Adapting, Debuting—and Adopting? With Harbor, Musical Writer Chad Beguelin Tries Straight Theater, Examines Gay Families

But he also has musical 'Aladdin' up his sleeve

Randy Harrison and Paul Anthony Stewart in 'Harbor.' (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Randy Harrison and Paul Anthony Stewart in ‘Harbor.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

In olden days, before single-sex marriage was within the realm of possibility, social pressures were laid on gay couples “to take that next step”—to adopt a child.

Chad Beguelin remembers it well enough to retaliate for all that nudging and nagging with a full-length play, his first produced play without songs.

Harbor, which opens Aug. 6 at Primary Stages, gives the librettist the night off and allows the straight (that is to say, nonmusical) playwright to take a belated bow.

It’s a family play, he insisted—albeit an unconventional one. “It’s about creating your own family,” he said. “You can find family anywhere—and not necessarily with people you’re related to. For me personally, it raises the question of whether to become a parent or not and how that translates to straights and gays. Everyone at some point must go through that process and decide, ‘Do I want to go down that road or not?’”

There are only four characters in this Harbor, but they do-si-do so unpredictably, with such dizzy abandon outside their Sag Harbor sandbox, that you may be slightly surprised at how they sort themselves out when the last dance is called. (I was.)

Fierce and foremost is Donna Adams (Erin Cummings, in an impressive New York City stage debut), an out-of-control wannabe entertainer who chases her dreams and gigs in the smelly old van she shares with her 15-year-old daughter, Lottie (the also-debuting Alexis Molnar). Lottie, the only real grown-up around, wisely keeps her nose buried in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth while mom plots to drop her next baby on the chic doorstep of her bro, Kevin, freshly married and hyphenated to his partner, Ted.

Paul Anthony Stewart originated the role of Ted when the play world-premiered last September at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut; his Kevin was Bobby Steggert, who has other fish to fry this fall (namely, Big Fish at the Neil Simon, opening Sept. 5) and so has relinquished the role to sandy-
headed Randy Harrison from Queer as Folk.

Mark Lamos, now in his fourth year as artistic director of the Playhouse, directed the premiere production and this New York transfer. It’s the first time that Westport has supplied a play for New York stages, but Mr. Lamos sees a pipeline forming. Because of his bright history at Primary Stages (notably, a trio of A.R. Gurney plays: Indian Blood, Buffalo Gal and Black Tie), he crooked his finger at that company’s artistic director, Andrew Leynse, and co-producer Ted Snowdon, inviting them to come up and catch the workshop version. “I didn’t know how they felt about it, really—they were sorta noncommittal—but they came to the play on opening night,” he said, “and I later got a phone call from them saying, ‘We think we really want to do this.’”

Mr. Lamos shepherded Harbor into existence by finding a place for it in the Westport lineup. “I just fell in love with the script—it was that simple,” he said. “When I read the script, I knew I wanted to produce it. I really wanted to direct it as well. And I had the opportunity to do both. It was kind of a no-brainer. I think that Chad’s writing is so smart. I love the comedy in the play. It’s a beautiful blend of drama, poignancy, humor—really, a complex mix of emotional qualities.”

Having an artistic director want to produce and direct his first real play was confidence-building for Mr. Beguelin. Only later, in the heat of rehearsal, did he realize how close their sensibilities are. “At the start, I’d be taking notes, thinking, ‘Oh, I gotta tell Mark when we take a break that maybe this should be this way,’ and he would always say what I was thinking before I could even tell him.”

Mr. Beguelin did not arrive at the title of his play casually; different meanings dance around it. “I knew I wanted it to be set in Sag Harbor, but then I liked the idea that Donna and Lottie think they’ve found a safe harbor,” he said. “Also, I liked the verbal meaning of harbor—that they all are harboring these secret feelings about each other.”

The plot was yanked, screaming, from real life. A few years ago, Mr. Beguelin and his partner, airline exec Tom Sleeman, started to discuss raising kids, having been pushed in that direction by gay couples who wanted them to share the joys of parenting.

“We met 19 years ago, so we didn’t know any gay or lesbian couples who had kids—it just wasn’t something you thought of—and then, over the years, as time moved on and everything began to change, we became aware of several same-sex couples adopting or going the surrogate route,” he said. “Friends and relatives started pressuring us, so we finally had to admit this had totally turned around. It used to be almost forbidden to talk about, and now it was, ‘Well, when is all this going to happen?’

“So it became something we discussed. He definitely wasn’t interested in having kids, and I was sorta on the fence, but the more we began to talk about it, the more we came to the realization we’d rather be fabulous gay uncles than day-in, day-out parents. That’s where the idea of the play came from—us batting it back and forth.”

Beguelin.

Beguelin.

It took three or four years (between major writing assignments) for these ideas to turn into an involving piece of theater. The result seems to bubble along without a clear-cut destination in sight, which mirrors Mr. Beguelin’s writing process. “I actually thought it was going to go a completely different way,” he confessed. “When you’re writing, you’re just trying to figure out everybody’s point of view and how they’re bouncing off each other. The play definitely was in pieces until I finally got into a groove. Every once in a while, I would take it out of the drawer and tinker with a few scenes. Then, finally, one day it started to click a bit—and that’s when I finished the first draft. It took a few false starts to actually get the play completed.”

There is one major asset to writing plays instead of musicals, and Mr. Beguelin was swift to pick up on it: the lines don’t have to rhyme, and that—you can imagine!—is quite a load off. “It’s such a relief,” said the man whose previous “plays” were “books” or lyrics for musicals. Heretofore, the music has all been by composer Matthew Sklar and played on Broadway at the Hirschfeld (The Wedding Singer and, for the past two Christmases, Elf).

An above-and-beyond-the-call adaptable kind of adapter, Mr. Beguelin did lyrics-only for Elf, leaving the book writing to Thomas Meehan, and he is doing book-only for the upcoming Aladdin, which has Oscar-nominated lyrics by Howard Ashman (“Friend Like Me”) and Oscar-winning ones by Tim Rice (“A Whole New World”).

“There were a bunch of Howard’s songs that were cut from the movie after he passed away,” said Mr. Beguelin. “One of the goals we had was to reinstate some of those cut songs. We’re incorporating all these great songs that nobody has heard because they were cut.” Eight-time Oscar-winner Alan Menkin did all the music.