The Dutch Producer of `Cyrano' Seasons Musical to Yankee Tastes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHAT happens when someone larger than life sticks his nose into places where he hasn't been before, hoping for a favorable response? While that may describe the story line of ``Cyrano - The Musical,'' which recently opened on Broadway, it could also apply to its enterprising Dutch producer, Joop van den Ende.

The show, decked out lavishly in $7.5 million worth of splendid costumes, spectacular sets, and a cast of 31, represents Mr. Van den Ende's initial foray onto New York's Great White Way. But from his vast production-studio complex outside Amsterdam, the entertainment entrepreneur oversees television, theater, and film projects that reach into almost every country in Western Europe.

``People told us stories about how difficult this would be,'' Van den Ende says, discussing the ``Cyrano'' project from his penthouse office in Times Square. ``But my character, the kind of person I am, is that whenever something is impossible, I like to do it.''

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The last European to try this, Czech producer Wiktor Kubiak, sunk $5 million into bringing the musical ``Metro'' from Prague two seasons back, and lost nearly all of his investment when the show closed after 13 performances. But ``Cyrano'' seems to have learned from that fiasco. Where that production used Czech performers who learned English phonetically, ``Cyrano'' comes to life each night at the Neil Simon Theatre with an American cast. Only the title character is portrayed by a Dutch performer, Bill van Dijk, who created the role in the original Amsterdam production and sings and speaks perfect English.

``I started thinking about it six or seven years ago,'' Van den Ende continues. He says his vision was to create a large-scale original Dutch musical, formed around the Edmund Rostand tale, because he ``always loved the story.'' In fact, he produced a successful dramatic version 10 years ago in Holland and Belgium. For the musical, ``we hired American associates to work with us. It was not meant to be `the Dutch take on Broadway,' '' he says with a laugh. ``We wanted an American production as much as possible.''

A Dutch composer-lyricist team, Ad van Dijk and Koen van Dijk (not related to each other or the star) created the show, which ran in Holland to sold-out houses for nearly a year. Then, British writer Peter Reeves translated the words to English. Working with American producer Peter Kulok, Van den Ende launched his American dream this fall.

One method of making the show more accessible to American audiences was to bring in lyricist Sheldon Harnick to pen additional lyrics and rework some of the original songs. With a career ranging from ``Fiddler on the Roof'' and ``The Rothschilds'' to the currently successful revival of ``She Loves Me,'' Mr. Harnick contributed an American sensibility to the project.

``It was hard, but it was fun,'' the Tony Award-winning writer says. Harnick was familiar with the libretto because he had written an opera based on the classic story of ill-fated love. ``I was curious to see what they had done with it.''

One feature of the music that Harnick found himself working with was ``a very tightly rhymed work. When you get a passage that's rhymed A-B-B-B-A - a triple rhyme in the middle surrounded by two rhymes at the end - that could take five or six hours just to do 16 bars.''

But he was delighted with the people involved in the show.

``The cast was wonderful. Maybe the most rewarding thing was working with Anne Runolfs-son, the girl who plays Roxane.'' Harnick agreed to rewrite her final solo number to make it more focused. ``I made certain changes that proved to be more effective, and now every time I hear her sing it, I weep. The combination of the moment, the music, and her voice just goes right through me.'' Harnick was also impressed with composer Ad van Dijk, noting that ``sometimes there wasn't enough music to fit the translated or new lyrics, and, within limits, he was flexible. I suppose you can sing more in Dutch than you can in English.''

And the composer was equally pleased to work with Harnick. ``There are more laughs here than the Dutch version, from what Sheldon wrote,'' Van Dijk says.

Assessing the Broadway experience, Van Dijk says ``I learned a lot. There are very high standards. Everything is bigger here than the original - the set, the cast, the orchestra. Working in the Broadway system is a business. It's a business in Holland, also, but a smaller business, so there's less pressure. It's more of a family feeling.''

Producer Van den Ende has earned high marks from performers, crew, and others. Cast member Geoffrey Blaisdell says ``It's a pleasure for actors to be treated like people by the producers.'' Another cast member, Peter Lockyer, recalls one day during a rehearsal when a hydraulic motor stalled on one of the massive turn-tables that move the sets into place. ``Right there, next to the crew members, was Mr. Van den Ende, with his sleeves rolled up, pushing the set into place. That impressed me.''

The enterprise has not been without problems, however. Critical response has been mixed, leading initially to rumors that the producer would cut his losses and close the show. But that would not have been Van den Ende's style. Tickets are on sale through the spring. The producer looks out at the Manhattan skyline and explains that the newly created American branch of his company, JE Entertainment, plans to do a new musical based on ``The Three Musketeers,'' which would originate in Europe and then move to Broadway. ``We came here to stay, not to quit,'' he says.

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