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By Brian Robin

Taking Playwriting to Another Level

A conversation with Craig Lucas is an exercise in adaptability. That’s what’s required to keep up with his unceasing, ever-active mind. One moment, Lucas is talking about how writing the book for a musical is an exercise in three-dimensional chess. The next moment, he’s talking about why he keeps coming back to the theatre.

And the next moment? Here’s Lucas, talking about what makes an irresistible story.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that lots of people have talent. But what kicks talent into gear is trauma,” he said. “A healthy person doesn’t look at the road in front of them and see that a truck can come racing around the building over there and we can be killed. A storyteller is always looking for potential catastrophe. I feel in a way to be a good storyteller, you have to be acutely attuned to what can go wrong.

“That doesn’t make you a good person to go on vacation with. My sensors, my feelers are always out for where’s the trouble?”

It may not make you a good vacation companion, but having Lucas in the room gives you a good companion to build a world-premiere musical with. And a person that SCR Artistic Director David Ivers admirably calls one of “SCR’s legacy playwrights,” returns to SCR for the first time in a decade with Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical. With Ivers directing, Daniel Messé writing the music and Messé teaming with Sean Hartley to write the lyrics, Lucas is part of a talented team quite capable of playing 3D chess on a stage to the audience’s delight.

“There are many levels of things going on in a musical that do not happen in plays. Your eye has to be on a gameboard that is charged with keeping the musical aspect various and cumulative,” he said. “You have to exploit the strengths of the songs and the dances for increasing the dramatic intensity. Even though I’m not writing the songs, my eye is on the same thing it would be if I was writing a play—making sure the story is always moving ahead.

“Each piece you’re moving on another level of the game board has to keep the plot and the character always moving ahead. You can’t have seven ballads in a row. Nor do you want an entire stretch where there’s dancing—and then, you stop dancing for an hour. You have to think in relation to a separate chessboard. Every choice made on one of them will indirectly impact on the process of the others. … If storytelling is math, this is complex calculus. And that’s very interesting. Every synapse in my brain is firing and I wake up at 4 a.m. and say ‘She has to do this.’”

At this game, Lucas is a chess grandmaster.Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical is his seventh SCR work and first since 2014’s The Light in the Piazza. His dark comedy, Reckless, started the parade in 1985. It was followed by Blue Window (1985), Three Postcards (1987), Marry Me A Little (1988) and Prelude to a Kiss (1988). That play enjoyed its world premiere at SCR before going off-Broadway, to Broadway and to Hollywood, where it became a feature film starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan. It was nominated for a Tony Award and was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Along the way, Lucas built an enviable career as a playwright, screenwriter, stage and film director and opera librettist. His musical adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses, based on the 1962 movie, just ended its Broadway run last week. It was Lucas’ fifth Broadway musical.

All this makes Lucas an icon of the American theatre, words the humble playwright would discount before they left your mouth. But even with Hollywood credits and a self-professed love of making movies, Lucas always knows where his favorite artistic game is played.

“I fell in love with theatre first. I fell in love with it before I fell in love with movies,” he said. “My parents were movie-goers and we had a TV, but they took me to the theatre when I was young and I was enchanted by the liveness of it. These people were up there in a bright cage of light, playing pretend and there’s a whole group sitting in the dark attentively watching, which I found miraculous. I still find it miraculous when I go to the theatre, the lights come down and it’s still going on. It’s still happening.”

It’s happening with Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical after eight years of idea, workshops and numerous meetings—before and after the pandemic shutdown. Lucas said he hadn’t thought about turning his opus into a musical; he’s never been one for looking back. That was until he got a message from Hartley, who said he was interested in turning Prelude to a Kiss into a musical. Lucas dropped Messé’s name to Hartley and the two musicians went to work.

They asked Lucas if it was possible to get a commission, not only to help financially, but artistically. Lucas said a commission was a necessity to ensure the project’s continuity. SCR came forward with a commission and the production moved into its next phase.

“At a certain point, I went, ‘Well, we can do this. We can actually do this. So let’s commit to it,’” Lucas said. “With the full understanding that it was going to be a very different creature than it once was. It simply can’t be the same animal.”

Taking the instincts of Hartley and Messé, the trio created an “animal” that told the story through the point of view of an ensemble that seeks understanding to one question—what does love require to thrive, or even survive? Everything was written as a dramatic test for Peter and Rita, the two young lovers at the center of Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical, to navigate.

What price, love?

“That has become the animating premise of this version of the story. Not just the young man, but the woman and the old man (Julius) are all being tested in terms of how much love they can find in themselves. How much are they willing to sacrifice?

“Human beings resist growth and change. A lot of people don’t want to change and won’t change, but this isn’t about that. This is about what if you can change and what if you can grow, and what if you can learn? The fates are asking Peter, Rita and Julius to undergo a sea change in the cauldron of a terrible loss. But because it’s a romance, it keeps alive the possibility and hope that comes from new love.”

That puts Lucas back in his creating-trauma storytelling seat, the one he’s kept warm for nearly five decades and the one that continues to enthrall audiences all over the world. He’s happy embracing the chaos, helping proctor Peter’s, Rita’s and Julius’ test of love and discovery and happy “bringing adult knowledge into a childlike space…”—on stage.

“The book writer is charged with protecting everyone who is participating in the process, most especially, the songwriters, director and choreographer,” he said. “Everyone’s work is going to affect the storytelling and the book writer—in my humble opinion—is the keeper of the keys to that chamber where the story lives.

“You really can’t let down your guard or focus or vigilance and at the same time, you are also useful in keeping up everyone’s spirits. Maybe that’s my mental health challenge—to keep everyone laughing, smiling and playing.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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