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Making a splash

With ‘Pool Boy’ set to make its premiere at Barrington Stage, everything’s going swimmingly for playwright Nikos Tsakalakos

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By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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PITTSFIELD — It was a great opportunity for a young playwright. Nikos Tsakalakos was spending the summer of 2007 in the Berkshires working as an assistant to his New York University musical theater professor, William Finn. That meant he got to sit in on the Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist’s creative meetings and keep notes for him during rehearsals at the Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab. Day after day he watched and learned as musicals came together.

As with any summer job, there were menial tasks, too. And one afternoon, as Tsakalakos sat next to Finn in the front seat of a car, he regaled his passenger with anecdotes drawn from a past summer job.

“Part of my assistant’s job is to drive me around,’’ says Finn, “and part of it is to keep me amused!’’

During the ride, the playwright became more amused the more he heard about Tsakalakos’s wild time working poolside at the lavish Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The well-heeled. The celebrities. The beauties. The wannabes. Finally, Finn blurted out, “This is your musical!’’

“Pool Boy’’ makes its world premiere Tuesday at Barrington Stage, with music and lyrics by Tsakalakos. Former grad-school classmate Janet Allard contributed the book and lyrics. The two first collaborated at NYU, paired by Finn for a songwriting assignment. “They clicked,’’ he says.

Directed by Daniella Topol, the musical stars Jay Armstrong Johnson, fresh off a Broadway production of “Hair,’’ as Nick, a singer-songwriter looking for his big break by mingling with the rich and famous. Among the glitterati are the perpetually aroused Ms. Duval, the lascivious music producer Mr. Duval, and a juvenile Sultan. And trying to tamp down a cabana load of hormones is Mr. Lopes, a stiff hotel manager who is at once a bum kisser and butt kicker. Every character, whether rich or famous or neither, is as much of a wannabe as Nick. And therein swims the comedy and commentary.

The growth of “Pool Boy’’ during the three years between bright idea and the bright lights of opening night is what the Musical Theatre Lab is all about. The lab was conceived by Finn, who won Tony Awards for “Falsettos’’ in 1992 and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’’ in 2005. The latter had been workshopped and premiered at Barring ton Stage, and at its Broadway opening the company’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd, asked Finn what he’d next like to offer Berkshire audiences. “I have a bunch of students who are unproduced and unknown to the world,’’ he told her, “and I’d like to introduce them to the world. First to Pittsfield, then to the world.’’

In its first four years, the Musical Theatre Lab has produced five world premieres, four workshops, and several staged readings. “The Burnt Part Boys,’’ a 2006 Lab production written by Nathan Tysen, Chris Miller, and Marianne Elder (all former Finn students), went on to be produced at Playwright Horizons in New York this year. And “Calvin Berger’’ (2007) by Barry Wyner (no previous Finn connection) has an off-Broadway production being planned. “These are success stories, for sure,’’ says Boyd. “But we also consider it a success if the writer gets further work or recognition.’’ So when Wyner won a $100,000 Kleban Prize in April for most promising musical theater librettist, says Boyd, “that was a proud moment for us.’’

Boyd and Finn speak of Lab projects like doting parents. Maybe that’s because of how embryonic some of the musicals are when they first cradle them in their arms. “I don’t think there’s a theater in the country that has the kind of program we do,’’ says Boyd. “Some companies do new musicals, but they don’t do them from the get-go, like we do.’’

“Pool Boy’’ is a shining example of that. After his aha! moment while driving Finn around, Tsakalakos went right to work. Sort of. He sat by the pool at the home where he was staying and wrote “Poolside at the Hotel Bel Air.’’ The next summer, he sang it as part of his original revue “Songs of a Night Owl,’’ which premiered at Barrington Stage. (Tsakalakos, in addition to playwriting, is drummer, lead singer, and principal songwriter for the Los Angeles band Saint Friday.) When Finn heard “Poolside’’ he said, “That’s the last song in your musical.’’

So Tsakalakos called Allard, with whom he’d written a song that was one of the hits of Finn’s master class at NYU. They’d complemented each other’s strengths. “That’s why I matched them up in the first place,’’ says Finn, “I knew.’’ Allard liked “Poolside’’ and the Bel-Air sagas Tsakalakos told her. That winter he flew out to where she was living to get started.

Minnesota in the middle of winter, the perfect place to write a musical set at poolside.

By last summer the musical, then called “Poolside at the Hotel Bel Air,’’ was in staged readings at Barrington Stage. “It’s gotten a lot better,’’ says Finn. “It’s a lot darker, a lot richer, a lot funnier.’’

At a rehearsal last week in a Catholic school classroom about a block from the theater, songs bounced off blackboards with a pop-music energy, destined to get stuck in the heads of audience members, like pool water in the inner ear. With a crucifix staring down from the wall behind the rehearsing actors, Sara Gettelfinger (whose many Broadway credits include a recent starring role as Cruella de Vil in “The 101 Dalmations Musical’’ ) and Sorab Wadia (of London’s “Jihad! The Musical’’) brought a playful bawdiness to scenes involving Ms. Duval and the Sultan. When the aspiring singer-songwriter, Nick, handed Ms. Duval his CD to give to her producer husband and told her it’s just a rough recording, she slunk in on him and cooed, “Gooood. I like it rough.’’

They did the scene again, and Gettelfinger added the touch of draping an arm around the pool boy’s neck. The actors weren’t alone in making changes on the fly. Staging and even the script were perpetually being tweaked. And through it all, Tsakalakos and Allard sat in a back corner taking it all in. When the actors went off to lunch, the playwrights huddled with the director, and there was not a raised voice among them.

Later, sitting at the very Pittsfield poolside where he wrote “Poolside,’’ Tsakalakos was talkative and at ease as he reflected on the “lab’’ part of the Musical Theatre Lab. Was it hard to watch his work being tinkered with moment by moment? “No, not at all,’’ he said. “It’s all about fluidity.’’ The aquatic reference brought a smile to his face. There is some broad comedy in the musical, but in person, Tsakalakos keeps his humor understated.

For Tsakalakos, working with Allard while being mentored by Finn has been a multifaceted life lesson. Finn, known for his autobiographical work, urged the young playwright to write more from his personal experience. “I knew I was living something surreal at the Bel-Air and it was fodder for something,’’ says Tsakalakos. Allard shaped scattered anecdotes into a story that sings, even if that meant tweaking her collaborator’s real-life experiences. “At some point I had to step back,’’ says Tsakalakos, “and not get caught up in the reality of what I’d lived.’’

That any of what he had lived ended up on paper — and, ultimately, on stage — still amazes Tsakalakos. “I needed a nudge to believe that what I lived is worthy of being made into art,’’ he says. “Bill taught me how to write from within myself.’’

Finn resonates with the role of teacher. “It’s crazy,’’ he says, “but the shows or movies or books that always get me crying are about teachers, like ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips,’ ‘To Sir With Love,’ and ‘The Miracle Worker.’ For some reason, teaching moves me. But I didn’t want to do it until I thought kids would listen to me.’’

The Tonys on the mantel do tend to perk up young ears.

Jeff Wagenheim can be reached at wagenheim@swersey.com.

POOL BOY At: Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2, Pittsfield, Tuesday through Aug. 8. Tickets: $15-$45. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org