Almodovar Meets Broadway In 'Women On The Verge'

Sherie Rene Scott, Danny Burstein i i

Pepa Marcos (played by Sherie Rene Scott) mourns the loss of her boyfriend in the presence of a taxi driver (played by Danny Burstein). Paul Kolnik hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Kolnik
Sherie Rene Scott, Danny Burstein

Pepa Marcos (played by Sherie Rene Scott) mourns the loss of her boyfriend in the presence of a taxi driver (played by Danny Burstein).

Paul Kolnik

The story of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was originally told in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 breakout film by the same name, and now the quirky comedy has become one of the most highly anticipated Broadway musicals of the season, featuring some of Broadway’s biggest stars, including Patti LuPone.

The play opens tonight at New York's Belasco Theatre, but two days before opening night, the creators of Women on the Verge met in a rehearsal room in the bowels of New York's Lincoln Center to talk about their musical. Adapting an action-packed farce to the stage has been a challenge and the past month of previews has been intense.  The moving sets have ground to a halt mid-performance and they’ve just added a new opening number.

Songwriter David Yazbek confesses to feeling, if not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then somewhere closer to nervous exhaustion.

"I'm not sure I could take it again," he says. "I feel like I need to get a complete blood transfusion, go to the gym for five months and possibly have some kind of sheep gland injections for me to recover from [these] last two months!"

The play's journey began several years ago, when scriptwriter Jeffrey Lane was looking for a project to work on with Yazbek after the success of their last show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Lane found himself sitting on his couch, watching a lot of Pedro Almodovar movies.

"Women on the Verge just had so much joy and comedy to it that it seemed more natural, with real emotion underneath that joy," Lane says.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown tells the story of an actress, Pepa, who gets abandoned by her lover, Ivan, and begins to desperately search for him to find out why.  Other characters include Ivan's ex-wife, Lucia, who was recently released from a mental hospital; and Candela, a model who discovers she's been sleeping with a terrorist. Before the end of the show, these characters — and several more — find themselves in Pepa's penthouse apartment in Madrid, where barbiturate-laced gazpacho is on the menu.

Cast of 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' i i

The cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown perform the play's opening number, "Madrid." Paul Kolnik hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Kolnik
Cast of 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'

The cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown perform the play's opening number, "Madrid."

Paul Kolnik

"It does take place within two days of, you know, high activity," says actress Sherie Rene Scott, who plays Pepa.  "Guns are fired. There's fire. Women fly. It's very fast-paced and cinematic and yet, actually, kind of a heightened realism.  I would say an absurd realism."

Director Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony Award in 2008 for his revival of South Pacific, is charged with trying to harness all this frantic activity.  He says his goal was to find a theatrical equivalent for the multiple locales and tempo of the film. The resulting musical has about 200 different scenes — some as short as a few seconds — and the set that uses four treadmills, almost constant video and scenery that flies in and out. Sher says he spent a lot of time trying to keep the production light and effortless.

"[Almodovar's] work is emotional, but light. Not light, like "lite" light, but like it changes quickly," he says.

In one number, the model Candela, played by Laura Benanti, seems to pop up all over the stage as she leaves increasingly frantic phone messages on Pepa's answering machine about the boyfriend she suspects is a terrorist.

"It's just like getting on a treadmill for five minutes and sprinting — while being funny," Benanti says.  "It's like being shot out of a cannon every single night."

But Yazbek says that adapting Almodovar's comedy for the stage has also given them a chance to deepen some of the characters.

"There are things that work better onstage, and then there are things that work better in film, and then there are things you cannot possibly do onstage that you could do on film," Yazbek says. "For instance: a close-up.  You can't do that onstage, but you can have a four-minute song that serves as a close-up."

The song "Invisible," for example, provides a close-up for deranged but stylish Lucia, played by Patti LuPone.

Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott i i

Pepa, contemplates her former lover Ivan as Ivan's ex-wife, Lucia (played by Patti LuPone), provides commentary. Paul Kolnik hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Kolnik
Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott

Pepa, contemplates her former lover Ivan as Ivan's ex-wife, Lucia (played by Patti LuPone), provides commentary.

Paul Kolnik

"It was a complicated song to unravel," LuPone says, "but then, you know who I started thinking of, is the women that you see walking down Madison Avenue, shopping, getting their hair and nails done, their facials, having lunch and then going back to a home where, perhaps, they are totally invisible to their husband."

According to Lane, the show celebrates the fortitude of women who find themselves in these fragile emotional states.

"It's a show about people wanting the wrong things and finally getting the blessing of, 'Oh, this is what I needed!' It's the, 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes,' " Lane says.  "And these women do. They keep moving forward.  It's their actions and their choices that might be wrong, but ... they are alive, they are moving forward, they are trying to work out their lives, and they never just give up."

And the same could be said of the creators, who've been tweaking the show right up to opening night — even trading e-mails with Almodovar in Spain.

"The kind of synergy between artists all around the same material has been a really exciting experiment for all of us," Sher, the director, says. "No matter how it turns out, at least we feel like we gave it pretty much everything we had."

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