Sometimes our friends inspire us. For Douglas Carter Beane, who has adapted the stage version of the 1953 MGM film "The Band Wagon" opening at New York City Center, it was a case of remarkable inspiration from a pair of remarkable friends: the script and lyric-writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
“It’s about putting on a show,” Beane said. “It’s about people who have no business being friends becoming close comrades and putting on a piece of work that will be everlasting. That’s irresistible to watch: people who can’t stand each other finding common ground and learning how to talk to each other.”
Beane first made his mark with witty stage comedies like As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, and more recently the Tony-nominated Nathan Lane vehicle The Nance. He also wrote the script for the film "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" and has has carved a niche for himself as one of the top adapters of movies and TV shows as musicals. His librettist resume includes Xanadu, Sister Act. Lysistrata Jones and Cinderella.
But Beane has been working on The Band Wagon since before he did any of those. Back in the mid 1990s he was one of the founders of the Off-Broadway theatre collective Drama Dept. Theater Company, for which he still serves as artistic director. One of their many diverse projects was a staged reading of the original The Band Wagon, a 1931 Broadway revue with sketches by George S. Kaufman and Howard Dietz. Among those attracted to their meetings and readings (some of the them in Beane’s apartment living room) were Comden and Green, who had gotten their own start in the 1930s as part of the Greenwich Village ensemble The Revuers.
“They used to come by a lot and were so kind and supportive,” Beane said.
They befriended Beane and brought up their Oscar-nominated script to the 1953 movie musical version of the show. Fresh off their award-winning success as screenwriters on the classic "Singin’ in the Rain," Comden and Green had been charged with tailoring a story around the songs written by Dietz and composer Arthur Schwartz for the Broadway production, which had been considered one of the most golden moments from the early 1930s golden age of topical stage revues, alongside As Thousands Cheer and Tonight at 8:40. In the end, the movie shared only a title, a few songs and original Broadway star Fred Astaire. Nevertheless, the film version is also ranked among the top achievements of MGM’s own golden age.
Comden and Green encouraged Beane to adapt the screenplay to the stage and advised him on it until they passed away, Green in 2002 and Comden in 2006. The project finally reached the stage at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre under the title Dancing in the Dark. The tryout showed that it was not quite ready for Broadway.
“I wrote this script such a long time ago, it should be on the ‘Encores!’ regular season [of classic revivals]!” Beane said. “It was, to my mind, a dead project. But then [director] Kathleen Marshall called and said, 'Would you like to do for two weeks in New York?' Just take a cab to City Center for two weeks — it’s an idyllic format. And I just love the cast.”
If Broadway hasn’t seen itself satirized enough with this fall’s It’s Only a Play, it had better get set for a comedy roast. Mitchell plays a has-been Hollywood movie star named Tony Hunter who figures the road to a comeback leads through the Great White Way. On his journey along West 45th St., Hunter encounters a clueless leading lady (Osnes), a songwriting team (Kean and Ullman) who can’t agree on anything, and a pretentious English director (Rees) who wants to turn the lighthearted show into a ponderous retelling of the Faust legend.
The score is a combination of songs written for the Broadway version (“Dancing in the Dark,” “I Love Luisa”) songs written for other Dietz and Schwartz shows (“I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” “Triplets,” “By Myself”) and songs written expressly for the film ("That's Entertainment!"). Even before the show started performances, the New York Post reported that Beane and Marshall have done extensive rewrites and restaging, and now producers Fran and Barry Weissler are hoping to move it to Broadway if the reviews are good. The Weisslers are producers or co-producers of many shows, notably Chicago, which also transferred from an Encores! production. Beane said, “If it’s successful and goes on from here — great. If not, at least it got to be seen in New York. So I’m very happy.”
The Band Wagon is being presented by City Center as an Encores! Special Event, outside the regular Encores! series, which usually takes place in late winter and early spring. It will run two weekends instead of just one for the regular Encores! Shows. Among previous Encores! Special Events was Cotton Club Parade, which moved to Broadway as the Tony-nominated musical After Midnight.
Beane said he has retained a lot of Comden and Green’s sharp original dialogue, but has added (at their suggestion) several scenes that were cut from the film that develop some characters more fully, including one in which the proposed comeback show is pitched to the star in all its over-the-top detail. Beane said he also raided Dietz and Schwartz’s songbook for extra songs, importing one each from the 1960s musicals Jenny and The Gay Life.
He said that Band Wagon is not just “a jukebox musical based on a film, but it’s actually about what it’s like to work in the theatre. I’ve poured in everything I’ve learned about the theatre, and I’ve done it in loving tribute to the spirit of Comden and Green.”
Beane’s work on the libretto is complemented by that of music director Todd Ellison on the score.
Wielding the baton on this production, Ellison is a veteran of a dozen Broadway musicals Monty Python’s Spamalot, Annie, La Cage aux Folles and A Class Act. At Encores! he was conductor for On the Town and guest pianist on No, No, Nanette. Ellison is working with orchestrator Larry Hochman and dance arranger David Chase to give the show a distinctive 1950s sound. To do that, they went to the Roger Eden collection at MGM. Eden was part of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM that made musicals including "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "Easter Parade" (1948), "On the Town" (1949), "Show Boat" (1951), "An American in Paris" (1951), "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) and, of course the original "The Band Wagon." ”We found most amazing material you can even imagine,” Ellison said. “Larry is so great. He can listen to something and put it in terms that our ears accept as contemporary and yet with the flavor of the 1950s.”
Even with just a 12-piece orchestra at Encores! instead of the 50 or so instruments used on the MGM soundtracks, “he makes it sound unbelievably big and lush,” Ellison said. “That’s one of the special things about Encores!,” he said. “It’s not about the crazy set and costume changes to dazzle your eyes. It’s about the material. They take special pride in the music and lyrics.”