A wicked Hungarian count tries to seduce a pubescent American blonde. A resort manager falls hard for a German baroness. Hitler masterminds the slaughter of millions. There are love ballads and some tap dancing.
When Greenbrier opened in Lewisburg, West Virginia, in mid-June, it received a standing ovation. The 150-person audience shouted "Bravo!" until the cast took the stage for an encore rendition of the musical's first number, "Decorum."
We roll that thick carpet out just for 'em. Decorum!
Indignities -- we're trained to just ig -- nore 'em! Decorum!
Decorum is the code that we live by.
No matter what -- decorum -- the rules apply...
The ovation pleased no one more than Greenbrier's author, 57-year-old San Diego playwright Mark Sickman, who'd tried hard, and unsuccessfully, to interest local theaters in his musical.
Sickman, whose ad agency Sickman & Reese has worked for Children's Hospital, the San Diego Sockers, and National University, first got the idea for Greenbrier in 1997 while reading V for Victory, a book describing home-front culture during World War II. On page 239 of V for Victory Sickman read an account of how, between December 1941 and July 1942, more than 1000 Axis diplomatic personnel and their families were interned at Greenbrier, a luxury resort near the Allegheny Mountains.
"The details just leapt out at me. As Americans, the staff must have bristled at the thought of accommodating Axis diplomats. The Greenbrier's manager must have been in conflict with his own employees. The U.S. State Department, which interned the diplomats at the Greenbrier, required that they be given excellent service. It was a way of insuring that our own diplomats, being held in Europe, would be treated well until they could be exchanged for the Axis diplomats. There was a high likelihood that some of these Axis diplomats were spies. If conflict is the essence of drama, this story had great conflict.
"So I sat down and started constructing the book for Greenbrier. After three months I finally had something worth pursuing. I contacted the Greenbrier's staff historian -- the place is so wealthy and has so much history that they actually have a staff historian. I chatted with him. He was very friendly. He sent me some more background material. At that point there didn't seem to be any problem."
If Sickman was quick to apprehend the Greenbrier's dramatic potential, it was because World War II had inspired him before. In the mid-1990s he'd written another musical about home-front America, Kiss Them & Wish Them Good-Bye, which enjoyed a pretty good run at the Coronado Playhouse and, later, at the Hahn (now Horton Grand) Theater.
"My father," explains Sickman, "was too old to serve in the war, but his three brothers did, and he saved all their letters. I read them and got a feel for that back-and-forth during wartime. That's where I got the idea for Kiss Them & Wish Them Good-Bye. Letters are read during that show.
"As an ad man I'd written jingles, dialogue for TV commercials. As a writer, I'd written poetry. Lyrics, the idea of writing musicals, just came naturally to me."
Greenbrier had a more difficult time making its way to the stage than did Kiss Them. Sitting in the roomy Gaslamp loft he shares with his wife Marilyn, a La Jolla real estate agent, Sickman fidgets a little when discussing the time he spent trying to interest local directors in his script.
"I'm not going to name names," he says. "But it's extremely hard, if not impossible, to get a local theater interested in something written by a San Diego writer. They're very risk-averse. They're willing to do controversial plays, of course, but they have to do controversial plays with a track record."
San Diego's stodgy directors weren't the only obstacle Greenbrier had to overcome. First, there was the resort itself. As Sickman's musical took shape, as Steve Prussing, Sickman's collaborator, finished the score, Greenbrier became skittish about having its name used as the title for a World War II musical.
"They were afraid," Sickman says, "Greenbrier might be shown in an unfavorable light."
Sickman received a letter from Pillsbury, Madison, the top-shelf, white-shoe law firm in San Francisco that represents Greenbrier, informing him that the resort would not allow its name to be used in any connection with his musical. Months of phone calls and nice-making ensued. In case things went sour, Sickman rewrote his script, excising the name Greenbrier, and placing the story at an entirely fictitious resort named the Springs.
"Cydney A. Tune. That was her name. The attorney at Pillsbury, Madison. In the end, she was very nice. After eight months of phone calls it stopped being 'Ms. Tune' and 'Mr. Sickman,' and we started calling each other Mark and Cydney. She finally gave us the okay in late February 1999."
Since, as Sickman says, "no San Diego theater would even touch Greenbrier," in August 1999, he spent $5000 of his own money to stage a reading at the Sushi Gallery downtown. Sickman invited almost all of San Diego's theater bigwigs to the reading, but their response was "tepid." One hundred seventy-five of his friends and acquaintances, however, did attend. Tuxedoed and black-gowned actors read Sickman's dialogue and sang his lyrics. The audience's response was "largely positive." Being an ad man, Sickman provided his audience with a questionnaire through which they could express their opinions of his show.
"The suggestions were very helpful. Some of the love relationships needed tightening up. They sorta just came out of nowhere. We also asked people to rate the songs, and as a result we dropped one called 'Simpatico,' which was a cute number between a little Austrian girl and a maid."
More relationship-tightening and song-dropping were to come. Sickman submitted Greenbrier to a play lab conducted by Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, which accepted the musical and gave it a staged reading and subjected it to student criticism. Next, Sickman submitted Greenbrier to the Simon Studio in New York, an acting school and play workshop, which gave the work yet another staged reading and subjected it to even more criticism.
"It was really a major success at the Simon Studio. The thing really gelled. We really worked at firming up the three main love relationships and, most importantly, we may have made some good connections in New York.
"After the workshop at the Simon Studio, I started sending Greenbrier out to regional theaters. The artistic director at the Greenbrier Valley Theater in Lewisburg, West Virginia, was very interested. Lewisburg is an artist-colony-type town about ten miles from White Sulfur Springs, where the Greenbrier resort is located. Lewisburg had just built the brand-new 150-seat Greenbrier Valley Theater, which was looking to stage something regional. They like things that have a direct appeal to their audience.
"Last February, the theater's artistic director accepted Greenbrier. On May 15, I and Steve Prussing flew out to West Virginia. We had our first rehearsal the night we arrived. We had only three weeks to get everything ready -- rehearse, build sets. The artistic director also had some changes of her own she wanted made. We ended up writing four new songs for the show and further clarified the love relationships.
"Lewisburg ended up liking Greenbrier. We were scheduled for an eight-performance run, and six of those performances sold out, and on the other two nights we got a pretty good crowd."
(Lewisburg's local paper gave the musical an enthusiastic review: "Greenbrier offered its audience a spirited ride the way a catamaran with a colorful sail sweeps over glittering waves toward a blue horizon.")
Having now spent $10,000 of his own money to launch his musical, Sickman hopes to steer Greenbrier toward even bluer horizons. He's submitting it for consideration to other small theaters in West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. He also wants to get on what he calls the "New York track."
"Two directors and one producer who saw Greenbrier at the Simon Studio showed considerable interest. This is a viable piece of musical theater.
"The fact is that I'm having better luck in other places and other cities than in San Diego. You've got to go where you think you're going to have success."