Tommy Tune and Mark Saltzman "Hustle" Out a Disco Musical About Studio 54 Founder Steve Rubell
By Kenneth Jones
Fifty*Four*Forever, a new musical about the rise and fall of the man who co-founded the iconic 1970s nightclub Studio 54, is being created by dramatist Mark Saltzman and multiple Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Tommy Tune in the relative quiet of the Department of Theatre Arts of the University of Miami, where the creators have been in rehearsal with students in recent weeks.
Populated by eager and talented undergraduates, and using songs from the period (think "The Hustle"), the musical biography of the dance mecca's late co-owner Steve Rubell will have its world premiere Nov. 9-19 at the university's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre in Coral Gables, FL.
The experience is part of the university's mission to put students "in close collaboration with professional guest artists" to prepare them to work in professional theatre, film or TV or graduate school. Working with nine-time Tony Award winner (Nine, Grand Hotel, A Day in Hollywood…, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Will Rogers Follies) on a new musical from the ground up isn't a bad start.
Fifty*Four*Forever is conceived and directed by Tune, who also choreographs, and is written by Saltzman, the screenwriter of the TV musical "Mrs. Santa Claus" and playwright of The Tin Pan Alley Rag and Clutter. The associate director and choreographer is David Warren Gibson. Costumes are by Dona Granata. Lighting is by Eric Haugen.
Saltzman told Playbill.com that the collaborators view this in-the-round production as a "New Haven"-style tryout for the show. Producers and other industry people are coming to the Miami area to take a look at it. "I thought it was going to be quiet," Saltzman said with a laugh, "but it's disco, so it seems to get pretty noisy."
In its heyday, 1977-80, Studio 54 on West 54th Street, was a playground for the stars of the stage, screen, fashion, art and music industries, to say nothing of the athletes, politicians and writers who commingled on the crowded dance floor and in the shadowy alcoves. Booze and cigarettes and drugs were as common as air.
The venue, which opened in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House, is currently one of three legit Broadway theatres operated and programmed by the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company.
Saltzman said that he and Tune were put together to discuss another project that they ultimately didn't collaborate on, but Tune pitched a fresh idea — the short but incandescent story of Studio 54 and founding partner Rubell, "a musical biography using songs of the era."
Saltzman explained, "I played around with it a little, thinking, 'What do you do with this? — it doesn't really have a happy ending.' But the more I kind of dug into the era and the actual facts of what happened at Studio 54, and how that downfall occurred, it seemed more like Greek tragedy, you know? The fall from the great heights."
Steve Rubell (played in Florida by student Kyle Axman) is the main character of Fifty*Four*Forever. "In that era, he was kind of the king of New York nightlife," Saltzman said. "I always thought he'd be a good character to put into a musical because he's so much larger than life, even though he was a little guy."
Existing disco-era songs provide the living soundtrack for the musical and are also character songs that tell story.
"If they did shows at Studio 54, they'd be over-the-top and extreme and have disco beats, and we kind of took that as a guiding principle for the style," Saltzman said. "When Rubell comes to New York it's 'Funkytown' — 'Gotta move on. Gotta move on.' That's in character. …We try to keep them in character; that way, it's traditional musical."
(The show does have one original song in it, about a trio of girls from New Jersey who are rejected at the club's velvet rope. It's written by Stephen Cole, who penned the musical The Road to Qatar, and Jeffrey Saver.)
Did Tune and Saltzman sit down and make a list of songs from the period that helped shape the story or did the story come first?
Saltzman said, "Because it's true-life history, the story had to come first…really putting down what happened there — this kid from Brooklyn who tried doing a disco in Queens and was basically driven out of town in no uncertain terms. The neighborhood rose up against his disco and it was a personal catastrophe. But then he went on with what he learned, went into Manhattan, and tried it again, and this time it turned into Studio 54. There were story beats that were just given. One of the things that we found was that the entire lifespan of Studio 54 was 33 months [starting in 1977]. It feels like it was there forever — the entire '70s — but it was really a quick, bright flash — a supernova — and then it was gone. The Rubell era ended and he went to jail [in 1980]. That was when the entire party seemed to end. Disco as a dance- music movement ended, Studio 54 was gone, and the [AIDS] virus appeared, and that seemed to be a major cultural turning point."
Does Fifty*Four*Forever refer to the rich history of the 54th Street venue?
"It's so fascinating," Saltzman said. "I put in this scene that I imagined: What happened when [Rubell] was shown this space, and the real estate agents give the history because that's the way New York real estate agents sell. We turned that into a number because it's so theatrical — it [was built as] an opera house. So, you get a quick glimpse into the opera divas and then it was kind of like an Edith Piaf-style French nightclub and then it went under and then it was a TV studio — and the 'Tonight Show' originated there. So, yeah, it's got this incredible showbiz history, this show space, and now it's Roundabout. It continues."
Saltzman likes the idea of calling the show a musical character study about both the venue and Rubell, who went to prison for tax evasion, was released in 1981, and died of complications from AIDS in 1989.
"We really are trying to get all the sides of him," the playwright said. "It's funny, there's a kind of dark reputation to him now, if people think of him at all. I guess it's because of the bust — you know, this idea of illicit drug-dealing at Studio 54, and the whole AIDS era that followed it. [People think] there must've been something sinister about this whole thing, there must've been something dark! And I didn't see that at all when I was researching this person. He was really kind of a Billy Rose — one of the last of the old-time showmen, who just wanted to throw a big party and be surrounded by stars. He seemed like a kind of big-hearted person who was just loving his life when Studio 54 was going on. The worst thing seemed to be all of this sort of free-and-easy bookkeeping — that's what the feds got him on. We open with the courtroom scene."
What would Rubell think of the musical Fifty*Four*Forever?
"I'd like to think he'd enjoy it," Saltzman said.
The show had a University of Miami workshop in January. Saltzman said, "Tommy was so happy with it that we moved to the next step, which is this production — and, a full-out production. It's college students, but Tommy's treating them like they're working actors on Broadway. He's not taking it down, and they seem to be stepping up to it. Generally in college theatre you are dealing with playwrights long dead and texts that are set in stone, and we're tossing new lines to them every day…"
The cast list includes characters named "Halston," "Liza" and "Truman." Are real celebrities major characters in Fifty*Four*Forever?
"They're based on them," Saltzman said. "These are cameos. The real character is Rubell."
The Florida cast also includes Andrew Baldwin, Joey Barreiro, Brandon Beaver, Sammy Courtright, Kristin Devine, Brian DiRito, Mollie Downes, Shannon Draper Molly Evans, Liam Fitzgerald, Rianna Hidalgo Ethan Kasnett, Sarah Leary, Nicholas Ley, Adam Maggio, Danny Menendez, Megan Moran, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Ryan Phillips, Jenna Rubaii, Trent Saunders, Michael Schneider, Jacob Sharf, Jamie Swartz and Maggie Weston.
For tickets, call the Ring weekdays from noon to 5 PM at (305) 284-3355 and nights and weekends at Ovationtix, (866) 811-4111.
Tickets are also available at the Ring's online box office www.miami.edu/ring.
The Ring is also offering 34 free tickets per performance for UM students with ID. These are "stage seats" and the students will be sitting on special Studio 54 cushions surrounding the action of the musical. These tickets are available only at the Ring Box Office.
The Jerry Herman Ring Theatre is located at 1312 Miller Drive on the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus.
Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.
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