"I can resist everything except temptation," as Oscar Wilde famously put it.
For Broadway composer/lyricist Paul Gordon the temptation of goosing Wilde's comic masterpiece "The Importance of Being Earnest" was simply too great to resist.
His swinging '60s adaptation of the ever-so-proper Victorian rom-com takes the comedy out of the age of cucumber sandwiches and into the era of go-go boots and the British invasion. Imagine Wilde meets Austin Powers, plus music. Directed by Robert Kelley, this wild new take on the Wilde makes its world premiere Wednesday through April 28 at TheatreWorks.
Gordon has had success with daring reinventions before, including "Jane Eyre," for which he won a Tony, "Emma" and "Daddy Long Legs." And his mod "Being Earnest" made quite a splash at TheatreWorks' new play festival last year. But the composer still admits to being a tad trepidatious about revamping one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time.
A theater staple
One of most produced of Wilde's works, this frothy tour-de-farce has long been revered for its fusion of dry wit and scathing social satire amid the tea and crumpets. Cheekily subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," it's been a staple of both the professional and the community theater circuit forever.
"If it works, it will be genius. The question is how do you have the audacity to try and create lyrics on a par with Oscar Wilde?" says the composer with a chuckle. "Trying to match wits with the master is an impossible task, and I may be crazy."
Goodbye, 1895. This "Earnest" eschews the bustles of the Victorian age for the hot pants and glam shades of 1964 London, the world capital of cool. Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are sowing their wild oats against a backdrop of this pop explosion.
Among the local bands whipping fans into a frenzy back then are the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Hair was long. Skirts? Not so much. Quaint old customs and values were on the way out and groovy was in. The cucumber sandwiches hit the fan as Jack and Algie develop a taste for "Bunburying" (going incognito in the country to elude social obligations). Lady Bracknell, the ne plus ultra of sharp-tongued dowagers, may well exclaim: "Oh, behave!"
Transforming a literary classic into a musical is no small feat. There is the danger of both turning off the purists and frightening away the newbies.
"A whole army of people will arrive with massive preconceptions about what this piece should be," notes director Robert Kelley, "but we hope they don't leave that way."
Adding new elements
How do you make the piece sing without messing with the glorious language of the original? How do you add songs without stretching the show out for 3 1/2 hours?
"We don't want to just stick songs in a play; we want to integrate the music throughout the piece," says Gordon, who is still hard at work fine-tuning the score, "and that's a challenge."
Certainly the composer feels up to the challenge. Noted for his skill with musical soliloquies, Gordon has showed off his finesse for the marriage of literary and Broadway before. TheatreWorks audiences have embraced his takes on "Jane Eyre," "Emma" and "Daddy Long Legs." So he's reasonably confident they will want to come along as he explores the modern age.
"It's nice to finally get out of the 19th century," he quips. "Eventually I will work my way up to the 21st."
However, he is only too aware that some theatergoers do not want to see the Wilde canon "bastardized." They want the works preserved -- not revamped and reinvented.
"For those theatergoers who rightfully revere the play and believe it should not be musicalized, what we are doing will probably not work. This is a masterpiece, and what we are doing is a little crazy," admits Gordon. "I have done a lot of safe shows; this isn't one of them. This is an experiment."
Kelley, who has never staged "Earnest" at TheatreWorks before, has been tickled by the transformation. Having come of age in the '60s, he immediately responded to the echoes between the age of his youth and the world of Wilde ("Lady Windermere's Fan," "A Woman of No Importance.") He sees them both as periods of radical change.
"In both periods you see the youth straining against the constraints of society, breaking all the rules and regulations," he says. "Growing up, I always felt the world was changing before my eyes. The Beatles. The pill. Everything was changing, and the young people were taking over."
Blazing a new trail
He admits that some will bridle at this wacky reinvention of Wilde, but he says it's necessary to take liberties if you want to "blaze a new trail."
"The play has always seemed overdone to me, a bit of a musty museum piece," says the director. "This leaves the PBS idea behind and takes it to a new place."
Indeed, Gordon is quick to note that audiences at last year's fest seemed to love the piece.
"It's hard to fake laughter," he notes. "You've got to listen to the audience, especially this audience, which is very smart. They go to a lot of theater, and they can tell you what works and what doesn't."
Alas, the audience may not have the last word.
"If there is an afterlife," jokes Gordon, "I hope Wilde and Bronte and Austen aren't up there waiting to beat the crap out of me!"
Music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, book and lyrics by Gordon, adapted from the play by Oscar Wilde
Through: Wednesday through April 28
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Tickets: $31-$73; 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org