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From Page to Mainstage

The musical Dangerous Beauty based on Margaret Rosenthal's book opened Feb. 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Margaret Rosenthal, professor of Italian, comparative literature and English in USC College, is the author of the 1992 book Honest Courtesan, which opens as a musical called Dangerous Beauty on Feb. 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo credit Jie Gu.
Margaret Rosenthal, professor of Italian, comparative literature and English in USC College, is the author of the 1992 book Honest Courtesan, which opens as a musical called Dangerous Beauty on Feb. 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo credit Jie Gu.

Veronica Franco, history’s most complex and colorful courtesan, appears in many forms in the office of Margaret Rosenthal, professor of Italian, comparative literature and English in USC College. A Madame Alexander doll, a student-created cut-out puppet, a movie poster and an actual photo of Franco herself graces the cover of Rosenthal’s 1992 book Honest Courtesan — all lending a fanciful and artful air to her Taper Hall office. 

Franco, a citizen of the middle class in Venice, enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a literary salon and circulating fluidly in society, according to Rosenthal. “She loved history, politics, history and music and her prolific lines of poetry and prose reflect her depth and breadth of knowledge,” she said. 

Rosenthal’s Honest Courtesan was adapted for screen in 1998. The powerful love story, filmed in Rome, was masterfully cast with the beautiful Catherine McCormack, the dashing Rufus Sewell and the ever magnificent Jacqueline Bisset. The movie offers an extraordinary experience that immerses the moviegoer into 16th-century Venice.

Jeannine Dominy, who wrote the 1998 screenplay, has now transformed Rosenthal’s book for the stage with the musical, Dangerous Beauty. The production opened at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, Feb. 13 and features a score by Michele Brourman and lyrics by Amanda McBroom. 

There are challenges to telling a story in a musical venue. “Unlike a movie, there are no fast cuts from scene to scene or shot to shot — not even flashbacks,” Rosenthal said. “Visual cues are critical and include everything from dancing and singing to scenery and costumes — together they help tell the story.”

Centering on the storied and complex life of Franco, the musical, in Rosenthal’s eyes, does justice to Italy’s most famous and gifted courtesan whom she has spent the last 30 years studying.

“The cast of the musical is quite wonderful and includes many Broadway actors,” Rosenthal said. And yes, a few USC alumni are among the talented group. Fidelity to the real Franco as chronicled by Rosenthal is of utmost importance to her, and the musical’s creative team did not disappoint her.

“The team is concerned with maintaining fidelity to the real Franco and consistently has asked me during the 10 years of preparation ‘are we understanding Franco correctly and are we getting her right?’” 

In the musical, Franco is portrayed as well-educated, cultivated, and fluidly moving and maneuvering in the social and political arenas in 16th-century Venice when women were anything but equal to men. A gifted poet and letter writer, Rosenthal said that unlike the period in which Franco lived, her talent as a wordsmith and as an entertainer would have allowed her to be self-supporting in contemporary times.

In the early part of her career, Rosenthal studied women from the past who lived in urban areas and were fraught with many challenges to publish and distribute their works. “I later switched my focus to the history and uses of clothing in early-modern Italy because I have always loved fashion and I knew that I could apply my strong knowledge of Italy and its language to this scholarly endeavor.” 

Rosenthal’s fascination with Franco stemmed from her ability to combine many voices into one woman. “She was a mother and an intellectual who fought for women’s rights,” Rosenthal said. “And this appeals to young women today who wonder, do I have to give this up or can I have it all?” 

As an intellectual, a professional, and a mother, Rosenthal is a living example to her female students about how they can follow their passions and straddle the divide between the academic and creative worlds if they so choose.

For more information about the musical, visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

For information about the Department of French and Italian in USC College, visit college.usc.edu/fren-ital

Veronica Franco Web site created by Rosenthal and her students: vfproject.usc.edu