Frank Wildhorn describes his association with Utah audiences in romantic terms.
“I am so grateful for my Utah fan base,” the Tony-nominated Broadway composer said. “I can’t explain it, but the relationship works. It’s like a date; there’s a wonderful chemistry. The relationship exists, and of course I want to utilize it and bring new work to Utah.”
Recognizing the multiple Utah productions of his musicals — including “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Civil War” — and the vast popularity of his shows with theatergoers in the state, Wildhorn decided not to take “The Count of Monte Cristo” directly to Broadway after its international success. In a major coup for BYU, he selected the university’s musical theater department to stage the first English-language production of his musical adaptation of the classic Alexandre Dumas novel. The production will run Jan. 22-31 in the de Jong Concert Hall of BYU's Harris Fine Arts Center.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” tells the story of a successful young sailor named Edmond Dantes who is betrayed, accused of treason and imprisoned for 13 years. He eventually manages to escape and, using treasure he finds on the island Monte Cristo thanks to information from a fellow prisoner, remakes himself as the "Count of Monte Cristo."
Dantes proceeds to use his newfound wealth and influence to seek vengeance on those who betrayed him and to reunite with his lost love, Mercedes, but as events proceed, he begins to experience a change of heart.
The musical premiered in 2009 at the Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland with the actors performing the translated text in German. A Korean-language version followed, along with other international stagings.
The only other time Wildhorn and his writing partner Jack Murphy have heard “The Count of Monte Cristo” in English was back in November 2008 at a New York City workshop. This “table read” included Broadway veterans such as Natalie Toro, who performed in the Pioneer Theatre Company production of “In the Heights.”
“I thought the score was amazing, and I can’t wait to hear it now,” Toro said. “ ‘Monte Cristo’ at the time had a sweeping score that just took us all away. The music was sweeping and grand, perfect for the story. Of course, Frank would decide to write the music for ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ His style of music fits the story of the book perfectly.”
At the invitation of Jeff Martin, the university’s producer of performing arts, Wildhorn performed his “Frank and Friends” concert at BYU in October 2013 and conducted master classes with musical theater students.
“When I did the master classes there, I was so impressed with the overall quality of the talent that the university has,” Wildhorn said. “So I thought, ‘Why not do something new? Let’s do something that’s never been done before in America.’ And I knew the most important thing is that it would be an amazing experience for the kids because they would be put in a professional place with no reference points. They will have to invent it themselves with their teachers. It will be a real hard and high mountain to climb. And the growing experience should be a great thing. Jeff agreed, and then the faculty and the powers that be supported that decision.”
After the decision to premiere the English-language production in the U.S. at BYU, Wildhorn returned to Provo and participated in auditions for the all-student cast staging.
“There was some intimidation with the students at the auditions, when they were singing Frank Wildhorn power ballads in front of Frank Wildhorn,” said Tim Threlfall, the show’s director and a professor in the department of Theatre and Media Arts. “But the auditions ended up going very well.”
“The BYU staging is enormously significant because it’s the first time since Jack and I originally wrote the piece that we’re going to hear it in English again,” Wildhorn said. “It’s been done in Russian, German, Korean and Japanese. And now it’s coming back to our native language. We will learn so much from doing this, and it will help enormously as we further develop the piece.”
Lyricist and writer Murphy also spent time on campus to refine the script.
“Jack (Murphy) was thrilled to be here,” Threlfall said. “He would go back to his hotel room each evening and write, and then bring us back the next morning a whole different scene. It was also very gratifying to see him leave in elements that we had added that we felt would help the production.”
The director expressed his enthusiasm for the premiere and the opportunity for students to work directly with a Broadway composer and his writing partner.
“ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ is a story that we all know, mostly because there has been some really good film treatments,” Threlfall said. “This musical adaptation is big. It’s large and soaring. It reminds me of ‘Les Miserables,’ and it reminds me of Frank’s ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ and ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel.’ There are some beautiful, beautiful songs. We have a complete cast of undergraduates, but I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by the vocal prowess in our production.”
Wildhorn also expressed his pleasure with the newly forged relationship.
“The potential of the relationship that I am beginning with BYU is what really excites me,” he said. “If the quality of the performers is going to stay the way it is — in other words, if BYU can consistently bring in great people — that’s very seductive to me to use the relationship to work and create new things. BYU has the facilities, the infrastructure and the cooperation of the different departments that need to work together.”
And it’s an association Wildhorn wants to continue beyond this first major production of his musical at the university.
“BYU has sent many an actor to New York — and some of them have been in my shows,” he said. “There is a history and a precedent of focusing both on academia and also have some real-world savvy, which is not usual. Why not take advantage of that and see where we can take it? I’m an optimist, so I’m hoping this will be a long and fruitful relationship. That’s what I’m hoping.”
If you go
What: “The Count of Monte Cristo”
When: Jan. 22-31
Where: BYU’s de Jong Concert Hall in the Harris Fine Arts Center
How much: $21-$28; $2 discount for senior citizens and BYU alumni and $5-$6 discount with a BYU or student ID
Broadway composer's 'Count of Monte Cristo' at BYU
The BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts and interdisciplinary Music Dance Theatre program will present the U.S. premiere of "The Count of Monte Cristo," a new musical from Tony Award-nominated composer Frank Wildhorn and Tony Award-nominated lyricist and book writer Jack Murphy.
Broadway composer's 'Count of Monte Cristo' at BYU
In a dress rehearsal for BYU's production of "The Count of Monte Cristo," students Preston Yates, who plays Edmond Dantes, sings a number from the production with Shae Robins, who plays Mercedes.