How an Emmy-winning writer and two award-winning music titans managed to unearth a promising musical about second chances and serve it to the masses at Cabrillo Stage. Is Broadway next?
One never knows where the winds of fate will take you. One seemingly genuine act may produce a surprising ripple effect that defies the odds. In many ways, that is what has happened with the musical “Lunch.” The production, which hits Cabrillo Stage Jan. 3, first came to life 22 years ago thanks to a powerful creative trio that were, quite frankly, musical theater virgins. Rick Hawkins was an Emmy-winning TV writer and the man who birthed the legendary “Went With The Wind” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show back in the 1970s.
Composer Steve Dorff was a fixture on the pop music charts, basking in the success of such classic hits as Kenny Rogers’ “Through The Years” and somebody whose songs had been sung by some of the greats—Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, George Strait and Vanessa Williams to note a handful. Meanwhile lyricist John Bettis had penned songs that have been sung by the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters and, oh, so many others—he took home an Emmy in 1988 for “One Moment In Time,” the theme for the Olympic Games that year.
“Lunch” originally had a five-city run, including San Jose, two decades ago and then the curtain came down. But there was something about the material that would remain alive. Originally, Hawkins and Dorff, who were friends because their children were in the same school, were inspired to create a show after realizing they both shared a love for musical theater. They lured in Dorff’s lyricist pal, Bettis. Actually, their first idea was to do a musical version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but nabbing the rights proved challenging, so Hawkins birthed a few other ideas and “Lunch” was the one they liked the most.
Their musical comedy may win points for its heartwarming vibe. (In truth, I attended a read- through of the revamped show several months ago, and I was impressed with how beautifully woven the story, the music and the characters were.) The plot revolves around a befuddled Wall Street specialist, Mackenzie Richards. Recently deceased, Mackenzie soon realizes that he will not be allowed access to the Gates of Eternity until he can actually prove himself worthy by—wait for it—working “The Lunch Shift.”
Enter: an emissary from heaven, who tells Mackenzie that he is given one hour to answer three prayers in three separate Manhattan locations during the busy noontime rush. What? How? Needless to say, he frantically scrambles to achieve the challenge and, along the way, learns some of life’s bigger lessons—how “the choices we make affect those around us and that the power of friendship, family, and love are timeless.”
“This is an incredible time for our company,” adds Artistic Director Jon Nordgren. “Cabrillo Stage is producing a huge, top-notch production of ‘Lunch,’ and we are so fortunate to be able to work with these amazing writers on the premiere. It’s truly a magical experience.”
To that end, expect some fun extras. In addition to Nordgren conducting the full pit orchestra for the show, equity actress and TV star Sherry Hursey (Home Improvement, Bring It On, Nip/Tuck) is also on the bill. Meanwhile, Max Bennett-Parker (“Anything Goes,” “Night at the Nutcracker,” “Forever Plaid”) steps into the role of Mackenzie and Ashley Little, who turned heads in Cabrillo Stage’s “Hairspray,” “Swing” and delivered a memorable Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz,” is also on board as is Nicholas Ceglio (Groucho in “Night at the Nutcracker”). Samantha Pistoresi is Mona, the emissary from heaven. Best of all, perhaps, is the ever-enterprising performer-director Andrew Ceglio, who takes on choreography and directing duties here.
A more notable addition to all the festivities may be a Jan. 4 event dubbed “Evening With The Authors,” which includes an intimate pre-show reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres at the historic Cabrillo Sesnon House. The fundraiser ($25) is for Cabrillo Stage’s 2014-15 season and offers attendees a chance to meet and talk with the authors of “Lunch.” There’s also a post-show discussion that night for standard audiences.
“Lunch” may charm theatergoers, but part of that has something to do with Hawkins’ genius.
With TV writing credits that span variety, half-hour comedy and drama, he’s garnered seven Emmy nominations, five WGA Writing Award nominations and he twice received the Scott Newman Award. His work on classic series Welcome Back Kotter, The Love Boat, Dear John, Mama’s Family, Sister/Sister, Major Dad, The Wayons Bros., and Soul Food stand out, but a festive footnote in his career may be his 2005 to 2009 stint in Moscow, Russia, where he adapted American programming into hit series in Eastern Europe. Imagine the Russian versions of Married With Children, Who’s the Boss? and Everybody Loves Raymond. Now, imagine them all achieving prominent, international success.
These days, Hawkins, whose home base is in Pittsburgh, Pa., serves as Artist-in-Residence in the Cinema Arts Department of the College of Performing Arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
But there’s more to the story, particularly why there was a 20-year time span between the original “Lunch” and the reboot that audiences will be seeing.
Inquiring minds want to know, so … GT went to, well, lunch (what else?) with writer Rick Hawkins. On a sunny December afternoon at Capitola’s Paradise Beach Grille, with a bevy of mouthwatering dishes—seafood linguini, salmon, and shrimp—Hawkins opened up about “Lunch” and its delicious destiny.
GOOD TIMES: Can you talk a little more about how this idea came about?
RICK HAWKINS: It all started with … well, everybody has a story. I’ve always been fascinated by that. I mean, right now [at this restaurant], we are front and center and the people over there [at a table] are kind of like the atmosphere; the extras in our story. But from their perspective, they’ve got the story and we’re the extras in their story. So, I wanted to take a limited period of time in a location and focus on different stories. I wanted to do different stories in the musical. So we wrote it and submitted it to a New Theaterworks program in the National Alliance for Musical Theater. Our show was selected to lead this tour. We cast it, put it together and we did this five-city tour in 1994.
It was just magic. The most fun.
AND IT DID WELL?
[Laughs] A funny story—it’s funny now. Our first two venues were in the round. And, for my money, if you have a show, particularly a musical, the show works. You’ve got scenery, no excess. Just the characters, the music, the story. We were chugging along just great. One of the stories in the old version took place in an airplane—with one of the older couples who were retiring and going to Albuquerque, and as soon as the plane took off, he didn’t want to go. It’s a really a great story and ends up with them singing and dancing on the wings of an airplane. But the difficulty in doing a five-city tour, was that it was a group of producers and that each one was a general director of each theater. But once we were done with each theater, we were moving on. We kept losing a producer. In a TV series, I would have known how to make it work, but in theater, I didn’t know.
We come to another city … and it was the first proscenium venue. And the gentleman who did the design, did “Shogun.” And the design was amazing but complicated. This particular producer was a very financial savvy producer and decided we didn’t need a full day of tech rehearsal on the new set in this proscenium for the first time, and because the show had gone so well and was well received, he would like that his theater would be the theater that people from New York came to see the show. And so we open … with a half a day tech rehearsal. You know the movie Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl? Remember “Crazy Quilt,” the show she did where everything goes wrong and how hysterically funny it is. So … it’s opening night and the big number comes in the beginning of the first act and in comes the airplane and it catches on the set of the skyline of New York and the Chrysler Building is coming down … and the people on the airplane, they had to careen down the curtain and the set is falling apart. It was a total disaster. It took 45 minutes to get the set back up.
This was when all the people from New York had come. It was the third venue … and then we went to San Jose. And after all that, we all went, “Wow, this was a great experience.” So we didn’t know what else to do with it.
We set it aside and started working on another musical but we went on with our lives and our careers.
AND YOU WERE STILL DOING TV AT THE TIME … SO, WHAT SPARKED THE INTEREST TO BRING THIS BACK?
You know, you create a show, and I say that in the loosest terms, because I just think that those of us who do what we do, it’s like a fine-tuned radio. I’m just writing down what comes to me, wherever. So, I am in Pittsburgh, where I am living and teaching now, and I am at the opening of “The Addams Family” about a year ago, October, because I knew the producer of the show. And the head of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (CLO) was the head of the CLO in Fort Worth, Texas, when we did the show there—Ben Kaplan. I see Ben in lobby and he says, “I have to ask you something. Whatever happened to ‘Lunch’ … why don’t you bring that out again? Everybody is always looking for a new show to do.” I said, “Oh my. I hadn’t thought about it.” It was 22 years ago. This was on a Thursday night and on Friday morning I get a phone call from Steve Dorff. He goes, “I just got this call from some guy in this Northern California spot who wants to do ‘Lunch.’”
IT WAS JON NORDGREN FROM CABRILLO STAGE?
And I said, “You have got to be kidding me?” Jon had seen it when we had done it in San Jose years ago. And I thought, “this is too much of a coincidence.”
I asked Steve, “Do you have a copy of a show?” He didn’t. So I went to my storage unit and went through all the boxes—nursery school pictures, divorce [papers]—and I find it and I dust it all off, and I sit down and I read it and I thought, “This premise still works. The three of us are so much better at what we do now—we can do this.” So, I called him back and said, “It still works, I need to rewrite the whole book and we need new songs. If you could convince John Bettis, the lyricist to come on board, I’m in.” And Steve called John and John said, “You know, I was just thinking about that show.” And I thought, OK, we have to do it. But the thing that floored me the most was how much the world had changed; how much culture has changed in 20 years and I wanted to address that. I wanted those changes in the book. About a year later, we have a whole new show and here we are.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT THE SHOW? SOMETIMES THOSE THINGS DON’T COME AROUND AGAIN, BUT THIS ONE DID.
One of the themes about this is second chances. Everybody gets a second chance in this story. So I think part of that, as a society, as a culture, as America, I think it’s time to look at where we are going and stop and take a breath, and give ourselves a second chance.
ESPECIALLY IN THIS DAY AND AGE WE ARE LIVING IN … WHEN WE ARE SEEMINGLY MORE CONNECTED THROUGH TECHNOLOGY AND YET WE’RE A BIT MORE ISOLATED ACTUALLY.
Yes. And this is a sort of a new-fashioned musical. The tenets of the show are the basic tenets from Rodgers and Hammerstein—goodness, love, kindness, connecting with another person, forgiving. All of these things will see us through the times in which we live, regardless of the times in which we live. So I wanted to do a show that felt like our time—that wasn’t just happy and rosy—and that our stories dealt with issues that people are dealing with now; that you wouldn’t necessarily think of dealing with in a musical comedy, which is how I came up with the new story.
OVERALL, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO SHOWS?
Well, we have gotten better at what we do. We’re better writers. It really shows. First and foremost, our job is to entertain. It’s got to be fun. I kind of see this show as a post-modern vaudeville. You have these two comic characters that sort of introduce all the different acts you are about to see.
WERE THOSE CHARACTERS BASED ON REAL LIFE?
All of the characters I write about are based on real people I know or compilations. I am a freak about research. My first job is to entertain; my second job is to tell the truth.
SO, WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING STEVE DORFF AND JOHN BETTIS?
Creative collaboration is like the closest thing to group sex. Steve and John are like the yin and yang of personalities in music. They are both really smart guys. John likes
to intellectualize and explore, and Steve … all you have to do is listen to his melodies—he operates from this emotional, instinctual gut that he has. It’s been a joy. They have a new show about Josephine Baker set to open next season.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
Hadn’t known a time when I didn’t. It’s sort of like a curse. When I was a child in elementary school and we were told to do a report, I was like, “Great. Can it be a play? Can we make it a show?” All that I wanted to do was put on a show. Fortunately I have been able to do it.
AND WORKING ON ‘THE CAROL BURNETT’ SHOW …
… was like the greatest thing. Everybody loved working on that show. People are always saying, “Is she really as nice as she seems to be … and I always say, ‘No… she’s nicer.” I did the last two seasons and I got to work with great people and learn from them. I also worked with Bob Caroll Jr. and Madelyne Lynn Davis from I Love Lucy and to be able to learn from them was …well, Madelyne told me, “As a writer, you can’t write something for an actor to do unless you know it can be done. Everything that was in I Love Lucy; everything she did, I did it in the writers’ room.”
SO, ‘LUNCH’ LOOKS PROMISING AS IT RELAUNCHES HERE, BUT WHAT’S BEYOND THIS?
Don’t know. For me it’s a wonderful creative closure on a project that was waiting to be fixed. We are inviting people to see it. I think that this show could have a happy life in musical theater. Broadway is a big corporate enterprise. I would love to see the show on Broadway and … it would take someone from that big corporate enterprise to feel the same way.
SOME FUN QUESTIONS. CHOCOLATE OR VANILLA?
COFFEE OR TEA?
MORNING OR EVENING?
Morning. That’s when I write—4:30-6:30 a.m.
PEPPER OR SALT?
SLIPPERS OR SOCKS?
BREAKFAST OR LUNCH?
FAVORITE KIND OF LUNCH?
Lunch with friends .. without an end time. A lunch that goes into the afternoon …
“Lunch” runs at Cabrillo Stage’s Crocker Theatre Jan. 3-19, Thursday-Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets: $22-$42 (includes ticket fees). 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Call for group discounts and student rush tickets: (831) 479-6154.
Evening with the Authors Benefit: Saturday, Jan. 4. A pre-show reception benefits Cabrillo Stage’s upcoming 2014-15 season from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Cabrillo Sesnon House. Reception is limited to first 160 guests. Tickets are $25 at cabrillostage.com.
Post-show discussion on Saturday, Jan. 4. A rare experience to meet and talk with the creators of “Lunch”—Steve Dorff, John Bettis and Rick Hawkins.