It was 15 years ago, while helming Side Man at Vassar College's New York Stage and Film, that Michael Mayer had a revelation about On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's 1965 Broadway musical starring Barbara Harris. "I loved the original cast album since I was a kid, but I knew that the show wasn't successful and that the book was extremely problematic," recalls the Tony Award-winning director, whose Broadway credits include American Idiot and Spring Awakening. "As I was walking across campus with the songs in my head, I thought, 'This show just needs someone to come up with a great idea about how to do it right.' In that moment, I pictured a boy singing 'Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here' and I knew I was onto something."
Reading Lerner's original Broadway libretto, Mayer reacquainted himself with the story of Daisy, a kooky gal with ESP whose psychiatrist becomes enamored with her past life as an 18th-century Englishwoman. Irked by "uninvestigated characters, incomprehensible back-stories and unsatisfying resolutions," Mayer found particular fault with the musical's lack of a dynamic romance. "There was no real problem, no real tension, no real dramatic spark," he says. "I realized how to tell basically the same story that Lerner tried to tell, but in a way that felt fresh and gave everyone onstage a serious obstacle."
With a new book by playwright Peter Parnell (QED), Mayer's reconceived version replaces Daisy and her paranormal abilities with David (David Turner), a gay florist whose psychiatrist, widower Dr. Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.), discovers that David's previous life was Melinda (Jessie Mueller), a 1940s jazz singer. "David falls in love with Mark, a man who's unavailable because he's heterosexual," Mayer says. "Mark falls in love with Melinda, but he can't have her because, well, she's dead. Now that's a love triangle."
Just don't call it a "gay twist." "It's easy to label this On a Queer Day, but that's so reductive, and it actually bugs the hell out of me," Mayer fumes. "A gay character doesn't make it a gay twist. I take the work seriously, and my collaborators and I are trying to do something real here. It's not some gimmick."
Mayer has never viewed his bold revamp as risky, even now as traditionalists criticize the creative team behind the Broadway-bound revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess for overhauling the classic opera. "Did I worry about tampering with something that never worked in the first place? No, I didn't have any anxiety about that," he says with a chuckle. "My only concern was maintaining the integrity of the original idea and creating an exciting, romantic and entertaining platform for the spectacular songs. Since the first time somebody set a Shakespeare play in a period other than 16th-century England, other people's work has been reinterpreted."
Mayer's reinterpretation also has the full support of the Lerner and Lane estates; Liza Lerner, the librettist-lyricist's daughter, is a producer. "Without their blessing, this would just be an exercise I did at home for my own amusement," he says. "Besides, Alan Jay Lerner's book was never really finished. He revisited it over and over again through the years, and he was still toying with it as late as the early '80s."
Complementing the updated libretto, the musical's beloved score has been padded with songs from the 1970 film version starring Barbra Streisand — "I don't think it's considered the pinnacle of anyone's career either," Mayer adds — as well as tunes from Lerner and Lane's Royal Wedding, a 1951 movie musical with Fred Astaire. "David was born the day Melinda died," Mayer explains. "Having set our story in the 1970s, we meet Melinda in the '40s, during the war, which is a beautiful fit for those Royal Wedding songs."
On a Clear Day opens anew Dec. 11 at Broadway's St. James Theatre, though the streamlined production was initially slated to premiere earlier this year at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. "The original version of Clear Day was a tour de force for the actress playing Daisy, but Dr. Mark Bruckner is now the center of the story, and it's his journey that the audience goes on," Mayer says. "When you have Harry Connick, Jr. playing Mark, you go to Broadway. It's as simple as that."
Mayer politely declines to answer further inquiries about his vision, preferring instead to let theatregoers remain curious. "People will learn everything they need to know when they come see the show," he promises, "but it's important to remember that it's more than a revival. In my mind, it's a reincarnation."
With On a Clear Day getting a second life, is there another imperfect musical that Mayer is dying to reincarnate? "People also asked if there was another album I'd like to make into a musical after American Idiot, but the last thing I'm looking for at this moment is another project," he sighs. "Honestly, what I'd really like to do is take a long nap."
Playbill, November 2011 issue.