Behind the Painting is a story written by Thai novelist Siburapha. The highly-acclaimed novel has been made into two successful films and was adapted as a musical in 2008. The director of that musical, Tak Viravan, loved the project so much he sought out the advice of lyricist and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. (Miss Saigon, Fosse) on how to make it a Broadway-bound musical. The significantly revised show, Waterfall, has its world premiere on June 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“As soon as I made the main character an American girl instead of a Thai woman,” says Maltby in a break from rehearsals, “that opened the door to the entire story of America in the decade in Asia before the war. In the beginning of the 1930s, American influence was spreading around the world like wildfire. Siam became a democracy. In Japan, American music, movies, clothes and culture were just taking over the country. Obviously there was a whole element of Japanese culture that thought it was a catastrophe that Imperial Japan was being eliminated. That decade ended up with them preparing to bomb Pearl Harbor.”
Waterfall tells the story of Noppon (Bie Sukrit) who is given the assignment of assisting a visiting diplomat (Thom Semsa) and his American wife, Katherine (Emily Padgett.) Noppon falls in love with Katherine. The politics of the love triangle mirror the rapidly changing world in which the story takes place.
Not only did Maltby have definite ideas about the story, he knew his regular collaborator, David Shire, should do the music. “There was a lovely fully produced video of [the original show.] It had what we call an Asian aesthetic, not the pace and storytelling you need for Broadway. Richard thought it needed a whole new score. We took it as kind of a job. Within 3-4 months we were as passionate about it and hopeful for its potential as anything we could have picked for ourselves.”
Matlby and Shire have collaborated on the shows Baby, Big, Closer than Ever and Starting Here, Starting Now. Maltby won a Tony Award as Best Director for Ain’t Misbehavin’.
“Somewhere in its heart it’s about something primal,” he says. It’s the exploration of what connects one person to another person. That love transcends boundaries and enemies. This story has a strange mixture of generations. The woman is 35, the boy is 22 and she’s married to a man who is 65. We simply tried to tell the story of each of the characters as honestly as we can.”
As for the music, Shire had a lot to work with. “The score is jazz-influenced and American-influenced because one of the principals is American. It has Japanese music and Thai-oriented music. Luckily the scale used in traditional Thai music is not the same as the one used in Japanese music and I found a way to distinguish the two. Richard and I love passionate sweeping melodies, but we’ve never really gotten to do a big full-blown love story for the musical comedy stage. It gave us the freedom to use some muscles we’ve been dying to use full force for many years.”
Given that each season on Broadway finds plenty of failed shows, what are the chances Waterfall will buck that trend? Shire has confidence in the audience. “This isn’t a cheap show. $14 million is not bargain basement. We believe the most audiences are thrilled by a really good story, well-told, that moves them emotionally.” Maltby also credits one of the themes of the show. “Do you ever forget your first love? That first love remains with you forever. My instinct is that people are going to be really moved by it. We do get our share of tears at the end.”