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Out with a bang

What may be the last of the big and bawdy Broadway musicals debuts in L.A. as the era of Kander and Ebb fires a departing shot. Could it really be `Curtains'?

July 30, 2006|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

New York — YOU'RE ... A ... Special kind of people known as show people / You live in a world of your own ... / You don't know how lucky you are!

These are words that could only be spoken -- or rather, sung -- by a genuine musical theater buff, hoofing it and playing it up to the ensemble as he belts his tuneful case. And that true believer also just happens to be the local detective, here to solve the murder of the leading lady during a show's out-of-town tryout. And, oh, by the way, while he's here, he's got a few ideas about how to save this bomb of a show!

That "detective" is actually actor David Hyde Pierce, rehearsing onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre this month. And the "bomb" is the show within the show, not the new John Kander/Fred Ebb/Rupert Holmes musical, "Curtains," that premieres Aug. 9, directed by Scott Ellis. The cast includes Tony winners Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba as well as Jason Danieley, with choreography by Rob Ashford and music direction by David Loud.

A backstage musical and murder mystery combined, "Curtains" is a whodunit in more than one sense of the word. It may also be the last new work to be produced on this scale from Kander and Ebb, one of Broadway's best composer-lyricist teams. And while that fact alone won't likely spell curtains for the American musical, it's certainly a sign that generational change is waiting in the wings.

Kander and Ebb, the duo that created such musicals as "Chicago," "Cabaret," "Zorba" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," began working on "Curtains" in the early 1990s. The original book writer, Peter Stone, died in 2003. Then just a year later, in a twist worthy of the musical theater he so loved, Ebb died suddenly. The creators were left not only with fodder for a conspiracy theory, but facing the very real question of whether the show must go on.

It did, and the result is classic Kander and Ebb. " 'Curtains' has an edge because it's a murder mystery, but it is also just a big old valentine to the musical theater," says Ellis, the Broadway director who has done four previous projects with the duo. "This show is not as dark as their others, although there is murder. But it's really embracing that 'putting on a show' thing, which I love."

Writer-composer-novelist Holmes, whom Ellis brought onboard after Stone's demise, was given free rein to rewrite and to contribute additional lyrics. But he had no intention of letting the original idea die an untimely death. "What I wanted to bring out was the love that not only the detective has for musical theater but that everyone has for that world that they're privileged to be in," explains Holmes, the Tony Award-winning creator of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "Accomplice."

"We hardly ever think about what a strange occupation it is," he continues.

Pierce also feels the evidence adds up to a historical moment for the stage. "Fred's work before, and John's work now, along with Rupert, I think they're all at the top of their game," says the actor, who most recently trod the Broadway boards in "Spamalot" but is perhaps best known for the TV series "Frasier." "It's a little tricky, but that's also what makes it fun."

And for Holmes, as for so many others through the decades, a Kander and Ebb show is, well, to die for. "It's the embodiment of heartbreak and the thrill of an opening night," he says. "They're musical theater as much as musical theater has been. They're it."

*

Getting it right is murder

IT is late April, and the Ahmanson stage is largely bare, due to a just-opened production of Robert Wilson's "The Black Rider," when Ellis and his partners in crime arrive for their first L.A. production meeting. Much of the team, including the director, has flown in from New York for the day, and many are laying eyes on the space for the first time.

Crew members lurk backstage, sometimes looking on, as Ellis spreads color copies of Anna Louizos' set designs and William Ivey Long's costumes on the stage floor. Louizos scrutinizes sight lines, while Ellis and the technical design team move from audience to stage and back, trying to envision the actual sets.

The conversation turns to a key set element, a dead-on re-creation of the ornate proscenium arch of the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where the fictional musical within the musical is trying out in 1959, when "Curtains" is set. By placing the faux proscenium within the Ahmanson's, it not only evokes the atmosphere of a classic theater, it also underscores the notion of a show within a show. And more pragmatically, it helps mitigate the often distant feel the venue tends to have.

"Can we cheat the opening a bit more?" Ellis asks Louizos. "It's just so big. And there are so many times when we have only two, three, four people onstage. I want to keep it intimate."

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