It's a rehearsal on a sound stage at Paramount, the studio that produced Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments." But almost 50 years after the DeMille extravaganza, it's not Charlton Heston, bronzed like a baby shoe, who's playing Moses; it's Val Kilmer.
In 2004, "The Ten Commandments" is not a movie but a live stage musical making its U.S. debut Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre, with Kilmer ("Batman Forever," "Top Gun") starring as Moses, the top gun in leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
Moses. Musical. Kilmer. What, was Mel Brooks already booked?
Kilmer acknowledges that when he tells friends about his latest project on the phone, he is usually met with a very, very long silence. "See? I can't even say it without smiling," he confesses, smiling.
It is strictly coincidental that the stage version is rehearsing at Paramount -- the soundstage just happened to be available, and large enough to house the musical's elaborate Egyptian set. The creative forces behind "The Ten Commandments" also insist the production was not inspired by the movie, but by the 3,300-year-old story.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Val Kilmer -- An article about Val Kilmer in Tuesday's Calendar section said the actor appeared off-Broadway in "The Slab Boys." The production was on Broadway.
As far as borrowing the title goes, one may assume "The Ten Commandments" has a better ring to it than "The Sound of Moses" or "Little Shop of Plagues." And the number 10 is, well, set in stone.
Still, watching a new take on the Biblical story on a Paramount stage, with the bearded Kilmer in a backward baseball cap belting out a pop-rock "Let my people go," one has to wonder whether the choice of Kilmer as the man to part the Red Sea might just have made DeMille see red.
After all, Kilmer has made a career out of playing rebels, loners and antiheroes, including Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's 1991 movie "The Doors," and porn star John Holmes in "Wonderland" in 2003. He's also carried with him a reputation for being difficult, to put it mildly -- the kind of actor who makes a director regret not hiring Sean Penn.
John Frankenheimer, who directed Kilmer alongside Marlon Brando in the ill-fated "The Island of Dr. Moreau," offered this widely-quoted declaration: "If I were making the Val Kilmer story, I wouldn't cast Val Kilmer."
But "Ten Commandments" director Robert Iscove and co-producer Charles Cohen insist that Kilmer is an intensely spiritual man, one of few actors capable of going wholly Moses. Besides, as Michael Keaton, George Clooney and perhaps Adam West might attest, you can't play Batman forever.
Cohen acknowledges that he had some doubts at first about Kilmer because of his volatile reputation. "I was so afraid of that, but he is a very nice man," says Cohen, who is producing the show with clothing designer Max Azria for their company BCBGMaxAzria Entertainment. "When he is not around, people are looking for him, they are worried, there is so much love for him. He sends flowers to people; those are small things, but they are important."
He and Azria wanted not only a good actor but a good man to play Moses. "Our messages are very clear -- peace, love and brotherhood, nothing less than that," Cohen muses. "I don't care how big he is. He feels everything; he is a deeply religious man." And Kilmer can sing: "He is amazing -- his voice is like old wine, it keeps getting better and better."
Stage roots run deep
This is hardly the first time Kilmer has sung outside the shower: He did his own singing in "The Doors" and performed songs as an Elvis-like idol in the well-received 1984 comedy "Top Secret!."
And, while Kilmer is best known for his movie roles, the actor's roots go deep into theater: While at Juilliard, he appeared as Orestes, Macbeth, Richard III and Henry IV. In 1981, still at Juilliard, he and classmates wrote and performed "How It All Began," a play eventually seen at the New York Shakespeare Festival with Kilmer playing the lead. In 1983, Kilmer appeared off-Broadway in "The Slab Boys," and in that quintessential "I am an act-or" role -- Hamlet -- at the 1988 Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
Not only is "Ten Commandments" not Kilmer's first appearance onstage, it's his third time playing the role of Moses. "I don't know what I'm learning from the story, but God's not convinced yet, so I have to keep doing it over and over," Kilmer jokes.
He voiced the title role in Dreamworks' 1998 animated musical "The Prince of Egypt," although the singing is credited to Amick Byram. In recent months he has completed recording the narration for a hip-hop gospel musical version of the story -- "Moses," by composer-lyricist Walter Robinson. Financed by grants, including one from Steven Spielberg's foundation, the musical was created in an effort to bring together the African American Christian and Jewish communities in Boston. Robinson says he recorded Kilmer's narration to do some creative sound mixing for the production, tentatively slated to open in New York in the spring.