Published April 11. 2013 4:00AM
Writer Jeremy Desmon was sitting in a restaurant with his parents when the conversation turned to his latest project: reworking the script for the 1920s musical "Good News!" for Goodspeed Musicals.
When he listed some of the "Good News!" songs, his parents started singing them - eight of them, in fact, including "Keep Your Sunny Side Up," "You're the Cream in My Coffee," "The Varsity Drag" and "Life is Just A Bowl of Cherries."
"It is an incredible songbook," Desmon says of the B.G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown numbers.
And, based on his parents' ability to belt the tunes out, memorable as well.
"Good News!" was Broadway's fifth-longest running show of the 1920s. The piece - with a book by Laurence Schwab, Frank Mandel and DeSylva - is set on a college campus where the football star can only play in the big game if he passes a major academic exam. Helping him out is a female tutor. Hijinks and an athlete-tutor romance ensue.
After its auspicious start, "Good News!" was made into a middling 1947 film starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford.
The stage version was revived in 1974 - and lasted two weeks on Broadway. Comic legends Abe Burrows and Garry Marshall each worked on the script for that version, but it still didn't jell. Desmon says that the show was rejiggered to give the two film stars in the cast - Alice Faye and John Payne - more to do, so a musical about college kids ended up focusing on the adults.
The bottom line was, the production wasn't working for modern audiences.
"So these incredible songs from a show that was a real hit in the '20s were sort of orphaned," Desmon says. "I look at this as an opportunity to introduce audiences to this incredible score and this really fun world they created in the '20s.
"What I'm most excited is it's a really old-fashioned musical comedy but with modern rhythms and completely reimagined. You read the old script, and I'm sure the jokes killed in the days of Calvin Coolidge."
The characters were thin, too. Desmon wanted to know more about them and their journeys - and that's part of what he did with his adaptation.
So, for instance, he introduced the female tutor/love interest in a stronger way. In the original, she was just a girl who has always been in love with the football hero. Now, she's a female scientist - a teaching assistant for astronomy - who has a more robust relationship with her teacher/boss. Desmon has added depth, too, to the football player, who is uncomfortable with the fact that he's seen in one particular way and feels he has to live up to that role.
Desmon made some structural and plot shifts, too. He cut a long craps game, for instance; he says he didn't understand what it was doing there. But he kept a farcical sequence where people were hiding under beds because the whole thing was very period.
While this is a new adaptation, Desmon says, "we are trying to honor the whimsy and joy and energy of the original."
They are, he notes, giving the audience a 1920s dance musical.
"What I like about the show is it evokes a simpler time," Desmon says.
He says he's not judging the earlier version because, in the 1920s, audiences had different expectations of a musical comedy. Spectacular singing and dancing were part of the deal, yes, but the plot and characteriations could be rather simple.
"Back then, (seeing a show) was a luxury and that was your night out, and it didn't have to be a complex story. It just needed to be enough to carry the day," he says.
Desmon has written a number of his own musicals - including two that were developed at Goodspeed. His show "The Girl in the Frame" was produced at the Norma Terris Theatre in 2005, and he worked on his "Pump Up the Volume" musical in January 2012 at the Goodspeed's Festival of New Artists.
With "Good News!," Desmon says, "The task here was, we are giving our audience a 1920s dance musical. That was my task form the beginning. So the fun, freewheeling, vaudville energy is something I really embraced throughout all the characters while giving them an arc and hopefully making the plot hold together and lots of fun."
"Good News," Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam; opens Friday and runs through June 22; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs. (with select performances at 2 p.m.), 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.); $27-$79.50; (860) 873-8668.