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"Being Earnest"

A new musical by composer/lyricist Paul Gordon and songwriter/composer Jay Gruska, based on Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." Set in 1964 London.
Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Hayden Tee, Riley Krull, Maureen McVerry, Diana Torres Koss, Brian Herndon, Mindy Lym and Euan Morton
Directed by: Robert Kelley
When: reviews 8 p.m. April 3-5; opens 8 p.m. April 6; through April 28, 2013. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California.
Tickets:$23-$73 (savings available for students, educators, and seniors). Call 650-463-1960 or visit theatreworks.org
Gruska, Gordon
Photo courtesy of TheatreWorks
Jay Gruska, left, and Paul Gordon, who created the musical "Bring Earnest," based on the classic comedy by Oscar Wilde.
The importance of bringing 'Being Earnest' to TheatreWorks
Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska talk about making Oscar Wilde's hilarious play into a musical
March 24, 2013

This is kind of a make-up exam.

Back in August of 2012, I interviewed Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, who were developing a new musical called "Being Earnest," based on Oscar Wilde's hilarious "The Importance of Being Earnest."

The show was being workshopped at TheatreWorks New Works Festival, and everybody was excited about it.

For one thing, "The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" is brilliant, hilarious and timeless, and has been a theater staple since it was first staged in 1895 and has been made into a movie at least three times..

And, Gordon is a favorite at TheatreWorks, where his "Jane Eyre," "Emma" and "Daddy Long Legs" were hits. His "Jane Eyre" was nominated for five Tonys on Broadway.

Gruska, a very successful songwriter/composer, has been a pal of Gordon's for years. They had three musicals in production at the time we spoke.

The only problem with talking with them both by phone is that I sometimes wasn't sure who was saying what. The only problem with having seen the workshop reading of "Being Earnest" was that I had to agree to not write about it.

That's because ya never know what might change in such a work in progress, and they don't want theater critics influencing the process.

Well ... I can tell you that what I saw in 2012 was delightful and charming and funny, and I seriously doubt that it has lost any of its many fine qualities since then. It opens in previews on April 3 for TheatreWorks, with an opening night on April 6, 2013. TheatreWorks founder and artistic director Robert Kelley directs.

And I can tell you that I seriously doubt that people at the level of Gordon and Gruska would be even remotely influenced by anything a theater critic has to say about anything.

But, that being said, an odd thing happened: Somehow, I never got around to writing a story about that interview. Months later, the publicist who'd help me set it up sent me a note asking about it: Had I ever done the story?

Blush. No. I had not. I think I just forgot about it. Distracted by some bright, shiny thing, perhaps, or tormented by some dire vicissitude of life.

But, now that the highly anticipated musical is just about ready to open, I thought I would dig up my notes and tell you something about talking with Gordon and Gruska, and how they came to work on this play.

"I was just sort of looking at material," Gordon said. "I'd been looking at other novels and material, and it occurred to me that the world needed an Oscar Wilde musical. And, if you could write a good score, it would be the best comedic book to a musical ever written. "It became a sort of experiment, to make this incredibly brilliant play into a musical. Hopefully without offending any scholars."

Gordon and Gruska decided to move the musical forward in time, to the 1960s, to Carnaby Street in London, where the mods and the hippies, the jazz types and the soul types, were achieving new levels of popular creativity.

Jay Gruska
Courtesy of Jay Gruska
Jay Gruska

"We tried to create a score that evoked the tones and colors of the '60s," said Gruska.

Yet, they also wanted to stay close to the original Wilde play -- and, add some material from other Wilde sources.

"It's a terrific device," said Gruska. "To incorporate some classic Oscar Wilde quotations that were not part of the the play. The script is sort of peppered with them. We kept Oscar Wilde's spirit very much in the work."

"It felt natural to do that," Gordon said. "Several characters break the fourth wall -- it lends itself to being musical-like. But we found opportunities to break the fourth wall even more than Wilde imagined."

Gordon and Gruska have known each other since their college days.

Their first collaboration was something called "Greetings From Venice Beach," which they described as a "very 'Rent'-like musical, about ten years before 'Rent.'" That show was later renamed "The Last Pagoda."

Their second effort, which they called "one of our proudest works," was a musical adaptation of the movie "The Front." But it had yet to reach production, when we talked.

"The great thing about writing musicals is that no project is ever really dead," Gordon said.

That musical, based on "The Front," has since been renamed "Lucky Break," according to Gruska's website. Apparently it is still not in production.

Bringing "Being Earnest" to TheatreWorks was a no-brainer for Gordon.

Paul Gordon and Robert Kelley
Carla Befera / TheatreWorks
Paul Gordon and Robert Kelley

"I've had a strong relationship with Kelley ever since 'Jane Eyre,' and then 'Emma,' and then 'Daddy Long Legs.' I love working here. So, as soon as Jay and I started working on 'Being Earnest' I let Kelley know, and he was interested right away."

For Gruska, it was all new.

"It's been my first experience with the New Works Festival, this idea of rehearsing for a few days, doing the show, doing it again. ... I'm thrilled."

For New Works, an excellent cast stood on stage with music stands and sometimes hand-held microphones, reading/acting through the play.

"It's very demanding, vocally," Gordon noted. "It requires vocal gymnastics, really solid musicianship from the singers. You can't just hire a television actor to fake their way through it. You need a very precise singer."

"Being Earnest" was one of the big hits of the well-attended New Works Festival. It's likely that TheatreWorks large and growing audience of regulars will turn out in force for this production.

Being Earnest
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell, front, and Mindy Lym as Gwendolyn, Hayden Tee as Jack, Euan Morton as Algernon and Riley Krull as Cecily in "Being Earnest," which will get its world premiere produced by TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, April 3-28, 2013.


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