Darko Tresnjak and Joey Parnes — the Broadway newbie and the veteran producer — sit in the orchestra section of the Walter Kerr Theatre looking remarkably serene. After all, it was the last day to put in any finishing touches before critics start arriving to see the musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." The show, which premiered last fall at Hartford Stage where Tresnjak is artistic director, opens officially in New York City on Sunday, Nov. 17.
It's Hartford Stage's first Broadway transfer since the play "Enchanted April" in 2003 and musical "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm" in 1999 —- and the first musical from any Connecticut theater since Goodspeed's "By Jeeves" in 2001.
"Gentleman's Guide" is a high-stakes $7.5 million production that, if successful, could generate big bucks for Hartford Stage, put a brighter national spotlight on the theater and its new artistic director and empower the theater to do more new musical work, something it has shied away from because of the costs.
The musical is based on the 1907 book by Roy Horniman, "Israel Rank," which also served as the basis for the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets." The black comedy starred Alec Guinness playing multiple roles as not-so-dearly departing members of an aristocratic British family, the victims of a slighted, socially-ambitious and very charming relative who is in line to inherit the family's Downton Abbey-sized fortune.
"My emotions are pretty erradic," says Tresnjak, who at the moment looks the picture of Slavic serenity. "There are times when I'm stressed and then a switch flips and I find myself calmer than I've ever been." It's been an extraordinary autumn for Tresnjak, 48, who directed two repertory shows for Hartford Stage ("Macbeth" and "La Dispute"), and oversaw the theater's 50th anniversary celebrations all the while prepping and rehearsing the Broadway production.
Hit In Hartford
After its critical and box office success in Hartford last fall, "Gentleman's Guide'' played in March and April at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the co-producer of the two regional theater runs.
"It was our shared hope it would come to Broadway," says Parnes, a veteran with such producing and managing credits as "Betrayal," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "Copenhagen" and the revival of "Hair."
Parnes became involved with the Hartford production as "a friend of the court. I made it possible for the production to be enhanced." Outside funds of $70,000 were brought in to supplement the show's budget.
"I thought the show was clever and smart and I hadn't heard a score with lyrics [by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman] like that in years. And I thought the way that Darko put it together and flowed made it very engaging in a very old fashioned-yet-edgy way. Audiences were loving it and audiences are never wrong."
Parnes' hope was also buttressed by a rave from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood who in his review wrote that the show "ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I've seen in years…Here is a new musical to leave you giddy and sated...I was pretty much smiling from ear to ear throughout the musical."
"That review was a game-changer without a doubt," says Parnes. "It made people take notice and having that support that early altered the landscape of planning and made it that much more likely we were going to make it to Broadway."
The show gained another friend with Jordan Roth, president of the Jujamcyn Theaters, who had seen the show in Hartford and reached out to Parnes to offer him a theater for the Broadway production.
Several months after the equally successful San Diego run ended, a Broadway deal was made and the sought-after Walter Kerr Theatre secured. "The show and the theater look made for each other as if the same person designed the theater and our show," says Parnes. The musical's stage design is by Alexander Dodge, who won a Connecticut Critics Circle Award. Honors also went to the show, director and leading actor, Ken Barnett.) Among the list of producers and investors in the show are 50 Church Street Productions, headed by Hartford Stage board member Rick Costello. Also among producing credits is Greg Nobile, now interim managing director of Branford's Legacy Theatre, formerly the Stony Creek Puppet House.
But without big-name stars, a fancy set with bells and whistles and lots of tech and a well-known creative team, it wasn't a slam dunk either for investors who might say love it but might question whether it could become a commercial success on Broadway. "This is a creative team that isn't as well known as they are likely to be after we open," says Parnes.
But eventually the last investors were found and the announcement to Broadway was made this summer.
"We knew all the elements of the show were terrific," says Parnes, "but each one needed to be looked at with a New York perspective and a Broadway budget, [in order to make additions] that Darko was not capable of doing with a regional theater budget.'' r
For Broadway the physical production was given more pop with the enchanting "toy theater" set sliding closer to the audience for certain scenes. Projections were more elaborate and gorgeous costumes by Linda Cho were added. Two actors were added to the cast and Hartford's six musicians were doubled to 12 playing Jonathan Tunick's now more fuller orchestrations.
But along the way much of the cast from the Hartford/San Diego productions were cut, including Ken Barnett, who played the delightfully murderous Monty Navarro. Other than the show's tour de force star — Jefferson Mays, the Tony Award-winning actor ("I Am My Own Wife") who grew up in Clinton and who plays all the despicable members of the ill-fated D'Ysquith clan — only Lisa O'Hare and Price Waldman remain from the eight-member Hartford cast.
"It was hard, very hard [to do]," says Tresnjak."I loved the people who were involved in the show. All of them are close to my heart: the ones who are on stage now — which I adore — and the ones in Hartford." For perspective, Tresnjak says "things come around," citing an example of not being able to cast actress Kate Forbes in an earlier project "but I didn't forget about her." He cast her as Lady Macbeth in the recent Hartford Stage production.
Barnett was replaced by Bryce Pinkham, a Yale School of Drama grad, who was featured in the Broadway musicals "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Ghost" as well as playing Brother in Hartford Stage's "The Orphans' Home Cycle."
"Everyone was very positive to me," says Pinkham. "I also recognize I'm the latest of many actors who have played and will play Monty. It's not lost on me how lucky I am."
Did Parnes think of hiring a director with Broadway experience?
"Not for a second,' says Parnes "As great as the show was written by Robert and Steven, what Darko had done was so obvious in the production in Hartford. There wasn't a question in my mind that he was incapable of bearing the Broadway burden."
When Tresnjak is asked about the difference between staging the show in Hartford and Broadway, his answer is immediate.
"Seven and a half million dollars,' he says. "When people give to Hartford Stage it's done philanthropically. But this is a different feeling. Also, in Hartford, I'm director and artistic director — the producer, Here, Joey is my boss."
And that relationship?
"We've been remarkably on the same page and I hear that's rare," he says. "What I feared most didn't happen at all.
Was directing on Broadway a goal for the Yugoslavia-born director who immigrated to this country with his mother when he was 10?
"The dream of a Broadway musical is huge in people's minds and it was in mine," he says. "This was a wonderful surprise. What a wonderful perk for falling in love with a show."
It's also a perk for Hartford Stage. Managing director Michael Stotts says the show will further raise Hartford Stage's national profile. across the country.
"The fact that we originated it is an artistic accomplishment," says Stotts, "and that Darko did this in his inaugural year season, too. But it also reflects well in the direction he wants to take Hartford Stage. Hopefully our commitment to do new musicals will now have some traction in the community."
And what if "Murder" makes a killing on Broadway?
The theater will receive a small share of the profits from the Broadway show and future productions, says Stotts. The income can be a modest amount or — depending on the future life of the show — can be a windfall. (Goodspeed Musical's royaties from blockbuster "Annie" was famously in the millions but a hit of that scale is rare.) "We're not counting on it or budgeting for it. But if it does well, there will be nice financial upside for us."
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER: now in previews, opens Sunday, Nov. 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 48th St., New York. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets at $50 to $147, not including fees at Telecharge at 212-239-6200. Information: www.agentlemansguidebroadway.com