The cast and creators of the new musical, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, have set up camp in Houston to rehearse the world premiere of the show inspired by novel and outrageous film, but don't say "camp" to the team.
Although the 1962 motion picture about two showbiz sisters pathetically struggling in their old-age is now seen as a camp classic, with Bette Davis in the title role and Joan Crawford as sister Blanche, the stage musical is playing it straight. Billed as a thriller in the tradition of Jekyll & Hyde and Phantom, the show will nevertheless have some dark comedy in it, but don't expect a parody.
Produced by Theatre Under the Stars, performances begin Oct. 9 and continue to Oct. 27 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston.
"People have called and asked if we have drag queens playing the leads," said TUTS founder and CEO Frank M. Young. The Texas producer added with a laugh: "I tell them: 'Well, no, but it's a thought for the future.'"
Young told Playbill On-Line the show is not presented as a one-note camp fest, but described the show as a full-blooded old-fashioned musical as melodic and emotional as anything in the heyday of Lerner and Loewe. "People really think they're gonna see that black and white movie, with those ladies," Young said. "It sounds like a Lerner and Loewe score — a normal, traditional Broadway musical, but there are three murders in this!"
Is it an emotional experience?
"When they did it in London in a reading, it took about 15 minutes for the audience to settle in and stop giggling and realize this isn't camp," Young said. "By the end of the show grown men were crying."
Two-time Tony nominee Millicent Martin (Side by Side by Sondheim, King of Hearts) stars as Jane, singing a score by composer Lee Pockriss (Tovarich) and lyricist Hal Hackady (Goodtime Charley), with book by original novelist Henry Farrell (who would later pen the screenplay to the Davis vehicle, "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte").
Baby Jane — directed by London-based American David Taylor and choreographed by Dan Siretta (Some Like It Hot) — has been in development for eight years under British producer Michael Rose (currently behind London's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). TUTS has the North American rights to Baby Jane, by arrangement with Rose. The show had a previous London workshop and a full concert reading in Brighton. The Houston run will be visited by members of the Independent Producers Network, who have an eye to possibly booking the show in venues around the country starting in summer-fall 2003. Other national producers are expected to visit Houston to see the show. If Baby Jane is ready now and only needs minor fixing, Young hopes the show would bow on Broadway as early as spring 2003, as commerical producers become attached.
In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a twisted psychological profile of show business gone mad, former child vaudevillian Baby Jane (Bette Davis, in the 1962 film) becomes caretaker for her movie star sister Blanche (Joan Crawford on screen and Leslie Denniston in the stage show) when the latter has a mysterious crippling accident. Encased in hideous pancake make-up and in a precarious mental condition, alcoholic Jane — ever dreaming of a comeback in Vegas — torments and tortures her sister, while wheelchair-bound Blanche tries desperately to escape.
In a major change from the book and picture, Blanche becomes an M-G-M musical star in the style of Cyd Charisse rather than a dramatic actress, while Jane is still a has-been former child star from the dead days of vaudeville.
Millicent Martin also starred on Broadway in 1954's The Boy Friend and as a replacement Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street at the Majestic Theatre. Her film credits include "Nothing But the Best," "Stop the World — I Want to Get Off" and "Alfie." Recently, she's played Gertrude, Daphne's mother, on TV's "Frasier."
Denniston appeared in Broadway's City of Angels and Copperfield and well as TV's "Guiding Light." The cast also includes Jim Blanchette, Bambi Jones and Jim Weston, plus a large ensemble: John Raymond Barker, Joanne Bonasso, Cara Cochran, Leslie Marie Collins, Andrew Fitch, Tim Foster, Lea Marie Golde, Paul Hope, Helena Hultberg, Mary Illes, Brad Madison, Louise Madison, Scott Maher, Barry McNabb, Francine Mendenhall, Kathryn Mowat Murphy, Danea Polise, Katherine Randolf, Pamela Remler, Brook Singer, Matthew J. Vargo, A.J. Vincent.
The scenic designer is Tony nominee Jerome Sirlin (Kiss of the Spider Woman), known for his projection work. Using digital projections, Sirlin creates a "spectacular, full-stage Hollywood home for the two sisters that can instantaneously morph into three-dimensional representations of Hollywood studios, Las Vegas showrooms and vaudeville theatres of the 1920s," according to Young.
Eduardo Sicango is costume designer, Richard Winkler is lighting designer and Beth Berkley is sound designer. Chris Walker is orchestrator and dance arranger, and Michael Biagi is musical director-conductor.
Choreographer Dan Siretta is former artistic director of Goodspeed Opera House and helmed the current national tour of Some Like It Hot.
The nonprofit musical theatre troupe Theatre Under the Stars had previously hoped to stage the dark musical version of the 1960 novel (and subsequent Warner Bros. film) in 2001, but the production was delayed for various reasons.
Composer Pockriss' pop songs include "Catch a Falling Star" and "Johnny Angel" and he also wrote songs for the musicals, Ernest in Love and Tovarich. Hackady penned lyrics to Snoopy!!!, Little By Little, Minnie's Boys and the still-developing science fiction musical, Barsoom.
The songlist for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? includes "What Would I Do Without You?," "Four Walls," "Cos You're There, Blanche!," "Talent," "Two Who Move As One," "Sisters," "I Still Have Tomorrow," "He's Here," "When Am I Gonna Be Me," "If This House Could Talk," "Do I Care," "Let's Have a Party" and "Her."
Director Taylor's previous work includes the West End's They're Playing Our Song starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven and The Prisoner of Second Avenue with Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? tickets range $25-$68. For Theatre Under the Stars ticket information, call (713) 558-8887 or (888) 558-3882 or visit http://www.tuts.com.
— By Kenneth Jones