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Well-fashioned predictions

Designer turned musical producer Max Azria bets on 'The Ten Commandments.'

September 07, 2004|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

Max Azria is ready for his comeback.

Not in the fashion world he never left, ground zero for his Los Angeles-based BCBG apparel empire favored by women who are bon chic, bon genre, stylish but practical. Until now, the compact Tunisian-born designer may have been associated with dripping hemlines in fragile chiffon, but he's banking that that will change Sept. 27, when "The Ten Commandments," a new stage musical starring Val Kilmer and produced by BCBGMaxAzria Entertainment, opens at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

The 55-year-old Azria spent four years studying theater in Paris as a teen, and lo these many years later, he's returning to the stage as the sole investor, producer, costume designer and all-around midwife to the American version of the French hit about Moses leading the exodus from Egypt.

In his youth, Azria had plenty of passion but little patience for paying his dues in the theater, so after a few acting gigs he went into the fashion business in Paris. He launched BCBG in Hollywood-adjacent in 1989, years before most people connected the dots between red carpets and ringing cash registers.

Now Azria is spending a sizable chunk of his fashion fortune on his first love. And he's betting that his ability to predict public tastes will translate into ticket sales.

"As a designer, my first job is to serve the consumer, to teach women and men what they will wear in the spring or the summer," he says in a thick French accent. "The entertainment business is exactly the same. A director will tell you what kind of movie he's going to deliver in 2006. Who knows what people will want to see at that moment? You have to be psychic.

"So with my first approach in entertainment, either I fail or I make it happen. If I fail, I go back 100% to my design. And of course, if I make it happen, I will have to jump."

Azria is sitting on a couch in a humble conference room at his factory in Vernon, a few miles south of downtown. He's dressed in a cream-colored shirt and pants topped by a houndstooth jacket in shades of caramel. It's late morning, and soon he will be off on his daily run to the Kodak Theatre to watch rehearsals.

Director Robert Iscove, a Broadway veteran who choreographed the film version of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," says Azria's approach to producing, a task he shares with BCBGMaxAzria Entertainment president Charles Cohen, is hands-on and liberal at the same time. "Mainly at this stage, he encourages us," Iscove says. "We discuss certain things about staging and making sure the message is clear."

Indeed, Azria is impassioned about doing more than entertaining his audiences -- he wants to inspire them to embrace the principles of peace and brotherhood. He started with his cast of 50 whom he has hosted twice for Shabbat dinner at his home.

"Moses and the Ten Commandments is not about the Jewish religion, the Christian religion or the Muslim religion," he says. "It's all the religions that believe in one god. Moses and the Ten Commandments represent freedom, love and the foundation of morality. As I say to the Muslim or the Christian or the Jew, 'Hey, guy, wake up. Who cares about the way that you pray as long as you pray with the Ten Commandments as a foundation and you pray to only one god.' We may have different ways to go -- one takes a bicycle, one a car, one a bus -- but at the end of the day, we're all in front of God."

Azria was so enthusiastic about the musical that when he first read in the media that its French creator, Elie Chouraqui, planned to launch it in Paris four years ago, he bought 100 tickets for opening night. A few months later, his friend Cohen mentioned over dinner that he was looking for backers for an American production. Azria volunteered, which turned out to be a substantial commitment although he declines to say how much.

While the Paris production went on to sell 2.5 million tickets, the producers knew French pop music wouldn't play in America, so they commissioned a complete rewrite of the show, with new music and lyrics by Patrick Leonard (who wrote Madonna's "Like a Prayer") and Maribeth Derry, all centered in Los Angeles. They've also booked New York's Radio City Musical Hall for 38 performances beginning Jan. 18, as the launch of a national tour.

The venture is ambitious, risky and fraught with pressure because the producers are sidestepping the usual route of workshops and runs in lower-profile cities. Iscove says Azria is willing to do it because he believes in the project.

"It will be wonderful for Los Angeles theater to prove to the world that we have the talent here to do that," he says. "But we'll make our mistakes in full view of everybody. Hopefully, there will be precious few of them."

Azria says he's not worried. "The money isn't important," he says. "What's important is to create a message in music that will touch people and lead them to a better life."

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