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Signature, Disney join forces on new musical version of ‘Freaky Friday’

Brian Yorkey, left, and Tom Kitt. (Walter McBride)

In a deal that rockets Signature Theatre into a whole new producing orbit, the Arlington company will team up this fall with the Walt Disney Co. to present a world-premiere musical version of “Freaky Friday,” with a score by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team behind “Next to Normal.”

The show is based on the 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers — and two subsequent hit Disney movies — about a teenager and a mom who switch bodies. It marks the first time Signature will have forged a collaboration with the entertainment giant, whose theatrical arm has produced stage versions of "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "Newsies" and "Beauty and the Beast," among others. The new musical, directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, is set to run from Oct. 4 to Nov. 13 on Signature's main stage, with tickets going on sale July 1.

“This is the perfect marriage of us and material,” said Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, who began meeting with executives with Disney Theatrical Group, including its president, Thomas Schumacher, about two years ago, to discuss possible joint ventures. “They said: ‘We’re looking to work with other theaters around the country. Are you interested?’ ” Schaeffer recalled. “Tom and [his associates] started to come to our shows, and they fell in love with the space.”

As a result, an arrangement was hammered out in which Signature will mount the initial production and then the property will be made available for licensing by other theater companies. Signature and Disney officials — who declined to provide any specifics about the financial terms between the nonprofit theater and publicly traded entertainment giant — emphasized that there was no Broadway trajectory in mind for the musical at present.

“Having developed the title here at Disney Theatrical, we can’t wait to now share ‘Freaky Friday’ with Signature’s audiences and then to release the title for licensing,” Schumacher said in a prepared statement. Music Theatre International will handle the licensing, and after Signature, California’s La Jolla Playhouse will stage a production of “Freaky Friday” in January 2017.

Usually in such situations, a producer bringing a project to a nonprofit company underwrites some considerable portion of the costs of a premiere production, which in some cases can run into the millions. This was the arrangement when, for example, commercial producer Stacey Mindich brought "Dear Evan Hansen" to Arena Stage last summer. How much monetary support Disney might be providing was not disclosed.

Still, depending on how audiences respond to “Freaky Friday,” it’s hard not to imagine some potentially high-profile future for a project by such an accomplished team. A score of about two dozen pop tunes has been written by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, who collaborated on “Next to Normal” and followed that up with “If/Then.” Both of those musicals made crucial early Washington stops. Born off-Broadway, “Next to Normal” was retooled at Arena Stage before it went back to New York and won the Pulitzer. “If/Then” had its world premiere at the National Theatre with Idina Menzel as its star and went on to a year-long run on Broadway that ended last March.

Then again, Disney, the dominant corporate player on Broadway, seems not to be viewing Times Square as an inevitable destination for all of its properties. Disney’s musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” for instance, which had an American debut at La Jolla Playhouse and ran earlier this year at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, has no announced Broadway plans. And neither has Disney’s adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” directed by Mary Zimmerman and produced in 2013 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

"Freaky Friday" is best known to contemporary audiences as the 2003 Disney movie farce in which Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan portray a suburban mother and daughter who wake up one morning to discover that each is inhabiting the other's body. They have to learn, literally and figuratively, what it's like to walk in each other's shoes. That film was a remake of a 1976 Disney movie of the same title, with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster in the lead roles.

"This is a love story between a mother and a daughter," said Bridget Carpenter, a playwright and television writer ("Friday Night Lights") recruited to write the musical's book. "It's not a heavy story, but it has weight. There's something about wanting to connect with your parents and being unable to do so that's extremely moving. It's a joy to dig deep into that."

Kitt and Yorkey were brought aboard a couple of years ago, after an earlier version with a different composer didn’t work out, according to various people involved in the project. It helped that Kitt and Yorkey have older sisters who owned the book, so they both knew the story intimately. The stage version takes inspiration from the novel by the late Rodgers — the daughter, incidentally, of Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and a musical writer in her own right — as well as the movies.

“What we’ve done on top of that is added our own story,” Kitt said. “It really is a new version of ‘Freaky Friday’ that pays tribute to what came before it.”

While casting has yet to be announced, members of the creative team say they’re eager to get to work in Arlington on a show that feels to them a natural for the stage. “The thing that entranced us all as kids was the magic in the story,” Yorkey said. “And with a musical, where there’s magic there can easily be music.”