Broadway battle for the soul of The Red Shoes

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jule Styne, the composer of 'Funny Girl' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', started work several years ago on a musical version of the Forties British cult film of The Red Shoes ballet, he thought of changing the title, but could not come up with anything better. Now, with the show opening on Thursday, the wags of Broadway have named it 'The Pink Slips' because so many of the principals have left, been fired or have dropped out.

Turning a popular film into a musical is a notoriously tricky act, with many recorded failures, but The Red Shoes seems to have had more than its share of upsets, even before the first night. Backstage dramas have delayed the opening for two weeks, and a modest advance ticket sale against the dollars 8m ( pounds 5.4m) investment does not bode well for this season's most expensive new Broadway show.

If the backers are nervous, fans of the 1947 film, which brought international fame to Moira Shearer, may be downright apoplectic. Almost everyone who has seen it remembers it as deeply moving.

They can quote the suave dictatorial impresario, modelled on Diaghilev, who asks the novice dancer: 'Why do you want to dance?' And they know her instant reply: 'Why do you want to live?' In the story, the impresario helps her pirouette to the top of the troupe, and she falls in love with the composer of her greatest triumph, the ballet of The Red Shoes. Torn between the demands of the obsessive impresario and her lover, she commits suicide.

Updating the film and reinterpreting the roles were bound to cause trouble. The women on the production team rejected the pathetic image of a woman so indecisive about two men that she kills herself; nor were they happy about the idea of women giving themselves entirely to art. The men on the team felt that the role of the impresario and his power struggle were more important than the plight of the poor ballerina.

As the battle was joined, the first to be dumped was the director, Susan Schulman, who, according to the word on the Great White Way, tried to revise the original from a feminist viewpoint. The males rose in revolt. She was replaced by Stanley Donen, the legendary Hollywood director of such golden oldies as Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Apparently, like other veterans in the creative team, Donen wanted to make the impresario more important than the ballerina.

As if this were not enough melodrama, there followed the demotion of the Pulitzer-winning lyricist / libretticist, Marsha Norman, in favour of Styne's old lyric-writing pal, Bob Merrill, who lives in Los Angeles. Merrill has a bad back and hates to travel, so he has never seen the show; he phones in copy like a newspaper reporter. Norman says that only one song of hers is in the final version, and her story-line has ended up 'in the sub-text'.

Three featured actors have been fired, including the male lead, Roger Rees, who was to have played the impresario. His ambiguous exit line was: 'We all care about The Red Shoes too much to make a size 11 squeeze into a size 9.'

Those still on stage or back- stage pretend to be unruffled. Styne says: 'So we brought in another lyricist. Do you know how many directors, actors and songwriters have been fired over the years from great shows and not-so-great shows. The bottom line is, do they work?'

(Photograph omitted)