JAMES KAY/AFP/Getty Images Singer, designer and actress Angela Lansbury was one of the celebrities who walked the red carpet for the West End’s production of “The Secret Garden”
TORONTO — When writer James Ivory debuted the first draft of the screenplay for the 1954 movie version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” it is easily his most ambitious project.
With huge casts, the script finally succeeded in two decades as a professional stage musical, earning star and Oscar nominations for Sigourney Weaver as Prof. Hedda Hopper and Brian Bedford as Omar Tawakol.
Ivory did what he always has done since coming to London to work on “The Nance,” adapting the original movie for the stage. The plot is replete with colourful jazz tunes and ethnic slang as well as songs that have been associated with the British pop culture of yesteryear, and the singer Nicole Kidman is perhaps his most iconic choice, playing the role of Hedda Hopper, wife of writer Marcus de Pierres, in the original movie.
The 1997 book adaptation, published in 2000 and now adapted for the stage, follows the story of a tailor who returns to Venice from the grave of his father, whose next novel is about a man whose father was one of the Venetians who engaged in prostitution.
The book, adapted by Nicholas Hytner with the music of Steve Reich, lived long in its storied history, passing on from screen to stage to the age of stage. But it finds a way to survive its paroxysm of musical milestones, adapting elements of the movie to tell its own story at the same time.
“I’m still very proud of it and how it has been adapted, because I think it’s something that the audience can remember,” Ivory said in a video feature he recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival, holding forth to a group of students at an age of 42.
“Yes, I went over to see (the original movie) 40 years ago, and I thought it was incredibly amazing and very interesting. There’s a very clear and charming connection between the movie and the show.”
Ivory didn’t have all the material in his hands to animate the most famous piece of land in Shakespeare’s famous love story, the blue waters of Venice.
Instead, he created a 150-page score built around the characters and a mix of Irish songs, jazz, English, German and French lyrics that were inspired by classic works of literature and other characters — and put together the latest version by two masters in their own right.
“When it came to the adaptation, which I sometimes have to produce as this theatrical version versus the movie, there was a natural tension as to how do you make it work for the actors and how do you make it work for the audience,” he said.
While there is a separate set of songs in the musical, it is the first time the score has been distributed electronically so the latter can be viewed as a concert, and directors James Newton Howard and Tony Award-winning costume designer Tatiana Maslany both presented pieces inspired by “Murder on the Orient Express,” Henry V and Henry VIII to the audience.
“The whole thing really resonated for me, because it tells a story about a relationship,” Maslany said. “It tells a story about history being threatened and relationships being strained. And it speaks to a lot of the big themes we’re all talking about today.”
That intimacy extends to the staging of the show, which some critics noted Thursday when it opened in London’s West End. The more elaborate the opera, the more it plays as more of a convention than what is there in the original movie.
“The story is going to be a little bit older now,” Ivory said, “and I feel that the physical demands of the show will be a little bit more extensive.”
“The Secret Garden” opens in Toronto in December.