Interview: 'The Game' Is Afoot Again for Julianne Boyd and the Barrington Stage
When "The Game," a new musical based on Choderlos de Laclos' sexually searing and scandalous 1782 epistolary novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," made its world premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in 2003, it garnered rave reviews and thunderous ovations from critics and audiences alike. Variety praised, "'The Game' is far from up. It's rare to find such an enriching and accomplished musical..." TheaterMania.com proclaimed, "Better book that Broadway theater now! The salient question is not how long it will take 'The Game' to transfer, but why it took two whole centuries for someone to realize the property's potential. Writers Amy Powers and David Topchik, composer Megan Cavallari, and director Julianne Boyd have pretty much nailed it...The production as a whole is a triumph."
So why, with such glowing potential and a cast that included future Tony Award winner Sara Ramirez as the deliciously decadent Marquise de Merteuil (the role famously played by Glenn Close in the Christopher Hampton/Stephen Frears movie "Dangerous Liaisons"), did "The Game" all but disappear following its limited two-week run in the Berkshires?
"Before major critics could see it and word-of-mouth could spread, it was gone," rues Julianne Boyd, co-founder and artistic director of Barrington Stage. "The Variety review didn't come out till four days after the show closed. Back then we were performing in a high school in Sheffield, so our schedule was restricted."
Ever since that first production, Boyd says, Barrington audiences have been clamoring for her to bring it back. Some want to see it again; others want to see what they missed. Finally, eight years later, Boyd and company have heeded the call. A newly reworked production of "The Game," this time starring Broadway's Rachel York and Graham Rowat as the scheming aristocrats Merteuil and Valmont, begins previews at Barrington Stage August 11. Opening night is August 17 with performances through August 28. "This time we're playing three weeks and we have more of an opportunity for people to see it," says Boyd. "We've had a chance to advertise."
This time around, too, the production will be performed not in a high school auditorium but in Barrington's own beautifully restored vaudeville music hall complex located in downtown Pittsfield. It will also benefit from the much larger spotlight that the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has lured to the company. "Spelling Bee" was developed and received its world premiere at Barrington Stage in 2004. Today the company's Musical Theatre Lab, established in 2006 during the company's first season in its new facility, is overseen by "Spelling Bee" composer/lyricist William Finn.
"We have a great family of creative artists who are totally committed to doing the best shows possible," Boyd says when asked how this relatively young Western Massachusetts theater company has achieved so much success and so much acclaim in such a relatively short period of time. "I have a great staff and a fabulous board. And I'm very driven (laughs)! We keep working and working. We have really high standards and feel that we can always do better."
Boyd and company are applying that uncompromising spirit of excellence to this remounting of "The Game." For the past year she, Cavallari, Powers and Topchik have been "fixing" the areas they saw as "weaknesses" in the first staging. They are using the rehearsal period like a workshop, seeing what their changes look like when the actors perform them and making adjustments again, if necessary.
"There were three or four songs we knew we wanted to change," Boyd explains. "We needed to strengthen the balance of power between Merteuil and Valmont, and we've done that. For example, at the end of the first act, Merteuil has this great song called 'Wanting Her More.' In the second act Valmont had a reprise of it. Now he has his own song called 'How Could I Dare,' and it is an unbelievably strong song. So now in the middle of the second act you feel that he is as strong as she is. It's wonderful."
According to Boyd, the rewrites have all been designed to drive the blistering comedy and powerful drama even more intensely toward the story's tragic conclusion. She describes "The Game" as a very complex manipulation of power and position between two extremely sensual and competitive lovers. When winning becomes all, failure is that much more inevitable and shocking.
"Both of these characters, Merteuil and Valmont, seem so together," says Boyd. "They are witty and charming and seem to have all the self-assurance in the world. But underneath they have cracks. Valmont realizes he has a heart. Merteuil realizes all her life she has been in love. Yes, they are elegant and decadent and play terrible games with each other. But they aren't simply nasty. They are witty, attractive people who have an edge. We're taken in by them. We're drawn to their beauty and danger."
"The Game," like the original novel and subsequent movie versions, is set during the latter part of the 18th century, during the tumultuous reign of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Foreshadowing the overthrow of the bloated aristocracy that was to come during the French Revolution, "The Game" both captures and mocks the insufferable malaise and sexual hypocrisy of the period. Its themes are timeless and give it a very contemporary feel.
"This score could not have been written in the 18th century," says Boyd of composer Cavallari's musical contributions to "The Game." "It does have a period feel to it, because Megan listened to a lot of Mozart and Beethoven and other baroque and classical music before she wrote it. But it also has a contemporary feel in that it gets to the heart and core of all of these sexual machinations. It's quite an achievement."
Compared by some earlier critics to Sondheim in its level of sophistication, "The Game" is more chamber musical than pop opera. "It is definitely not what I call 'post Andrew Lloyd Webber' where all of the songs end in an open vowel," Boyd laughs. "It's so much more than that.
"'The Game' operates on so many levels," she continues. "For instance, we have a woman, Merteuil, who has gotten by in society by making everyone think that she is this paragon of a widow, a good widow, a good person. She has a wonderful cover and she is able to hide her scheming sexual side beneath it. In a duet called 'A Certain Woman' that she sings with Rosemonde she sings of her respectability as if she and Rosemonde, both independent women, are very much alike. But she's playing Rosemonde for all she's worth. Underneath the obvious lyric is a very different story."
According to Boyd, audiences who saw "The Game" in 2003 were enthralled by the delicious characters and rapt by the compelling twists and turns that make the second act so intense. She says words like "heart-pounding" and "riveting" were used to describe their experience. It was therefore partly the wishes of her audience - and partly her own desire to improve what was already strong - that convinced Boyd to produce "The Game" again.
"The material is fascinating and enduring, and more theaters need to do it," Boyd states matter-of-factly. "These are characters that actors will die to play. They are witty and charming and dangerous, and I think that's exciting theater. More people need to see this musical. I certainly hope it has a life after Barrington Stage, either in New York or somewhere else."
"The Game" performs at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass., from August 11-28. It stars Rachel York as Marquise de Merteuil, Graham Rowat as Vicomte de Valmont, Amy Decker as Madame de Tourvel, Joy Franz as Madame de Rosemonde, Stephen Horst as Opera Singer, Analisa Leaming as Emilie, Chris Peluso as Danceny, Amanda Salvatore as Opera Singer, Sarah Stevens as Cecile, and Christianne Tisdale as Madame de Volanges. Book and lyrics are by Amy Powers and David Topchik, music is by Megan Cavallari, director is Julianne Boyd, choreographer is Daniel Pelzig, and musical director is Darren Cohen. Tickets are priced from $15 to $60 and can be purchased online at www.barringtonstageco.org or by calling the Box Office at 413-236-8888.