limelight. Stage and screen versions have been legion, yet durable musicals have been few. John Kander, whose four-decade partnership with the lyricist Fred Ebb brought forth scores as diverse as “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” speculated recently that Dickens might have left too little room for a songwriter’s imagination.
“The Dickens novels are sort of like great, big musicals as they stand,” Mr. Kander said in an interview. “Reading Dickens, I’ve never seen what music might add.”
Bart’s answer in “Oliver!,” which reached Broadway from London in 1963, was to lighten up the gothic sensibility with songs and dances in the rollicking spirit of the British music hall. Two later Dickens musicals followed Bart’s audience-friendly example with some success: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in the 1980s and “A Christmas Carol” in the ’90s. But the most authentically Dickensian musical of all may well be Mr. Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” which is not based on Dickens at all.
As Warren Carlyle, the choreographer and director of “A Tale of Two Cities,” said recently: “The characters in Dickens are larger than life. So vamps and vaudeville are very appropriate.”
Coincidentally, Mr. Carlyle’s career began in 1963, when he danced in London in “Pickwick,” based on the sunniest of the Dickens novels. He says the music-hall element will have its place in “A Tale of Two Cities” too, serving a broader objective of “extreme theatricality.”
In previews the show has kept evolving, which has meant rewrites — sometimes daily. A pragmatist, Ms. Santoriello likes to gauge customer satisfaction in the scariest way: by watching faces in the house.
“You can get a standing ovation on Broadway every night,” Ms. Santoriello said, “because audiences on Broadway like to give standing ovations, but it doesn’t mean 1,500 people loved your show.” Certain Cassandras in the blogosphere are predicting a replay of the recent London “Gone With the Wind,” written by another musical-theater debutante who never gave up hope, Margaret Martin, a California public-health professional. Despite a production by Trevor Nunn, no less, it vanished in the twinkling of the proverbial eye.
As in Sarasota, Ms. Santoriello and the production team are paying close attention to audience surveys and interviews. Notice has been taken that Act I in its original form was too long.
“Our first goal is to entertain,” Ms. Santoriello said. “Beyond that, of course, it’s great to move people or make them think. I love to hear people say they’re still thinking about the show days later.”
Her long preoccupation with “A Tale of Two Cities” has left Ms. Santoriello something less than the complete Dickens scholar. “Charlie!,” she exclaimed, asked about her familiarity with his other work. “I’m a fan of his stories, and I’ve seen adaptations. But I still haven’t read any of the other novels. I’m saving those up for when this is over.”