From Chelsey in Salt Lake City, Utah:
Firstly, I love your work. Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my all time favorite musicals.
Congratulations on your successes. I am a Freshman Musical Theater Major, and I am doing a
research paper on the development of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
So, my question is: Many composers/lyricists write musicals that apply to issues in the era
which it is produced. Similar to Kern and Hammersteins influential show, "Showboat" applied to
many of the issues going on in 1920's-30's, and Rodgers and Hammersteins Oklahoma in the 1940's.
So how is Scarlet Pimpernel applicable to its production date in 1997?
Wednesday, 16 May 2007
I apologize for my long delay in answering your letter. The truth is that I tried to do a
little back research to see what might have been happening in the world at the time I wrote S.P.
However, there was nothing that popped up as immediately analogous to the situation. I think one
can find more of the current-events-inspiring-theatre phenomenon in plays, and quite often plays
are an author's direct response to a political or societal problem which has had a strong impact
on that author. One of the most successful examples of this is Arthur Miller's "The Crucible,"
which was an impassioned and brilliant reaction to the McCarthy hearings. Recently, I was blown
away by Terrence McNally's play "Some Men," which takes a fascinating (and often very funny)
historical look at the lives of gay men in America over the past 70 years or so. Sometimes a
musical will set out to comment on events of the day- "Rent," for example with its AIDS
sub-plot, and of course you bring up "Showboat," and there were other earlier examples such as
"Rock the Cradle." But it's important to remember that all musicals used to be called "Musical
Comedies"- that was the original raison d'être. Although the "comedy" part essentially got
dropped from the term (with the advent of Lloyd Webber and "Les Miz"), musicals still tend to be
a lighter form of theatre than plays- especially today. "Mamma Mia," "Hairspray," "The
Producers," "Drowsy Chaperone," "Spamalot," "Legally Blonde" and so many others are what
appeals to the mass musical audience today. I myself saw the 21st century reaction to a
"serious" musical when I wrote "Camille Claudel." People seemed to love the story and the
score; many were quite moved. However, no producer felt there was an audience for subject
matter that was so "heavy" and that did not have the classic happy ending. One producer actually
told me that he refused to do any more musicals (ever) unless they were light and fluffy and had
happy endings. That's sort of the lay of the land today.
I do think that "Scarlet Pimpernel" is a musical which can be politically and historically
relevant to almost any age. Its undercore is that of men and women committing to fight an
injustice. Percy, Marie and the boys (and ultimately Marguerite) are putting their own lives
aside in order to rescue the innocent from the French Revolution gone berserk. Even today one
might say that the Iraq war is an attempt to rescue the Iraqi people, but personally I don't
agree with that because I see the Iraq war as one huge mistake from the word go. I wish I could
have given you a more interesting and informed answer to your question, but the truth with S.P.
is that I was asked to write lyrics (and ultimately book) to a story which someone else had
opted to produce. I did try to write into S.P. what I believe about fighting injustice and the
inspirations for bravery, but all of that was for me more personal than inspired by the world of
Thanks so much for writing, Chelsey, and again I apologize for the delay.