His hat-juggling trick—composer, lyricist, book writer, producer and director—is as close as a mere mortal has come to The Seven Tasks of Hercules. (It's one and a half more hats than Mel Brooks wears for The Producers.) Not only has it never been done on Broadway before, Joe has never been on Broadway before. He didn't know he couldn't do it, and he did it.
Right after pulling off this unprecedented feat, at the after-party held at the Millennium Hotel's Hudson Theatre, the composer-lyricist-bookwriter producer-director was the picture of composure, weaving if not practically wafting among the theatre press and first-nighters.
Someone gently pointed out to him that there are easier ways to make a Broadway beachhead. "I'm sure there are," he shot back, "and maybe that's why I did it. What was nice about this experience was that I didn't have to ask anybody about shaving a line here, adding a scene there. It always came down to `What can I do to make the show great?'"
Even the orchestra took a place a backseat to Brooks—actually more than that, having been relocated to the fourth floor of the Music Box where Henry Aronson conducted a band of eight (heavy on keyboards) through 20 Brooks songs and assorted reprises.
In My Life asks the musical question: Can a girl with an obsessive compulsive disorder (Jessica Boevers) find a happy ending with a boy with not only Tourette's Syndrome but also a blossoming brain tumor (Christopher J. Hanke)? It's a pretty rocky road, punctuated by power ballads from the young lovers and some soft-shoe song-and-dance by God (Michael J. Farina) and a heavenly fairy named Winston (David Turner). The Deity, as Brooks imagines him, is an average Joe (you should pardon the expression) in a turned-around baseball cap. Winston, replete with an effete British accent that suggests Star Wars' C3PO instead of Churchill, flits hither and yon on stage wires preparing an opera for God. Then, there are our hero's mother (Roberta Gumbel) and sister (Chiara Navarra) who are killed in a car crash before the show begins, but linger around in his head to musically cheerlead him through his woes. The plot, you can readily gather, is pretty unprecedented, too—and this is what Brooks has challenged himself to make sing. Two of the 20 songs—a tenth of the score—are commercials for Volkswagen and Dr. Pepper Brooks wrote in the '70, and, a true tither, he has given them to God to recycle.
Famous—rich and famous—for his habit-forming "musical hooks" (a la "You Light Up My Life," which won him the Oscar and the Grammy), Brooks is hard pressed to say which of his Broadway batch will be the breakout hit, but he thinks three have a good shot at it: the title tune which the lovers, Jenny and J.T., execute; "A Ride on the Wheel" which they sing with Michael Halling and Laura Jordan; and the addictively haunting "When She Danced" which the operatic Gumbel and the balletic Navarra delivered.
Brooks' teamwork was primarily with his cast in fashioning their characters, according to Jordan, who played Boervers' Eve Arden. "Joe was wonderful to work with," she said, "so much imagination, so much confidence. He gave us so much freedom and flexibility to help him mold the characters and create the story. It was a very collaborative effort."
Boervers seconded that. "He treated us like gold. We played together and figured out what the show was. Joe brought us something great, and in rehearsals we got together and reinvestigated the whole thing. He was very giving to the cast, really open to discovery."
The Chicago actress, last seen on Broadway as Oklahoma!'s Ado Annie, enjoyed working the other end of the I.Q. spectrum in this show. "That was my big draw to the part—that it was something so different in the city. As far as Ado Annie goes, it was night and day. Jenny is so many women I've met in New York City. I think New York drives so many people like Jen—highly motivated and highly educated, and they get here and don't necessarily know what to do with everything they've done—all their degrees or their travels through Europe. They don't necessarily know what they're going to do in their early 20's with all of this. Often, it's a relationship—someone you meet—who is the cause for the course that you take over the next few years, and I think that's the story with Jen."
Boervers' escort of the evening was Matt Bogart, an active player in musical theatre himself. On Monday, he and Pamela Bob did two staged readings of the Todd Almond-Gus Kaikkonen show they did last month in the New York Music Theatre Festival, People Like Us. "We're hoping for some Off-Broadway interest in the show, and we are probably going to get it recorded," he said. "Then I'm going to work on a new project, Anna Christie, which Joe Masteroff will adapt and direct and do the lyrics. Ed Thomas, who did the music for Desire Under the Elms, is the composer. It lies somewhere between musical theatre and opera." But, first, he's bound for Washington's Arena Stage to play Joe Hardy to Brad Oscar's Applegate and Meg Gillentine's Lola.
Hanke, who has a lot to act as the staggeringly afflicted lead, did his homework. "I chose to read rather than watch people with Tourette's Syndrome," he admitted. "The biggest thing about Tourette's Syndrome is that it's very different in each case. There are different clicks, different vocal tics, different mannerisms, different compulsions—it's very different for every person. Consequently, instead of observing people, I mostly read so I could discover what those feelings were inside of me. I discovered J.T. through that. Joe has a personal history with Tourette's Syndrome in his family, and that gave him the impetus to discover what that is. He knew that would make a great palate for an interesting love story. I'm glad he put it on paper, and I'm glad he hired me to do it."
It's his Broadway bow—and "it's everything I wanted it to be. A dream come true. I'm happy and humbled to be here." Navarra, 13 going on 34, is likewise marking her Broadway bow, but at the opening-night party she was taking the whole thing in cool and collected like an old pro. No, she said, she wasn't at all nervous because "it was such a pleasure to work with everyone in the cast—really fun to play the game of make believe."
Technically, Halling wasn't making his Broadway debut. He understudied Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz, but who knew? Jackman never missed a performance, the bitch! "He's coming back apparently next year, as Hugh Jackman in that show he took to Vegas, so if they hire an understudy for Hugh Jackman as Hugh Jackman I'll get a shot."
Turner had had his turn on Broadway, too—but also very inconspicuously. "I had a small ensemble role in The Invention of Love and understudied Michael Stuhlbarg and eventually got to play that role," he said, "but this is my big starring debut. This whole experience for me has been ticking off the childhood dreams. I really like my name in a Playbill—that was a biggie. And then—well, I'd like to be on Broadway instead of Off-Broadway. Check that off. I love singing the song 'Secrets.' I love to be funny and dance at the same, that sort of Buster Keaton physicality. And then the costumes I wear. And the flying. I'm in hog heaven."
The heaven that Brooks and scenic designer Allen Moyer envisioned eschews the cloudy cliches and instead is represented by rows upon rows of filing cabinets. The costumes and the lighting are by two-thirds of the Tony winning triumvirate for The Light in the Piazza, Catherine Zuber and Christopher Akerlind. Zuber said that Lincoln Center was hooking them up with the third Tony-winning member of their design team, set designer Michael Yeargan, and Piazza director Bartlett Sher, for a revival of Clifford Odets' 1935 Awake and Sing at the Belasco April 17. Much more immediate for Zuber—like, Nov. 21 at the Booth—is a Lincoln Center revival of Edward Albee's 1975 Seascape.
And what are the well-dressed lizards (Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel) be wearing this season? She wasn't telling, beyond saying "They're going to be lizards. Albee was very specific about what he wanted so I really had to listen very carefully."