Every year, students enter the University of Kentucky's drama department with dreams of making it from the Guignol Theatre's stage to Broadway.
The next two weekends, the department celebrates one of its alumni who lived the dream with its production of writer Stephen Currens' play Gorey Stories.
The show — written with former UK music school student David Aldrich and based on the grim stories and illustrations of Edward Gorey — first appeared as a one-act play in the department's All-Night Theatre Festival in 1974. It received a full production in 1975. Currens later took the show to New York, hoping to get it produced off-Broadway.
But when Gorey himself became involved, the show went to Broadway's Booth Theatre for, true to Gorey's macabre spirit, a very brief run: 16 previews and one opening/closing-night performance on Oct. 30, 1978.
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"It was a tragedy," Currens, 57, said, noting that a newspaper strike prevented the show from getting reviews that might have helped drum up an audience. "Lots of shows closed during that time due to a lack of press."
But Gorey Stories made it to New York and, despite the disappointing Broadway run, has had a successful life in community and regional theater, including an award-winning 2007 production in Los Angeles.
UK's Gorey Stories opened Thursday night and continues through Oct. 17, exactly 32 years after the Broadway production had its first preview performance.
The university's theater chair, Nancy Jones, said the school's commemoration of 100 years of theater on campus provided the perfect opportunity to bring the show home.
"We said, how perfect to honor one of our alums, especially since it was born in the spirit of the lab environment we are trying to foster here," Jones said.
Gorey Stories will be the centerpiece of an Oct. 16 celebration that will include play readings, theater-department tours, panel discussions and a birthday party after that night's performance of the show.
Jones said theater came to UK's campus in 1910 with a reading of the Edward Bulwer-Lytton play Richelieu by a theater company that would be called The Strollers. Theater on campus grew and changed names over the years, long being part of the English department before the theater department was established in 1967, just a few years before Currens' show appeared.
"There was something about the influence of the Victorian and Edwardian period represented in Gorey's work that reminded me of Lexington and Versailles," Currens, who lives in Versailles, said of his inspiration to turn the writer's stories into a show. "With the old homes and antiquey environment, I thought people would appreciate the humor of it and early American literature."
Currens collaborated with Aldrich, who had been a music student at UK but had left the department by the time they created the show. (Aldrich died in recent years, Currens said.) They called it "an entertainment with music" as opposed to a musical.
Russell Henderson, a UK theater professor who is directing the current production, was the costume designer for the original show at UK.
Like any artist who tries to make it in New York, Currens got a lot of doors closed in his face. But then Howard Ashman, who would go on to write Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid and other hits, agreed to produce Gorey Stories off-Broadway.
When it proved popular and received very good reviews there, Currens said, Gorey himself got interested, and producers wanted to move it to Broadway. Gorey, who won a Tony Award in 1978 for his costume design in Dracula, designed the Broadway mounting of Gorey Stories.
Currens recalled not seeing eye to eye with Gorey, who died in 2000, or director Tony Tanner.
But still, the show made it to Broadway, which is more than almost any other college show can claim. (Currens said Godspell, which had its roots at Carnegie Mellon University, is the only other show he can think of that made the trip at that time.)
Jones likes planting the success story in today's students' minds.
"The message from the outside world is very pessimistic," Jones said. "This is a message that your hard work can pay off."
And Jones said that the students working on the production have really taken to the show, which she describes as being done in "a beautiful, Tim Burton style," referring to the film director.
"They've really grown up with this dark, macabre sensibility, so they love getting to play in that world," Jones said.
Currens — who went on to write another show, Pharmaceuticals, and act in the original off-Broadway staging of A Tuna Christmas — said he thinks Gorey Stories "was ahead of its time. Probably 30 years ahead of its time. I'm glad it's coming to an audience that appreciates it."