You know those electronic seats that are put at the bottom of a staircase on a rail so that an invalid who’s too weak to climb can ease up to the next level. I never expected one to be part of a musical number, but if you live long enough, you see everything — including a musical version of the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? With a book by Henry Farrell (who wrote the 1960 novel but not the 1962 screenplay), music by Lee (Tovarich) Pockriss, and lyrics by Hal (Minnie’s Boys) Hackady, it’s now getting an elaborate production at Theatre Under the Stars’ new, 2,650-seat theater in Houston.
The show starts as the movie does, with cute-as-a-button child star Baby Jane Hudson doing a snazzy vaudeville number with her daddy, to whom she sings in earnest tribute. A few moments, later, though, she’s infuriated with him because he dares to bring her younger sister Blanche and their mother onto the stage to take a bow. Though she crosses her arms in fury, Baby Jane (trouper that she is) does finish the number. She then takes a bow, runs off stage, returns, bows again, exits again — and who comes back this time but Millicent Martin as the adult Jane Hudson, in an oversized little girl dress with adult-sized Mary Janes on her feet. Jane apparently still wants to be a childish entertainer even though she’s awfully long in the tooth, legs, and arms.
Soon, a chorus full of eerie-looking vaudevillian types — a strongman, a ventriloquist, a dance team, all of whom apparently once worked with Baby Jane — enters and sings the equally eerie title song. Then they leave so that Jane can do battle with maid Edna, who’s loyal to Blanche, who writes the checks. Blanche, you see, turned out to be a bigger star in her adult life than flash-in-the-pan Jane was in her youth. This is a plot point better handled in the film, wherein we see scenes of Blanche’s Hollywood success and Jane’s Tinseltown failure; in the musical, we only hear about how Jane got roles simply because Blanche begged that the studio include her in her pictures — until a car accident ended Blanche’s career and put her in a wheelchair.
Blanche sings about her life behind “Four Walls” as Hackady’s lyric adeptly stresses her claustrophobia (“It’s hard to believe I ever loved this room”). Jane, meanwhile, prefers bottles of Four Roses. “Waste not, worry not,” she tells Edna — to which the maid replies “Drink not, drunk not” in one of Farrell’s wittier exchanges. Jane fires Edna just as Blanche, upstairs, is enjoying one of her film retrospectives on TV. That she’s still getting attention infuriates Jane, who sings a song called “You’re There, Blanche” — meaning not only in a wheelchair (which Jane has been led to believe she put her in) but also on TV. Pockriss’s fittingly ugly melody deftly recalls the score of a horror movie, but he’ll soon offer a show-stopper-type tune called “Talent,” in which Jane says that her sister didn’t have it — not what she calls talent, anyway. Jane demands to know “Who needs talent to sing in a voice that isn’t theirs?” in another of Hackady’s better lyrics.
We see what Blanche is watching: a big production number called “Two Who Move as One,” in which the twentysomething Blanche is featured with a handsome co-star named Martin. Pockriss and Hackady’s pastiche to the carefree type of numbers in movies like Carefree is enormously long and pulls focus from the story and characters on whom we should be concentrating. But, during it, we get to see not only the wheelchaired Blanche and Young Blanche but also the Blanche she would have been today had she not been injured, who saunters on to remember what once was.
After the number’s done, there’s an encore that suddenly stops when Jane insensitively turns off the TV. That leads to the most famous scene of the film, in which Jane brings Blanche her dinner in a covered dish — which, when removed, shows a rat. Here, Blanche’s reluctance to open her dish isn’t as well-established. In the film, she’s truly frightened to see what’s there because Jane has already served her the pet bird she once cherished. In the musical, Blanche’s reaction, as directed by David Taylor, is a mere shudder and a moan. Joan Crawford was much more believable when she screamed mightily and spun around in her wheelchair, not knowing what else to do.
Blanche then tries to win over her sibling by singing “Sisters,” reminding Jane of the natural bond the two have. Jane gets into it, takes Blanche out of the wheelchair, and puts her into that aforementioned escalator chair, which glides down to the bottom as Jane lightly dances down the steps with Blanche’s hand in hers. Once the two reach their destination, Jane puts Blanche in her downstairs wheelchair and rolls her around in time to music.
Jane’s in a good mood now, and decides to advertise for an accompanist in Variety. “I’m making my comeback,” she says before hastily adding, “not that I’ve ever been away,” echoing a musical of a few seasons ago. Baby Jane suddenly appears to do “China Doll,” in which she worries that, because she can’t speak Chinese, she won’t be able to name her China doll. Then Jane leaves and Blanche starts singing “I Still Have Tomorrow,” in which she struggles out of the wheelchair and gets to that aforementioned electronic chair, singing “Here I am” and “Nothing’s gonna stop me” as she gets in. But soon after she reaches the bottom, Jane returns and says “I’ll kill you,” raising her hand as the lights black out.
The second act begins with that erstwhile vaudeville chorus singing a reprise of the title song, reminding us that Jane was “a star at seven and a has-been at 11.” Then the adult Jane does a reprise of “China Doll.” Then pianist Edwin Flagg, who saw Jane’s ad, enters, and we hear “He’s Here,” a duet in which Jane and Edwin express their anxiety. Then Jane does another of her specialty numbers, “When Am I Gonna Be Me?” backed by a bevy of Roxie-like boys. Hey — what ever happened to victim Blanche? Only after a good 15 of Act II has passed do we see that Jane has taped her mouth shout and tied her hands to a bar hanging from the ceiling — but that should be the first image we see in the second act. And Jane doesn’t need two specialty numbers from her youth to make the same point; “China Doll” should be dropped. (It borders on the racially offensive, anyway.)
Then comes another big, ’30s-style production number in which everyone’s clad in bright red, for the number is from Blanche’s first color feature. But her career is threatened because she’s having an affair with the married Martin, and a Louella-Hedda type suddenly appears to say that she’s going to tell all in her column. Blanche denies it but Jane suddenly comes out dressed as her sister and does a Forbidden Broadway-like parody of “Two Who Move as One” in which she confirms Blanche’s catting around. (This gives much more motivation than the film provides to show why one sister wants to injure the other).
Back to the present: Jane has killed both Edna, who returned to rescue Jane, and Edwin! That leaves the stage available for Jane’s Turn, called “Her.” There’s no day at the beach as there is in the film; Blanche dies in her room and there’s a dramatic ending in store for Jane as the police come to get her.
At the performance I attended, the curtain descended to the least applause I’ve ever heard from a Saturday afternoon crowd. When I saw the evening performance, the applause was no lounder — and that show was far better attended. The astonishingly perfunctory response demonstrates that a great deal must happen to Baby Jane if the musical is to have a future. Actually, I say that it could, but under markedly different circumstances. What everyone seems to have missed is that this is a very small musical, ill-suited to the mammoth house that Theatre Under the Stars now inhabits. When Jane holds a rat up high before putting it on the plate, no one beyond row L in the orchestra of this 2,650-seat theater can possibly see it. I sat in the orchestra both times, in the third row for the matinee but in the 41st for the evening, where I felt as if I were watching trained fleas on a mammoth set that recalled a minor-league Sunset Boulevard mansion.
Worse, the set designer has provided a rather airy bedroom for Blanche that sure doesn’t stress the claustrophobic conditions she’s complaining about in “Four Walls.” What’s more, Blanche is ensconced on a balcony that overlooks the expansiveness of the lower floor. No! Put her in a tight, three-walled room — and get this show into a tiny, Off-Broadway-size space, for it only requires a small cast. You need three Janes and Blanches — one pair for now, one for the movie scenes, one for the vaudeville days. Get an Edna and Edwin: she’ll double as Louella-Hedda and he as Daddy. Add in one Martin and you’re all set. When the Blanche of today observes her younger self as played by another actress, it’s one salary wasted, for the moment would be far more theatrically effective if old Blanche got out of her wheelchair in a fantasy sequence and walked around assessing who she was in her salad days.
Which brings us to choreographer Dan Siretta’s elaborate hommages to movie musicals. He’s done his job well but the big chorus isn’t necessary. Blanche is a Ginger Rogers type and Lord knows that Rogers and Astaire had plenty of numbers alone, which Blanche and Martin could do here one-on-one. By the way, I suspect that some of the authors’ motivation in writing this show is the hope that they could entice divas of yore to make comebacks in it. Millicent Martin and Leslie Denniston are both excellent but they’re hardly the household names (such as LuPone, Close, and Buckley) that I’ll bet the authors originally envisioned. Last year, many a musical theater enthusiast said, “Hey, Liza’s in a wheelchair — have her play Blanche, and Lorna can be Jane!” Actually, that’s inspired casting, though I’m not sure that an audience would want Luft in what is clearly the showier part. (I doubt that Ms. Minnelli would, either.)
Get Charles Busch to play Jane, Tommy Femia for Blanche, and the laughs would ring through an Off-Broadway house for years to come — especially in the escalator-chair song. Of all my criticisms, I suspect that this one will most hurt or anger the authors, since the first line of the press kit for their musical stresses that “This is not a camp show.” To be frank, the material is professional but not much more, and that doesn’t pass muster in a sincere musical. Yet it would be fine in a drag show, for which our expectations are automatically lowered.
Listen: The audience isn’t responding anyway, so Farrell, Pockriss, and Hackady may as well throw in the towel and resort to camp. That might cause them to feel for a while the way Rose did when she walked into Wichita’s one and only burlesque theater in Gypsy. But, just as success mollified Gypsy Rose Lee and even Rose, prosperity could perhaps soothe the authors’ souls.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]