By MARK PEIKERT
When Chad Beguelin decided to write a play, he knew he'd be exercising a new muscle. He's best known for his work on Broadway musicals, writing the book and lyrics for The Wedding Singer and the lyrics for Elf, but he had non-musical things to say about gay couples, children, and families. The result was Harbor, now enjoying its New York City premiere at Primary Stages through Sept. 8. (Coincidentally, The Wedding Singer is currently being revived in a stripped-down production at Long Island City's Secret Theatre.)
"It just so happened to come across [director] Mark Lamos' desk, and he really responded to it," Beguelin says. "And it's really, really been a surprise!"
At first, Beguelin found the switch to straight plays disconcerting. "When you're working on a musical, you're almost always working with someone else, whereas writing a play is just you and the computer," he says. "So that took some getting used to, not having someone to constantly bounce stuff off of. But you're still telling a story and revealing a character, just without a song to reveal inner life."
Inspired by Beguelin's own conversations about children with his partner of 19 years, <i>Harbor</i> is about married couple Ted and Kevin, who have papered over the inequalities in their relationship with jokes and midday booze. But when Kevin's mess of a sister suddenly appears on their Sag Harbor doorstep with her teenaged daughter Lottie, everyone's lives change. A previous run at Westport Country Playhouse, in Westport, Conn., was well-received, but Beguelin was always watchful for places that needed tweaking---and he was sometimes overly eager to jettison moments that he felt lost the audience.
"You can feel when [the audience] is with you and when they're not," he says. "Since I primarily write musicals, I'm used to cutting and rewriting like crazy. And so there were times when Mark was like, 'Calm down, let me work on it!' So it was a new process for me, letting it grow organically."
More changes were to come when the play transferred with only half of its original cast. While Paul Anthony Stewart and Alexis Molnar reprise their roles as Ted and Lottie, Randy Harrison and Erin Cummings are new additions as Kevin and Donna. "It didn't change greatly," Beguelin says of bringing the show to New York with two new actors, "but there were definitely some small tweaks and minor changes just from having two new people in the process asking questions we never thought of."
Among the tweaks precipitated by fresh eyes was a renewed determination to give each character his or her own voice. "Certain characters who would never use the same phrases were using the same phrases," Beguelin says. "It was me talking instead of the characters, so there was a lot of going through the script and getting them to have their own specific voices, which was great."
The largest change between Westport and Manhattan has been a tonal one. Whereas the Connecticut production was played more for "yuks," according to Beguelin, the version at Primary Stages has become somewhat darker. "There's a sort of intensity to this production that I think is all of us growing with the script, just trying to find the real truth to it," Beguelin says. "We're not playing it as boldly for laughs, we've tried to make the characters more real."
And though Beguelin is hard at work on Aladdin, the musical adaptation of the Disney film that's scheduled for Broadway next year, he's game to tackle another straight play. "I told myself I would not write another play if this didn't get produced," he says. "So now that this has been produced, I guess I'll have to go through with it!"
Mark Peikert is senior editor at Backstage
Photo by Carol Rosegg