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For the Ages

Teri Currie

By combining their different perspectives and worldviews on one world- historical event, Ed. Lange, Will Severin and George David Weiss hope to produce a musical of lasting appeal

By John Rodat

Strolling down the Great White Way today, you might have a mild feeling of being transported backward in time—it’s a sensation that shouldn’t prove too uncomfortable though, because as it turns out, you’re not going far. The marquees of the big-name theaters read like those of the multiplexes in recent years: The Lion King, Titanic, The Full Monty and the comparatively aged Footloose all have been recycled as stage musicals. Desperate for proven hits, Broadway producers have seemingly been scouring recent back issues of Premiere for safe bets in a notoriously fickle business. But in Troy, off-off-off Broadway, the New York State Theatre Institute is preparing for the debut of an original musical that is—literally—the stuff of which history is made.

On Saturday (April 20), NYSTI will debut Magna Carta, which deals with the events leading up to the signing of that document in England in 1215. Playwright Ed. Lange had to look somewhere other than the ticket stubs in his jacket pocket for an idea, obviously, but when asked to recall the exact source of his inspiration, he shrugs and laughs, “Oh, gosh, who the hell knows?

“I’ve been fascinated by it since I was a kid in high school,” he continues, speaking of the agreement between King John and the baronial class of feudal England, which limited the power of the monarch, and—some historians claim—led indirectly to the American Bill of Rights. “It’s a world-changing event that too few people know about. It has a story that wraps around it that is absolutely fascinating, and on top of that, it has tremendous pertinence today. So, you go, ‘Why didn’t anybody else do this?’ Literally, I said to myself, ‘Magna Carta? Somebody must have written this,’ and nobody had—and it’s a fabulous story.”

The musical—for which Lange wrote the book, with Will Severin and George David Weiss writing the music and the lyrics—begins circa 1172, when, in the words of the theater-issued synopsis, “feudalism’s rigid structure dominates society, with royalty and nobility holding unquestioned authority over the nameless common man.”

Or, we quibble, the heretofore nameless common man. For Magna Carta features not only the eminent figures of the historical record—King Henry II, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their rival sons, the eventual kings John and Richard—but also fictional representatives of the folk, now given not only names but lovely singing voices.

“That was critically important to me, and remains critically important to me,” Lange explains. “History writes about the famous people, but history is populated by people who nobody’s ever heard of. People like you and me who just live our daily lives and that kind of thing, just regular folks. And I wanted to tell their story, too. What was it like living with these incredible characters? And what effect might they have had on this, that history never recorded?”

While Lange claims that he and his collaborators attempted to present the story with a respectful adherence to fact, he believes that modern audiences will have no trouble with the material.

“We, all three, had to walk that tightrope,” he admits. “Do you simply do history, or do you make compromises so that it touches people today? Because none of us wanted to make a historical document, or a history lesson, or something you put in a museum. We wanted to make a really exciting musical entertainment for today’s audience.”

Despite the unusual nature of the production—the pitch for which must have sounded like an outtake from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I—confidence in the ability of this trio to reach a modern audience must have been high: Lange’s work as a director, actor and playwright has won him numerous awards, including two Metroland Best Of awards (as a director in 1997, and a playwright in 1998) and a national Audie award for the audiobook of his play Sherlock’s Secret Life, and he recently was chosen to adapt two mysteries penned by the best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark; Severin, who received a classical musical education at several prestigious schools including the Berklee College of Music, has written and performed everything from big Broadway numbers to rock songs for his own band, Severin’s Fortune; and Weiss is the current president of the Songwriter’s Guild of America and a member of the National Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, in recognition of the major cultural impact and staying power of his compositions such as “What a Wonderful World,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and Elvis’ show-closing theme, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Available talent notwithstanding, the choice to present this story in a musical setting wasn’t an obvious one—even Lange, with his abundance of optimism and enthusiasm for his subject, acknowledges that it was by no means a lock.

“Where the collaboration begins is me saying to these guys, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ ” He continues with a smile, “If they like it, it becomes a musical. If they say it sucks, it becomes a straight play.”

As it happened though, both Weiss and Severin—who had worked together previously, composing for NYSTI’s A Tale of Cinderella—felt immediately drawn to the potentials of Lange’s idea.

“I think the way Ed. explained it, that it has so much to do with yesterday as well as today, that sparked us,” Weiss says. “We felt the same way about the situation. And secondly, there was so much drama in the idea that we felt that we could compose properly for—just one thing led to another.”

Severin, too, emphasizes the organic flow of ideas and the easy fit of personalities and approaches: “We had a very fluid working relationship. Ed. had an idea for the story he wanted to tell, and then it was us figuring out where it was that certain things could be musicalized. There were even whole segments of dialog that he had that we ended up making musical. So there was a lot of back and forth.”

Though the reasons for the success of artistic collaborations can be difficult to qualify—by and large, they just work or they don’t—Lange has a theory as to why this particular effort was as natural-seeming and pleasurable as it was.

“One of the reasons, I think, that we’ve been working well together, and hopefully have made something special, is that we’re in these three separate generations,” he reasons. “I’m in my mid-50s, Will’s in his 30s, and George David’s, well, a couple of years older than me, and we’re each bringing perceptions and insights and experiences to the project from different worldviews, if you will.”

So, though Lange confides that “the nerves never go away,” he and his partners are proud of the work they’ve done, and confident that audiences will—as they have—find the story a compelling one.

“Creating was what it was about with us. Nothing else,” Weiss says. “And if our own perspectives combined, we had faith. We knew we were going to be OK, we knew we were going to be good.”

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