Julian Ovenden and Alexander Hanson will play the two men who fight over Ruthie Henshall as the title character in the new musical Marguerite, which receives its world premiere this spring at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, running from 20 May to 1 November 2008 (previews from 7 May) as the final production in the in-house season of work programmed and directed by Jonathan Kent (See News, 9 Jul 2007).

The stars – along with fellow cast members Annalene Beechey, Matt Cross and Simon Thomas – gave journalists and industry guests a sneak preview of the new musical today at a launch held at the Pigalle Club, Piccadilly Circus. The performers sang a selection of five songs - “Jazz Time”, “The Face I See”, “Intoxication”, “How Did I Get to Where I Am” and the Act One Finale – accompanied on the piano by the musical’s Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand and Seann Alderking.

Marguerite has a book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jonathan Kent, and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer from the original French lyrics by Boublil, with orchestrations and arrangements by Legrand and Seann Alderking. Boublil and Schonberg are best known for their blockbusters Les Miserables (on which they also collaborated with Kretzmer), Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre. The full creative team were also on hand for today’s event.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel La Dame aux Camellias, Marguerite relocates the action to the Second World War. Marguerite is the notorious mistress of high-ranking German officer Otto; Armand is the young musician, half her age, who falls obsessively in love with her. Their love story is played out against the background of Occupied Paris.

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Introducing today’s extract – the first public performances of the five songs – Kent recalled that, when he was first approached about the project five years ago, “it took me all of a second to say ‘yes please!’ … What attracted me to it in the first place – apart from the opportunity to work with such masters of their medium (Legrand, Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer) – was the soaring, stirring lyricism of the music and the imaginative reworking of an eternal love story … I can promise you it will be an extraordinary creation.”

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Schonberg repaid Kent’s compliment. Though he’s got numerous operas to his credit, the former Almeida Theatre joint artistic director is best known for his play output. His only mainstream musical to date was the 2002 Broadway revival of Man of La Mancha. However, as Schonberg reminded, he and Alain Boublil have had some luck with novice musical directors: “Nicholas Hytner’s first musical was Miss Saigon and before Les Miserables, Trevor Nunn had only done Cats”. The writing team like working with play directors he said, because “they know how to tell a story”.

Julian Ovenden - whose previous musical credits include Merrily We Roll Along and Grand Hotel at the Donmar Warehouse - also appreciates the “dramatic potential” of Marguerite and likes his character Armand, who he describes as “a young man who, in the process of the piece, finds himself, finds what life is about, finds true love … And to find that through music is a very special journey.” Ovenden was involved in the musical’s workshop in London last summer – along with Hanson and Henshall – but was initially unavailable to originate the role of Armand in the premiere production because he was committed to a new American television series called Cashmere Mafia. The ongoing writers’ strike in Hollywood freed him up for the stage project.

Having just played Nazi resistor Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music at the London Palladium, Alexander Hanson is looking forward to wearing an SS uniform as Otto in Marguerite. Does he feel any guilt about switching sides? “No! I’m just a tart, I’ll be anything they want me to be,” Hanson joked today. More seriously, the actor said, regarding the appeal of the job: “When I heard that Michel Legrand was in, I thought, that’s got to be worth a look – he’s a legend, a genius.”

Legend was a word repeated by Ruthie Henshall who said the composer “has written these phenomenal songs that you will go out singing, no matter what”. Of her character, Henshall said: “She is just right for me because she is 40 and I am 40.” And she believes Marguerite will stand out from the other shows on offer this season. “Not only is it an amazing piece of theatre, but there is nothing like it in the West End,” said Henshall. “It is very, very different to what’s on at the moment - it is complete high romance and there’s a bit of tragedy thrown in there as well, but it’s like nothing you will have seen.”

Also confirmed for the 16-strong cast today are Don Gallagher (as Georges), with Mark Carroll, Keiron Crook, James Doherty, Siubhan Harrison, Jon-Paul Hevey, Julia Nagle, Duncan Smith, Gay Soper, Phillip Sutton and Lucy Williamson. The musical is designed by Paul Brown, with lighting by Mark Henderson, sound by Paul Groothuis and choreography by Arthur Pita.

Marguerite is presented by Marguerite Productions, the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company and Bob Boyett. If it’s a hit at the Haymarket, the team hope a Broadway premiere and other international productions will follow. While there are “no guarantees”, Kent said today: “Musicals are extremely expensive to produce – 26 weeks at the Haymarket doesn’t really cover the costs so they’re investing in the hope that it may have a future life.”

- by Terri Paddock

** Don’t miss our Whatsonstage.com Outing to MARGUERITE on 14 May 2008 – including a top-price ticket, FREE poster, FREE drink & post-show event with the cast – all for just £34.50!! - click here for more info! **