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'City of Angels'--a Writer's Revenge? : Larry Gelbart's new Broadway musical is fueled by anger and affection. His target? Hollywood.

December 03, 1989|BARBARA ISENBERG

NEW YORK — Larry Gelbart, who has never much liked the way he and other screenwriters are treated by their bosses, has swathed his grievances in bebop and ballads. Opening on Broadway Dec. 11 is his "City of Angels," a $4.5-million musical comedy thriller that honors Hollywood films of the '40s while trashing the system that spawned them.

"City of Angels" is set in the solariums and sound stages of Los Angeles in 1946. And weaving through its multilayered plot is the same Gelbart anger that fueled the award-winning "MASH" TV series and his current Broadway political satire, "Mastergate."

Aided by film noir- inspired sets and Raymond Chandler-inspired plot-lines, humorist Gelbart vents some of his frustrations about writing "Tootsie" and other films. "I don't think there's anybody in the writing community that likes the writer's role in the 'film-making process,' or the movie business--as we used to say," Gelbart says. "The phrases have gotten a little grander but the practices haven't grown any less shabby."

So learns Gelbart's protagonist in "City of Angels," a novelist-cum-screenwriter named Stine (Gregg Edelman). Stine arrives in Hollywood with his detective novel, "City of Angels," and his protagonist--a private eye named Stone (James Naughton). In the musical, Stine's travails with his screenplay, egomaniacal producer/director and wife share the stage with the fictitious Stone and his seedy doings.

This is some complicated musical. To distinguish real life from reel life, the sets and costumes for writer Stine's story are bathed in living color, while the sets and costumes for character Stone's story are in black and white. The show's 27 actors alternate roles in both Stine and Stone's worlds, and they do so through a staggering 46 scene changes. The stage manager has a cue every eight seconds throughout the 2 1/2-hour show.

Staging is so complex that the scene shop, swamped by the crunch of new musical productions this year, delivered sets later than expected. Gelbart's book, Cy Coleman's music and David Zippel's lyrics were set to go, as was the cast. But the previews had to be postponed several times and opening night was moved from Thursday to Dec. 11--changes that producer Nick Vanoff figures will cost about $150,000 in terms of lost revenues and overtime.

"For Broadway, which is hedged about with commercial uncertainties, this is so audacious, not for what it says, but in its form," says the show's director, Michael Blakemore. The Australian, who is trying to give this material the same energy and style he gave to Michael Frayn's hit farce, "Noises Off," adds: "Whether you like it or hate it, you have to concede its originality."

"City's" homage to Hollywood starts even before the curtain goes up. Big wall panels, reminiscent of the highly stylized film theaters of the '40s, depict not just such facades as Los Angeles City Hall and Union Station, but also Paramount's gates, 20th Century Fox's back lot, Mann's Chinese (when it was still Grauman's) Theatre, and a bit of the Hollywood sign.

Tony-winning set designer Robin Wagner estimates he sat through 100 film noir movies soaking up atmosphere, and readily admits his debt to the genre. The Kingsley mansion smacks of the mansion in "Sunset Boulevard," and the solarium inside is "loosely based" on the stifling orchid house in "The Big Sleep." And, says San Franciscan Wagner, "if you see a strong resemblance to the opening scenes of 'The Maltese Falcon,' it wouldn't be a mistake."

While Gelbart speaks of his own great affection for those films, some people close to the production appear worried that "Angels" will be seen simply as Gelbart's Broadway revenge on Hollywood. Blakemore, in fact, points out that the private-eye movies that form the show's core were indeed quite faithful to the books that inspired them: "I can't think of a more faithful book-to-movie than 'Maltese Falcon' and the energy of that film comes from the dialogue which is straight from the book."

But as Gelbart would readily admit, "Angels" mixes its sweets with bitters. When Stine refuses to play ball anymore, the director asks, "Is this some kind of New York snot-nosed revenge?" and one can ask that about the entire show. Zippel's lyrics can be as caustic as Gelbart's book, as for instance, a song called "Double Talk" features a lyric--sung by party guests at the director's home--which goes: "This pompous schmuck is making me nauseous."

Gelbart doesn't think much himself of producer/director Buddy Fidler (Rene Auberjonois), a man who greets Stine by saying he's read a synopsis of every book Stine's ever written. Fidler tells a composer how to write music, swears he could take 10 seconds out of the Minute Waltz and nobody'd notice, and is dismissed as a man who has nothing beneath him but starlets.

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