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Book by Sybille Pearson
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Based on the short story "Rain" by Somerset Maugham
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Somerset Maugham’s classic story “Rain” was adapted as a movie three times and his iconic character Sadie Thompson played by Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth. Now Broadway star Eden Espinosa recreates this classic role in a gorgeous and powerful new musical. The year is 1924, the setting a boarding hotel on the island of Western Samoa, where a missionary, a doctor, and their wives are scandalized by Sadie’s arrival, particularly when they learn what she does for a living. But the missionary has secrets of his own, and when he tries to save her soul, things get hotter than the South Pacific sun. Barry Edelstein makes his musical theatre directorial debut with this gorgeous and powerful new work that reveals the explosive nature of repressed desire.
Contains strong language and adult content.
Generously Sponsored by
Mary Beth Adderley, Paula and Brian Powers, Jean and Gary Shekhter, The Ted and Mary Jo Shen Charitable Gift Fund, United, and Vicki and Carl Zeiger
Artist Sponsor for Eden Espinosa: Jordine Von Wantoch
What drew the two of you to Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain” as fruitful subject matter for a musical?
Michael John LaChiusa: I’d had “Rain” on my to-do bookshelf for a number of years. Having read the story when I was a teenager, it stuck with me. The possibility of musicalizing it had been suggested to me over a decade ago but it wasn’t until Sybille and I were working on Giant at The Public Theater in New York that I returned to the notion. We’d been discussing what our next project might be, looking at various properties and ideas, and I brought up “Rain” as a possibility. Although the story is relatively slight, the study of human behavior that Maugham presents always struck me as deeply profound—and ripe for musical treatment. All that said, the short story form is probably the most challenging to adapt for the stage, especially the musical stage. Short stories are notoriously compact; they are, literally, “short” on character, on plot, on action. You have to be inventive by opening up the narrative, showing what the original author has chosen not to show, sometimes inventing characters out of whole cloth to make what isn’t inherently theatrical, theatre. But knowing that Sybille likes a challenge as much as I do (though we both will complain mightily about it when we’re in the thick of it—what-the-hell-are-we-doing!), I thought it would be an adventure for us to try it out.
Sybille Pearson: I knew of Maugham and Sadie Thompson but hadn’t read the story. My first thought was, “Impossible to do,” as there was so much not written in the short story. Adaptation is a tricky business. The tricky part is in staying true to the original author’s sensibility while you tell his story for the stage, for actors to play moment by moment, for an audience to listen to and to see, illuminating the unwritten at times. I wrote a first pass at the first act to get a feel of what this short story might be as a theatre piece. I felt after doing the first act that, yes, it could be a musical, and I got excited to get into the piece fully. After that it’s two minds finding agreement within one story that will be our show.
How do you determine where the songs should fall in the story or which moments demand to be expressed in song?
Sybille Pearson: I don’t mean to make it a mystery, but you “feel” the moments that become songs. It’s when dialogue is not enough and poetry and music need to come in to heighten a moment or are needed to explore an internal moment. I indicate where I think the song moment is by writing “Song Stuff” after the dialogue ends. The “Song Stuff” is a free association monologue that contains the thoughts, emotional responses, reactions to details of place—all of these elements that are within the character, examined for that moment. Michael John can ignore it or use it. I’m just exploring the moment in prose or dialogue; again, it’s so that I get an emotional understanding of the characters.
Michael John LaChiusa: What I appreciate most about Sybille is her willingness to write the “dirty play.” She’ll write a scene and include extended monologues or, if it’s a duet or group moment, extended scenes that wouldn’t necessarily work in an actual play, but need—even demand—to be musicalized. Although she and I are as different as night and day personally, we share the same instincts about what could be, should be a song. Sometimes those instincts are spot on, other times maybe not so much, as we learn in rehearsals—but that shared instinct is always put to good use early on. When she’s ready to show me her “dirty play”—it may be a scene or even an entire act—I begin work on musicalizing the material. Sometimes she’ll indicate what might be a song idea, sometimes not because it’s just that obvious. We both know it’s best to overwrite—you can always cut later on—but it’s always smart to start out with too much, if only to explore every possibility the material offers.
Michael John, what influenced the style of the music for this piece? How do you come to develop what a particular score will feel or sound like?
Michael John LaChiusa: One of the best parts of writing musicals is that I can go to places in the world (hell, the universe) that I’ve never been to before and imagine what those places sound like, look like, even smell like, and paint a picture with music. In the case of Rain, I’ve never been to the Pacific Islands—I’ve never written a hula or music that called for lava stones. Rain is one of the most unusual scores I’ve written in that in addition to character-driven music—the interior monologues or external duets, even group choruses—there is tremendous use of diegetic music: a Samoan chant, a Scottish folk song, tribal drums, gramophone music from the 1920s. The result should be a very diverse and, hopefully, rich tapestry. I love scores with great variety, with constant surprises. Homogeny is not musical theatre’s friend. What’s been challenging—okay, even fun—is to continue to build on what Sybille and I love to do: interweave music and dialogue as seamlessly as we possibly can. It’s so hard to do but very rewarding, especially when actors embrace that challenge. Working with them to help figure out the mechanics and nuances of what we’ve written—it’s really the perfect thrill.
Somerset Maugham led a life as varied and fascinating as his literary output. Born in 1874, Maugham launched his writing career while receiving his medical degree and working as a student doctor in the slums of London. His first book became a runaway best-seller, and by 1914 he was the celebrated author of 20 novels and plays. During World War I, he served as a Red Cross ambulance driver before working in Switzerland as an agent for British intelligence. His missions for the Secret Intelligence Service (later known as MI6) took Maugham to Russia and the Far East, and his commercial success as a writer gave him the liberty to travel to many other parts of the world.
In December 1916, Maugham boarded the USS Sonoma, a steamship bound from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia. He and his longtime companion, Gerald Haxton, were in the midst of a Pacific tour, as Maugham was researching a novel based in part on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. The night before they departed, police raided the red-light district of Iwelei on the outskirts of Honolulu, and Maugham reports that just before the steamer left port, one last passenger hurried up the gangplank: a young prostitute on the run, headed for a new life in the Samoan Islands.
When the ship docked at Pago Pago, the capital of Eastern (now American) Samoa, it was delayed for a quarantine inspection, and Maugham and Haxton were forced to take temporary lodging at a boarding house, where they stayed for nearly six weeks. Among the other passengers waylaid with them was that same young woman: an American named Sadie Thompson, who irritated Maugham and Haxton with the loud music and late-night noises coming from her room. Thompson also ran afoul of a traveling missionary and his wife, who complained bitterly of her activities to the colonial governor. Thompson, the missionary, and his wife would all later be transformed into characters in Maugham’s acclaimed short story “Rain,” along with the island setting itself and the relentless weather for which the story is named.
Originally published in 1921 under the title “Miss Thompson,” the story reflects Maugham’s ongoing fascination with the Pacific Islands, which inspired some of his most celebrated short stories. American Samoa, where “Rain” takes place, is a series of five islands and two atolls located in the South Pacific and officially occupied as a United States territory in 1900. Average annual rainfall in Pago Pago tops 122 inches, with an estimated 249 days of rain every year. Today in American Samoa, Sadie Thompson remains a legendary figure. The boarding house where Somerset Maugham stayed is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now called the Sadie Thompson Inn.
By 1922 a theatrical adaptation of “Rain,” written by John B. Colton and Clemence Randolph, had opened on Broadway. (The Old Globe produced Colton and Randolph’s Rain not once but twice: in 1939 and 1949). The story was also made into three separate films: a silent version in 1928, starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore; a “talking picture” in 1932, starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston; and finally a 1953 film called Miss Sadie Thompson, starring Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer, originally released in 3D.
The longevity of “Rain,” and the numerous forms into which it has been adapted, speak to the power and vitality of Somerset Maugham’s original story. Even today, nearly a century after it was first written, the story glows with passion, danger, and unflinching honesty. And the character of Sadie Thompson, with her indefatigable strength and will to survive, continues to capture the imagination. She emerges as the lasting beacon of Maugham’s story, her own force stronger than the harshness of time and weather.