A Hunter in the Willows 

The Night of the Hunter becomes ... a stage musical?

Even if you've never heard of Davis Grubb, you probably know that a preacher with "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his knuckles is nothing but trouble. Grubb's 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter, in which a psychotic ersatz reverend comes to a Depression-era Southern town to woo the widow of a bank robber -- as well as to force her two small children to tell him where the loot is hidden -- is best known for the 1955 film adaptation featuring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Though it's the only movie actor Charles Laughton ever directed, it's been incredibly influential, inspiring tributes in movies from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Do the Right Thing.

So is turning it into a musical such a crazy idea? Yes, but playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole (Casper the musical) and the late composer Claibe Richardson (The Grass Harp) did it anyway. Hunter's world premiere will be at the Willows Theatre in Concord on September 24 (previews start on the 20th), but it's been kicking around for a while. A concept album was released by Varèse Sarabande in 1998, followed by workshop performances in New York and Chicago. Eventually it was optioned by John Bowab -- the original associate producer of Mame and Sweet Charity and a longtime sitcom director (The Facts of Life, Bosom Buddies, The Cosby Show, Ellen) -- who'd worked with Cole and Richardson on another show, Grossinger's, and was impressed enough that he asked what else they had. When what else they had turned out to be a musical version of an oddball thriller, Bowab thought it sounded not at all like a really unfortunate idea.

"You look at Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz, both of them have been enormously successful," he says. "With traditional musical comedies -- and god knows that's where I earned my living before I went into television -- you really wonder, are Hairspray and The Producers going to have the same return business? The more serious shows, the ones that people initially said 'It's a little heavy' -- they're the ones that have pulled people in a second time, a third time, and had really enormous runs."

After helming the last of Hunter's three workshop productions, Bowab started looking around for a place for the show to find its land legs. The Willows had been after it for a few years, so Bowab flew up from Los Angeles and checked out the space. "They promised us a four-week rehearsal and five weeks of playing -- more than I probably could have gotten at any theater in the country -- to give us a chance to be sure that what we're going to show the people who we hope will be coming in from around the country to see it, major theater owners and producers, would be a finished product," he says.

At this point, it's a gamble Bowab can afford to take. "Television has been very good to me," he says. "This one I'm doing for nothing, more or less, because I see a future with it. If I didn't see a future, then I'd still want to do it. Whatever's going to happen here, for me it's been an adventure. I'm in Concord, California!"


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