How world premiere of 'The Secret of My Success' came to Paramount Theatre

  • Billy Harrigan Tighe and Sydney Morton rehearse a scene during the final dress rehearsal for "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

      Billy Harrigan Tighe and Sydney Morton rehearse a scene during the final dress rehearsal for "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Two weeks before the premiere, crews work on the stage construction for "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre.

      Two weeks before the premiere, crews work on the stage construction for "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre. photos by Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • "You have to be OK with losing your favorites for the greater good. Ultimately, you fall in love with the new stuff." -- Heidi Kettenring, in rehearsal

      "You have to be OK with losing your favorites for the greater good. Ultimately, you fall in love with the new stuff." -- Heidi Kettenring, in rehearsal Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Costume craft supervisor D.J. Reed works on an emoji costume for "The Secret of My Success" that features a rig he designed using a life vest.

      Costume craft supervisor D.J. Reed works on an emoji costume for "The Secret of My Success" that features a rig he designed using a life vest. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/16/2020 9:27 PM

Two weeks before Paramount Theatre's world premiere this coming Friday of "The Secret of My Success," final preparations were underway.

Onstage, the technical rehearsal unfolded in fits and starts. "Hold please," intoned stage manager Amber Johnson into a microphone, freezing the actors onstage while designers, technicians and crew members corrected a glitch.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the darkened theater, creative and technical team members shifted their gaze from banks of monitors and laptops to the stage where 137 LED panels flickered blue, gray and fuchsia.

Co-composer/lyricist Michael Mahler wore an inscrutable expression as he stood, arms crossed, in the green room where music director Tom Vendafreddo guided the chorus through new music they received that afternoon for the finale. That was the 12th version, estimated one cast member. It may not be the last.

Stage manager Amber Johnson directs the crew during a technical rehearsal at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
  Stage manager Amber Johnson directs the crew during a technical rehearsal at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Upstairs, costume craft supervisor D.J. Reed worked on an emoji costume that will fit over a custom harness. A few feet away, costume technician Danielle Soldat sewed a hem. This close to opening, it's "all hands on deck," she said.

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Back in the theater, director/co-writer Gordon Greenberg noted the white space at the top of the New York City skyline backdrop was pulling focus from the onstage action. Nine out of 10 people wouldn't notice, but they're not Greenberg. It's his job to notice.

"We keep thinking we have everything figured out, then we add the next element," he said, "then we realize 'OK, we have it pretty figured out.'"

A few days later, less than 24 hours before previews began, the new lyrics have been memorized, the emoji costumes are complete and the white space on top of the skyline has been muted.

It's showtime.

Costume technician Danielle Soldat puts the finishing touches on a costume days before previews begin.
  Costume technician Danielle Soldat puts the finishing touches on a costume days before previews begin. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
Serendipitous 'Success'

Composer/lyricists Mahler and Alan Schmuckler together with co-writers Greenberg and Steve Rosen adapted the musical "The Secret of My Success" from the 1987 Michael J. Fox film about an ambitious young Midwesterner who arrives in New York City expecting to become a corporate bigwig. Instead, he loses the job he was hired for, impersonates a junior executive and falls in love with a female colleague.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Seven years in the making, the musical owes its existence to coincidental connections between its key collaborators and Universal Theatrical Group executives who help develop Universal properties or films for the stage. Among them was Senior Vice President Chris Herzberger, a former Naperville resident.

The pieces first came together in 2013, said Schmuckler, as a veritable spiderweb of relationships between people acquainted with each other through various projects and/or reputation. Universal, which holds the rights to "The Secret of My Success," backed the musical, the composition of which fell to Schmuckler and Mahler.

Michael Mahler is co-composer and co-lyricist of "The Secret of My Success," which premieres at Paramount Theatre in Aurora this week.
  Michael Mahler is co-composer and co-lyricist of "The Secret of My Success," which premieres at Paramount Theatre in Aurora this week. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

The duo began their professional partnership as Northwestern University undergraduates. Mahler said they work best "nose-to-nose" around a piano, Lennon and McCartney style.

"A collaboration is kind of like a marriage, in that it's a long-term relationship that changes and deepens over time," Mahler said.

Neither of them were familiar with the movie, the Oak Park resident said, but the opportunity to adapt a film to the stage was one they couldn't pass up. After writing a song on spec, "we were off to the races," Schmuckler said.

They had an early draft in hand when fellow NU alum Amber Mak, Paramount's new works development director, approached them. Seven years, multiple staged readings, countless revisions and about $2 million (the average cost of a Paramount Broadway series production this season) later, the musical officially premieres Friday, Feb. 21.

But even with opening night days away, the work isn't quite complete.

"The most important member hasn't shown up yet." Rosen said. "The audience."

Writer/director Gordon Greenberg, center, gives notes to the cast during a rehearsal.
  Writer/director Gordon Greenberg, center, gives notes to the cast during a rehearsal. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
Change is the constant

Since rehearsals began last month, there have been a lot of changes to the show, with more likely to come during previews, which started last Wednesday.

Mahler said he and Schmuckler will keep working on "Success" until it opens. Chuckling, Mahler recalls one of Schmuckler's favorite quotes: "You never stop writing a show, you just abandon it."

New lyrics and lines have been added; entire songs and scenes have been cut, including a 2-page scene between Jeremy Peter Johnson and Heidi Kettenring, who play power couple Piers and Vera.

The disappointment from such cuts lasts about an hour, said Kettenring, of Evanston. "A day later I'm doing something else and I don't remember it anymore."

"It always seems to get better," she said. "You have to be OK with losing your favorites for the greater good. Ultimately, you fall in love with the new stuff."

Heidi Kettenring, who plays Vera, sings with castmates during a rehearsal at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
  Heidi Kettenring, who plays Vera, sings with castmates during a rehearsal at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. - photos by Rick West | Staff Photographer

Having scenes cut or a role altered is a hard pill to swallow, Rosen said. He speaks from experience. His role in "Spamalot" was reduced by 75% during the show's 2005 pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago.

It's all about economy, conveying necessary information and moving on to the next part of the story.

"Create as much as possible with as few words as possible," Rosen said.

Most significant has been the evolution of the main female characters, Brantley's love interest Christy (played by Sydney Morton) and Kettenring's Vera, Greenberg said. Both were underused in the film, but thanks to Morton and Kettenring, "over the past few months we've understood how to write them better," he said.

Billy Harrigan Tighe and fellow cast members perform a big dance number as a photographer films the action during the final dress rehearsal of "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre in Aurora.
  Billy Harrigan Tighe and fellow cast members perform a big dance number as a photographer films the action during the final dress rehearsal of "The Secret of My Success" at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
Team effort

Billy Harrigan Tighe, a veteran of several Broadway national tours, plays main character Brantley, Fox's role in the film.

The story resonates with Tighe, who last appeared locally in Marriott Theatre's 2008 "Hairspray" revival. Having achieved his dream of moving to New York and becoming a professional actor, he realized "maybe there's more to life than chasing accolades, chasing roles and chasing dreams."

Tighe -- a new father -- revised his definition of success, much like his onstage counterpart.

"What has been fulfilling in my life is finding a balance between my career and more importantly my family," he said.

Eight-time Joseph Jefferson Award recipient Barbara Robertson plays Brantley's mother. She describes the show's incubation process as "a hotbed of creativity."

Co-writer Steve Rosen, right, looks on during a rehearsal of "The Secret of My Success" at Aurora's Paramount Theatre.
  Co-writer Steve Rosen, right, looks on during a rehearsal of "The Secret of My Success" at Aurora's Paramount Theatre. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

"The team has been extraordinary," the Glenview resident said.

Sometimes writers and composer/lyricists don't want input from the actors, she said. That's not the case this time.

"Michael, Alan, Steve and Gordon have welcomed my ideas and opinions," she said. "They've been respectful and encouraging."

When it comes to the show, collaborators put aside their egos, co-writer Rosen said. The best idea wins, no matter who came up with it.

Only rarely has Kettenring had the opportunity to originate a role. Being trusted with that responsibility is exciting. To think that a youngster could see "Success" at the Paramount and go on to perform the role years later at a university is a lovely legacy, she said.

Tom Vendafreddo, music director/conductor, works backstage with the cast on music changes during a technical rehearsal.
  Tom Vendafreddo, music director/conductor, works backstage with the cast on music changes during a technical rehearsal. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
Future 'Success'

As Tuesday's dress rehearsal concluded and the last notes faded away, Greenberg beamed.

"We're thrilled," he said after the rehearsal. "We have a ton of work to do, but it was thrilling."

"I'm excited by the shape we're in," said Mahler, who insists the show will improve over previews.

If any of the creatives are contemplating a Broadway run, they're not admitting it.

Greenberg and Rosen say they just want to make "The Secret of My Success" the best it can be.

Schmuckler prefers to concentrate on what he can control: the music and lyrics. He said that's the key to retaining one's sanity in this business.

"Of course I want a future life for this piece," he said, "but the only way to ensure that is to surrender any notion of what that might be because it has nothing to do with me. ... So many factors are out of our hands."

Mahler dreams "The Secret of My Success" will have "as big a life as it can."

"If every community theater in the country wanted to do it, that would be amazing," he said. "If this piece gets out there and people can enjoy it, that's what matters to me."

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