The Musical Pompeii: Local Opening, National Ambitions

The musical Pompeii is already a top seller at Thalian Hall, but the show has bigger ambitions than Port City. WHQR's Megan Williams looks down the long road from Wilmington to Broadway.

The Musical Pompeii: Local Opening, National Ambitions

November 2, 2005, Wilmington, NC – Much of the cast of Pompeii is from New York, and when the actors arrived in Wilmington early last month, show creator Dorothy Papadakos was there to greet them, with big dreams: "Pompeii all the way to Broadway! So, we're officially Broadway bound. It's very exciting."

The road from Wilmington International Airport to the Great White Way is hardly a simple one, though. This run at Thalian Hall is in large part an audition for the show - a full-scale mounting to pique the interest of other theatre producers.

Papadakos describes the process: "So we'll just see who looks at it and likes it and calls me and says, 'Hey, how 'bout it?' What happens is, a producer, if they like it, contacts me, and says, 'We'd like to option it.' And they take it to the next level."

At any level, Pompeii bucks a lot of Broadway trends - from it's old-fashioned style, to Papadakos' lack of collaborators. She not only composed the lyrics, but also the music and the plot.

"There are very, very few people in the history of musical theatre who have done that," says Pompeii's director, Tom Briggs. "When I met Dorothy, I realized her M.O is go big, or go home. And she's written a big ole musical, a cast of 23, 14 in the orchestra. Very, very ambitious."

That ambition has come with a hefty price tag. Pompeii has a budget of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for its two-week run, almost all provided by local donors. Papadakos says raising the funds has become a surprisingly large part of her job.

"Yes, it's a big budget, it's barely... It sounds like a lot of money, but when you put on a show like this, we're actually right to the penny. It's amazing what it costs to bring in a production like this."

Still, it costs even more to mount a show like this on Broadway. And for investors to take that kind of big-money gamble, they like to know a musical can pull in big audiences. And this is where those regional theatre producers come back in.

According to Briggs, "5th Avenue theatre are people we've talked to who are very interested in coming down. Also Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Frank Young. So we've got a lot of different people coming down to take a look at the show, as you do when you do a new musical."

However, when contacted, four of the regional theatres best known for feeding musicals to Broadway, including "Theatre Under the Stars" and Seattle's "5th Avenue" theatre, said it's unlikely they will attend the run. Gordon Cox, who covers Broadway for the industry magazine Variety, says their absence is not a good sign.

"It does not mean that they are not interested in the script and the piece, but nor does it indicate strong interest in the development of the piece. Because I feel like, if you were interested in the development of the piece, you'd want to check it out, see how it works on stage."

The work of getting Pompeii to the stage has for the last month gone on in an otherwise quiet strip mall on Shipyard Boulevard. Pompeii's opening number features a panoply of ancient gods, on this day attired in jeans and warm-up suits.

The actors stand on a temporary stage floor, crisscrossed with marks in florescent tape. In between numbers they hum lines and debate staging decisions. Briggs is not merely shaping his actors' performances; he's also shaping the script. First-time productions use rehearsals as a workshop: lines are swapped, scenes rearranged, or even, cut.

"It's like building a house," says Briggs. "Do you want the bathroom over there and maybe it should be here and do you want wallpaper in that room, or maybe just on one wall. So we're having a great time doing that. And there have been some changes from when we went into rehearsal."

In fact, since he's staying for the full run, Briggs predicts the show may continue to evolve all the way through to closing. Among those adjusting to the alterations is actor James Van Treuren, who plays one of the main characters, Maximo.

"We have a box out there, a little mailbox, everybody has a slot, and we have to check it several times a day because there are new pages of script, sometimes new pages of music, scheduling things."

Van Treuren says there's no personal risk for actors who sign on with a new production. If it fails, they just go on to the next musical. And, if it succeeds, there are a lot of benefits, both professional and financial, for the actors, and for all those attached to the show.