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Taylor Hackford is 'obsessed' with 'Louis & Keely'

Not only is the filmmaker tackling his first stage project, he's bankrolling the Louis Prima/Keely Smith musical.

March 15, 2009|John Horn

Louis Prima and Keely Smith are struggling to save a marriage. If their relationship goes down in flames, so too might their lucrative lounge act. They have joined forces to become a Las Vegas sensation, but the emotions they tunefully profess in front of the microphone -- infatuation, desire, fidelity -- are the very things that, away from the audience, are tearing them apart.

"That was really good," director Taylor Hackford tells Vanessa Claire Smith, who's playing Smith, after she and Jake Broder, co-starring as Prima, rehearse an emotional scene of marital discord. "But you can be a little testy there."

The 64-year-old filmmaker then turns his attention to Broder, coaching him on how to shade his dialogue with some barely concealed contempt. "It's said with a smile," Hackford tells Broder of a particular line, "but it's meant to be daggers."

It's precisely the kind of intimate, soul-baring backstage banter Hackford has gravitated toward in the music movies he has directed and produced -- "Ray," "The Idolmaker" and "La Bamba." But the scene between Prima and Smith was not unfolding in front of Hackford's cameras, and there wasn't a cinematographer or a key grip in sight.

For the first time in his career, Taylor is directing a stage play, and he's taking the leap from film to theater with no safety net: He's personally bankrolling the Geffen Playhouse production, opening Thursday.

"I feel very much at risk," Hackford says between run-throughs, as he tries to pare the show's running time to about an hour and a half. "We have to prime the pump and get people there at the beginning, because if not, we'll be closed in five weeks. We are totally dependent on ticket sales."


Hey boy, hey girl

At its most basic level, "Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara" is the story of how one random encounter can change a life.

Prima, a New Orleans jazz, swing and big band marvel, was watching helplessly as his music was about to be eclipsed by rock 'n' roll. Then Smith, a 16-year-old singer, met Prima, 21 years her senior. The sum of their singing and comic parts -- a Sonny & Cher act years before Sonny met Cher -- was far greater than any change in the country's musical tastes could derail, and their high-energy act became an influential Las Vegas sensation throughout the 1950s.

The musical's origin follows a similar chance meeting trajectory.

Vanessa Smith (who is not related to Keely) struggled making it as a Los Angeles actress; her marriage had ended in divorce, and she had given notice for her bartending job. She was pouring some last-week drinks at Hollywood's M Bar and Restaurant in late 2007, days before she planned to throw in the towel and return home to Monroe, La. But that night, Broder was rehearsing at the bar's performance space, playing the cult 1950s hipster comedian/singer in "Lord Buckley in Los Angeles."

Smith liked what she saw and heard, and bought Broder a single-malt Scotch after the show. She asked him if he might be interested in being in a play about Prima and Smith. Broder said yes.

"Show me a script," he said.

"There is no script," Smith replied.

"Well, go write one," Broder answered.

Before long, she and Broder started assembling the piece together, weaving live song performances ("That Old Black Magic," "Just a Gigolo," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and many more) with scenes of Smith and Prima's meeting, falling in love, and separating. "Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara" gradually took shape.

"What we had was a very classical piece -- a tragedy -- that had in its roots plays like 'Amadeus' and 'Pygmalion,' " Broder says. "It was a version of 'A Star Is Born.' "

Says Smith: "All she ever wanted to do was please him and make him happy. She ended up being an amazing vocalist, but he helped her find that in herself. And he created his own destruction in making her more appealing."

A few years before the encounter at the M Bar, Hackford, having recently finished the Oscar-winning Ray Charles biography "Ray," was trolling around for new movie ideas.

"My mother was a big Keely Smith fan," Hackford says of the singer, who turned 77 last week and still does an annual Valentine Day's show in Palm Desert. "I would listen to her incredible phrasing as a kid wandering around the house."

Just like the performers and writers Smith and Broder, Hackford was intrigued about what happened to Smith when she met Prima, and how their personal and professional lives were transformed when they joined together not only as an act but also as husband and wife.

"The interesting thing about Louis Prima," Hackford says of the showman, who died in 1978 at age 67, "is that he reinvented himself with Keely."

Yet as their Las Vegas lounge act exploded in popularity, their marriage was tested by the fame and fortune it engendered. Hackford saw the same dramatic arc as Smith and Broder: "A Star Is Born." He met with Keely Smith to discuss a movie, but nothing immediate became of it.

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