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Broadway Bound

Episode 18

ANOTHER LUNCH WITH DREMA

Editor's Note: Drema Paige made her first appearance in Broadway Bound Episode 4, where she was introduced as an actress of the old school, meaning that year in and year out, somewhere in the English-speaking world, she is on a stage, acting. At age 13 she made her professional debut in Elmer Rice's Street Scene. At 15 (having lied about her age) she toured for three years as Somerset Maugham's Sadie Thompson in Rain. Drema understudied Gertrude Lawrence in the original King and I. As she will tell you, to date she has given 26,411 stellar performances in her career, most of them on stage.

"Darling, hello! Now why is it that you only call and offer to take me to lunch when you want advice? A girl could get a complex, you know!"

Hello, Drema. They told me you were waiting at the table. Have you ordered yet?

"Just a dry vermouth to kill the hunger pangs. I'm starving!"

How about the spiced crab cakes with avocado salad, the spring lamb stuffed grilled duck, and a cold white-peach tart for dessert?

"And a bottle of Tarlant Cuvée Louis Brut?"

Sounds perfect.

"Doesn't it? Nobody knows how to do lunch anymore. That's why I adore hearing from you every so often. You know how to feed a lady."

It's my pleasure. Did you have a chance to read the script?

"Well, yes."

And?

"Honestly?"

Yes.

"It's crap. Pure crap. It's a first play, isn't it?"

First play?

"I mean the guy who wrote it, he's never written a play before, has he?"

No.

"Thought so. He made every mistake in the book. He doesn't know how to structure lines or even write lines that can be spoken clearly. He doesn't know how to bring people on and get them off the stage. Every scene hits its high point then just keeps going on and on and on. The first act looks like it would run at least two hours and the second act about three. He's got 26 characters and he's sequenced the scenes so only two roles can be doubled. At best the characters are all cartoons with no substance or feelings. The whole play depends on how the Billy character reacts to the Garrett character's death, but that happens off stage and we don't realize the kid is dead until halfway through the second act. This Billy character, Billy Finn - that's the lead role, right?"

Right.

"He's supposed to have had this traumatic childhood and he's always talking about how he doesn't fit in anyplace, yet every time we see him he's cheerful and trying to solve everybody else's problems. It doesn't make any sense. Why the hell is he so damn happy? I counted at least three serious, emotional scenes we need to see in order to understand and believe this story, and they aren't in the script. Where are they?"

I know the scenes you mean. They weren't in the source material either.

"Source material?"

The play is an adaption of a small collection of short stories. Didn't I send a copy of them to you with the script?

"No, darling, you didn't."

Here. I've got another copy with me. Why don't you take a minute to read them now?

The Return to Neverland

Well, what do you think?

"Powerful. I can understand why you want to present this material on stage. And now I see what your young playwright was trying to do. So maybe the script isn't that bad after all. There's nothing that couldn't be fixed with a good rewrite. I can definitely see myself playing the mother, you know."

Drema, I love you, but you're too old to play the mother.

"Hell, then I'll play the father! Did I tell you they ask me to stand by for Elaine Stritch in Elsa Edgar? I turned them down, of course. I can see myself as Elsa Maxwell, but not J. Edgar Hoover. Honestly, I didn't invest all that money in plastic surgery over the years to play an ugly old man."

Why did she walk on opening night?

"I hear the bloody show just wasn't ready to open and she's far too professional to try and wing it. I would have done exactly the same thing."

You would have played Hoover?

"Oh, I'd have done the show if they'd ask me first. But I will never, ever stand by for Stritch again."

Again?

"Yes, I stood by for her once before, years ago in Noel Coward's Sail Away. Dear Noel thought I was wonderful and said he was going to write a play just for me. But, then he died and I discovered he'd told everybody in the cast the same thing. You simply can't trust geniuses, you know."

Getting back to Neverland -

"Right. There isn't anything that couldn't be fixed. Putting in those three missing scenes and cutting the hell out of the rest of it should do for a start. Tell me about the playwright. I don't recognize his name."

He's my new partner.

"The one who's building you that new theatre I've been hearing about?"

That's the one.

"When do I get a tour? I hear it's beautiful."

It is. I'll arrange something next week.

"So your new partner builds theatres and writes plays? A multi talented young man."

You don't know the half of it. He's been working on this adaption for about three months now. He left it on my desk last Friday before he went to Florida, for some family get-together, for a week. Knowing the guy, right about now he's going crazy wondering what I think of it.

"And what do you think of it?"

I don't know. That's why I wanted your opinion.

"Darling, how long have we known each other?"

Well, I was twenty-two and you were fo -

"My point is that we've known each other far too long for me to believe you don't realize how good this script is. Yes, it needs to be rewritten. But what first draft doesn't?"

Thanks. That's what I needed to hear.

"So, what's the problem? Sit the kid down, explain what needs to be done, and have him rewrite."

That's the problem. I don't know if he can. Given the source material, he's done a surprisingly good job of dramatizing the story. But that could have been beginner's luck. I'm not sure he has the self-discipline and objectivity necessary to rewrite the script successfully. And, don't forget, he's got to write those three missing scenes from scratch.

"What's it going to cost you to find out?"

What?

"What are you, paying him by the hour?"

Of course not.

"Then what's it going to cost you to find out?"

Nothing. You're right.

"So you'll give him the chance?"

I guess so. I just wish . . .

"You're not jealous of this kid, are you?"

What do you mean by that?

"You started out as a writer, yourself. Remember?"

God, that was so long ago.

"Your play closed after three performances. That's when you became a producer. You're not hesitating because this kid may be able to do something you couldn't, are you?"

Drema . . . I hope not.

"Good. Then that's settled. And keep me in mind for the mother or I'll reveal all your deep dark secrets."

You would, wouldn't you?

"Good roles aren't easy to come by for actresses of my - of a certain age. Of course I want to play the mother. It's got Tony written all over it."

You could bring experience to the role.

"I'll take that as a complement. There is one thing I want you to think about."

Which is?

"These short stories and this adaption, this isn't really a play. It should be a musical, you know. Why are you laughing?"

It's going to be a musical. I wanted to do it as a play first to work the kinks out.

"Don't waste your time. Everything you would have to do to make it a play would have to be undone to turn it into a musical. The material is appropriate to a musical. This adaption the kid did, as a play it has serious problems. As a book for a musical it works right now."

Maybe that's what's been bothering me. Now that you say it, of course, it's obvious.

"Whom are you thinking about for music and lyrics?"

There's this new kid named Stephen Trask -

"Hedwig?"

Yes. You've seen his work?

"He's totally wrong. Why don't you pitch this project to Steve? It's right up his alley."

What do you mean?

"Darling, this script is about nothing less than a man finding the courage to believe in God. This is the musical Steve's been trying to write for twenty years."

God? Where the hell do you see that?

"Well, if not God, then this Billy Finn finds the courage to believe in something, whatever you want to call it. You don't see that?"

No.

"It's there."

Give me a moment. I'm trying to adjust to the idea that I'm planning to do a musical about . . . about . . .

"Someone gaining inner peace when they discover the strength to believe in something. What's wrong with that?"

Nothing. But . . . in a musical? Is Broadway ready for something like this?

"It always has been. This isn't anything new. Since the 20s - well before my time, I assure you - musicals have introduced big, radical, controversial ideas. Just don't forget that a musical's reason for existing is to entertain, and you can pack it as full of spiritual epiphanies as you want. Think of it as sort of a Ten Commandments with catchy tunes and really good choreography."

That's one way to look at it, I guess.

"Just a second, darling. Who is that extraordinary looking dark haired woman and what the hell is she doing to those poor cats at the bar?"

What? Oh, her. Someone told me she's a theatre critic. Apparently, every so often she has a few too many cocktails and drags those cats from bar to bar, forcing them to perform "Wheels Of A Dream" for free drinks.

"Critics! They're all alike."

Anyone seeking to understand 20th-century America should consider examining it through the lens of musical theater. Ethan Mordden's Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s tells us so much more about what was really on people's minds during that decade than a hundred hours of newsreels ever could. Mordden conjures up a parade of glittering Ziegfeldian revues, galumphing operettas, Marxian star vehicles, writers like Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin in their first flowering, musical comedies full of "nutty moxie." But Mordden goes beneath the art deco surface to show how these shows dealt - in their own ways - with issues of race, immigration, the growing power of women and technology, America's changing place in the world vis-à-vis Europe, the tension between classical music and jazz as illustrative of class struggle and generation gaps. Mordden doesn't clobber you with this revelation - he simply finds that it's impossible to treat the material, regardless how fluffy and frothy, without it popping out. The book is capped with Mordden's masterful examination of Show Boat as a seminal work of musical theater and as a quintessential American document.

Make-Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s
by Ethan Mordden
List: $30.00
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN: 019510594X


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