The near-simultaneous presentation of a musical in divergent shapes and lengths affirms that a musical is never really finished while its creators are alive: Stephen Sondheim, for example, still on occasion rewrites lyrics for revivals of his musicals. And sometimes the show changes even after they are gone: “Venus in Fur” playwright David Ives has made a side-specialty out of renovating the books of early-to-mid 20th-century musicals that have been adjudged outdated.
But it attests, too, to the fervent desire of Tesori and Crawley to get as right as they possibly can a show that, in the view of its admirers, never received the high-intensity spotlight it deserved after its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. Despite good reviews (although the New York Times notice was mixed), several plans to move the Playwrights production to Broadway failed, a devastating result for the creative team, and one that can be counted among the reasons the musical — about a disfigured young woman who goes on a bus trip, in quest of a spiritual healer — lay relatively dormant all this time.
“It was her first big theater heartbreak,” Leigh Silverman, who is directing the Roundabout production, said of Tesori. So painful were the memories that Tesori confided to Silverman her reluctance even to return to the piece.
Any resistance by Tesori, whose subsequent career as a composer has traversed both the art house (“Fun Home,” “Caroline, or Change”) and commercial house (“Shrek the Musical,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), was broken by the lingering fascination with the show and, no doubt, by some deeper personal desire for confirmation of its specialness. “I want to feel like I’m a perpetual student,” Tesori said the other day, of her work as a composer. Clearly, with “Violet,” she’s of a mind that she has more to learn.
The reasons for “Violet” coming back into being in two cities, in two versions, are both serendipitous and comprehensible, given the independent impetus for each production. According to Jeff Calhoun, director of the Ford’s revival that begins its run Friday, the company organized a weeklong workshop with Tesori and Crawley about 14 months ago that culminated in a reading of the musical at Ford’s and a decision by its leader, Paul Tetreault — despite some ticket-sales worries among the staff — to put it on the theater’s calendar, with Erin Driscoll as Violet. Separately, in July, Silverman staged a one-night concert version of “Violet” as part of a summer series in New York, Encores! Off-Center, that is curated by Tesori. Its favorable reception, with Sutton Foster in the lead, led Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haimes to find a slot for it in his 2013-14 season as well.
Silverman proposed the idea of doing “Violet,” which is adapted from the short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” by Doris Betts, in one act rather than two. That was supposed to be an accommodation solely for the summer series. But Tesori and Crawley became interested in the lasting implications for the only musical they’ve worked on together. (Tesori has almost never written with the same partner twice: “Fun Home,” “Caroline,” “Shrek” and “Millie” — the last for which she added songs to an existing movie score — all have different lyricists.)
“It was something we talked about a lot when we were writing it the first time around,” said Crawley, of the one-act concept. “I think the nice thing about the experience is it’s more like seeing a movie. You don’t need to settle the audience back into the story.”
The standard in conventional musical comedy is two acts, with a number sending the audience bracingly into intermission. (Example: Signature Theatre’s “Gypsy,” with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”). Of course, the formula has been experimented with and modified, depending on the material’s needs and length. The original production of “Follies,” in 1971, was performed without intermission, but revivals like the 2011 Kennedy Center production have included a break. Some shows make special experiential and narrative sense in one act, such as “A Chorus Line,” built around an audition, or “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (which will be revived at Ford’s later this season).
For Tesori, removing the pause in the middle of the show, with its gospel, rock and R&B-influenced score, gives Crawley and her the chance to trim away some extraneous detail here and there and in the process sharpen the focus on the poignant central character, a damaged young woman whose naivete is stripped away. (“The score,” Calhoun observed, “is as intricate and complex as the characters.”)
“I don’t want to change ‘Violet,’ ” Tesori said. I want to make ‘Violet’ more VIOLET.” It doesn’t have a ‘B’ story. It’s a short story, about one person’s journey — basta!”
The path Tesori herself is on is one with many acts. The latest, “Fun Home,” which just ended a hugely successful run at the Public Theater, will go down as a pivotal event in her career, sharing that distinction with the 2003 “Caroline, or Change,” written with Tony Kushner. Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, and with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, “Fun Home” is a funny and hauntingly beautiful memory musical, revolving around a young woman finding her sexual identity and coming to terms with an upbringing filled with unsettling secrets.
Discovering a theatrical structure for Bechdel’s nonlinear story took countless hours of trial and error, Tesori said. But if several years of exploration went into “Fun Home,” the work spans decades on “Violet,” whose emphasis on song and story, at the expense of set and spectacle, pegs it as having been slightly ahead of its time. The tinkering going on now is in service of both compression and artistic effect: Crawley said that for New York, he is contemplating replacing a song for the character Monty, one of the soldiers Violet meets in her travels across the South, which will be sung at Ford’s by James Gardiner. The creators are also taking the opportunity to refine some of the transitions, work they didn’t have time for back in 1997.
Which leads one to wonder: will one version be better than the other? Will “Violet” henceforward be a musical in one act, or two, or both?
“I think it’s really, really great, that they’re willing to have two versions of the show in the world,” Silverman said. “It’s incredible the guts that that takes, the sense of adventure that that takes.”
Calhoun, who shepherded the Disney stage version of “Newsies” to hit Broadway status, said that you can only worry about the material as it’s given to you. “It’s not a sporting event,” he said, of the two “Violets.” “We’re not in competition.”
music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Through Feb. 23 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. $20-$62. Visit www.fords.org. or call 202-347-4833.