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'Adrift'? Not This Grounded Composer!

November 10, 2005 By:
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Playwright Chris Durang (left) and music man Peter Melnick
Talk about noteworthy family genes.

When you're the grandson of the revered Richard Rodgers and cousin to hot-shot contemporary Broadway composer Adam Guettel, getting your voice heard in the chorus of huzzahs for the others may prove difficult.

But Peter Melnick has his own song to sing, and sing it well - and write it well - he does on Broadway and off.

Composer Melnick is mellow, his voice mellifluous - not a bad state to be in since his new show, "Adrift in Macao," a film noir musical comedy with book and lyrics by Christopher Durang, is settling in at the Prince Music Theater for its world premiere and as the season opener for the Philadelphia Theater Company.

Adrift is anything but what Melnick has been over the years.

"You want to fall in love with what you're doing," he says as a means of explaining a credit-worthy résumé of movies ("L.A. Story," "Only You") and TV ("Mermaid"), as well as shows (""Sextet," "Ester Play the Palace").

"Ester Play the Palace"? Is this some Purimschpiel of a punchline?

"Well, it was a Purim piece that Sherman Yellen" - who wrote the book and lyrics - "brought to me, and it was such a thrill."

The trill of it all extends beyond the stage to the bimah: Melnick is a cantor at a Reform congregation in California. And when rehearsals for "Adrift in Macao" left him hanging at Kol Nidre time, it was the musical that took a back seat to the holiday seating chart: PTC rearranged its rehearsal schedule to accommodate the cantor/composer so he could be with his Santa Barbara congregation for the service.

The hills - and the holidays - are alive with the sound of music, and so is his heritage: "I grew up in a musical household, where my mother (Linda Emory) had the best ear in the family."

Is "On Stage" hearing right? Does that include his legendary zayda, who did some do-re-mi of his own?

Well, Grandpa Richard was rich in many other arenas. And, recalls Melnick, what an enriching experience that was for a kid. Melnick and his grandfather - the "King and I" of relationships?

"I grew up around grandfather's music, and I was one of those kids who played piano at 6, and was writing music at the same age."

Obviously, Melnick made a big splash in the gene pool, already awash in his grandfather's great oeuvre, which included "South Pacific."

"You can't help but identify with important people in your life," he says of his love and admiration for Rodgers, with whom "I had some musical exchanges."

Not that Bubba was chopped liver. "She did what grandmothers do. She was wonderfully supportive of me."

But long gone is the golden age of musicals when a Rodgers was at its heart and it could depend on the support of theater-goers. "Theater passed its golden era long ago when the greats like my grandfather walked the earth," says Melnick, who, ironically, also composed the score for PBS' documentary on "The Dinosaurs."

Land of the lost? Not so for Melnick, who exhorts the benefits of regional theater, of which PTC is a part.

Apart from the Broadway scene - and "Adrift" may ultimately land there - Melnick muses on what it means to compose in a business conducting itself the way it does, where "the economics are brutal."

But C notes - and the big bucks - are the producer's provenance. The artist within has to contend with making the music sing to his soul. With "Adrift in Macao," Melnick may have set on a piece which will anchor his career.

His fans get the drift. Name that tune?

"My goal - more than writing music that is merely hummable - is to write music that is honest and surprising," says this scion of Broadway royalty. u

 

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