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About the Playwrights: Johnny Guitar

About the Playwrights: Johnny Guitar

By Don Leavitt

It was the unlikeliest of source materials, but some-time actor and Emmy award-winning television producer Nicholas van Hoogstraten was sure that a stage musical based on the 1954 movie Johnny Guitar would be a hit. In his opinion, the campy Western cult classic had everything: an irresistible title, charismatic characters, romance, and conflict. Above all, van Hoogstraten said the movie had all the exaggerated emotions that a musical needs to make it seem natural when characters suddenly burst into song. “The movie had all this melodramatic dialogue that just begs to be sung,” he said
Eager to write the book, van Hoogstraten just needed to convince someone to help him write the music. His choice for collaborators? Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins.

Higgins, best known as Ricky Schroder’s dad on the television sitcom Silver Spoons, remembers being skeptical of van Hoogstraten’s grand idea. His first reaction, he said, was wondering how to convert a movie Western, complete with horses, panoramic scenery, and gunfights, into a workable stage production. However, in a 2005 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Higgins admitted he was a pushover for anything to do with cowboys. “The more I watched the movie, the more I recognized that it was hysterical,” he told reporter Julie York Coppens. “And what I really sparked to was the idea of being able to riff on all these great 1950s songs” (“Quirky Western musical opens this week,” Charlotte Observer; Nov. 27, 2005).

Silvestri and Higgins, who had previously worked together on the musical The Fields of Ambrosia, patterned the music for Johnny Guitar: the Musical on everything from Roy Rogers to doo-wop 50s rock, with a smattering of lounge torch songs for good measure. The result, according to Higgins, enhances the sense that this is an arch-Western that doesn’t dive headlong into camp. Van Hoogstraten agrees: “The show is arch, not camp,” he told Playbill Online. “You’re gilding the lily if you make it camp.”

Van Hoogstraten, Silvestri and Higgins spent two years developing their Johnny Guitar for the stage, and a further two years acquiring staging rights. The success of their collaboration has been a surprise.

Since its 2003 off-Broadway debut, Johnny Guitar: the Musical has been an audience favorite, winning the 2004 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best off-Broadway Musical. In addition, Silvestri and Higgins were both nominated for the 2004 Drama Desk Award for outstanding music, and Higgins was nominated for the 2004 Drama Desk Award for outstanding lyrics.

Nicholas van Hoogstraten (book)

Nicholas van Hoogstraten began his theater career in summer stock and is a veteran of more than thirty musicals and plays. The New York native moved to television, winning an Emmy award for graphic design. He helped to create the KTLA morning news show in Los Angeles and was one of the original producers behind the launch of the FX cable network.

In 1996, van Hoogstraten returned to the world of theatre to produce the musical The Fields of Ambrosia by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins. Then in 2000, the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation commissioned him to produce Embracing Freedom, a dramatic look at immigration that ran for more than two thousand performances.

Johnny Guitar: the Musical is van Hoogstraten’s first musical and the second of only two plays he has written. The first, On the Middle Watch: The Titanic Inquest, debuted in 1999 at the New 42nd Street Theatre in New York and is an adaptation of the more than two thousand pages of actual inquest testimony gathered following the Titanic disaster. As a writer, van Hoogstraten is best known for his non-fiction book, The Lost Broadway Theatres (Princeton Architectural Press; 2nd Edition, September 1997), a comprehensive look at the great New York playhouses that traces the history of sixty Broadway theatres constructed before 1932.

Martin Silvestri (music)

To say music is Martin Silvestri’s life would be an understatement. The Grammy-nominated recording producer, arranger, and composer has been credited on dozens of productions, including the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, as well as Sesame Street and television programs by MTM Productions and Aaron Spelling Productions.

Silvestri first worked with Joel Higgins on the score for The Fields of Ambrosia, which had its premiere in London’s Aldwych Theatre. In addition to Johnny Guitar: the Musical, the two have also completed the scores for a new musical entitled Storyville, and a full-length animated feature entitled Whistle.

In his off-time, Silvestri spends several months touring in concert with his long-time love, Christine Andreas, an accomplished Broadway actress and popular cabaret artist. Silvestri can often be found accompanying Christine on piano, and he has been responsible for arranging and producing three of her critically acclaimed albums.

Joel Higgins (music and lyrics)

Best known for his role as a wealthy, and somewhat goofy, father on the NBC sitcom Silver Spoons, Joel Higgins has had an acting career of more than three decades. Although his face has been seen in several television shows over the years, his first love has always been the stage, where he’s been featured in everything from Oklahoma! and Kiss Me Kate to Brigadoon and The Foreigner. In 1975, he received the Theatre World Award for his role in the Broadway production of Shenandoah and went on to play fan favorite Bruce Carson on the CBS soap opera Search for Tomorrow.

Higgins was born in 1943 and grew up in Bloomington, Illinois. He remembers performing in coffee houses to help pay for his education at Michigan State University; after graduating with a degree in advertising, he took a job with General Motors that lasted only six months. The call to perform was simply too great, and Higgins soon found himself performing in Europe. From there, he joined the U.S. Army and served as the Special Services Sergeant in charge of Entertainment at Camp Casey in Korea.

After the army, Higgins got his first writing credit with a musical called The Green Apple Nasties, which he sold to a producer and then starred in for two and a half years. While on tour, he was invited to play the role of Sky Masterson in a production of Guys and Dolls. His acting career has barely slowed down since. Higgins says he believes most people would be surprised to learn he also wrote well-known advertising jingles for several products, including M&Ms and Kool-Aid.