Generating Big Buzz – And Big Sales

Diner, the new musical based on the 1983 film, is selling out fast. Sheryl Crow discusses how the female point of view was strengthened for the stage show.

For months, area theater enthusiasts have been abuzz about the arrival of Diner, a stage musical based on the classic 1982 film of the same name. That buzz has turned into feverish action as the production prepares for its Delaware Theatre Company debut on Dec. 2 (running through Dec. 27). Advance sales have already broken DTC pre-sale records and look to exceed its all-time sales revenues. So far, more than 4,500 tickets have been purchased, and six performances have been sold out. To meet the demand, DTC released 75 additional seats by taking down the removable walls built into the theater.

Much of this ticket-buying frenzy is fueled by the popularity of the film, which quickly became a cult favorite. Heavy on dialogue, quotable quotes and “guy banter,” the plot follows close-knit twentysomething pals (Eddie, Shrevie, Boogie, Billy, Fenwick and Modell) in 1959 Baltimore. While wrestling with and resisting impending adulthood, they reunite on the eve of Eddie’s wedding. The movie is famous for its “popcorn box” scene and a classic Baltimore Colts quiz that Eddie insists the bride-to-be must pass. It helped launch the careers of several cast members, including Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke and Ellen Barkin, and is still mentioned in many “best of” movie lists. It’s even been called the precursor to shows like Seinfeld and The Office.

The movie has been adapted for the stage by Academy Award-winning film and television director/producer Barry Levinson, who wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, Homicide: Life on the Street, and, most recently, Rock the Kasbah) recruited Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter/rock star Sheryl Crow to pen the music and lyrics.

The anticipated appearance of these two icons before and during the opening has ramped up fervor for the stage production.

Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson watch a rehearsal of DTC's Diner. (Photo by Breck Willis, Delaware Theatre Company)
Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson watch a rehearsal of DTC’s Diner. (Photo by Breck Willis, Delaware Theatre Company)

Headed for Broadway

Adding one more element to the buzz: this preview has its sights set on the Great White Way.

Nostalgia for the film, Broadway cachet and the Levinson/Crow connection make this the perfect storm of productions, says Company Executive Director Bud Martin. “Of course, I think Barry’s and Sheryl’s star power is a draw,” he says, “but I’ve talked with many people who’ve said, ‘I just bought tickets to see Diner…I love that movie!’”

Martin “found” the musical through New York City Producer Scott Landis, who was looking for a theater to try out the production after it was workshopped in 2012. Landis sent the recording and script to Martin, but at the time it was a more expensive show than DTC could mount. Instead, it went to Signature Theatre of Arlington (Va.) in December 2014, with rewrites and songs added afterward.

Around the same time, Landis had pitched another show to Martin: Because of Winn-Dixie. It was also seeking a preview home, Martin happily obliged, and the show became a smash for DTC in April. During rehearsals of Winn-Dixie, Martin recalls, Landis turned to him and asked, “So, you want to do Diner here next season?” The production budget had been enhanced and Landis’ wife—three-time Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall—was on board as the show’s director/choreographer. And the rest, as they say, is (Delaware theater) history.

The cast includes an array of Broadway “ veterans”: Ari Brand as Eddie (Off-Broadway’s My Name is Asher Lev); Aaron Finley as Billy (Broadway’s It Shoulda Been You and Rock of Ages); Derek Klena as Boogie (Broadway’s Wicked and The Bridges of Madison County); Ethan Slater as Modell (NYMF Award for Outstanding Performance in Claudio Quest); Matthew James Thomas as Fenwick (Pippin in the Tony Award-winning 2013 revival), and Noah Weisberg as Shrevie (Broadway’s South Pacific and Legally Blonde).

The women’s point of view

For Sheryl Crow, penning this musical—or any musical—wasn’t necessarily on her artistic bucket list. “It just wasn’t in my realm of possibility, really,” she said during a recent phone interview.

Crow, 53, who lives in Nashville with her two young sons, grew up loving song and dance movies like Oklahoma and My Fair Lady, and admits to a childhood crush on Gene Kelly. “There were so many amazing musicals I grew up with that had big songs, big stories and big emotion.” She laughs, “I think I was kinda hoping that life was like that…people just breaking into song.”

Crow and Levinson are both rookies in the world of stage musicals. But in a way, Crow says, adapting wasn’t difficult. “Maybe because I grew up a fan of stuff like West Side Story—I loved the way themes wound all the way through the story—it was really fun to write.”

Levinson called Crow about four or five years ago to gauge her interest in helping adapt his movie for stage. “I was really excited for the chance to work with Barry,” says Crow. “He is so gifted, has great taste in production and is the consummate storyteller.”

It’s a tricky story in that there are a lot of characters and a lot of dialogue, Crow says of the original movie. Her challenge was figuring out how to make the story more colorful. “It isn’t anything like writing a record,” says Crow, who released her latest album—the very personal Feels Like Home—in 2013. “It’s more like writing ‘on assignment’; writing what these characters feel, their emotions.”

Changing the Diner menu

One thing to note about the movie: It really is all about the guys. Its female characters have little screen time. That’s where the stage version departs. Crow (and Levinson) really wanted it to put more emphasis on the women in the story — their emotions, their obstacles, their desire to break out of the “traditional” roles of the time. Martin recalls that when Levinson asked Crow to write the music, she replied, “Not if it’s just for guys.”

Subsequently, female roles were expanded and the characters’ internal doubts and frustrations are as integral to the story as the men’s. Elyse, whose face you never see in the film, becomes a major character; Beth’s plight is realized in more depth; and Barb’s story, which is a reflection of modern feminism, is explored.

“Barry was great to let me write from a female point of view,” Crow says.
Martin believes the changes are an improvement. “When I heard Sheryl’s music and the voice it gave to the women, I felt like [the show] became even more relevant to a wider audience,” he says. “It really demonstrates the birth of ‘feminism’ before that term was ever used.”

Martin says the music definitely has a “Sheryl Crow flavor” to it. “You can tell she’s written like she would sing. She’s written a great song called ‘Tear Down These Walls,’ sung by a woman who is questioning her marriage, and it’s just riveting.”

Martin says he’d love to hear Crow sing that piece herself, adding, “She really can write a power ballad for a woman.”

Martin describes the set as automated—the diner itself moves —that’s something DTC has never done before.

Indeed, the whole production is “a big _______ deal,” as Vice President Biden might say. For one thing, the budget is $700,000. “Our normal season production budget is approximately $600,000,” says Martin. That, and the presence of Levinson and Crow serve to ratchet up the pressure on the DTC’s executive director.

“It’s a little daunting because of the scale,” he says, “but it’s exciting. We’re trying to make this as close to a Broadway experience as possible. I want [everyone] to say, ‘Wow, they do a great job at DTC.’ I want people to come here and feel like it’s a wonderful place to develop work. That’s the pressure for me.”