“Beaches” is what Iris Rainer Dart is best known for, and if it’s all she ever did, her career would have reached an enviable high tide.
The 1985 novel followed an urchin showgirl and an aristocratic tyke, best girlfriends for life till death claims one of them too soon. The book begat the 1988 Hollywood hit with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, a multi-hankie picture immortalized by a modest little tune called “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Now “Beaches” is washing ashore again as a brand-new musical starting Tuesday at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. That might give you the impression that Dart has been a re-purposing one-hit wonder, but multi-purposing is more like it. Dart turns out to be a showbiz kid from way back — a tap dancer, a sitcom writer, even an old hand at musical theater lyrics.
“I have written in every format but fortune cookies,” cracks Dart, whose early professional gigs were writing for Sonny and Cher.
Start with musicals, since song and dance have brought Dart to town. Dart, 69 and petite, her hair in dark bangs and her wrists adorned with bracelets, is writing the lyrics for “Beaches” to a new score by emerging composer David Austin. She’s also co-writing the script with Thom Thomas, based on her novel rather than the movie’s screenplay (by Mary Agnes Donoghue).
Only three years ago, Dart had another project on Broadway. “The People in the Picture,” based on Dart’s Jewish European forebears, starred Donna Murphy and featured music by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mike Stoller. But its mixed reviews were part of why she wanted to premiere “Beaches” away from New York.
“It was pretty high pressure,” Dart says. She praises the low-key atmosphere at Signature, which she describes as “safer — I wish I’d had that for the other show.”
Her first musicals? Hardly. In the 1960s, Dart dashed off varsity shows at Carnegie Mellon (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology). Her composing partner was Stephen Schwartz, soon to be famous for “Godspell” and eventually the box-office titan of “Wicked.”
To hear her talk, it sounds like musicals have always been the goal. She was a child actor growing up in Pittsburgh, and as a teen she taught tap classes to help pay for her own dance lessons.
She’s turning 70 next month, so Mara Davi — now playing what audiences will think of as the movie’s Barbara Hershey role (even though the character’s name and back story are different in the book and musical than in the movie) — asked what she could give the writer. Dart asked for a tap session.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Dart says. “I still remember tap steps I did when I was the age of the kids in this show.”
The “Beaches” novel reprinted lyrics from Tin Pan Alley hits “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Ballin’ the Jack,” the kinds of showbiz songs that the movie used for the singer Cee Cee (played by Midler). In other words, the book was a musical at heart — a natural vessel for everything from standards to a gleefully trashy burlesque number and the big soapy ballad Midler sang in the picture.
Dart lost any actual connection to theater after college, though. She explains, “I took a wrong turn at Hollywood.”
She wrote sketches for “The Sonny and Cher Show” and then for Cher’s solo series in 1975-76; Dart has said that the brassy Cee Cee in “Beaches” was originally based on Cher. In Los Angeles, she learned to write comedy from the man who would eventually directed the “Beaches” film, Garry Marshall.
“For 10 years at least, Garry was my manager,” Dart says. “Garry was more of a teacher than anything, scratching out what wasn’t funny and circling what was funny.”
In the late 1970s, Dart adapted a Sidney Sheldon novel into a four-hour miniseries that never got made. But in pulling apart Sheldon’s novel, she thought, “I can do this.”
She pitched “Beaches,” but publishers told her it wasn’t commercial. So she wrote a book based on Hollywood experiences that included her first husband’s Universal Studios mailroom stint before his career as a concert promoter. (Her first husband, Steve Wolf, died in 1977.)
The result, the 1979 “The Boys in the Mailroom,” “was so trashy,” Dart says, “my son is 43, and I won’t let him read it yet.”
But it sold, which meant the “Beaches” outline and sample chapters got looked at. Dart says Midler saw it early and liked it, but had no clout as her career was dipping with a dud film called “Jinxed.” Midler’s All Girl Productions ended up producing it with Disney’s Touchstone, though without Dart writing the screenplay. Dart didn’t want to handle the adaptation, having had enough of the Hollywood push-pull.
“I was on the set, not a lot, but I knew it was in wonderful hands,” Dart says. She heard concerns about keeping the sad story light, and in her old mentor Marshall, “They found the champion of keeping it light.”
This new singing “Beaches,” directed by Signature artistic head Eric Schaeffer, features two dozen original songs (plus “Wind Beneath My Wings”) and a story that Dart has told the cast is sort of like the movie, but more like the book. “Same characters, different days,” is how she puts it.
The novels since “Beaches” include the 1991 sequel “I’ll Be There,” but now Dart is spending time on stage projects when she’s not home in Central California with her second husband, Stephen Dart.
“I’m a complete theater geek,” Dart declares. The only satellite radio station she listens to is the Broadway channel: “I love the way music elevates material,” she says. “And I’m at a point in my life where I’m able to write whatever I want. This is way too much fun.”
Book by Iris Rainer Dart and Thom Thomas, based on the novel by Dart, music by David Austin. Feb. 18-March 30 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets $40-$104, subject to change. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.