A VETERAN ALL-STAR team is creating "Carmelina," the musical that opens at the Kennedy Center Wednesday. Alan Jay Lerner ("My Fair Lady," "Brigadoon," "Camelot") and Burton Lane ("Finian's Rainbow") wrote the lyrices and music, respectively, united again 14 years after they created "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." Lerner wrote the "Carmelina" script with Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"). Jose Ferrer, the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor, is the director.
"Carmelina" tells the tale of an Italian woman with three GI lovers in her past but no husband. Her neighbors and her own daughter believe she is a widow, but her facade begins to fall when the former GI's return to town for a reunion. The story was first dramatized in the movie "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell."
The quartet that is assembling "Carmelina" lingered over lunch at the Kennedy Center last week to talk about their show. Lerner and Lane did most of the talking; Lerner is Jeff to Lane's Mutt. Stein got only a few words in edgewise.Ferrer appeared absorbed in the drawings of glassware and catsup bottles he was executing on his napkin, but occasionally he would lean out of his stately silence to insert a well-timed one-liner. A gold ring, tiny and thin, dangled from his left ear.
The conversation turned to the genesis of "Carmelina":
LERNER: It did not start from the four of us saying "Let's put on a show, my Dad has a barn."
LANE: In thinking of what kind of musical I'd like to do I kept thinking of something Italian. I recommended that Alan and I look at a film I had seen many times, "Lovers and Other Strangers," which dealt with an Italian-American family. But it didn't lend itself to musical treatment. It was so good there was no reason to kill it with improvements.
LERNER: Independent of it I had been in Italy the summer before, three summers ago. I was in Capri, sitting on a rock and toasting and having a little vino and I thought, "My heavens, why don't I ever have this feeling in the the-ater any more?" Just ease and gentleness and charm and joy. When Burton mentioned "Lovers and Other Strangers" the memory of that feeling bubbled to the surface again, and we settled on the subject that eventually became "Carmelina." The plot is a true story I had read in The London Times many years ago. We discovered a film had been made of it, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," which concentrated on the man, not the woman. Burton and I saw it together, and we both felt it should be about a woman who lives a lie for 16 or 17 years. In those little Italian villages the widows are sort of the duenas , and that's what was fascinating. This woman was the most respected lady in the community, but she was the widow of a man she made up.
LANE: The movie wasn't very good. Mel Frank, the producer and one of the authors of the film, wanted to do a musical version, but he wanted to direct and write it. I didn't want any part of that, because I knew his view of it was not mine. So I just passed it by until Alan came along and we rediscovered it. Aside from the initial story inspiration, very little of the film is represented in "Carmelina."
LERNER: We saw a play about a lovely Italian village, not three Americans. The woman has been living a lie like in a Goldoni play. It's a love story, too, because she has a lover, and she cannot say anything about it because she lives this chaste life as a widow.
STEIN: It's also a very funny story, because the situation involves hiding the truth. There's room for an enormous amount of comedy.
LERNER: The audience (at the Wilmington tryout) is having a marvelous time.
LANE: There was a critic (at the Wilmington opening) who said the show needed a lot of work, came back the next night and said "My goodness, I can't believe this much work could have been done."
LERNER: But we hadn't even touched it. We hadn't done anything.
FERRER: I always look madest when they say things like that.
The collaborators were asked if they did much research on their subject .
LERNER: I spent a lot of my youth in Italy. My mother lived in Venice. I had gone to Italy many, many times, so life in a little Italian community is not unknown to me.
LANE: And Italian music is very well known all over. Not that our play has anything to do with opera, but Italian operas are gorgeous. What we tried to do is our impression, just as when I did "Finian's Rainbow" it was my impression of Irish music, and when Alan wrote "Brigadoon" with Frederick Loewe it was their impression of Scottish music. What we tried not to do is to be right on the nose.
LERNER: It has to have a little larger-than-life quality, like a Neapolitan street song. With the book and lyrics, too, the whole idea is not to write it so it requires an Italian accent, but to write it in that special cadence that Italian in English has.
STEIN: The same thing is true of "Fiddler" -- none of it was written in Yiddish, but it had to have that feel.
LERNER: If it needs an Italian accent it's written badly.
A photographer arrived, camera slung around his neck .
PHOTOGRAPHER: I'm the photographer.
FERRER (barely glancing at PHOTOGRAPHER ): I had hoped that was your role.
PHOTOGRAPHER: I want to make individual shots and then a group shot.
FERRER (suddenly pretending to ve upset ): Now you've gone too far!
STEIN (to PHOTOGRAPHER ): Whatever you say. You've got the camera.
LERNER: Add a couple of women, and we'll be sued for blackmail.
PHOTOGRAPHER (taking a closeup of FERRER, who appears as Cyrano de Bergerac in a commercial for Colortrak TV sets ): My television set is exactly like your red nose.
FERRER (declaiming ): My nose is red. My eyes are red.
The discussion turned to the casting of the two lead roles in "Carmelina." Georgia Brown, who played Nancy in "Oliver" and co-created the TV series "Shoulder to Shoulder," will play the title role. Cesare Siepi, the opera basso, plays her Italian lover .
LANE: Joe (Ferrer ) and Alan and I flew to California to see some of the people who had been recommended to us. When Georgia walked into the room, it was an instant feeling, unanimous...
LERNER: Even though she was an English lady.
LANE: She had the look of an Anna Magnani. That wonderful Italian look.
LERNER: Without the wrinkles.
LANE: Who mentioned Siepi?
LERNER: My secretary. It first saw Siepi at the Met about 16 years ago in "Don Giovanni." I went every time he did it, I was so enamored of him. I asked him to lunch and said, "If I ever have an idea for a musical, would you consider it?" He said, "Do I have to sing every night?" I said, "Yes, you have to sing every night." Time went by. One day my secretary mentioned him, and I said "Oh my gosh." He happened to be passing through New York, so we amde an appointment and as we walked in he said, "Well, it took you quite a while to think of an idea, didn't it?"
The group was asked if any Italians other than Siepi are associated with "Carmelina."
FERRER: Peter Gennaro is Italian.
STEIN: Our choreographer.
LANE: He's an Italian form Central Park West.
FERRER: The three words of Italian he knows he mispronounces.
LERNER: If there is any trend we're bucking with this show, it's the fact that we have Mr. Ferrer as the director and not a choreographer [as the director].
STEIN: This is not a choreographer's show. It is a director's show.
LANE (to FERRER): I guess that's the one thing you don't do -- dance, do you, Joe?
FERRER smoothed his mustache and clapped his hands as if dancing.
STEIN: Joe Terpsichore.
LERNER: Lately musicals that have been successful have really been cabaret shows -- very good ones, mind you, like...
LANE: "Ain't Misbehavin,'" "Eubie"...
LERNER: Or "Dancin,'" which has no book at all.
LERRER: "Bubbling Brown Sugar."
LERNER: But this is a musical play, it's about human beings and it requires a director who has some understanding of style and panache.
LANE: Puting on a musical is teamwork. Alan and I have almost instant communication, and when Joe Ferrer heard what we were offering to him he...
LERRER: Started to cry.
LANE: He was moved to tears.
LERNER: Of course, you can't go by him because he cries at card tricks.
FERRER: And hockey scores.
LANE: Apart from this absence of books, another problem the musical theater has been going through recently is the kind of commercialism where producers want to be up-to-date and use what is currently popular -- that is, rock 'n' roll. I don't think all rock 'n' roll is terrible, but I think most of it is. I can't imagine ever doing a musical where human feelings are involved with...
LERNER: With a rock 'n' roll score.
LANE: That form just does not permit tenderness or intelligent lyrics or a feeling of romance.
LERNER: It's even more than that. If you hear a rock-'n'-roll melody, you could not say what the lyric was going to be. It could be anything. But when you hear a piece of music from a musical play that is supposed to express exuberance or tenderness or love or yearning, you have a pretty good idea of what the lyric is going to be about.
LANE: A very good example of this is a great musical film called "The Wizard of Oz," from which a great song, "Over the Rainbow," emerged. From the same subject, done as a show with rock music called "The Wiz," nothing has emerged. No individual song. And when "The Wiz" closes, that's the end of that score. There is nothing that will survive.
FERRER: There are no songs that have survived from "Superstar," "Grease" or "Godspell" or any of that.
LANE: Alan and I did "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" in the middle of the rock period, an all the record companies and publishers looked a little askance at us, and yet "On a Clear Day" has become one of the big standards in the American catalog of songs.
It was noted that the four men have chalked up a total of 13 marriages among them -- six from Lerner, three from Ferrer, two apiece from Stein and Lane -- yet their show is about a woman who has never been married .
LERNER: I don't think our private life has anything to do with the show.
LANE: Alan has just been six times lucky.
LERNER: All it shows is I'm an optimist. And the message of this show, if there is one, is "Never let truth get in the way of being happy."