BY TONY HOWARTH
Reviews for the Broadway show "The Scarlet Pimpernel" were disappointing. Audiences were trailing off. To protect their investment, producers called in a new director. He and Ron Melrose, an Episcopalian well known in church music circles and the original music director of the show, sat down with the librettist and rebuilt the show.
Soon it was running to capacity houses. The musical, set in Paris and London, closed May 30 for contractual reasons but is about to return to Broadway after a summer road tour. It opens again Sept. 10.
"ItÝs a piece of fluff, but it has integrity now," Melrose said, over a glass of iced tea at a diner across from his apartment building. "The show originally opened to a guillo-tine scene and the audience simply didnÝt know what was happening."
He and his colleagues wrote a new opening with characters clearly introduced and all plot elements put in place before the guillotine scene. "In other words, we practiced the art of story-telling."
Melrose does a lot of story-telling, not just in the commercial theater, but in the music he composes, all of it based on reli-gious themes. He recently produced two successful albums.
One, titled "early one morning," released in April, is a l0-song cycle with a passionate story-line about Mary Magdalene and the events of her life both before and after the Crucifixion.
"The Missing Peace," released last fall, is a feminist grail journey. "When I started it, I asked myself two questions: first, what if you sent a woman out on the Parsifal journey [the Wagnerian Holy Grail story] and, second, the Trinity is the father, the son and a bird [Holy Spirit] -- but where's mom?"
"The Trinity is a useful image to contemplate the face of God, but it's incomplete, so this is an effort to delve into a quintitarian image -- father, mother, son, daughter and bird -- extending a picture that is already there."
"I live in two worlds," he said. "What I dream about is marrying my commercial sense with my spiritual longing, bringing the two worlds that I'm about closer together."
His dream seems to be coming true. Both his albums are finding a place in the theater -- "early one morning" was performed at the Lamb's Theatre in March; "The Miss-ing Peace" will make its theater debut in March 2000.
Now 44, Melrose was raised by parents with a Jewish background. Both are college teachers. Both, he said, feel that religion is for weak people.
However, he grew up with the children's books of Madeleine L'Engle, who was writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine when he came to New York. He visited her at the cathedral, at-tended a noon Eucharist with her and "got caught up by the power and the mystery of the rite."
Gradually his resistance wore away. "There are miracles," he said. "If there are miracles, there must be a maker of miracles -- it is as much a leap of faith to say there is a God as it is to say there is none, so why was l spending all that time denying it?"
He was baptized in 1980 and confirmed in 1983 at the cathedral. From fourth to 10th grade, his parents taught at the University of Iowa. A program in the music depart-ment there asks each faculty member to take on an individual child for private tutoring.
"I became something of a departmental pet," Melrose said. "I got a free conservatory education -- keyboard, theory, har-mony, composing."
After graduating from Harvard in 1976, he migrated to New York, got constant work in the theater, playing keyboard in the pit, directing. To supplement his income, he took a part-time job at All Angels Episcopal Church, working as organist and choirmaster.
In 1989, just when Melrose was ready to turn his back on theater, he was invited to take on the full-time directorship of church music. He spent the next year and a half commuting to Princeton, N.J., where he studied choral conducting at the Westminster Choir College.
"I had to get out of theater, because I get outraged very easily," he said. "I didn't like doing bad work, selling a lot of seats for a lot of moneyÍ I wanted to tell a good story."
"At All Angels, I witnessed two miracles." The first, he said, was the way the people who gathered at the church's soup kitchen felt at home in a choir he organized for them at Sunday evening services. The second was the way the more affluent members of the church began to ask if they could join that choir, "the homed and the homeless in harmony."
But the demographics of the parish changed. A new administration and rector put a conservative face on the church, he said. "I felt out of place, that it was inappropriate for me to be a musical director if my heart doesn't speak to those in the room."
So, back he went to the musical theater. He took a job with the musical, "Jekyll and Hyde," as assistant conductor and co-vocal arranger. Shortly after that, he did a workshop of the Disney production of "King David" and then of "Sideshow," from there to "The Scarlet Pimpernel."
"Theater has its roots in religion," Melrose said. "A good Eucharist will be good theater, each of them touching us on both a surface and a subliminal level."
"In theater we have our collection of cheap tricks, know how to make your blood stir, but theater also has the potentialÍ to bring us into the center of what life is all about."
At one point, he was faced with the choice of working on either "Annie" or "Sweeney Todd." "Sweeney is more pow-erful artistically, but it is a piece of theater whose relationship to its audience is cold."
"Annie," on the other hand, has far less prestige, but it "has a childlike way with its audience, and I like the care it feels for the people paying money to come and see it -- however clumsy it may be, the story embraces its audience and makes everybody feel at home." He chose to work on "Annie."
He admits it hasn't always been easy. "I've had problems in both worlds," he said. "Theater at its best can be holy, but at its worst it's a dishonest gloss of story-telling. Church at its worst is a house of judgment and condemnationÍ but, at its best is a haven for the spirit and a place where disparate souls can come together in communal ways."
Tony Howarth of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a playwright and freelance writer.
Episcopal Life September 1999
©1999 Episcopal Life . Used by permission.
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