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Hateful Sisters, Set to Music

Theater* 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' makes its debut as a musical in Houston this week. Where it goes from there is undecided.


HOUSTON — Jane Hudson lives in a gloomy mansion with her paralyzed sister, Blanche. She over-paints her face and lips to almost clown-like dimensions and lives for the glory days when she was a child star in vaudeville.

She also hates Blanche, a once glamorous movie star who snapped her spine while trying to mow down her sister with a car. Jane beats the wheelchair-bound Blanche, steals money from her and serves Blanche roast rat for "din-din."

"She's terrifying--she really is. The more mad she goes, the more we seem to enjoy it," says Millicent Martin, who portrays Jane in a new musical based on the campy gothic thriller "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Martin takes on the role Bette Davis immortalized on film almost 40 years ago. Leslie Denniston portrays Blanche, played by Joan Crawford.

The new $2.3-million show, produced by Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, debuts Wednesday for a three-week run. It still tells the tale of Jane and Blanche, shackled together by need and guilt. But Theatre Under the Stars founder and president Frank Young says the musical explores the sisters' history more than the movie, which revived the fading careers of Davis and Crawford and tantalized movie gossips with tales of their on-set battles.

Young says the musical "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" offers more about the sisters' childhoods and how their father favored Jane, leading to the destructive adult relationship of the sisters. He also said it offers more humor and less camp.

"It's not what everybody thinks this is," Young says. "They all think it's either a drag show or very dark and macabre, something they're not sure they want to bring their kids to. This is an old-timey Broadway musical. There are a lot of laughs, but it's dark."

In the film, Blanche's disability keeps her imprisoned in the house. Jane, who can come and go as she pleases, dreams of resurrecting her career--in one scene she even dresses up like a little girl with ruffled dress and bow in hair and rasps her once signature song, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," to a con artist who is supposedly coaching her comeback.

The entire musical takes place in the house, where a drunken Jane looks in a mirror and sees herself as a star surrounded by dancers. Blanche is a former MGM musical star who escapes Jane's abuse by losing herself in television reruns of her old movies. Flashbacks serve up splashy musical numbers that showcase the stars as they were when audiences adored them.

"We didn't want to go onstage and do a send-up of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford," Martin says. "We wanted it to stand on its own, so it's not just a remake of the film with music added." Martin, a two-time Tony nominee started her stage career in the chorus of the London production of "South Pacific." She has a string of stage credits there and in New York, including "The Boy Friend," with Julie Andrews, and "42nd Street," with Jerry Orbach.

She has made guest appearances for the past two years as Gertrude Moon on TV's "Frasier," and previously played Lili Faversham on NBC's "Days of Our Lives." She also appeared opposite Michael Caine in the film "Alfie."

Denniston, known as Maeve Stoddard on CBS' "Guiding Light" from 1985 to '88 and Carolyn Crawford on "As the World Turns" from 1990 to '91, also appeared on Broadway in "City of Angels" and "To Grandmother's House We Go."

Henry Farrell, whose novel inspired the film, also wrote the story for the musical. Composer Lee Pockriss, who co-wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Johnny Angel," wrote the music for "Baby Jane" while lyricist Hal Hackaday provided the words.

Pockriss has only one other Broadway musical to his credit, 1963's "Tovarich," which earned star Vivien Leigh a Tony Award. Hackaday wrote lyrics for several musicals in the 1970s, including three that had short runs after New York premieres: "Minnie's Boys" and "Goodtime Charley," and 1987's "Teddy and Alice."

"Baby Jane" has generated interest from producers, tour-booking agents and national theater chains such as Nederlander. It may or may not go to Broadway. "This is going to be an absolute triumph or a disastrous embarrassment. There is no middle ground," says Young.

The show got its start with a 1998 workshop and concert in Brighton, England. Producer Michael Rose, whose West End productions in London produced "Tap Dogs" and "Hot Shoe Shuffle," had acquired the rights to "Baby Jane." Martin joined other cast members and a 17-piece orchestra that brought the musical concept to life under the direction of David Taylor, who is directing the Houston debut.

Many Producers on Hand

Van Kaplan, producer of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, a 56-year-old musical theater, is among the throngs of independent producers who will attend the musical's opening to see if they want to add it to upcoming seasons.

"One of the things we are most interested in is the development and creation of new musical theater work," Kaplan says.

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