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Original musical comes to fruition at Issaquah's Village Theatre 23 years after first being written
Lord Grantham, Lady Mary Crawley, Carson the Butler, Gilligan, the Skipper, the professor and Mary Ann may not seem like a likely combination, but in Village Theatre’s original new musical “A Proper Place,” audience members may feel like they are watching a spinoff of “Downtown Abbey” mixed with “Gilligan’s Island.”
In fact, it was the popularity of Britain’s “Downton Abbey,” which aired on PBS from 2011-2016, that made it possible for the “A Proper Place” script to go from a dream to a reality.
For scriptwriters Leslie Becker (book and lyrics) and Curtis Rhodes (music and lyrics), the premiere of the musical on Village Theatre’s stage on Thursday, March 16 means the culmination of work that began over 23 years ago.
The duo originally came up with the idea of a musical about an aristocratic English family marooned on an island — based on the play “The Admirable Crichton” by “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie — back in the 1990s, but set it aside because they did not know how well a plot with such very British themes would go over in America.
However, in 2013, at what Rhodes called “the height of the ‘Downton’ popularity,” the two came together again to dust off the old script and collaborate.
“We decided it was the right time about where the country was to accept a British story,” said Becker, who has appeared on Broadway as an actress.
Set in 1902, the musical follows the antics of the Earl of Loam and his three daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Catherine and Lady Agatha Lasenby. When a trip on the Lasenby family yacht ends in shipwreck on a deserted island, the helpless nobles must turn to their servants, Crichton the Butler and Tweeny the housemaid, to survive.
“Through the course of nature, the people who in England are servants are top dog [on the island],” Rhodes said. “They have the survival skills.”
The flip of societal roles serves not only to provide comedy in the show, but also poses some serious questions about the way we look at our neighbors.
“Is a person what they are born into?” questioned Becker. Or, can a person become someone entirely new “if they are taken to a new place?”
Rhodes added that the show asks, “Are you living to your potential?” He explained that this is especially applicable to Crichton the Butler, who comes into his own on the island and assumes a position of power that he normally would never be allowed to hold in British society.
In pre-World War I Britain, Rhodes said, a rigid social hierarchy determined a person’s status from birth until death. It was only after the war that the old class system crumbled, as the lower classes found new opportunities.
“Prior to World War I, there were these massive household staffs of 30 for a family of just five,” like the Lasenbys, Rhodes said. “After World War I, it was easier for people to find jobs someplace else. The war was a game-changer.”
Over a decade before the war, the island acts as such a game-changer for the Lasenby family. At a time when women in England “weren’t allowed to even have thoughts,” Becker said that the eldest daughter, Lady Mary Lasenby, “becomes very different on the island — she finds a freedom on the island that she never had.”
Rhodes believes that the current obsession with British period dramas is not the only reason why the time is right for “A Proper Place.” He said that a plot about the upper-crust verses the lower classes is especially apropos in 2017 America.
“There is a growing income inequality — a smaller and smaller group of people who have,” he said.
Luckily for Rhodes and Becker, it was hard work rather than social class that provided success.
After performing in “The Admirable Crichton” in acting school, Rhodes had the idea of setting the story to music, and asked Becker to sing one of the roles for him.
“I thought it would make a really fun musical,” he said.
“I was really taken with it,” Becker said. “It was sort of the beginning.”
However, after running into roadblocks, the two set the script aside and “our lives went separate ways,” Becker said. Both had given up on writing to pursue more stable positions. Becker, who lives in New York, has mainly done acting on and off Broadway; she also ran a theatre company for new musicals between 1998 and 2002. After another play that she wrote “fell apart just a month before opening,” she said that she put being a writer on the shelf.
Rhodes, who lives in Los Angeles, went even further away from his writing dreams, completely leaving show business.
“I got tired of the struggle,” he said. “I had given up the notion of pursuing that dream for myself … I was tired of always wanting. My world went into magazine layouts, creating ads.”
However, after the two had a chance to gain years of experience, “Downton Abbey” opened up the window that Becker and Rhodes had been waiting for, and the two found a new hope for their script.
While in Seattle on a tour of “Wicked” two years ago, Becker submitted the script to Village Theatre, and it was featured in the theatre’s Festival of New Musicals.
Last year, the musical was chosen from among hundreds of submissions for the coveted original piece slot in the theatre’s 2016/2017 season.
“It’s a real acknowledgement that creativity doesn’t have a timeline,” Becker said.
“A Proper Place” plays Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays from March 16 through April 22 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N. in Issaquah. For tickets, call 425-392-2202.