‘Beaches’ author heats things up with two Broadway-aimed musicals

‘Beaches’ author heats things up with two Broadway-aimed musicals
Ilana Keller, @ilanakeller
Published 5:29 a.m. ET April 13, 2018

They say what’s old is new again, but in this case, it’s also retooled, reimagined and racing with eyes toward Broadway — times two.

Iris Rainer Dart, author of “Beaches,” is hoping to bring a theatrical version of the novel to Broadway. She also has a Tony Award-nominated production, 2011’s “The People in the Picture,” now making its West Coast premiere in hopes of returning to the Great White Way.

“The People in the Picture,” which starred Donna Murphy and netted her a Tony nomination, is a musical that tells the story of life in pre-war Poland and the way the people of Warsaw used arts and humor to combat growing anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis. It features music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler. The story, told by a grandmother who had been one of those artists, to her daughter and granddaughter, also touches on the importance of keeping Yiddish culture alive and learning from the past.

It was that theme that sparked Rainer Dart, who spent two summers working at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, to write the musical, when she saw in her own life the potential for the spirit and strength of the Yiddish culture to slip away with her own grandchildren, and these stories of strength disappearing.

“(The theater and art were) made at a time when the anti-Semitism and Nazi threat was all around (the people of Warsaw), and they were basically thumbing their nose at that and saying, ‘this is how we’re reacting to that. We’re bringing our humor and our music and our joyous sensibility to it.’ And that made me cry because the spirit of these people was so strong and I thought this is the group of people that I want to write about, the Warsaw gang.”

It also doesn’t hurt when Bette Midler, who starred in the movie version of “Beaches,” calls and urges you to “write me a musical.”

“I had to find something that did what she does, which is turn your emotions on a dime,” Rainer Dart said.

Why bring it back now?

Rainer Dart says the immediacy of having grandchildren to pass the Yiddish legacy to brought it up fresh in her mind. “Just going back to what was important in the story was the reason I wanted to go back and re-tell it,” she said.

She also regrets that the show did not have any out-of-town runs pre-Broadway to feel things out, and now is getting that chance, running at 3Below Theater in San Jose, California. The show begins previews this week, with performances running through May 31. Visit 3belowtheaters.com/events/the-people-in-the-picture for more information.

She also took inspiration from John Weidman, the book writer of “Assassins,” on timing.

“I had been very lucky. I had a wonderful moment as I was leaving New York. I had a conversation with John Weidman, who had seen the show, and I met him when we were on a panel together. He told me that when ‘Assassins’ opened, the critics had really savaged them and that 15 years later, he was on the stage of Radio City accepting a Tony for the best revival of a musical. Sondheim hadn’t changed one note and he hadn’t changed one word from the original and that was the point he was making to me.”

If the themes of “The People in the Picture” sound similar to last season’s drama “Indecent,” there’s even more of a connection between the two than you may think.

Cosplayers at BroadwayCon 2018, held from Jan. 26 to 28, 2018, at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Ilana Keller/Staff photo
Rainer Dart’s daughter, director Rachel Dart, was Rebecca Taichman’s assistant when “Indecent” was off-Broadway, and she brought on board Moishe Rosenfeld as a Yiddish consultant at the behest of her mother, who had met him working on “The People in the Picture.”

Rainer Dart, a longtime television writer in addition to author and playwright, says she also has learned to enjoy the flexibility of revision that theater offers.

“What I’ve learned is the theater is alive. Unlike a novel, when you put it out there, that’s it. Or a movie. Unless Kevin Spacey is in it, you don’t get to re-make it. I looked at it and I tried to figure out what all of the problems were and I thought, ‘why not do this again?’ ”

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Donna Murphy take part in a panel called “Auditions: The Good, The Bad, The Hilarious” during BroadwayCon 2018, held from Jan. 26 to 28, 2018, at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (Photo: Ilana Keller/Staff photo)

The lessons she has learned from “The People in the Picture” also are manifesting in her work on “Beaches” the musical, which is planning a 2019 West End run, with eyes on Broadway. It previously ran at the Signature Theatre in Virginia and at Drury Lane in Chicago and features a book by Rainer Dart and the late Thom Thomas, with lyrics by Dart and music from David Austin.

“We have a new director and I’m in New York now working on doing a closed reading, so we can hear what’s too long or doesn’t sing, what works and what doesn’t. We have a group of actors who have been coming in and singing it to us and reading it to us,” she said.

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“Beaches” will be more a reflection of her novel rather than the movie version starring Midler and Barbara Hershey or the recent television remake featuring Idina Menzel and Nia Long.

“As our producer always says, same characters, different days. People love those characters and love the relationship, so this just expands on that.”

Rainer Dart was happy with the spirit of her characters portrayed in the movie, but says “the truth is, it wasn’t my version of the story … But it was true to the spirit of the story, it was true to the characters and it told the story quite well. I can’t complain.”

In fact, when Midler asked for her thoughts on set on the day a “catfight” scene was shot (Rainer Dart says as a feminist, she would never write a catfight), Rainer Dart says she said to Midler, her favorite movie star, “‘Honey, you’re starring in the movie of my book, how bad can it be?’ And that was really how I felt about it.”

For now, Rainer Dart stays busy readying both shows for primetime.

“I feel like a kid with homework. That’s the problem with being a writer, you always have homework,” she said. But she’s loving it.

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