BWW Interviews: Following the Famed Composer's Visit, Utah Is Wild About Wildhorn

BWW Interviews: Following the Famed Composer's Visit, Utah Is Wild About Wildhorn
Frank Wildhorn, with Krista Hemsley (left),
Alice in the BYU production of "Wonderland,"
and Mackenzie Belnap, the Mad Hatter.

The enthusiasm of Utah theatergoers for the works of Frank Wildhorn was wildly evident during the famed composer's three-day visit to Salt Lake City.

"It was literally magical for our students," according to Tim Threlfall, head of Brigham Young University's Music Dance Theatre Department.

Threlfall invited Wildhorn to attend early rehearsals for "Wonderland," which will be directed by the department chairman, and is scheduled for a Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2019, run at the soon-to-be-demolished de Jong Concert Hall.

"We had a tremendous weekend with Frank Wildhorn," Threlfall said. "Our first rehearsal with him was an entire sing-through of 'Wonderland.' We have had only six rehearsals, but during that time the cast learned all the music...and there is a LOT of it! We sang each song for Frank. He gave notes and then we sang it again. Frank was blown away by the level of talent we have, especially given that much of the cast are freshmen and sophomores, new to the program."

Known for his gregarious and generous personality, the composer, lyricist and producer also attended a performance of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," helmed by one of the state's leading directors, John Sweeney, for Hale Centre Theatre.

BWW Interviews: Following the Famed Composer's Visit, Utah Is Wild About Wildhorn
Frank Wildhorn, with "The Scarlet Pimpernel"
director John Sweeney and his wife, Ally Sweeney.

"He genuinely enjoyed our production and the amazing technical things we are capable of," said Sweeney. Wildhorn compared the staging to "O" by Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio Casino. The Sandy, Utah, community theater company is known for its lavish Las Vegas-style sets and costumes. "What meant the most to me as director of the show was that he said the spectacle never took away from our talent and our ability to tell the story."

BWW Interviews: Following the Famed Composer's Visit, Utah Is Wild About Wildhorn
Frank Wildhorn and Anne Puzey,
music director of "The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Anne Puzey, who music directed "The Scarlet Pimpernel," was also praised for her work. "My time with Frank was awesome, and he was very complimentary," Puzey said. "He said 'great job with the music,' and that he got goose bumps in the finale."

Why are Wildhorn works so popular in Utah?

"His music speaks to our audiences through soaring melodies, and the shows do so through uplifting relatable stories," Sweeney said. "The Scarlet Pimpernel in many ways is the original Batman; a stylish aristocrat by day who dons a disguise and saves the unfortunate by night. As an individual, Frank has won the hearts and minds of our talent by being an approachable, down-to-earth, likable guy, who you feel you can talk shop with while sharing a beer."

On the national theater landscape, Wildhorn became the first American composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway: "Jekyll & Hyde," which received two Tony nominations; "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which received four Tony nominations; and "The Civil War, which received two Tony nominations. Those three shows are frequently seen on Utah stages.

BYU student-actors were given "a 'reference point,' as Frank referred to it, for every song. He also did coachings with individuals alongside our music director, Gayle Lockwood," Threlfall said.

"Wonderland" is "a warm-hearted riot with a killer pop-rock score," he described. "I think our Utah audiences will love it. They loved his 'Count of Monte Cristo," which sold out in the 1,200-seat deJong Concert hall before it opened."

The university was given the rare opportunity to stage the first U.S. "Count of Monte Cristo" production in 2015. Pioneer Theatre, Northern Utah's only fully professional
Actors' Equity company, then presented the professional premiere the following year. Wildhorn and book writer Jack Murphy were directly involved with both productions.

"'Wonderland' is different than 'Monte Cristo.' 'Wonderland' had a brief Broadway run back in 2011 (Two BYU alum were actually in the Broadway production). We are using a different script from the Broadway version," Threlfall said. "It is the script that pre-dated the Broadway production. This script was pretty much re-written before the show moved to Broadway. But I was much more compelled by the pre-Broadway version of the show. I think it has a much warmer, more human and compelling storyline. In this version, Alice (from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland") is a writer that finds herself in the nightmarish but also very wacky dreamscape of her own making called Wonderland. There she must find her real-life daughter, Chloe, who has disappeared down the proverbial rabbit hole with a giant White Rabbit. But she must also find her own inner child in order to resurrect both her writing career and her marriage."

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