‘Trading Places’ gets a musical update at Alliance Theatre

Combined ShapeCaption
Theater director Kenny Leon talks about his new project "Trading Places," which is premiering at the Alliance Theatre. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon reimagines the 1983 comedy for the stage.

The folks who are refashioning the 1983 movie “Trading Places” into a 2022 stage musical making its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre had their work cut out for them.

The movie is mostly remembered as an entertaining version of “The Prince and the Pauper” story, in which glib street hustler Eddie Murphy and uptight commodities broker Dan Aykroyd have their lives forcibly swapped at the whim of two filthy rich old men who’ve made a wager on what will happen.

But 40 years later, the movie now feels like two very different sensibilities uneasily coexisting: a somewhat pointed take on systemic racism and privilege, from an era when those topics were not widely discussed, mashed up with a dated grab bag of blackface, homophobia, leering at women and plenty of cringe.

“The movie was great in its time. That’s where we were at the time,” says Kenny Leon, who is directing and played a major role in shaping the new version. “But there’s some elements in that story, let’s just say, we’ve evolved.”

Leon, the Tony Award-winning triple threat (director, writer, actor) is joined by writer Thomas Lennon (the “Night at the Museum” franchise) and the songwriting team of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”) on the project. They’ve been working on converting the movie into a musical on and off for three years, with the last six weeks in rehearsals and rewrites at the Alliance. Their hope is that, like the stage musical “The Color Purple” and other similar big shows, “Trading Places” the musical will move from Peachtree Street to Broadway.

Combined ShapeCaption
Kenny Leon watches the cast of "Trading Places" rehearse. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Kenny Leon watches the cast of "Trading Places" rehearse. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Kenny Leon watches the cast of "Trading Places" rehearse. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

It’s a true homecoming for Atlanta’s Leon, 66, who broke into prominence in 1990 when he was named artistic director of the Alliance. He eventually started his own Atlanta theater company, True Colors, and moved to the national stage, winning a Tony Award for directing “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2014, and nailing everything he tried his hand at, from TV musicals to Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

“I still own a home in Cobb County,” he says, back in Atlanta rehearsing the new musical. “This is the first time in almost 20 years that I’m back on the Alliance stage. It’s a beautiful thing to come home. I feel like I’m coming home to celebrate with all the people that made me. That means a lot to me.”

Three years ago, theatrical producer Marc Madnick bought the rights to the movie “Trading Places” with the idea of turning it into a Broadway musical, and brought in another production company, the Michael Cassel Group. To adapt it, they hired Lennon, who’s best known for his years as Lt. Dangle on the campy spoof TV series “Reno: 911!,” but now is primarily a writer.

“We definitely struggled for a while,” says Lennon. “If you were to take the film and do a sort of a charcoal rubbing where you transfer it to another piece of paper, it would not work for an audience today. It’s got some very funny stuff, but also problematic stuff, some insensitive and just weird stuff.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Thomas Lennon, best known as Lt. Jim Dangle in the cult comedy TV show “Reno: 911!” wrote the book for the new musical adaptation of “Trading Places” at the Alliance Theatre. Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Handout

Thomas Lennon, best known as Lt. Jim Dangle in the cult comedy TV show “Reno: 911!” wrote the book for the new musical adaptation of “Trading Places” at the Alliance Theatre.
Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Thomas Lennon, best known as Lt. Jim Dangle in the cult comedy TV show “Reno: 911!” wrote the book for the new musical adaptation of “Trading Places” at the Alliance Theatre. Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The challenge was to make it fresh and relevant.

“Kenny said if we’re doing this now, it has to say something important about now,” recalls Lennon.

“I want to do plays and stories that matter to people’s lives today,” says Leon. “I don’t want to do museum pieces. If I can make this property say something about the time we’re living in, then it’s exciting. Otherwise…”

Among Leon’s suggestions: Murphy’s character, Billy Ray Valentine, is now a female hustler named Billy Rae Valentine (played by Aneesa Folds of the improvisational hip-hop comedy musical group Freestyle Love Supreme.).

That gender switch is key to Leon. “It’s a completely different show” as a result, he says. “Black women have gone through so much in this country. In many ways they are the strength and backbone of so much political change.”

One of the few sympathetic characters in the movie, the butler Coleman, is now the show’s narrator. He starts the audience off in the present, then tells the story as a long flashback to the 1980s. Keeping the story in that decade allows for plenty of big hair, shoulder pads and retrospective humor.

Another major change is the elimination of Ophelia, the hooker with a heart of gold played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie. That plot role is now filled by a gay drag performer named Phil (Michael Longoria).

Also in the cast: Bryce Pinkham in the Aykroyd role of Louis Winthorpe III, Marc Kudisch and Lenny Wolpe as the Duke brothers and McKenzie Kurtz as Winthrop’s fiancé Penelope.

Combined ShapeCaption
Aneesa Folds and Bryce Pinkham star as a street hustler and a commodities trader whose lives are forcibly swapped in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere of the musical “Trading Places.” Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Aneesa Folds and Bryce Pinkham star as a street hustler and a commodities trader whose lives are forcibly swapped in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere of the musical “Trading Places.”
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Combined ShapeCaption
Aneesa Folds and Bryce Pinkham star as a street hustler and a commodities trader whose lives are forcibly swapped in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere of the musical “Trading Places.” Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

The Alliance is one of a handful of major regional U.S. theaters where Broadway-bound shows sometimes get their legs under them, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, before taking on the truly big expenses of the Great White Way.

Alliance managing director Mike Schleifer says the company has staged 16 such shows in cooperation with producing partners, starting in the early ‘90s. Among the hits: “Aida,” “The Color Purple,” “Sister Act” and “The Prom.” Among the misses: A musical version of “Bull Durham.”

“Every one of them is different,” Schleifer says. The producers usually approach the Alliance pitching a partnership. The Alliance reviews the script to see if it is interested.

“We know how much we would normally spend for a self-produced show. Then we come up with what we think it will cost to stage a big show with certain Broadway expectations, certain New York designers, maybe 25 people on stage and 15 people in the pit,” he explains.

Anything above what the Alliance would spend on a regular production, the commercial producers pay for, hoping to recoup their money later.

He won’t talk specific dollars but says “Trading Places” is roughly four times as costly as a self-produced Alliance production.”

There’s no single formula for what makes a new musical move successfully from the Alliance to Broadway. “It has to be commercially viable, and what is commercially viable is not always the highest level of art,” he says.

The creative team acknowledges Broadway is the goal, but talking about it seems to make them a little skittish, as if you mentioned the Scottish play to a Shakespearian actor.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” says Leon. “I want to have a great production here, and then everything will take care of itself.”

But, he adds, “The play will have a future. We’re not just doing this for Atlanta.”


THEATER PREVIEW

“Trading Places: The Musical.” World Premiere. May 25-June 26. $25-$78. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org