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An offer he didn't refuse

Francis Ford Coppola stages high-school musical based on teen novel 'Gidget'

The musical adaptation of "Gidget" is a classic ugly-duckling-turned-swan story  

In this story:

Multiple duties

Duckling to swan

Broadway next?


HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Francis Ford Coppola cuts right to the heart of the matter. "I have a sweet side to me," he says. "I'm not all gangsters and napalm, you know."

To prove it, the director who brought both to the big screen ("The Godfather," 1972, and "Apocalypse Now," 1979) recently went back to high school and found one sweet kid -- "Gidget."

For the last four weeks Coppola mounted a musical workshop of "Gidget," turning the story of a surfer girl's summer into an original rock 'n' roll musical. He used 35 current students and recent graduates from the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts in Cerritos, California, to bring the production to the stage. With the exception of Dermot Mulroney, who played the Big Kahuna, the show was filled with unknowns.

Coppola staged four showings of the musical this past weekend. His young actors performed to standing-room-only audiences at Los Alamitos High School's 100-seat auditorium in Orange County.

Multiple duties

The Oscar-winning filmmaker did not just occupy the director's chair this time around, either. He co-wrote the book for the musical with Cintra Wilson and Zack Emery, and he co-wrote the music and lyrics with John Farrar, the scribe who penned "Hopelessly Devoted To You" and "You're The One That I Want" for "Grease."

His production was based on the 1953 book "Gidget" by Frederick Kohner. A tale of surf, sand and teen-age love, it's about as far from gangsters and napalm as Long Beach is from the China Sea. The novel is not to be confused with the Sandra Dee movies or the TV series starring Sally Field, he says.

16-year-old Krysta Rodriquez plays lovable "Gidget"  

"The original book is sort of like 'Catcher In The Rye,'" says the director, referring to J.D. Salinger's timeless tale of teen dissonance. "It's a beautiful book, and it just seemed like a perfect story to put together."

Coppola's daughter Sophia, who is also a director, recommended her friend Mulroney to play the Big Kahuna, the legendary surfer whom by Gidget and her friends admire.

The play called for someone in his 30s. No one from the high school fit the bill, so Mulroney, who starred in the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997), was happy to oblige. It may have been high school, but it was a Coppola production, after all.

Duckling to swan

The musical adaptation was a classic ugly-duckling story about a young girl who seeks acceptance from her peers on her way toeventually blooming into a swan,Coppola says.

His "swan" in this production was 16-year-old Krysta Rodriquez, a student entering her junior year in high school. Her reaction to winning the coveted role of Gidget? "I was very excited," she says. "I was in the middle of the mall with my mom, and we were jumping up and down."

At first, Rodriquez says, she was intimidated by the director's fame, but that wore off fast. "As soon as you meet him, he's such a fun and comfortable guy, that you can't help but fall in love with him," she says.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff Heapy played the role of Gidget's boyfriend, Moondoggie. He found his time with Coppola invaluable. "You have to be prepared every single day to work very hard and always be thinking on your feet," he says.

You also learn to think for yourself, says Rodriguez. "I've learned to make my own choices," she says. "He guides me to do that, but I get to choose what I want to do."*

Broadway next?

Dermot Mulroney plays the Big Kahuna, a local surfing legend  

That's the point of working with youngsters, Coppola says. "I wanted to make the experience for the kids really an educational experience," he says. "I share with them all the decisions we make, and I think they feel they're in on what we're doing and can voice their opinions."

"Gidget" the musical workshop was scheduled for just its four-day run, and Coppola is cagey about discussing its future.

"I see it going on somehow," he says. "I would imagine, before it's a film, it would be a show somewhere else -- on the next level."

Is he referring to Broadway? The director won't rule it out.

Coppola claims to be at a very happy time in his life. His successful winery here in California's Napa Valley pays all his bills, and he works only on projects that mean a lot to him.

He feels cinema can be used as a beacon for how we're all going to live in the future.

"Before I go -- I'm 61 now -- I sure would love to use what I've learned, and the wealth I've created, to make films that deal with that," Coppola says.

Sofia Coppola grows up
April 28, 2000
Francis Ford Coppola's online writers workshop
February 22, 2000

Mr Showbiz Celebrities: Francis Ford Coppola Profile

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