Get ready to hear the guys from “Diner” crooning a score by Sheryl Crow in a familiar theater in Arlington. A new musical version of the acclaimed 1982 movie, with music and lyrics by Crow and a book by the film’s writer-director, Barry Levinson, will have its world premiere at Signature Theatre in December, the company announced Tuesday.
“Diner,” to be staged by Kathleen Marshall — represented most recently on Broadway by the Gershwins-inspired “Nice Work if You Can Get It” — is the latest show to appear on a Washington theater’s roster with Broadway in its sights. “If/Then,” the new musical that opens formally on Broadway on March 30, tried out last fall at the National Theatre, and a revamped incarnation of “Gigi,” based on the 1958 movie musical, will have its “pre-Broadway engagement” at the Kennedy Center in January.
“One of the great things for us is to go to Signature, which has a legacy of loving musicals and nurturing musicals,” singer-songwriter Crow said in a telephone interview. “I think more than anything for Barry and me is just having an opportunity to see what we have, seeing if people are on board with it.”
The musical version of Levinson’s film is one of four world-premiere shows on Signature’s eight-production agenda for 2014-15. The others are “Kid Victory,” by John Kander (“Chicago”) and Greg Pierce, a co-production with New York’s Vineyard Theatre; “Soon,” with book, music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, a Bethesda native who wrote the music for Signature’s “Glory Days”; and “Simply Sondheim,” a new revue of the music of Stephen Sondheim, created to coincide with Signature’s 25th anniversary.
The season will also include revivals of the popular musicals “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Cabaret”; a restaging of the rarely performed musical “Elmer Gantry,” which premiered in 1988 at Ford’s Theatre; and a play, Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers, with Holly Twyford in the lead.
But “Diner” and its high-wattage creators, who will be in Arlington in the run-up to performances beginning Dec. 9, are surely the season’s marquee attraction. The prospect of the “Diner” premiere was so alluring to artistic director Eric Schaeffer that he bumped another, previously disclosed show for next season — a revival of the musical “The Fix” — to make room for Crow and Levinson’s work. (“The Fix,” by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe, has been moved to the 2015-16 season.)
Schaeffer made the switch after receiving a call several weeks ago from Scott Landis, an acquaintance and the commercial producer attached to “Diner.” “He said, ‘Is your season all done?’ ” Schaeffer recalled. “I said, ‘Well, kind of, what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘We have “Diner,” and we just want to go work on it at a regional theater somewhere.’ ”
The artistic director immediately texted Managing Director Maggie Boland, who determined that the switch could be made in a “budgetarily neutral” way.
“We really made the decision in like two days,” Schaeffer said.
The musical “Diner” has been, like many such projects, on a yo-yo of a development track. The show, whose creative team was announced in 2011, has had two significant workshop runs but also some stalls in its advance. A plan to open on Broadway in April last year was scrubbed by original producer Scott Zeiger; a tryout run set for San Francisco the previous autumn had also been canceled. The explanation at the time was that the musical still needed work.
The project has since been taken up by a new producer, Landis, who also was one of the producers of the Marshall-directed “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” which starred Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara.
“We had a very rocky beginning, and now we feel we are very loved and cherished,” Crow said.
“We would love just to see a production of it, where you actually have the costumes and the choreography,” Levinson said.
Set in Baltimore in the late 1950s, the character-driven “Diner” surveys the romantic and other travails of a group of buddies in their 20s. The small, evocative film not only established the reputation of Levinson — who would go on to make “Rain Man,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Bugsy” and “Wag the Dog” — but also essentially introduced to American moviegoers a pack of little-known young stars: Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and, in the one female role of any prominence, Ellen Barkin.
Levinson says that while the movie concentrated heavily on the male characters — the exception was Barkin’s Beth — the musical widens the perspective by looking more deeply at the women in their lives.
“The musical deals with the five guys but it really also gives voice to the females,” Levinson said in a conference call with Crow. “Sheryl has created these songs which not only support but advance in a number of ways the frustration and struggle of young women.”
Crow, who says she grew up far from Broadway always “wanting to do” musicals, has used the sounds and musical styles of the late ’50s to create the score. Not that figuring out how to bring the piece to life on a stage came easily. “When Barry initially asked me about doing this, I read the script and saw the movie and said, ‘Nothing happens!’ ” she said. They’re both coming to Signature with the hope that something vigorous now does happen.