The "do-over" is one of life's most appealing, if elusive, fantasies. Wouldn't it be great to redo something that failed and get it right this time? Rarely does anyone actually get that chance, but Greenbelt's Bill Tchakirides is enjoying a second chance at something left unfulfilled for 30 years. He has revived his own Broadway flop, and the do-over is being shared with enthusiastic audiences at Laurel Mill Playhouse.
Long since retired from pursuing show business as a full-time career, the computer software analyst and part-time theater director has helped to retool and re-imagine the show, "Ride the Winds," a musical about the education of a medieval samurai.
"I wish I had another six months to work on it," he said shortly before opening night a few weeks ago. "I've been thinking about this show for 30 years, and still keep thinking of new things to do with it, so we finally had to say, a few days ago, 'This is as far as we're going to go.' "
"Ride the Winds" is an adventure-filled story written by Tchakirides's college pal from Northwestern University, John Driver, a TV actor and writer (he had done both for "Law and Order"), and award-winning theater director, playwright and composer ("Shogun: The Musical").
The result is an exotic mixture of martial arts movement, choreographed by stage combat artist Eric Eaton, and Japanese Noh theatrical expression. Noh is a masked dance-drama discipline in which actors' movements are extremely stylized. Narrative music is used to evoke a beautiful, mysterious atmosphere. Tchakirides designed a scaled-down version of a Noh stage, which traditionally floated on water in Japan.
Wishing to expand the concept into a wider Asian theme, Tchakirides adapted Kabuki theater's footbridge, which usually passes through an audience, and black-clad, hooded stagehands called kuragos, who are always present but are considered invisible. A chorus is present at all times, borrowed from Bunraku puppet theater, where narrators usually recite all the dialogue while seated at the right side of the stage. The musicians are visible against the back wall, which features a symbolic Noh pine tree (the gods made the gift of Noh via a pine tree, according to Japanese folklore).
For Tchakirides, getting "Ride the Winds" to this point has been a long process.
After receiving his master's degree in theater from Northwestern in 1969, Tchakirides headed to Broadway, where he and Driver reconnected. Soon, Driver was getting acting jobs and writing in his spare time, and Tchakirides was doing technical work at the now-demolished New Theater on East 54th Street. He also was planning a career as a producer.
In 1972, the ABC television show "Kung Fu," which combined Asian martial arts with the American western, sparked interest in Asian martial philosophy, inspiring Driver to write the story, music and lyrics for a musical based on the life of a samurai. At the time, he was an understudy in the original Broadway production of "Grease," covering a variety of roles, and he had plenty of time to write in his "cold, damp, and shabby fourth-floor walkup dressing room with the peeling paint at the Royale Theatre," as he remembers it.
Driver, a black belt in iaido, the art of the Japanese sword, loosely based "Ride the Winds" on the early life of Musashi Miyamoto, a celebrated Japanese samurai and renowned brush painter and poet. Tchakirides readily agreed to produce it.
For two years, the pair sought funding, traveling to more than 20 cities to raise money by playing songs and acting out scenes for potential backers. To save money, Tchakirides asked his old scenic design teacher back at Northwestern, Samuel Ball, to design the set. Ball agreed, and Northwestern students built the sets and even made the costumes, while Tchakirides drove the truck with the set pieces from Chicago to New York. He and Driver eventually raised about $250,000, a modest sum for a New York show even then, but it was enough to open the production on Broadway.
The big night came May 9, 1974: "Ride the Winds" was before an audience for the first time, at Broadway's old Bijou Theatre. The show ran for eight previews, had its official opening night for the press on May 16, and then closed after only two more performances.
"It got good reviews from the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, but Mel Gussow in the New York Times tore it to pieces," Tchakirides said. "You couldn't sell a ticket in New York if the Times didn't give you a good review, and we couldn't keep it open because we had already spent all the money we had. So we closed it."
The show was largely forgotten, even by Driver. But not by Tchakirides: "My whole life changed when that show closed," he said. "After a couple of years of hard work, I had lost my investors. And it's very hard to raise money for another show in those circumstances."
Tchakirides kept "Ride the Winds" in the back of his mind, even as he gave up the life of a struggling producer and began working in arts management, eventually spending years working in photography and finally, computers. "When you get involved with other things, sometimes you don't get back to, or have the opportunity to get back to, what you really want to do," he said. Driver, meanwhile, continued to build a now-flourishing career in New York theater and television.
Several years ago, Tchakirides took a first tentative step back into the world he loved and left. He volunteered to design a set for a production of the musical "Oliver!" at Laurel Community Theater. There he met some of the people planning to establish the new Laurel Mill Playhouse, and he spent the next 18 months helping to convert a century-old storefront building into a little theater, which opened a year and a half ago. Now immersed in theater again, Tchakirides directed Laurel Mill Playhouse's adventurous production of the rarely performed and controversial Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins." ("Assassins" is currently on Brodway in a revival produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company.)
But it was another, even rarer musical that Tchakirides was thinking about. So he called his old friend Driver and suggested giving "Ride the Winds" a second chance, this time in Laurel.
"I think, in part of my brain, I had forgotten that the show even existed," Driver said. "It was one of those early experiences that was both wonderful and terrible at the same time. I hadn't even thought about this show in a long time, but I went into my garage, because I never throw anything away, and I found an old mimeographed copy of a version of the script, yellowed with age. The first reading was a strange mixture of nostalgia and amazement at how good some things were and how little I obviously knew at the time I was writing it."
But the script did not include the music.
"I had to begin the journey of trying to find all of my old lead [music] sheets and I put out calls to all the old cast members I could find," Driver said. "I began digging around and would find a page here, a page there, maybe little notes with a jot of a melody in an old notebook.
"Everybody went through their old trunks and it seems everybody was able to find a little bit of something," Tchakirides said.
Then, they had some astonishing luck.
"I discovered that our conductor, Larry Blank, had taped the entire show during one of our few performances," Driver said. "Nobody ever knew. It wasn't a great tape, but it was good enough and hearing that music again after 30 years really took me down a strange path of nostalgia."
Driver got to work, changing about half the story, including most of the second act. Working not in a drafty old dressing room this time but in his comfortable home office, he also wrote six new songs, beginning with chord progressions and then mixing in various rhythmic schemes until he found what he wanted, adding lyrics later. Tchakirides, who discussed the changes during nightly telephone conversations with Driver, decided on a radical departure in the presentation of the show. "Originally, it was pretty much a straight, representational musical," he said. "But I thought, what if we apply the traditions and conventions of Asian theater to it, Noh and kabuki and Bunraku and Peking Opera?"
As Driver furiously wrote in New York, trying to finish the revisions, the 17-member cast began rehearsing, working four nights a week for 10 weeks. It wasn't until the second week of rehearsals that the cast got a look at the new second act. Fortunately, those first two weeks did not focus on acting, but were exclusively devoted to working with the real swords, spears and bokkuns (wooden poles) used in the authentic movements of the intense fight scenes. "First thing we did as we went into rehearsal was to check the theater's insurance policy," Tchakirides said, only half-joking.
The magnificently voiced Jay Tilley dominates the production as Tokusan, the charismatic and wise Zen priest and samurai master who teaches the art of the sword to instill discipline in his students. Andrew Nguyen is Musashi, the young bandit who is taught by Tokusan to "ride the wind," becoming a man of courage and honor in a story filled with action and romance.
The music is decidedly of the modern American theater, with pop and even a few rock-and-roll influences, with Asian scenic punctuation often made with wooden blocks by the drummer.
Roman S. Gusso created makeup based on the stylized masks worn by Noh performers and in the Chinese Peking Opera, with some designs reflecting the white-faced, mime-like makeup of kabuki. Linda Bartash designed a variety of colorful period costumes.
Ticket sales have been brisk, with some shows selling out, although that's not how Tchakirides defines success. "The only audience I direct for is me, and I define it as successful if I sit there in the audience and I like the show," he said.
Driver considers "Ride the Winds" to have been brought back to life and still a work in progress. "I sort of dreaded revisiting it, but, at the same time, was maybe excited about the chance to get it right and make it everything it could be," he said.
Driver, who has made sure to preserve the book, music and lyrics in a computer program, plans to continue tinkering with the show and explore future production possibilities. One idea is to have the new script and its 20 songs translated for a possible production in Japan. But Tchakirides, relaxed and beaming after the first performance in Laurel, had different ideas.
"I'm not going to do anything with the show after the current run," he said. "Hey, I've got to work. I've got a kid in college. But I accomplished, more or less, what I set out to do. Maybe 30 years from now, if I make it that long, I might think, 'Gee, I'd like to do 'Ride the Winds' again.' But I think it's finally out of my system now."
"Ride the Winds" continues through June 12 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., Laurel. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 301-617-9906. For information, go to www.laurelmillplayhouse.org.