I’ve had musicals produced on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Radio City Music Hall, across North America, and won a musical theater award from Stephen Sondheim. So, when a New York friend recommended me to a Producer to write his big new musical I thought, “Could this, be it? Could this be a big break to write a new musical for an actual, real-live legit Producer with Broadway credits – who, (small world,) I had met at a Christmas party a few years before. He shall remain nameless. But just let me say, it was a three-part name that evoked chuckles since it sounded like a Mel Brooks character with a paisley ascot and cigarette holder. But I was thrilled to have been hired to write a musical based on the life of one of my favorite sixties female singers – who shall also remain nameless. She was a pop icon with an incredible story to tell.
After researching the amazing life story of this sixties singer, I pitched the Producer my fresh take on the material that was imaginative and as edgy as her life. He loved it! I signed a deal memo to get paid a small amount up-front. Since this was a big show and a very marketable project, I could make a fortune in royalties should it ever see the neon lights of opening night. My musical theater career hopes were high. But I’d been to this rodeo so many times before, that I had, “caution” branded on what was left of my soul.
As I began writing the treatment, the Producer (with the pretentious name) was re-opening the famed, Encore Dinner Theater in Tustin. The Encore was the pride of this small city outside L.A. and had been dark for thirty years. Now, it was premiering a new Christmas show, “Tis the Season.” I was invited to attend opening night and the chance to see what my new Producer could produce. I hit the freeway for Tustin that was about an hour drive past malls and car lots into the cookie-cutter burbs of Orange County. I imagined searchlights scraping the sky, a bulb-popping marquee and royal red carpet. Arriving in Tustin, I pulled into a non-descript strip mall. The searchlights were headlights of minivans and the marquee could have been advertising a mattress sale. Maybe the red carpet was at the dry cleaners next to the chicken take-out. But upon entering the lobby, I was relieved to see that it appeared to be a real live theater where I was greeted by the Producer and his small polyester entourage. Stepping into the house, I was impressed to see carpeting, chandeliers, red banquettes and tables with crisp white tablecloths. The stage was a good size with a small orchestra pit and red pleated curtain with a sparkly Christmas logo.
Amidst the buzz of excited Tustinians, I was seated at the Producer’s special table where I was introduced to his family as the writer of his new musical. Among folded cloth napkins, shiny silverware and glistening wine goblets, there was a program and menu. I leafed through the program and perused the list of festive and familiar Christmas songs. I checked out the large cast and noticed that none of them were Actors Equity. Oh well, since L.A. is an industry town for Film and TV, many stage actors were non-union. I flipped to the menu featuring Christmas dinner choices of turkey, chicken or roast beef. In the spirit of the holidays, I ordered the turkey. Little did I know there would be a bigger turkey onstage.
Suddenly, the audience began to hush as the chandeliers began to rise. The lights dimmed. A spotlight hit the orchestra pit and illuminated a small orchestra poised for the overture. The conductor raised his arms and pointed his baton at a solo trumpet. The first few notes of, “The Christmas Song” blared out of the pit. Every note was flat as my Diet Coke. The orchestra kicked in, not unlike the tinny, eager sound of a High School marching band.
Onstage, lights up. A trap door opened and out popped two young children. With shrill voices and wide-eyed awe, they explored their parents’ attic. Suddenly, the ghost of their dead grandfather appeared, played by an elderly actor who must have been out on a day-pass from the Home. Ghostly Grampa invited the kids to go on a journey through his wonderful memories of Christmases past. This was the plot (for lack of a better word) and a clothesline on which to hang a parade of popular Christmas numbers. And off we went on a magical tour of dead Grampa’s holiday nostalgia.
The squeaky orchestra kicked in, and so did the chorus. Something was odd about this musical theater chorus of about two dozen. Nobody was attractive. Usually, one of the joys of musical theater is getting lost in the fantasy of taut dancer bodies and sparkling smiles. This chorus looked like a Tustin police line-up. And the chorus girls, dressed in scanty elf costumes made me think that maybe I should have ordered the roast beef. Behind their plastered smiles you could feel them counting beats as they shuffled through choreography that was reminiscent of the dance floor at my Bar Mitzvah. I flashed a smile to my Producer across the table and jammed a dinner roll into my face. My turkey dinner arrived during, “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” which basically described the entire cast. Pass the cranberries.
I quickly scanned my program to see if there was an intermission since I didn’t want the lights to come up and have to comment on the first act. It was hard to tell what was the finale of the first act until the chandeliers began to descend. Shit. Intermission. Maybe if I choked on a turkey bone, I wouldn’t be able to talk about the show while receiving the Heimlich Maneuver. Instead, I dove into my dinner trying to keep my mouth so full of turkey that I couldn’t comment. Pass the cranberries. But having been in show biz my whole life, I knew how to lie through my teeth that needed flossing.
I envied the chandeliers. They got to escape up into the ceiling for the second act. Good thing I had finished my dinner, because my jaw-hit the table when, as a salute to Chanukah and the three Jews in Tustin, the dead grandfather took the kids for a fun-filled romp through a cemetery. From bright greens and reds, the lights faded into hazy shadows and misty dry ice as Grampa Ghost escorted the children to the graveside of an old army buddy who was killed in World War II.
With a funereal underscore, he introduced the innocents to the Holocaust, explaining cattle cars packed with Jews rattling toward chimney-smoking extermination camps. Being Jewish, it was nice to see an acknowledgement of Chanukah. Instead of this, they could have put potato latkes on the menu. But from the Sugar Plum Fairy to Hitler? Oy vey! I wanted to remove the knives from all the place settings to avoid an audience mass suicide. This portion of the show was like licking the sweet candy of a Tootsie Roll Pop and discovering the chewy chocolate center is a turd. After the dry ice wafted over the pit and into chicken dinners, the lights shot back up and “Fa la la la la la,” we were back to a happy sparkly Christmas!
I strained to read my program in the dark to count how many numbers were left. And then, the chorus shuffle-ball-changed into a tableau of the Nativity featuring Mary, Joseph, the three Wise Men and a sheep that looked like it would rather have been on the menu.
A robed actor stepped out of the biblical ensemble and recited the story of Jesus. It was his moment to shine with a monologue that went on longer than the new Testament. It had so many dramatic pauses, that nobody could tell when he was finished – which explained why, when he was done, all you could hear was the sound of a single clap. But thank you, Baby Jesus, the orchestra kicked in with a festive all singin’ all sort of dancin’ finale. The chandeliers descended. Applause. Whistles and cheers. The company bowed and peered through the glare of lights to see if their friends and relatives had finished their Apple Brown Betty.
All of a sudden, my Producer rose from our table and ascended the steps to the stage. Holding a piece of paper in his hand, he thanked the cast and audience for celebrating the re-opening of the Encore Dinner Theater. Glancing at the paper in his hand, he began to introduce a celebrity in the audience. I craned my neck to see who it was. He went on to announce the credits of a writer who had a show on Broadway called, Candles, Snow and Mistletoe. I wrote that show. I looked around, wondering if someone else here, was involved in it too? Suddenly, I was hit by a spotlight. Like a deer in headlights, I stood, smiled and waved at the audience. My Producer glanced at his paper and went on to say, “…and he wrote the hit movie, A Fish Called Wanda.”
It was then, that I realized it was my resume that he had in his hand. Let me explain. When I worked for HBO in New York, I had the privilege of collaborating with John Cleese on a comedy behind-the-scenes segment for his movie, A Fish Called Wanda. A man from another table leaned over and proclaimed, “A Fish Called Wanda is my favorite movie!” I replied, “Mine too!” Hey, I was in Tustin. Who’s to know I didn’t write it?
Back onstage, my Producer introduced another celebrity responsible for a delightful evening – the chef! The spotlight searched for the swinging kitchen door and a white-aproned chef entered. As he bent over to bow, he was introduced as having just recovered from rectal cancer. Glad I didn’t order the chocolate mousse.
Opening night subsided into air kisses and changing-the-subject farewells. I thanked my Producer for a one-of-a-kind evening and ran for my car. So that was the work of the Producer of my new musical – that never happened. Pass the cranberries.