by Joseph Gresser
copyright the Chronicle 2-27-2013
It has taken Michael Chase Gosselin little time to make his mark on the New York theater world. Last week, Internet sites that cover Broadway were ablaze with the news a cult musical might finally hit the Great White Way.
They did not necessarily realize that the man behind this plan graduated only last year from North Country Union High School. Mr. Gosselin was admitted to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, but postponed his freshman year to check out the theater scene in New York.
That has proved to be a smart move.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, an excited Mr. Gosselin tried to explain how he found himself working with one of the world’s most successful producers on a project that may see him make his Broadway directorial debut.
Mr. Gosselin said it all began with his interest in Moby Dick — A Whale of a Tale, a show that notoriously flopped when it ran in London’s West End in 1992. The show presents the Melville novel as enacted by high school girls who are trying to raise money to keep the doors of their boarding school open.
In a reverse drag role, the headmistress of the school, played by a man, also portrays the monomaniac Captain Ahab.
As Mr. Gosselin described it, the young ladies use whatever they can find to put their benefit on, even draining a swimming pool to serve as their stage. It first opened in a small theater in Oxford, England, and quickly gained popularity.
Cameron Mackintosh saw the show and decided to take it to a large theater in London, where it famously bombed.
“I call it the Spiderman of 1992,” said Mr. Gosselin, speaking of the presses delight in the show’s failure.
Though a commercial disaster in its first major run, Moby Dick gained the kind of notoriety shared by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mr. Gosselin said. Many small companies have presented productions of the show in varying versions over the past 20 years.
Mr. Gosselin said he had considered it as an offering for Third Act Productions, the theatrical company he ran during his high school years. It never seemed like the right choice for Newport audiences, he said.
While in New York, he said, he started looking at the script again and decided to try to rework it so it would play better. There had been attempts to rewrite the show over the years, he said, but they had taken out much of the salacious humor of the original.
“I wanted to open it back up,” Mr. Gosselin said.
He describes the show as combining elements from a wide variety of musical theater traditions, ranging from British musical hall and Gilbert and Sullivan to Riverdance. He said the show is a fluff piece, but is also the most accurate translation of Moby Dick to the stage.
What Mr. Gosselin didn’t realize was that the show was owned by Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of such hits as Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Miss Saigon and Cats. What’s more, Mr. Makintosh told Mr. Gosselin that Moby Dick was his favorite show.
Mr. Gosselin said he got in touch with Mr. Mackintosh’s office in London to get permission to work on the show, but soon found himself emailing the producer directly.
“Cameron was very involved in rewriting,” Mr. Gosselin said. “We were sending lines back and forth.”
When Mr. Mackintosh was in New York recently to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Phantom of the Opera, he took three hours to meet with Mr. Gosselin and go through the script with him.
“When he read the headmistress’ lines he sounded just like Mrs. Doubtfire,” recalled the delighted Mr. Gosselin.
The composer of the show, Hereward Kaye came over from England for several weeks to work on revisions, including reviving songs originally written for the show but left out of its first production, Mr. Gosselin said.
One of the outcomes of all the work was a staged reading of the show as revised by Mr. Gosselin. The reading, which took place on February 25, featured seasoned Broadway professionals directed by Mr. Gosselin.
Heading the cast as the headmistress was Tony Sheldon, an Australian actor nominated for a Tony award for his work in the Broadway production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
“A brilliant, brilliant guy,” said Mr. Gosselin.
He said he was very pleased to have a person with not only musical theater skills but with a deep acting background.
“The show needs to be grounded by a really great Ahab,” Mr. Gosselin said.
Other members of the cast included Nicolas Dromard (Mary Poppins), Jacey Powers (Falling), Erin Crosby (Shout! The Mod Musical), Christina Bianco (Newsical), Kirsten Wyatt (A Christmas Story) and Noah E. Galvin (Our Town).
Mr. Gosselin said that Mr. Mackintosh was unable to attend the reading because he had to attend the Oscar ceremonies in Los Angeles. Representatives from his New York office were there, Mr. Gosselin said.
The reading didn’t include stage action, Mr. Gosselin said. The actors read and sang from behind music stands.
Whatever happens from here on out, Mr. Gosselin said, it is a thrill to be able to list himself on his resumé as a co-producer with Mr. Mackintosh, if only for the reading.
Where things will go is unclear. Mr. Gosselin is aiming for a Broadway production. He said Mr. Mackintosh may not want to be the producer if it opens first in New York, because he is based in London and has always opened his shows there first.
Mr. Gosselin said he would like to start working with the spatial elements of the show, but said Mr. Mackintosh does not like the idea of tinkering with a musical in a rehearsal studio, a process pioneered by A Chorus Line. Mr. Mackintosh prefers to go straight into the production process in a theater, Mr. Gosselin said.
Some shows begin their runs off-Broadway, but that move is questionable, he said. Because since the success of shows like Rent critics keep a sharp eye on work opening downtown, and both Moby Dick and Mr. Mackintosh would be targets for intense and distracting press scrutiny, Mr. Gosselin said.
“I’d like to try the show out in New Bedford,” Mr. Gosselin said, referring to one of Massachusetts’s famous whaling ports.
No firm plans are in place, but Mr. Gosselin said he is devoting himself fully to the show.
“I’ve never taken so many meetings in my life,” he said. The verb “taken” signals that he is truly finding a place in the theater’s major leagues.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]