Turning a movie into a musical takes a writer willing to prune and shape source material. For Secondhand Lions, Rupert Holmes needed to take a story that shifts from Foreign Legion swashbuckling adventures in Morocco to the plains of mid-century Texas. He also had to write a stage spectacle that didn’t lose the heart of the beloved film’s tale of a young boy's summer with his two very eccentric great-uncles.
Directed by Scott Schwartz with choreography by Joshua Bergasse, Secondhand Lions features music and lyrics from Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (First Date).
You've had a bit of a history of taking up stories without a known ending and crafting a musical's book out of them including The Mystery of Edwin Drood which was recently revived on Broadway. Is it harder or easier to work on a show like this, where you know the audience may be walking into the theater with a certain expectation of the ending?
I’m aware that some fans will come to Secondhand Lions with the movie’s ending firmly set in their mind. And frankly, if you ever saw a musical of Citizen Kane, you probably wouldn’t want to be told that “Rosebud” is the name of Charles Foster Kane’s favorite herbal tea. But there are so many new and reinvented elements in our musical, including a character or two who didn’t appear in the movie, that I think even the most knowledgeable fans of the film will still be more than curious as to how we’ll conclude our version of the story.
Whose idea was it to adapt this movie into a musical?
I would credit Mark Kaufmann, who was one of the producers of the original film as well as its music supervisor and an expert Broadway musical devotee. He was the one who first approached our songwriters and asked them to create two songs for a potential musical. Mark is now co-head of Warner Brothers Theatrical, producing partner with the Fifth Avenue Theatre for this show, and thus an integral part of the musical he set in motion a number of years ago.
Were you familiar with the movie before you started on the show?
When I ask people about the movie Secondhand Lions, I usually get one of two reactions. There are those who cherish it the way people treasure movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Goonies or Groundhog Day. And then there are those who’ve never heard of the movie and have no idea what I’m talking about. I was in the latter category until New Line Cinema asked me to watch the film, to determine if I’d be interested in writing a script that would transform it into a live production on the scale of a grand Broadway musical.
So what did you think when you saw the movie?
I was instantly captivated by all the emotional buttons the film pushed. But I also saw its potential as a unique, entertaining and uplifting work for musical theatre, one that could speak to literally all ages, offering thrills, romance, laughter and tears in abundance. I became convinced that Secondhand Lions could be that rare case where the musical stage seems to be the movie’s ultimate destination…that its story might be even more fully, colorfully, comically, and heartbreakingly realized on stage than on film. I say this with full admiration for the original work.
What were those elements that made this seem right for the musical treatment?
There were exciting and touching parts of the story that, by necessity, went untold in the film, and emotions that its characters couldn’t express, simply because they were alone. Musicals are allowed a great freedom, that of letting people reveal their innermost thoughts in song. I felt we had the chance to make a new musical that could stand tall alongside the film that inspired it, not as a “souvenir” of the movie but as its own rich and detailed creation. And I thought that for those who already loved the movie, our musical could extend and deepen their fondness and experience, bringing them new adventures and emotions under the banner of Secondhand Lions.
Perhaps most of all, I heard two songs that Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner had already written as “trial runs” for a possible musical, and I knew that our show could have a musical score as funny, endearing, and moving as the film itself.
Was there any scene in the movie that you said "well, we can't show that on stage!"?
There was a scene where young Hub and the beautiful Princess, each on horseback, are racing at sunset through the wet sand of an endless beach. I thought, “We can do the sunset, might be able to do the horses, can’t do the miles of wet sand.” My solution was to take them sailing to exotic ports-of-call across Europe and Asia. Lose the horses, cue the Ninjas.
So when you first sat down to discuss the adaptation, did you point to any scene as essential to keep?
I don’t want to give away too much here. I felt the scene between Walter and his Uncle Hub, toward the latter part of the film, where the boy gets Hub to talk to him about the things in life worth believing in, was crucial. And I discovered another scene, one not found in the film’s original release, that I thought was important and perfectly suited to our musical’s retelling and reinvention.
The charm of Tim McCanlies' original story really is that delicate balance of very small, personal human story about a boy and his growing love for his great-uncles with these huge grandiose adventures shown in flashback. How do you bring all those parts -- and a secondhand lion -- onto the stage?
Secondhand Lions is truly a double-barreled experience, because it’s really two different musicals intertwined into one unified tale. In the movie, the high adventure part of the story is glimpsed only briefly, with none of its characters ever speaking. We have developed that world of great romance and swashbuckling courage into a full-scale musical that could fill a stage all on its own.
But Secondhand Lions is also a warm “coming of age” story about a boy abandoned by his wayward mother and left for a long, hot summer with his cantankerous great-uncles, who may have at one time been either legendary bank robbers or bold heroes of some very tall tales set in the sands of Morocco, a realm of great palaces, evil rulers and a resourceful princess. Bringing both those worlds onto the same stage in a live theatrical experience is our ongoing privilege, challenge, and reward, requiring huge amounts of time, energy, and an incredible talent pool upon-behind-below-and-above the Fifth Avenue Theatre’s impressive stage. And of course, it is our brilliant director Scott Schwartz’s Herculean assignment to bring all this together into one vivid production, and he’s done a remarkable, awe-inspiring job.
How has it been working with Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary? Seattle audiences know their work from First Date, which had a run here before moving to Broadway.
Alan and Michael are a great new American songwriting team, truly smart and savvy, yet also able to express powerful emotions in a clear and direct way. I believe audiences will be hearing their Broadway scores for decades to come. Their work constantly reminds me of how many new dimensions this musical brings to the characters and story of Secondhand Lions. As a collaborative team, we work together with unflagging energy, honesty, good humor and a total lack of ego, and I think it’s safe to say we overlap each other’s boundaries. I do think the script has helped serve as a catalyst for the creation of a majority of their songs, many of which have been so eloquent that I have then stepped back and allowed the lyrics to tell the story. We constantly challenge each other, but always with affection, appreciation and respect.
Without giving away any big secrets, what do you think will surprise the audience most when they come to 5th for this show?
If you’re a fan of the movie, I think the Evil Sultan might surprise you quite a bit. As will Jane. (Who’s Jane, you may ask?) And the personality of the Princess. And how we dealt with the topic of wild lions in our stage retelling. But whether you know the movie or not, I think what will surprise people most is how many packets of Kleenex they’ll wish they had brought with them.