Peter Stone, the indefatigable librettist and former president of the Dramatists Guild, has been working hard on the latest project by John Kander and Fred Ebb: Curtains. The comedy-thriller-musical had a reading in early January and will have another, also helmed by Scott Ellis and using several of the same actors, in February 2002. Backed by the Nederlanders, a workshop will then be sought "later in the year."
Progress has often been slow, Stone told Playbill On-Line (Nov. 29), "because Kander and Ebb and I are never free at the same moment. So we've refined it many times, but now we really want to go forward with it."
Stone told PBOL back in January that Kander and Ebb have been working on Curtains "sporadically for 12-to-13 years. We've each done at least three other shows in that period, so either they've been busy or I have, so it was tough to get together. But we had a private reading three or four weeks ago, just for us, and it was very encouraging."
As reported by the Post, Ruthie Henshall, James Naughton, Debra Monk and Edward Hibbert participated in the reading, as did Paul Michael Vallelly (1776). "There were 28 actors in all," Stone told PBOL. "They were wonderful. We should be so lucky as to get them." Stone also hoped to have the tryout at Boston, MA's Colonial Theatre — where the plot takes place.
Curtains is set during the tryout of a Broadway-bound musical. The show's producers are a married couple, one of whom is murdered in the third scene. Every member of the cast and crew is a suspect, since they all have some kind of beef with the producing twosome. The New York Post quoted a joke from Curtains in which one character says the dead producer "wasn't as bad as Barry Weissler." But Stone cautions not to look for similarities between the Curtains characters and real-life, married producers Barry and Fran Weissler. "There's no similarity to Barry and Fran," he told PBOL. "They're nobody living or dead." Curtains is a rarity in that it isn't based on source material from another medium or a straight play adapted into a musical. "It's an original music not based on anything," Stone says, adding that after the murder, a homicide detective is brought in, and "by sheer coincidence, he happens to be a remarkably up-to-date musical theatre buff. He's thrilled to be there with opinions and suggestions." At the reading, Naughton was the detective, with Debra Monk as the widowed producer and Hibbert the director of the musical-within-the-musical (also called "Curtains").
Though Kander & Ebb's canon includes two of the most lauded works in musical theatre — Cabaret and Chicago, both still enjoying monster-hit Broadway revivals — their recent track record has been difficult. The Visit, based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt's dark satire, was eyeing Broadway but lost lead Angela Lansbury when her husband became ill. A subsequent Chicago staging received mixed-to-positive critiques but not the kind of "money" reviews that would fast-track it to New York.
Before that, 1999's Over & Over was poorly received in its debut at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, with star Bebe Neuwirth exiting during rehearsals over "artistic differences" and replaced by then unknown Sherie Rene Scott. Kander & Ebb's last Broadway production was Steel Pier, which received numerous Tony nominations but lukewarm reviews and only mild audience interest. Early in the decade, however, their Kiss of the Spider Woman won Tonys for Best Musical, Book, Score, Actor and Actress, with star Chita Rivera proving a big audience draw.
Librettist Stone has had better luck, with his revised Annie Get Your Gun taking home a Best Musical Revival Tony two seasons back, and Titanic overcoming mixed reviews to enjoy a multi-month run and Best Musical Tony win. Stone most recently finished the script for the upcoming television version of Annie Get Your Gun, to star Reba MacIntyre. He's also been at work on another musical, Love Me, Love My Dog with "Wichita Lineman" songwriter Jimmy Webb.
As if that weren't enough, Stone is also collaborating again with his Titanic partner, composer Maury Yeston, on Death Takes a Holiday, based on Alberto Casella's comedy-drama of the same name.
First on Broadway in 1929, adapted from the original Italian by Walter Ferris, Death tells of the Grim Reaper visiting earth to discover why people are so fearful of him. Or, as Stone puts it, "What can life be that they cling to it so?" Death then becomes a houseguest at a swanky nobleman's household where an engagement is being celebrated. And that's where he falls in love.
"The first act is finished," Stone told Playbill On-Line (Nov. 29). "Maury and I are now making some revisions to the whole thing, cutting it, and getting ready to start showing it." Before further plans are made, the next step will be finding a director.
Back in January, when Stone had written only the outline, he told PBOL, "We're just getting started on it.. We're enjoying it. It's very lush and romantic and amusing in many aspects, even though it deals with a somewhat serious subject."
The story was filmed in the 1930s with Frederic March in the lead, and Brad Pitt starred in a more recent movie adaptation, "Meet Joe Black." "Each time they remake it," Stone says, "it's farther from the original. We're keeping the locale: Italy, just after the first World War. It's a small musical. Ten principles, all of them important, no chorus." Stone told the New York Post (Jan. 26), "It's a wonderfully romantic story about a subject in the thoughts of most people. Well, let me put that differently: all people."
— By David Lefkowitz