Composer John Kander, a 2007 Tony nominee for Curtains, knows a thing or two about such an approach to creating musicals, having co-written Cabaret, famous for its showbiz frames. He said that the success of the intricate plotting of Curtains — which features a backstage murder in the company of a Broadway-bound show called Robbin' Hood! — is due in large part to the "wildly talented mind" of 2007 Tony-nominated librettist Rupert Holmes.
Audiences at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre witness several musical numbers from the Kansas-set show-within-the-show, Robbin' Hood!, but aren't privy to the full plot scenario and other fake song titles Holmes penned for it.
"The synopsis of Curtains' inner musical Robbin' Hood! runs six pages," Holmes, already a Tony winner for book and songs of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, told Playbill.com. "That's longer than the plot synopsis of Curtains itself on the show's original cast recording."
Was that outline done as a lark, or did he and the creators and cast really need it for the backbone of the world they were entering?
"It may have been a pleasure to write, but it also served a serious function in all our work," Holmes explained. "Our director Scott Ellis asked me to enlarge a sketchier outline I'd written of the inner show because he knew that although the audience only sees a portion of Robbin' Hood!, the creative team needed to understand what that show would be if performed in full. John Kander pointed out, 'It's hard to write music for a story I've not been told.' "…Not only was the cast privy to the synopsis, but at the very first rehearsal after I'd completed it, Scott had the company read it aloud. Wonderfully, Scott also had each member of our cast create an extensive bio for the actor they portray in Curtains. We had just the greatest lunch hour at the 42nd Street Studios when, standing amid 25 boxes of delivered pizza, each performer presented his or her (mythical) professional history. Each bio was an outrageously funny gem."
The inner show, Kander observed, is "pure Rupert," and was not a result of the earlier work by Curtains' conceiver and original book writer Peter Stone (who, with Holmes, is Tony-nominated in the category of Book of a Musical; Holmes also contributed additional lyrics and is thus among 2007 Best Score nominees with Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb).
Robbin' Hood, with its "western" setting, recalls the bright, bucolic worlds of earlier musicals Annie Get Your Gun and Destry Rides Again.
"Bullseye," Holmes said. "Yes, when I was a boy, the 1957 broadcast of 'Annie Get Your Gun' with Mary Martin and John Raitt made quite an impression. I also had in mind Destry Rides Again, as well as the fascinating movie 'Red Garters.' Other inspirations were Li'l Abner [and] an obscure musical called Whoop-up…"
Kander observed, "There are things about it, I suppose now, looking at it — that I didn't quite realize it, and I think Rupert did — that are imitations of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that happened. [Robbin' Hood!] is very optimistic and musically very straightforward. A mixture of what we thought of a 'western' or 'middle western' music, in the theatre, with a slightly satiric edge. Growing up right across the Kansas border, in Missouri, [the Robbin' Hood! song] 'Kansasland' came naturally to me."
What song titles from the fictional show did not make it into Curtains?
Holmes shared, "In addition to the [Robbin' Hood!] songs you do hear in our musical, such as 'Thataway' and 'Wide Open Spaces,' there is Madam Marian's unheard lament, 'A Good Man Can Do You Wrong But a Wrong Man Can Do You Good,' the sprightly company number 'You Can't Dodge Trouble in Dodge,' the Hollywood-evoking 'Hooray for Robbin' Hood!' and the ground-breaking fight ballet: 'The Fight.'"
The long-gestating Curtains, once called Who Killed David Merrick?, was originally set in modern times. When Holmes came aboard, following the death of Peter Stone, he urged his partners to place the show in the Golden Age of American book musicals, circa 1959 — the time of The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Gypsy and West Side Story..
"From the outset, I felt strongly that Curtains' giddy premise would play more richly if it was set in the heyday of American musical comedies," Holmes said. "When I created the TV series 'Remember WENN,' set in the early forties and the Golden Age of Radio, I delighted in the fact that period characters are not held in check by the same laws of gravity that keep the rest of us anchored to our current world. The 1959 setting also allowed Curtains to be populated with those theatrical archetypes we revere: the insufferable diva, the tart-tongued director, the Comden-esque lyricist, the enterprising chorine … characters who would seem as out of place in a contemporary tale as Sam Spade would seem on an episode of 'CSI.'"
He added, "I also wanted today's young audience to imagine what it might have been like to witness one of the splashy musical comedies of that era during its initial Broadway run, with a rousing and mandatory overture, a formal curtain rising on a literal set where handsomely painted drops display grand vistas in false perspective, and more costume changes than a schizophrenic cross-dresser."
The year 1959 is dear to Holmes. "You see," he said, "1959 was the year I saw my first Broadway musical and was handed my first copy of Playbill, one which I have to this day: My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger (once a theatre, now a tabernacle). I wanted to share with today's audience the flavor and feel of a musical from that time period."
"Murder mystery musical comedies" are rare. Redhead, Something's Afoot and The Mystery of Edwin Drood come to mind. Why aren't there more of them?
"Mysteries can be cerebral," Holmes said. "Musicals need to be emotional. Puzzles and passions are not always a comfortable mix. My own Edwin Drood is really more about the joy of putting on a show than about who murdered Dickens' title character. And while Curtains' detective solves a series of crimes in sterling fashion, the show is very much about his wide-eyed journey into the realm of musical theatre. It's the story of someone who adores a world from the outside and suddenly finds himself at the very center of that world, in a position to help the people he most admires. During rehearsals it occurred to me that if the detective David Hyde Pierce portrays were to be shot while attempting to nab a criminal, and was lying in a daze in some alleyway, the hallucinatory dream he might have would be the very adventure he lives in Curtains. Of course, in our show, his adventure is completely real."