John Gilbert is one of the numerous examples of Hollywood stars who was destroyed or rejected by the system. Having reached the top of his career in the mid-20s, starring in films like The Big Parade, The Merry Widow, La Boheme, Bardleys the Magnificent and alongside Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, and having worked with great masters like Victor Sjostrom, Erich von Stroheim and King Vidor, John Gilbert declined from a great star to a has-been within a few years. It is widely rumoured that his demise was due to his voice, which was much less attractive than his looks. Others say that MGM, driven beyond endurance by his posturing, the endless problems of handling him, and the vast salaries he demanded, planned his downfall.
Now the brief and troubled life of John Gilbert and his unfortunate love story with young Greta Garbo has been turned into a musical by Guido Morra (book and lyrics) and Gianni Togni (music). Following previews in Bari, Naples and San Marino, Hollywood - Ritratto di un divo (Hollywood - Potrait of a Star), the first sung-through musical to be written in Italian, opens Apr. 22 for a six week run thru May 30 at Milan's Teatro Nuovo.
A considerable production, at least for Italian standards, with a budget of over 2 billion lire (1,1 million US dollars) and a cast of 20, Hollywood - Portrait of a Star is directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, one of the great masters of the contemporary Italian theatre, and features scenes and costumes by Aldo Terlizzi and choreography by Mariano Brancaccio. The musical is produced by Pietro Mezzasoma.
Starring in the lead role of John Gilbert is actor and singer Massimo Ranieri, who scored a number of hits in the 70s and the 80s, and won the popular Sanremo Festival in 1988. Ranieri has also worked extensively in the theatre, where his credits include a lead role in the Piccolo Teatro's production of Marivaux's Isle of Slaves directed by Giorgio Strehler and the title role in the Italian version of Cy Coleman's Barnum. Co-starring in the role of Greta Garbo is the charming 20-year-old Julka Bedeschi, performing professionally for the first time.
Hollywood - Portrait of a Star takes place in 1936. An aging John Gilbert is sitting drunk and alone in his Hollywood mansion. His short life, whose main events are recalled in various flash-backs, is turning to a dramatic end. His love story with Greta Garbo, ten years earlier, on the set of Flesh and the Devil, is nothing but a distant memory, and its unfortunate epilogue is only the first of a long series of sentimental disasters. Meanwhile, his success is declining, and the arrival of sound gives him a finishing stroke: no one wants him any more, because he "belongs to a different world". Further information on the show is available from the producer at +39 6 679.74.96. Tickets are on sale at the Teatro Nuovo box office at +39 2 76.00.00.86 - 76.00.00.87 - 76.00.00.88 and in various agencies in Milan including Music Tour (tel. +39 2 126.96.36.199).
The concept album of Hollywood - Potraitof a Star is available in record shops around Italy.
--By Stefano Curti