The “Beaches” musical at Drury Lane Theatre may take that Bette Midler story, and song, to Broadway by Spring

Chicago Tribune
New wind beneath ‘Beaches‘ wings at Drury Lane
By Chris Jones
June 26, 2015


In 2002, the Co-operative Group’s Funeral Services Ltd. in the United Kingdom released what it said was the most popular song at British funerals. “My Heart Will Go On,” as recorded by Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” came in second and third, respectively. The winner was “Wind Beneath My Wings,” as sung by Bette Midler and indelibly associated with Garry Marshall’s weepie 1988 movie, “Beaches.”

It is not hard to comprehend why the song is a perennial favorite of those mourning the recently and dearly departed. It’s a celebration of long-term friendship, for sure. But what’s really striking about this song is its acknowledgment of the gulf of inequality that destroys many lifelong kinships as different parties pursue their varied lives. So it goes in “Beaches,” which charts the 30-year friendship of two very different women: a flashy and volatile New York actress and a deep-feeling human-rights lawyer. The song’s famous lyric, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?,” which Midler recently sent ringing around the rafters of the Chicago’s United Center on her latest concert tour, is, all at once, an admission of interdependence and guilt and an expression of love. It is hard to think of another 1980s power ballad with a line of quite the same emotional oomph.

Unsurprisingly, then, Touchstone Pictures’ “Beaches” is a title on the long list of popular, if now dated, Hollywood movies that somebody wants to retool as Broadway musicals, with producers and creatives making the familiar bet that audiences will be attracted to their fondness for the movie, but also open to seeing the property exploited in a new theatrical direction. According to producer Jennifer Maloney-Prezioso, who previously worked on such shows as “Spring Awakening” and “Rock of Ages,” “Beaches” is aiming to snag a Broadway theater and open in time to be part of the upcoming 2015-16 season. Meanwhile, the relatively low-cost Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace is the latest entity to want a piece of the high-profile Chicago business of trying out shows headed directly (or so the producer hopes) to New York City.

“Beaches” will be its first such project at the Drury Lane. Opening night is on Thursday. It will be a big night for the reinvented suburban operation, now aiming for the top tier of producing entities that specialize in musicals.

The Broadway notables Shoshana Bean (once a popular Broadway Elphaba in “Wicked,” another show about female friendship surviving life’s multifarious traumas), and Whitney Bashor (recently in “The Bridges of Madison County” on Broadway) are playing the lead roles.

All of which explains why the 71-year-old Iris Rainer Dart, who invented the characters of Cee Cee Bloom (as played by Midler in the film) and Bertie White (played by Barbara Hershey, although the character’s name was changed), could be found the other day sitting in a Drury Lane rehearsal room, talking about her novel, the movie that made her fortune, and now the show that she hopes will reignite interest in the title and the relationship of the two women at its center.

“Beaches,” was, she says, based on her own friendship with her cousin: “We wrote to each other. She married at 19. I had a career. My cousin had a straight-laced life. I was a crazy comedy writer renting houses in Malibu.”

In fact, Dart not only had a career but a notably varied one. Her writing credits include nine novels and assorted TV projects, not to mention a couple of previous stage musicals. She wrote many of the jokes uttered on TV by Sonny and Cher. Dart says she also based Cee Cee in part, on the exuberant personality of Cher: “she had such a unique life, but if you had sent her to a supermarket, she would not have known what to do.” But perhaps Dart’s shrewdest move was managing to get “Beaches,” the novel, into the hands of Midler, whose production company eventually partnered with Touchstone on the movie and without whose involvement the film never would have been made. Dart says that whole process took at least eight years. Starring in “Beaches” turned Midler’s career around.

Even though she had penned the novel, Dart did not formally write the screenplay to “Beaches” – that was credited to Mary Agnes Donoghue, which mostly explains why “Beaches” the stage musical is based not on the movie but on the source novel. Dart retained those theatrical rights, although she now is sharing book credit with the writer Thom Thomas, an old friend. As you might expect, the producer, Maloney-Prezioso, is hoping that the popularity of the movie (and the song, which also is in the show) will be enough to attract an open-minded and open-hearted audience for the new endeavor.

In its movie form, “Beaches” was not a full-blown musical. This stage version has an entire score, penned (some of it initially on spec) by the mostly unknown composer David Austin, for whose new tunes Dart herself wrote the lyrics.

Musically speaking, only “Wind Beneath My Wings” will be previously familiar to audiences. As you might expect, the question of how much focus to give that particular song remains an issue for the creative team. It’s only one song – but it’s also inseparable from the film.

“I feel like this is a love story about friendship,” Maloney-Prezioso says, praising the newcomer Austin’s emergent score and suggesting that the property is about far more than one hit ballad.

If all goes according to Maloney-Prezioso’s current plan, “Beaches” will move directly from the Drury Lane to a Broadway theater by the spring. She says she thinks she has the right creative team in place, and that the show is well on its way to being ready. “I think the piece has specificity and universality,” Maloney-Prezioso says.

The Drury Lane production, which also features a number of Chicago actors who may well get to go to Broadway with the show, is not the first go-around for “Beaches,” the new musical, nor for Eric Schaeffer as its director. The show was produced in 2014 at Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre in suburban Washington, D.C. The reviews were mixed. In his lukewarm Washington Post review, critic Peter Marks called the show an “amiable throwback of a musical” but generally implied that the staging and the material was overly tentative and insufficiently willing to embrace the tear jerking experience that the audience expected. Nonetheless, Marks also seemed to enjoy himself. To some extent.

Both Schaeffer and Maloney-Prezioso say a great deal of work has been done since the Signature staging. “The show is still changing,” Schaeffer says. And given that both leads have been replaced since the Signature, along with some of the book and a chunk of the score, it’s reasonable to expect quite a different show in Oak Brook.

Schaeffer and Dart both say they are trying to build an emotionally rich show, if not a weepie, per se. “I think we walk a fine line,” Dart says. “We want to have that emotional connection but the show can’t get sappy.”

Having two out-of-town tryouts is not especially common for a musical, but Maloney-Prezioso said that she felt that more work needed to be done after the 2014 staging, and that meant another staging out of town. “This has been four years in the making,” she says. “We want to get it right.”

Given that Cee Cee is both an actress and a singer, “Beaches” would appear to lend itself to a musical better than most movies. “People pass this movie along,” Maloney-Prezioso says. “Every life needs one extraordinary friend.”

You know, someone to pick what plays at your funeral.

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