If nothing else, give Garry Marshall credit for determination. Five years ago, he had the notion of turning his wildly successful seventies TV sitcom Happy Days into a Broadway musical. Knowing the enormous risks involved, he did the first workshops at his own venue, the 135-seat Falcon Theatre, in Burbank, Calif., run by his daughter Kathleen.
The results confirmed what Marshall suspected: Writing a musical, even one based on a sure-fire formula with an iconic character like Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, is a lot tougher than it looks.
Five years later, Marshall finally thinks he has assembled the right ingredients. Happy Days, a New Musical opens Tuesday at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, courtesy of Dancap Productions. The show is on a North American tour.
The current version, directed by Gordon Greenberg and starring Joey Sorge ( The Drowsy Chaperone) and Gabrielle Reid, has a book by Marshall and a score and lyrics by Oscar-winning pop tunesmith Paul Williams ( The Rainbow Connection and Rainy Days and Mondays), the last of a group of composers who worked on the project.
Initially, Marshall, 74, told me in a recent telephone interview, he thought he could create the musical by stringing together elements from various Happy Days episodes. The series, which ran 11 seasons on ABC, was one of a string of sitcom hits for Marshall that included Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy and The Odd Couple. At one point in the late seventies, four of the five highest-rated shows on television were Marshall's. (In film, he's been behind the camera for Pretty Woman, The Flamingo Kid and The Princess Diaries.)
For the Happy Days musical, he explained that it eventually became clear that a cut-and-paste approach would not work and that "we needed a completely new and different storyline."
Among the ideas he rejected along the way was one in which Fonzie comes out of the closet, and another in which Joannie gets pregnant and has an abortion. Marshall felt the story had to remain faithful to the innocent spirit of Milwaukee, circa 1959, and stay away from controversial issues.
What emerged from the years of development is a storyline in which the teens hold a couple of fundraisers to save their favourite hangout, Arnold's, because developers want to tear it down and build a mall. Fonzie is the central character and Richie is the narrator. At one point, Carole King was going to write the music, but when she backed out, Marshall went to Williams, with whom he'd worked 35 years earlier on The Odd Couple. "He had to stretch himself to write rock 'n' roll numbers."
Most of the names in the show are derived from people Marshall either knew growing up in the Bronx, or from his wife's high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Fonzie was originally going to be based on my own family's original last name - Masciarelli - but in the end my old roommate from Greenwich Village, [producer]Bob Brunner, named him. He's based on one of my high-school friends who had a motorcycle. I was certainly Richie in the layout."
Marshall studied journalism at Northwestern University and wrote for a few years for the New York Daily News before deciding that "I was very bad at it." Hanging around the nightclub world, he started pitching jokes to various comics like Phil Foster. He used to pay me in food and hand-me-down sweaters, cashmere. Eventually, my wife said to me, 'You got enough sweaters. How about money?'"
Eventually, Marshall was hired as a writer on The Joey Bishop Show. There, he teamed up with Jerry Belson and together, they collaborated on TV shows, feature films and a Broadway play.
Marshall also has a new play opening at the Falcon Theatre in March, Everybody Say 'Cheese!,' a comedy (of course) about the early days of the women's liberation movement. He founded the theatre 11 years ago. "I'm very superstitious and I'd been thinking about doing it for a while and I was looking for a sign and then we had the 1993 earthquake, a bad one, and that was my sign. Kathleen runs it and I just kibitz." The Falcon is named for the teen athletic club he belonged to in the Bronx.
He's also trying to find funding for a new movie, a remake of the 1948 classic State of the Union, with Richard Gere and Annette Bening, and a script by Rod Lurie. "It's hard to get the money lined up, but we're almost there."
Is the same true for Happy Days - almost there?
"I think so. I'm very superstitious, as I told you, and this is about the 13th incarnation. We think we've finally got it right."
Happy Days, a New Musical runs until Feb. 15 at Toronto's Elgin Theatre (416-644-3665).