Once more, with feeling

'Martin Guerre', the musical, is back. Older, wiser and revamped to the tune of pounds 500,000. Paul Taylor talks to Cameron Mackintosh, the show's producer, about the mechanics of getting a flop on its feet, fast

It took God six days to create the heavens and Earth - the exact amount of time it took Irving Berlin to produce all the classic songs in the score of Annie Get Your Gun. It took, by contrast, closer to six years for Martin Guerre - the latest Boublil / Schonberg musical - to reach the stage. Even then, the opening night in July had to be postponed for four weeks for "choreographic development" and there were nail-biting rewrites - slavishly reported in the Evening Standard, which, one began to think, must have shares in the show - all the way through the preview period.

Result: decidedly mixed reviews. Most, including my own, berated the musical for abandoning the ambiguities that pervade the two film treatments of this tale of love, confused identity, and the finding of a "higher self" through the assumption of a false persona. The show's markedly different way of handling this material did not feel fully realised and left ample room for critical scepticism. So, after a three-week breather, the creative team - joined by a new lyricist, Stephen Clark - reassembled to ponder a major revamp.

Teething problems and being long in the tooth were experiences that Martin Guerre seemed to be having simultaneously: a case, you could say, of being "long in the teething problems". In September, the producer, Cameron Mackintosh, announced that the musical would close for four days the following month while extensive changes were introduced (at a cost of pounds 500,000, bringing the total damage to pounds 4.5m). The "it'll-be-all-right-on-the-second-first- night" theory will be tested this evening when Martin Guerre opens once again to the critics in a version that represents a 50 per cent rewrite of the original show.

I have seen a preview of Martin Guerre Mark II and I have talked to Cameron Mackintosh about the alterations. Speaking as someone who questioned the feasibility, even in theory, of turning this story into a musical, I might doubtless find it gratifying to declare that the Son of Martin Guerre is every bit as misguided as the prototype. But any such view is confounded by the facts. The show has been substantially improved. The increase in its dramatic coherence and integrity is, well, dramatic. It's worth looking more closely at how Mackintosh and team have brought about this renovation and at how, far from being untypical, the painful birth pangs of Guerre prove the truth of the old adage that "musicals aren't written, they're 'fixed' ".

Cameron Mackintosh is the first to admit that there is a glaring irony in his current position. "I think one of the problems," he says, "is actually of my own and Andrew Lloyd Webber's making." Up until the early Eighties, musicals were able to iron out their difficulties during the traditional out-of-town tour. They rarely came into the West End or on to Broadway cold. The high-tech staging, eagerly embraced by Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber, helped put a stop to that practice, with the consequence that the revamping now has to be done "in the shadow of Shaftesbury Avenue".

Or in an alternative production abroad. This was famously the case with Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. It's preview period in London was bedevilled by technical nightmares of a farcical kind. The lavish set began to move about randomly in response to rogue radio frequencies for passing taxis. This understandably prevented the kind of reworking that the show's creators would have liked. They therefore used the later Los Angeles premiere to make radical improvements to the piece.

One problem with this approach, though, is that it can sour public relations. For some seven months, before the LA changes were incorporated, London audiences were faced with the option of seeing Sunset Boulevard in a version that was acknowledged by everybody to be inferior to the one playing in America. With Martin Guerre, the changes have been made on the spot and virtually on the trot - a logistical feat that shields the show from the charge of having broken faith with the public.

How, exactly, has it been improved? The Martin Guerre story has, in all its variants, the same basic plot. After a number of years away fighting, a man "returns" to his 16th-century French village and reencounters his wife. This man is held to be Martin, but is, in fact, his ex-comrade-in- arms Arnaud. The movie versions concentrate on the riddles of identity and recognition. The wife, ironically, learns the meaning of love in the arms of the wrong man and the question of when she realises this is left open. In the screen treatments, the moral conundrum is: can we lay claim to what is not ours, if we bring it good?

As was revealed at the July premiere, Boublil / Schonberg's musical makes a major shift of emphasis. The fate of the central trio - the real husband, Martin; the impostor, Arnaud; and Bertrande, the wife - is shown to be shaped by the bigotries and intolerance of the Wars of Religion. It's in order to keep the land Catholic that the community forces Martin and Bertrande into a loveless marriage and then foists Martin's identity on the stranger when he arrives. In its self-serving self-deception, the community, we gather, is the real impostor.

This dwelling on the public dimension of the story gave the first version of the musical an inflated and hollow feel, however, because there was no correspondingly detailed attention to the private motivation of the characters. It was realistic, perhaps, that Bertrande should instantly recognise that the stranger was not her husband, but a shoddy lapse into melodramatic convention that she should instantly succumb to his charms and convert him to her born-again Protestantism.

Mackintosh admits that they got the balance between public and private wrong. "It's impossible for an audience to fall in love with an entire group of people and I think that the biggest lesson we all learnt was that the entire story needed to be seen through the eyes of Bertrande." She now opens a show that no longer rushes the emotional development of its protagonists. For example, a new sequence showing the cycle of the seasons dramatises the tentative graduality and the moral worth with which Arnaud wins Bertrande's love. The big romantic duet "All I Know", which had sounded bogus when used to steer the pair straight into each other's arms, now comes at the properly delayed climax of the falling-in-love process and its intensity feels earned.

The psychology of each situation has been made more convincing. New lyrics and a revised ordering of the material help establish that the absconding real Martin could have loved Bertrande if he'd not been hurried into dynastic marriage with her. We also get a much sharper sense here that it is Martin's telling of his story to Arnaud, when they meet in the wars, that gives this confused drifter his first real understanding of what love is. These charged confidences, with all the intimacy and trust they imply, now lend an emotional logic to later turns of the plot that might otherwise seem far-fetched: Martin's acute and double feeling of betrayal when he returns home; the impostor's climactic gesture of self-sacrifice. They also explain why "Here Comes the Morning", the yearning early duet sung by Martin and Arnaud, has such a weight of unresolved feeling that it sounds peculiarly like an ardent love song.

The social texture of the piece has also been strengthened. A rousing new choral anthem, "Working on the Land", intoned at the beginning and end, establishes the moral distance the community travels during the show: from dogged territoriality, through internecine disaster, to a chastened attempt to survive the crisis by getting back to the routine of work. The revamped musical structure emphasises that the land lies, literally and metaphorically, under all these phases. If there are still areas for doubt in this project, they have been greatly reduced.

When you look at the history of musicals, the long gestation of Guerre seems par for the course. On the opening night of Funny Girl, for example, Barbra Streisand had to play the 42nd re-write of the final scene, which she'd rehearsed for the first time that afternoon. Accepting the Oscar for the movie version, she joked that "the original script of Funny Girl was written when I was only 11 years old. Thank God it took so long to get it right..."

It is remarkable how many classics of the genre have required fixing at the last minute or way beyond - whether it be through the addition of a defining song (as with the title number in Oklahoma! or the "Comedy Tonight" opening that saved A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum) or through major readjustments to perspective and storytelling (as with Camelot and Kiss of the Spider Woman). Mackintosh, whose ruthless perfectionism was recently demonstrated by the sacking of more than half the cast in the New York production of Les Miserables, was never going to let Martin Guerre rest in its lukewarm state. If artists can take the trouble to have second thoughts, it behoves critics to repay the compliment

Prince Edward Theatre, London, W1

Booking: 0171-447 5400 to March

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