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New in Assisi, ‘Francesco,’ a play

Assisi, Italy

All summer long, pilgrims to Assisi have been treated to something more dazzling than the usual tours around the hilltop city’s churches and grottos where Ss. Francis and Clare of Assisi hung out together, praying and talking to the animals.

The tourists have been flocking to an American-style musical called “Francesco,” which its producer, Richard C. Leach of Dallas, has premiered in the hometown of St. Francis during the Jubilee Year.

Leach, the Catholic publisher best-known for sponsoring Barney, the purple dinosaur, hopes to bring “Francesco” to the United States next year on a national tour.

The play is tender and fierce, filled with the kind of songs that you expect from an Andrew Lloyd Webber. It had a slick, Broadway quality.

It should. Leach hired the best talent his money could buy in Europe. He brought in a famous French composer, Benoit Jutras, to do the music.

Jutras is the author of “Cirque du Soleil,” a dramatic mix of circus arts, street entertainment and high technology that has been touring the world for a more than a decade.

Leach engaged an Oscar-winning designer, Gabriella Pescucci, to execute the elaborate costumes -- there are 325 costume changes in the show -- and enlisted Dante Ferretti, a six-time Academy Award nominee, to create the elaborate sets. Vincenzo Cerami, the man who co-wrote “Life Is Beautiful” with Roberto Benigni, did the script.

Cerami broke away from a raw chronology and told the story of the poverello through a young, raw-boned postulant, Leonardo, who comes to Francis wanting to know more about the Franciscan way. He learns when Francis takes him on a rollicking, tuneful trip that begins with the future saint’s early life as a party animal. Leonardo learns more as Francis takes off for the Crusades, fights in a war with Perugia, chooses a life of poverty, is disinherited by his father and founds an order that helped change the face of the Catholic church forever.

Thinking big

Leonard is all aglow. He wants to do great things. Francis starts him off by saying, “See if you can spin this top.” He cannot do it, of course, and learns that before he can do great things, he must do small things. In a word, in order to follow St. Francis, he must learn humility.

The postulant Leonardo isn’t the only one who has had to learn humility, because, so far, Leach has invested $14 million in “Francesco.” Leach is a Texan from Dallas. He thinks big, and there’s no reason why he can’t think big, because he has made millions on Barney, the purple dinosaur, a staple of kid TV in the United States, and he reaps additional revenue by marketing a host of Barney products: Barney T-shirts, Barney dolls, Barney toys, Barney hats, sheets and bedspreads. Leach is thoroughly familiar with less lucrative enterprises. He has long been involved in Catholic publishing, where some of his efforts have been more successful than others.

But dropping $14 million -- $6 million on the show and $8 million to build a 1,000-seat theater in Assisi -- is something he didn’t count on. In fact, with a cast of 33 and a huge stage crew, the show is running in the red, and will continue to run a deficit while Leach figures out how to make something work in a country where nothing really works the way an American assumes it will.

The play opened on May 28, and Leach was assured that his people in Italy had sold 140,000 seats (at an average price of $30) for the spring-summer tourist season. After the exhilaration of opening night, Leach sat down with his Italian producers and learned that they hadn’t sold a single seat. “I was working with Italians for the first time,” he said. “I found that my words and their words didn’t always mean the same thing.”

On the face of it, “Francesco” looked like a sure thing: a great play about St. Francis in a town that gets 6 million visitors a year, just to pay homage to St. Francis. If “Francesco” could draw even a tiny percentage of those folks, the show could break even. Most weeks this summer, however, “Francesco” was drawing a mere 4,000 (in eight performances). Leach demanded to know why they couldn’t get bigger crowds.

“If you say that 6 million people come to Assisi every year, most of them in the summertime … “

Leach was told that only 1 million of those 6 million pilgrims stay in the city overnight. “The tour operators bring people in for a three-hour-shot at Assisi,” reported Leach, “and then they are out of there.”

Keeping tourists in town

Leach intends to change that pattern by giving them a good reason to stay for the night: It’s called entertainment. “What we have to do is sell the big travel and tour operators, operators like Globus and American Express, and get them to keep people in town overnight. Up till now,” Leach explained, “three hours looking at shrines and relics seemed like enough for most people. But now, we have a musical play that is full of life, one that makes people feel good.”

And how will Leach convince the tour people? He is confident enough to think that if they see “Francesco,” they will like it, and make their moves accordingly. So he plans to bring “Francesco” to them on film. For the last two weeks of September, he will have “Francesco” videotaped, with eight cameras and a top television director in charge. He will show the film at the big international travel-tour meetings in London and New York -- and also play it in Assisi’s Lyrick Theatre through the winter, when the stage is dark.

“Once the top decision-makers in the travel industry see the film,” said Leach with confidence, “they’ll be sold on ‘Francesco.’ ”

As for the U.S. tour, Leach said that will have to wait until he gets his problems ironed out in Assisi. He is working with his Italian co-producers, Fabrizio Celestini and Andrea Maia, to that end. Since their plan has the enthusiastic support of Assisi’s hotelkeepers, not to mention the town itself, which will get the theater when the “Francesco” lease is up in 28 years, they figure it is only a matter of time.

“The play will become an institution in Assisi,” said Celestini as he showed me around the Lyrick Theatre. Leach believes that “Francesco” will become a worldwide institution -- and that it must do so because, he said, “This play can help change the world. It’s a world that seems headed for self-destruction. That’s why it needs to stand back, take stock and start doing what St. Francis did: reverence the world and everything in it.

“The show is not a memorial to St. Francis, not a tribute. It’s a pointer to the future of the planet if we will only take time out to ponder.”

“Francesco” will make it, but I am not so sure it will for the reasons Leach gives. “Francesco” is the kind of entertainment that leaves an audience breathless and full of hope, mainly because the Francis message it puts forth is delivered by a cast of 33 young men and women who come across like the fresh-faced kids in “Up With People.” Their director, Claudio Insegno, little more than a kid himself, told me, “We love this work. If Mr. Leach didn’t pay us, we’d pay him.”

“Francesco,” is performed in Italian. An English translation is flashed onto a large screen above the stage.

Robert Kaiser lives in Rome, where he is working on a book on the future of the Catholic church. His e-mail address is rkaiser@attglobal.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000