If creating a musical based on a vintage film has become a common, if unpredictable, theater practice, it might stand to reason that creating one based on a 65-year-old black-and-white British movie in which the leading man plays eight different characters would be a long shot.
Happily for composer Steven Lutvak and lyricist-librettist Robert L. Freedman, their efforts paid off handsomely in the Tony-winning “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” opening at the Golden Gate Theatre this week.
To be completely accurate, the film — 1949’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets” with Alec Guiness in the multifaceted lead — was about 55 when the authors started their decade-long journey to Broadway. Along the way they needed to refocus their efforts to the film’s source, the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman.
“We had the rights to adapt [the film] and got into a huge dispute with the film company for reasons I swear to God I can’t even tell you why even now,” says Lutvak. “They sued us for copyright infringement. When we parted ways with the film company, we were then based solely on the book.”
The pair met in a musical theater writing program in New York. “We collaborated only a little bit then,” says Freedman, “but we stayed friends for many years, even after I moved back to LA.”
They visited each other to work on “Guide,” occasionally branching out to more exotic locales like Wyoming and Guadalajara. “We managed to do most of it in person, sometimes over the phone.”
Freedman, also a successful screenwriter, doesn’t feel every property lends itself to stage adaptation. He says,“A good story is always a good story. What matters is understanding that you can’t just take say a movie and put it on stage. It has to become its own thing. To the extent that sometimes mistakes are made, that may be the reason.”
They never worried that having such a complex leading role would potential limit the show’s viability. “Unlike, say ‘Kinky Boots,’ where every regional production or every community theater has to find a black drag queen, there’s always a character actor who perceives himself or is perceived by everybody else as being able to play lots of multiple parts.”
On tour, John Rapson plays the various soon-to-be-bumped-off members of the D’Ysquith family. “John had seen our show a few times before even thinking about auditioning for the tour,” recalls Freedman. “He told me that this is the kind of material he’d always dreamed of working on and the kind of thing that mirrored his own sensibilities.”
IF YOU GO
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Presented by SHN
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 27
Tickets: $45 to $212
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com