Lily Tomlin
Lily Tomlin

LILY LIGHTS THE LIGHTS

Continuing The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe for a second chorus on Broadway, Lily Tomlin bonded this morning with the first wave of fans to hit the Booth box-office, then took to the roof of the theater to screw in the last light bulb on the marquee.

This is her third Broadway house. The Search began next door to the Booth at the Plymouth; before that (in 1977), she debuted with Appearing Nitely at the Biltmore, and she still recalls the night Claudette Colbert visited her backstage there. "She told me, 'The first time my name was on a marquee was at the Biltmore in 1927.' Her real name, she said, was Lily. She changed it to Claudette because she thought it was more sophisticated."

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BABY JANE IS REBORN

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? you may rightly ask. The stage musical version of the story about a demented movie-star sister-act has been gestating for five or six years and is now taking its first formal steps toward Broadway, via Texas. This week, its songwriters--lyricist Hal Hackady (Teddy and Alice, Goodtime Charley) and composer Lee Pockriss (Tovarich, Ernest in Love)--head for Houston to discuss casting and check out the Wortham Center, the 2,400-seat opera house where the show will bow in July of 2001.

The book is by Henry Farrell, who authored the original novel which served as the basis for the 1962 movie with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and the 1991 TV-movie with the Redgrave "guls," Vanessa and Lynn. The storyline, about two movie queens of the '30s who go Gothic in the '60s, provides fine scenery-chewing opportunities for actresses "of a certain age"--so, as a property, it is considered a magnet for established stars. (Alix Korey and Kim Criswell did the eight-song demo record.) At least a dozen different combinations are currently being considered for the leads. My favorite tag-team matches of those being bandied about: Elaine Stritch and Cloris Leachman. It will also be fun to find another Victor Buono, who got an Oscar nomination as the portly, prissy piano-teacher who coaches Jane for a comeback. My suggestions: Sheridan Morley or William Finn.

Uncast, the show did $500,000 in the first week after it was announced for the Wortham. Following its July launching, it will probably open in London before Christmas of 2001.

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JOHNNY GUITAR RIDES AGAIN

Nor is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the only Joan Crawford movie being musicalized for the stage. Also getting the same treatment is Johnny Guitar, Crawford's one and only foray out West, and in a Republic picture at that! The spectacle of La Crawford in Levis (by Jean Louis?) playing a hard-bitten saloon-keep named Vienna (sausage?) was "unique," if nothing else. And it was nothing else; the film wound up being mostly famous for the foes made by the star during the shoot-- Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, and a fair share of the name-brand cast that poor old Republic showered her with. Nicholas Ray, the director, would throw up daily, knowing the feuds that awaited him on the set.

Naturally, it takes a special sensibility to turn this aggressive mess into musical theater, and the project has just that in Joel Higgins and Martin Silvestri. They found a musical in another, equally offbeat enterprise, The Traveling Executioner, a 1970 flick in which Stacy Keach paraded a portable electric chair through rustic America of the previous century. It bowed in London a few years ago as Fields of Ambrosia, but hasn't been done in New York.

Nicholas van Hoogstraten, author of that lavish and invaluable coffee-table book Lost Broadway Theatres, did Johnny Guitar's book. The show is targeted for Off-Broadway next year.

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Shuler Hensley in Oklahoma!
Shuler Hensley in Oklahoma!
FROM JUD TO JAVERT

Lincoln Center's American Songbook salute Heart and Soul: The Songs of Frank Loesser last week gave New Yorkers their first look at Shuler Hensley, the American who won the Olivier Award for his performance as Jud Fry in the London Oklahoma! He makes his Broadway debut Tuesday as another malcontent, Javert in Les Misérables.

Hensley's contribution to the Loesser evening was a mighty Tony in The Most Happy Fella--or, as Margaret Whiting called it, The Happy Fella. When corrected, Maggie had a great recovery line: "Well, maybe this fella was just happy."

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WILD, WILD WILEY

Did I really say a few weeks ago that Was was Barry Kleinbort's first musical? Well, Was wasn't: He did Angelina (based on Frank D. Gilroy's That Summer, That Fall), wrote incidental music and songs for Allan Knee's Second Avenue, and supplied additional lyrics for Karen Mason's One Tough Cookie. Now, in addition to Was (his musical about Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz fame), he's working on one about Lee Wiley at the behest of Lois Walden, who commissioned the piece. Lee Wiley: One Night Only takes place in 1972 when the jazz singer did a Carnegie Hall concert for the Newport Jazz Festival. "It was the first time she sang in public in about 14 years," Kleinbort says, "and it would be the last.

"We're just beginning the rolling-up-our-sleeves work on it now," he continues. "It's a very strange and wild story. I feel like Sherlock Holmes, uncovering this information about someone who seems to have been a real cipher, trying to find people who knew her and finding out where all their feelings about her line up. I've really pieced together why certain things happened the way they happened. She was a very complicated lady and a dark one."

Complicating his sleuthing is the fact Wiley blithely invented stories about herself, like her "temporary blindness" and her Indian heritage. "She told those stories so much she believed them to be so," says Kleinbort. "The whole thing about the temporary blindness seems to have been a breakdown." Among her lovers was the man who composed many of the evergreens that she sang, Victor Young ("My Foolish Heart," "Stella by Starlight," "When I Fall in Love"). The film composer was nominated for 22 Academy Awards and never won--until four months after his death (for his music score to 1956's Around the World in 80 Days).

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DUKING IT OUT

The Duke on 42nd Street is a lovely new theater space that has yet to see anything less than an excruciating theatrical experience. First, there was the black musical about slavery days, The In-Gathering. And now, ecumenically, there's the Jewish Repertory Theater production of Arthur Laurents' half-baked Big Potato. The author saw the error of his ways too late and raised such a row that critics were disinvited to see it. Alas, the actors had to go ahead and perform the damn thing anyway, knowing they had been disowned.