In Bringing Cher's Life to the Stage, Writer Rick Elice Learns How to Live "Life After Love"
Three years after the death of his beloved husband, actor Roger Rees, Elice rejoins the human race. And he has Cher to thank.
When you've written one of the most successful jukebox musicals — if not the most successful biographical musical — of the 21st century, you get pitched a lot of projects like that.
Rick Elice knows this for a fact. Elice, a former theatrical advertising executive at the agency Serino Coyne, is the coauthor (with Marshall Brickman) of Jersey Boys, a show that ran on Broadway for 11 years, closed for 10 months, and then reopened off-Broadway at New World Stages, where it currently plays.
"Marshall Brickman and I collectively and individually have been asked to do a lot of these," says Elice, "and generally have said no. It takes years to get a show on, and I had already done a musical biography. You don't want to do the same thing twice."
His reaction was about the same when producers Flody Suarez and Jeffrey Seller inquired about Elice's interest in writing a musical about Cher. And then the phone rang.
"Hi, it's Cher."
"I thought it was Christian Borle playing a joke," Elice remembers of the first call he got from the musical icon in 2015. "But it became clear that it actually was Cher." She personally asked him to write the musical version of her life, and as Elice remembers, he "said several versions of 'I don't think I'm the right guy for you.' I wasn't saying it as a tactic, but I guess it played as a tactic. The more I said no, thank you, the more she said, 'You should do this.'"
At the same time, Elice's life was rapidly changing around his eyes. His husband and partner of three decades, the Tony-winning actor, writer, and director Roger Rees, was dying of brain cancer. Family took priority. But Cher called again, this time requesting a get-together in New York City.
Elice felt guilty about leaving his ailing husband, but Rees, a man of the theater even as he took his last breath (at curtain time on a Friday, naturally), told Elice to take the meeting. "I was encouraged by my dying husband to go to her hotel, and a half-hour became four hours. We hit it off to the extent that she said, 'I want it to be you and I want to start right away.'" Elice once again declined, this time owing to his familial circumstances, his "first and only priority." They parted ways, and he assumed that was it.
Rees died that July. Months went by, and the still-grieving Elice hadn't really left his apartment. There was one constant: Cher on the other end of the phone, again. "She said to me, 'I've been reading everything that's happened to you, I've waited a discreet amount of time, and now I think you should get on a plane to California and we should get to know each other. You need to get out of the house.'"
Something magical happened during that conversation, and Elice remembers it vividly. "She said, 'I think it's time for you to rejoin the human race.' And I said, 'Oh, Cher, you're quoting Thornton Wilder.' And she said, 'No, I'm quoting Hello, Dolly!' I laughed and laughed, and so did she, and it was the first time I'd laughed in six months."
That weekend in October 2015, which Cher recounted in an enthusiastic, emoji-filled Tweet, was the start of something big. After years of work, The Cher Show, with a book by Elice, is currently in previews in Chicago, before a Broadway bow at the Neil Simon Theatre this fall. In writing the show, Elice has worked his way through the bottomless pit of grief caused by losing the love of his life. He's also discovered that he has a lot more in common with a superstar than he initially thought.
At the end of their meeting, Elice pitched Cher his concept. Three actors would play Cher at different stages of her life ("an old theatrical trick that predates Three Tall Women, Elice says with a laugh), and it would be set during the taping of a variety show. "It's a single character portrayed as a girl group," Elice explains, "where they're all on all the time, and get to argue and support each other and feel differently about the same thing. I wanted it to be more about how she feels about what's happening to her, through the voices of three different individuals who are weighing in based on where they are in their lives."
Cher was excited, but a cold reading, where Elice and director Jason Moore performed the script themselves, was met with less enthusiasm. It wasn't until she saw the show on its feet and behind music stands that she gave the project the go-ahead. (She watched the Chicago production for the first time on June 23 and, in her inimitable fashion, provided her relatively unfiltered opinion for the Chicago Tribune: "There were no parts where I wanted to gouge my eyes out.")
That Cher is very much alive didn't provide much of a challenge for Elice in the writing process; it was that his beloved husband is not. "I think it was more challenging to write this because I didn't get to share it with Roger, who was a great lover of theater and was very knowledgeable about theatrical solutions." But Cher's story of survival, through multiple romantic entanglements and career resurgences, has helped Elice discover a commonality between him and a person so famous she only needs to go by a single name.
"Everyone, at one point or another, will look around and say, 'Why do people have to leave?'" Elice says. "I found that to be really volatile emotional common ground. I realized the thing I had in common with Cher, and what I think enabled me to write it, is that she has figured out how to put one foot in front of the other when she has survived loss. There I was, struggling with how to do it myself, and learning about how she's navigated the world has been a real lesson in how to live life after love, as it were. Like she said that very first time, it's brought me back into the human race."