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How sweet it is: Motown hit-makers eye Broadway

April 15, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

AS Motown's top songwriter-producers during the 1960s, Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland -- famed simply as Holland-Dozier-Holland -- created indelible, home-cooked hits on the ground floor of a two-story house in Detroit that label owner Berry Gordy, who lived upstairs with his family, dubbed Hitsville, USA.

Now, with their sights set on Broadway as the songwriting team for a musical based on the Diane Keaton-Bette Midler-Goldie Hawn film "The First Wives Club," HDH is open to inspiration while eating out.

They're at a Coco's in North Hollywood, across the street from the rehearsal studio where they've just finished playing demo recordings of numbers they've written for the show over the last half-year. It's a progress report for producers Paul Lambert and Jonas Neilson, theatrical novices whose backgrounds are in marketing and filmmaking. The two are betting that -- 35 years after their last chart hits -- these architects of what Gordy branded "The Sound of Young America" still have what it takes to create enticing songs for middle-aged America.

Especially middle-aged women. That target audience helped turn 1996's "The First Wives Club" into a screen hit that grossed more than $105 million in the United States. It's about a trio of divorced women, traded in for younger wives, whose quest for vengeance on their ex-husbands turns into something more uplifting, although the vengeance still is sweet. The same demographic, the producers reason, constitutes a potentially boffo box office base for a musical -- if, unlike many new Broadway shows, it can be stocked with songs the audience walks out humming.

Enter Holland-Dozier-Holland, 1990 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose tunes for the Supremes, the Four Tops and Martha & the Vandellas, among others, place them in such rare company as Lennon-McCartney and Leiber and Stoller when it comes to inspired teamwork that's almost guaranteed to elicit humming in listeners of a certain age.

Not resting on lyrics and laurels

MERELY to consider the titles of some of the songwriters' 30-plus Top 20 hits -- including "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" and "Reach Out I'll Be There" -- is to hear a symphony.

But they're not milking the oldies now. "The First Wives Club" is no hit-fueled "jukebox musical," such as "Mamma Mia!" "Jersey Boys" or "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the stage monument to Motown that Gordy was going to write for L.A.'s Center Theatre Group -- before it got indefinitely sidetracked when Gordy was said to be having trouble getting permission to include songs he needed but no longer owned.

Dozier is so immersed in HDH's first new songs together since the 1980s that he barely notices when one of their nuggets, the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," comes over the restaurant's sound system. "I hear them all the time. I tune them out, mostly," says the moon-faced middleman of the trio, who seems to be its live-wire nerve center, with lyricist Eddie Holland as a talkative but steady conceptualist and Brian Holland as the quiet one who joins Dozier in whipping up melodies and nailing down studio performances as a producer.

But when the women at the table -- Dozier's wife, Barbara, and Eddie Holland's assistant, Shirley Washington -- start talking about a recent discussion of menopause on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Dozier tunes right in and gets a sudden hot flash. " 'But I don't mean menopause!' " Let's remember that one," he calls out, beckoning from across the long table to Eddie Holland, who nods his agreement. HDH already has written a rousingly funky first act anthem for "The First Wives Club," "Ready to Make a Change," in which the three divorcees become allies and begin to move on down the road to revenge and recovery. You can almost imagine the titters should one of the wives -- maybe Hawn's character, whom the musical will recast as a pop chanteuse rather than a movie actress -- sings Dozier's lunchtime inspiration: Yes, she's ready to make a change ... but not the change.

The ability to hear what women say, and to transform it into songs women want to hear, helped drive their hits, HDH agree. They think it's a crucial qualification for their membership in the All Guys Club that is creating "The First Wives Club."

Joining HDH is Broadway veteran Rupert Holmes, who has written an initial treatment they're using as an outline for songwriting. Holmes, who is also a composer but will stick to scriptwriting on this project, wrote the book for the final Kander and Ebb musical, "Curtains," which ran at the Ahmanson Theatre before opening last month on Broadway. He won 1986 Tony Awards for his book and score for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

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