By Sharon Eberson
It is important, Front Porch Theatricals’ production of A Man of No Importance. Let me explain all the reasons why.
It’s going to take a little time, so get comfortable.
This previously little-done show might just be ready for a big comeback. It comes from the team behind Ragtime – writer Terence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and the composer Dormont’s own Stephen Flaherty. It was directed off-Broadway in 2002 by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Take Me Out. Assassins) and was nominated for seven Drama Desk Awards.
Via email, Stephen Flaherty said, “I am excited and delighted that Front Porch Theatricals will be doing the Pittsburgh premiere of my musical A Man of No Importance. It is a show that holds a very special place in my heart and in the hearts of my collaborators, Lynn Ahrens, and our dear friend, the late Terrence McNally. It celebrates friendship, the joys and struggles of creation, and the transformative power of the theater. I am so pleased that Pittsburgh audiences will get to experience this unique and special show.”
He added that the show has been done “here and there” by professional companies and producers since its premiere, “but it still has the vibe and reputation of a ‘hidden gem.”
That may change in the not-too-distant future.
First, Front Porch’s production is giving Pittsburghers an opportunity to fall in love with the show. Then it will be coming back to New York City this fall, under the direction of John Doyle (director of acclaimed revivals of The Color Purple and Sweeney Todd, and the recent off-Broadway Assassins). Flaherty said casting is underway now for this, Doyle’s last production as the artistic director of off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.
The show tells the story of an amateur theater group in Dublin and its leader, middle-aged bus ticket agent Alfie Byrne, who is determined to stage a version of Oscar Wilde‘s Salome at his church, despite objections from church authorities. Alfie, whose hero is Wilde, is clearly a reference to Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred “Alfie” Douglas. Alfie is deeply closeted – this is 1960s Dublin, after all – and what plays out is a journey to acceptance.
Besides those Drama Desk nominations in 2003, the musical also won a GLAAD Media Award for its portrayal of gay themes.
The show opening also represents a comeback from COVID and the last season planned by the late Leon Zionts, along with his Front Porch producing partners, his wife, Nancy, and Bruce E.G. Smith. Robyne Parrish returns to the company as director, with a cast that includes Allan Snyder, David Toole, and Becki Toth.
Other familiar faces include Dominique Briggs, David Leong and Brady Patsy, who soon will be bound for the Omaha Community Playhouse, joining Pittsburgher Stephen Santa, and newcomers such as Clementine Wurzbach out of Carnegie Mellon University.
That cast is mostly intact from when the show was first planned to open, back in pre-pandemic times. The fresh faces are part of the company’s mission to nurture new talent onstage and behind the scenes.
It is fitting that Front Porch would choose A Man of No Importance because it prides itself on dipping into edgy themes that are as relevant today as when the shows were first performed.
The other musical of the two-show summer season is Grand Hotel, which takes place in a world marching toward war, in an elegant hotel in 1928 Berlin. It features a fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his final days living in luxury.
Here’s what the producers had to say about Front Porch’s return in a season dedicated to founding member Leon Zionts.
Question: Why did you choose and stay with A Man of No Importance?
Bruce Smith: It’s like the A-Team of writers with Terrence McNally and Flaherty and Ahrens. It is a not very well-known musical. That is true. But yet, we’ve now seen it a number of times. It’s just lovely. It’s a wonderful combination of a heartwarming story and theme, and it’s hysterically funny.
Question: The Drama Desk Awards loved it, and it had tons of nominations back in the day. And the cast …
Nancy Zionts: [Music director] Deana Muro absolutely loves this music and just absolutely loves it. And we’ve had musicians who came forward to ask to be in this orchestra because they want to play this score.
Question: Do you know if it’s ever been done by a professional company in Pittsburgh?
Nancy Zionts: We could not find it done here anywhere. Grand Hotel that we’re doing in August was done here once upon a time [Pittsburgh CLO, in 1999.] But A Man of No Importance was not done here, which is amazing, considering the local connection to it. Bruce and I are finding it delightful. Now it has a serious theme. It wouldn’t be in the Front Porch canon if it didn’t have a serious theme. And when we selected it three years ago, it was because it was about protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community, which is equally relevant today – ripped from the headlines, as many of the things that we do are. So it is really one of those areas where it was supposed to be the cautionary tale of, if you don’t protect your rights, we could go back to a time when LGBTQ rights and loving who you love was not protected. This is about loving who you love.
Question: Does Stephen Flaherty know you are doing this in Pittsburgh?
Bruce Smith: It’s funny you should mention that …
Nancy Zionts: He knows for two reasons. When we did our sitzprobe for Fun Home, music director Deana Muro had contacted him regarding doing the Leon song, “I Was Here.”
Aside: When Leon Zionts was dying from pancreatic cancer, his family and family of friends arranged a surprise: He walked into a room to find an orchestra waiting there to accompany him in singing the Faherty-Ahrens song “I Was Here.”
Bruce Smith: From The Glorious Ones.
Nancy Zionts: And so when Stephen Flaherty was here in the fall for a Carnegie Mellon showcase, and I got there early. It was me and all the CMU parents. And I introduced myself to him and thanked him for giving us the opportunity to do that song with Leon. And I told him that we were doing A Man of No Importance in spring. And he was so excited. He said if he could make it to town, he would come to see it.
Bruce Smith: I’d like to alert him that we’re doing it. And I think he would really enjoy our rendition. Robyne Parrish is the director. Of course, she’s always so creative as she was with Violet and …
Nancy Zionts: … And Grey Gardens.
Bruce Smith: And she just owns the room so well. She’s so gentle and yet firm with the cast. And they just love her. I mean, they absolutely love her.
Question: And you have quite the cast too. It’s nice to see some of the Front Porch gang back together.
Bruce Smith: We love Becki Toth, of course, she’s so fantastic. This is her sixth show with us. And she’s so perfect for this role of Lily, that was played by Faith Prince on the recording. And as soon as I heard that recording, I kept saying, “That is so Becki. She’s got to play this part for us.”
Nancy Zionts: We wanted to surround ourselves with as many Front Porch family as we could, while still being true to our mission of bringing in some new people. Which we’ve done, but it is really nice for our family that has not been together for, I think what Bruce counted was 1,000 nights, since we closed Fun Home to when we will open the show. … It means a lot to have them here in our 10th season – we’ve been saying it’s our 10th season for three years; we stopped the clock when the world stopped – and we’ve dedicated it to Leon, since Leon, Bruce and I helped pick this season.
Question: Obviously, the theme helps make it a Front Porch show. Tell me what all of your thoughts were on as you discussed these shows.
Nancy Zionts: Our marketing people say, “Think of it in terms of taglines.” So ironically, because we’re in COVID times now, but we weren’t at the time, this was “Travel to Europe” year. We’re going to Ireland. And then, later on, we’re going to Germany. So one of the ideas was that we were going to be taking people to worlds where they did not live. We did not realize that would take the place of traveling, which did not happen for a number of years. But so be it. Also, between this show and Grand Hotel, both of them relate to potential evil lurking in the background.
In this show, the evil lurking in the background was the homophobia and the fear of being who you are and loving who you are. It’s also the church on one side, kind of, sort of in some of these scenes, and the people living their daily lives. So it’s just interesting to see how those themes are still incredibly relevant now.
Bruce Smith: I do remember that A Man of No Importance had been on our list for a while. And it was actually a pretty easy choice because it just checked all the boxes for us. I’m usually the one that listens to the soundtrack in advance, and I have a musical background, and I just loved the music. I just thought it was so wonderful. So beautiful. And so that was an easy choice.
Question: What was it like the first time you were all together?
Bruce Smith: It was April 25th, our first meeting, and it was like old home week. We were able to welcome back people like Becki Toth and Matt Rush, her husband.
Nancy Zionts: And David Leong and people who’d been with us for a while. Deana, of course, and Robyne.
Bruce Smith: And then some new people, Allan Snyder had never worked for us before, and he’s a very well-established actor in Pittsburgh, and we were anxious to see what he could do for us. And then a bunch of ensemble people, some of whom we introduced during our cabaret. And they’ve turned out to be just wonderful, especially Ashley Harmon, who is our choreographer. She’s just fantastic. Robyne keeps saying, “It’s an ensemble show.” It really is. I mean, we’ve got two leads, but it’s really an ensemble show.
Question: For people who obviously won’t be familiar with this, is there a key thing you’d want to say about it? The music is beautiful; it has to do with love is, love, and censorship, too …
Nancy Zionts: And we have a regular orchestra, and a special Irish band and a bodhran [a frame drum of Irish origin] player, which is new for us. It’s incorporated into the show. It’s a beautiful, beautiful show. It will transport people to Ireland. For people who are desperate without a COVID test, they can go to Ireland while they’re going to be thoroughly entertained.
Bruce Smith: We’re going to give the audience a little flavor of Irish music and a little bit of Irish dance as well. So I think that’s one of the attractions to someone who doesn’t know the show. And again, it’s a great story, a great theme, and an evening’s entertainment that is not to be missed.
Nancy Zionts: One of the things that we always love is, our shows are supposed to give you something to talk about on the way home or the next day. That’s one thing. But it also is our intention to expose you to something that you haven’t seen a hundred times. So we’re okay with having 90% of our audience never having seen this show, maybe 70% of our audience never having heard what it is, and hoping that they will trust us and be so eager to come back to our theater and our productions, that they will come on this journey with us.
Front Porch Theatricals’ ‘A Man of No Importance’ is at the New Hazlett Theatre, North Side, May 20-29. For tickets and details: https://www.frontporchpgh.com/tickets