by Nancy Rosati
JH: Yeah. I think I was more into using my energy by being creative. That’s what I really wanted to do. To have someone judge me ... I don’t audition well usually. Most of the jobs I’ve gotten have been through word of mouth or somebody saw me in something. I don’t like to be judged and I’m not a good salesman of myself. That’s not part of the gig for me. But, with my writing, I can go and be creative, and that’s easier to sell because it’s a thing and not myself. I think a lot of actors find that it’s hard to sell yourself. Selling the writing is easier and also I’ve had a lot of practice now. I’m learning, not even by choice sometimes, how to do it. I missed out on doing the Oklahomas and all that because of the way I look. No one’s going to hire me for Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. But what I love about writing is that it’s not about “We needed a blond” or “You’re too old” or “You’re too young.”
I started writing just to be creative. I was doing the tour of Dancing at Lughnasa ... this actress, Amy Van Nostrand, and I would drive back and forth to rehearsal. I would have my laptop and I would read her stuff from Pete ‘n’ Keely and see if she thought it was funny or not. That’s when I started writing.
NR: I read somewhere that every actor has a script that they’re working on. And of course most of them never amount to anything, but you really did it.
JH: When I first came back from that tour, I sat down with my friend Ann Brown, who is in The Music Man right now. She’s one of the “Pick-a-Little Ladies.” I sat down with her and we read through the script because originally I was thinking of her and I doing the parts. She said, “This is funny. This can be good.” I said, “Whatever happens, make me keep doing it.” Because 100 people get an idea, 10 people start to write it, 3 people finish it, and one person rewrites. It’s just being tenacious. It has nothing to do with your idea being good or bad. It’s just how much work it takes. It’s totally true.
When we did the first readings of Pete ‘n’ Keely I had people come to see that and they had problems with it. They would say, “If this is a television show, why aren’t there cameras?” I thought, “I don’t want to change the answer, so I need to change the question.” I have to let people know before they get in there that this is a joke. This is a Valentine to couples like Steve and Edie, and not a television show. You’re not going to see monitors. You’re not going to see a dog act. You’re not going to see their guest stars. It’s a retrospective of these two people and that is the gimmick of the show. That’s what makes it theatrical. Otherwise, go watch a television special.
NR: Can you give a brief synopsis of the story?
JH: It’s 1968. It’s a show-biz couple like Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Sonny and Cher, Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, Lucy and Desi. They’ve been divorced for about five years and Swell Shampoo is bringing them back together for one time only, to do this television show. They’re reuniting Lucy and Desi, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, all these couples and Pete and Keely are on the bill. Tonight is their reunion. You obviously don’t know who they are so I made it retrospective. They go back to tell you about their illustrious career of being Las Vegas and television stars. It works sort of like a therapy session in that you go back to “the scene of the crime” and retell your life with your partner. Anyone who’s divorced or who has been with someone for a time, will look at them and say, “Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Gee, I kind of miss that person” but you sit with them for half an hour and they’ll suck on the straw the wrong way or eat food off your plate, and you’ll want to take the fork and ... It all starts coming back and that’s what happens with Pete and Keely. As the show goes on, it gets harder and harder for them to hold down their emotions and that’s when it starts falling apart. Of course I can’t tell you what happens at the end, (laughs) but you can guess.
NR: The music is fun.
JH: Yeah, it’s that lounge kind of music. Patrick Brady did the arrangements and they’re brilliant. It’s that Steve and Edie kind of music and that’s why we have George Dvorsky and Sally Mayes, who are brilliant at it. Not many people can sing like that. It’s really hard. They’re phenomenal.
Then we had Bob Mackie come to our workshop. Everyone knows who he is. He did the Carol Burnett Show, the Sonny & Cher Show, and all those things. We had these costumes in Springfield for Pete and Keely for the Christmas bit. They were jokes on Santa outfits. We didn’t have them in the workshop that he saw, so when Bob Mackie read the script, he said to Mark Waldrop, “What do you mean? What are these Santa outfits.” Mark was trying to describe them and he had trouble. He finally said, “Did you ever watch the old Judy Garland TV Christmas Special? All those Santa Claus outfits with the hula-hoops?” Bob Mackie said, “Mark, I designed those.” So, he actually made those costumes that we were trying to emulate. Isn’t that amazing?
NR: (laughing) That’s definitely a case of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I hope Mark said, “Well, we really LIKED those costumes!”
So, Bob Mackie’s doing the costumes for you?
JH: He’s doing the costumes. They’re going to be quite stupendous. Then we have Ray Klausen doing the set. He’s a three time Emmy Award winner. He did the Cher Show. He does the Miss America Pageant, the Academy Awards. He also did Waiting in the Wings with Lauren Bacall and the "Leading Ladies" show that Julie Andrews just did.
NR: Did you do a lot of rewriting from the first readings to now?
NR: Did you listen to everyone, or just a few people? I assume you got comments from everyone you know.
JH: The best advice I’ve ever gotten is “Listen to your audience, but not as an individual. Listen to them as a group.” I listen to everybody once it’s the next day. That night it’s a little hard, but I will listen to anyone. I don’t need to hear how they might want to fix it. I like to hear, “I was bored at this point” or “You need something at the end.” Because if enough people say it you realize that something isn’t clear. I had a friend of mine who lives in Texas. She’s on the board for some theaters down there but she is not a writer. She said, “Do you know what me and my white-haired friends need?” I said, “What?” She said, “We need a tune we can hum at the end.” We used to have the show end with “It’s Us Again” but now we’ll have a reprise of a more popular number. I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet because it has to do with rights of songs. I thought that was a good point and I brought that in. At the same time, she said, “I think you should cut this whole section.” I didn’t agree with that but I still will put it in the computer and listen.
The idea basically has stayed the same. I had written it to be the opening night of their tour and this tour was going to turn into their television special in the fall. But every time I asked people, “Did you get it?” they said, “Yeah, it was the taping of the television special” so I decided to make it that.
NR: That sounds like a good way to handle it, because I can see how you would get crazy at some point, trying to take everybody’s advice.
JH: Yeah. A lot of people won’t say. I’ve actually found people saying things behind my back. So sometimes you get it the other way, but that’s OK too, and you have to get used to it.
NR: But in a case like this, while you’re working on it, I can see why you’d need the advice. Once it opens though, that’s another story.
JH: Once it opens, then I don’t care. They can say what they want.