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Tom Eyen Dreams Big

January 18, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

For those who managed to miss it the first time around--and for those who'd enjoy a repeat visit--"Dreamgirls" is back in town, opening tomorrow for a two-week stay at the Pantages.

"Since 1982, we've been everywhere," said Tom Eyen, who wrote the Tony-winning book and lyrics (Henry Krieger did the music) for the story of three black teen-agers reaching for the musical stars in 1960s Detroit. "We were in Los Angeles (the Shubert), San Francisco, Chicago. Then a new company started in New York two years ago--and we've been to 30 cities.

"We even went to Japan two months ago, where I did a synopsis for the show, so it could be translated into Japanese. I actually sat there for a week and tried to figure out what the show was about--never knew it was so complicated! How do you translate something like, 'They're hustling at the Apollo Theatre'?" At any rate, he says, "Listening to it in Japanese on the earphones sounded good to me. And it ran there eight weeks, was the biggest hit they'd ever had."

In spite of the kudos, Eyen swears he never knows when a hit is on the way. "I worked on 'Dreamgirls' for seven years," he said. "I never thought that 'Women Behind Bars' (a cult smash at the Roxy in 1983) would go for more than a week." Since then, he's also seen the successful resuscitation of his 1965 "Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down" (at the Coast Playhouse last fall)--and now comes word that "Dreamgirls" might be headed for immortality on film.

"I'm out here, getting ready for all those secret meetings with the studios," he acknowledged. He's also at work--and has been for three years--with "Little Shop of Horrors" co-creator Alan Menken--on "Kicks," the story of 16 showgirls from 1945-61. "It's a large, large musical; it takes a while to get all the pieces together." In the meantime, there's also a new musical in the works with "Dreamgirls" partner Krieger. "And I'd also like to (stage) my 'White Whore and the Bit Player,' do it more--what do you call it--naturalistically."

Just now, Eyen is enjoying getting settled into what he calls "my "second L.A. period" (the first was from 1975-78, while he was writing for "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and Bette Midler's television specials). The reason for the move? "In the last four years, a lot more theater's been done here than in New York. It just seemed like a good idea to come back."

What to do when audiences don't understand--and don't appreciate one's artistic vision of the modern world? Compose a piece about it, of course. That's what Thomas Leibhart did with "How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It," which opened this weekend at the Wallenboyd. (Gilberte Meunier's "Gargouillade" shares the bill.)

"I lived in France from 1968-72 and was a student of (mime master) Etienne Decroux," Leibhart offered, "rehearsing '20s cubist/modern pieces. But when I came back and started performing it--well, audiences didn't know how to look at it, and they were perplexed. I was perplexed. If they could appreciate modern art, why not modern mime? Then one day, it occurred to me: I'd perform my abstract mime and tell stories--like how my life got me to this theater where people were perplexed. . . ."

As for his second work, "Like, Is There a Difference Between Abstract and Bizarre?" he said, "I never know what the piece is going to be about until I have to come up with a title to perform. Last month I was driving home late at night, and I stopped at a gas station. The attendant looked me square in the eye and said, 'Like, is there a difference between abstract and bizarre?' I could've hugged him."

The theme, he continued, "is about two shopping malls in Claremont (where he's on the drama faculty at Pomona College), Montclair Plaza and Skaggs/Alpha Beta. But like the other piece, it exists on different levels: shopping centers and the products that are available, and the juxtaposition of disparate elements--what's happening there that we don't see." Such as? "One day at Montclair I found a Pablo Picasso T-shirt, Pablo Picasso bubble bath and Pablo Picasso sachet."

Sophie Tucker may be a figure of the past for many people, but for some--like actress Wendy Westerwelle and director Paul Hough, she's very much alive. A dressing-room visit with La Tucker is the setting for "Soph: A Visit With the Last of the Red Hot Mamas" (by Westerwelle and Vana O'Brien), opening tonight at the Callboard.

"She recounts her life in the theater," explained Hough, "from singing in her mom and dad's restaurant in Connecticut, and through her career"--which included vaudeville, burlesque, radio, television and nightclub work in the United States and abroad. "It's a sort of life on the road, and in the course of it, she pulls on this antique gown, goes on stage and sings 20 songs."

The director (who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award in 1985 for "Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill") is clearly a devotee of the era.

"I was born a vaudevillian, at least in spirit," he stated. "The first time I ever got on stage as an actor, I had to force myself not to behave in the grand stage manner of the 19th Century." As for Westerwelle's stage manner: "The evening works without the impersonation aspect. Wendy happens to be a fabulous entertainer; her sense of humor comes from the same base as Sophie's. A parallel talent."

LATE CUES: New from "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" playwright Eric Bentley: "Round Two," a modern-day farce on sex and mores (based on Schnitzler's "La Ronde"), which makes its world premiere Friday at the Celebration Theatre. Michael Kearns directs.

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