“Strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.” –Oscar Levant
Hollywood Babylon. Rodgers & Hart. That’s Entertainment II. Those were some of the inspirations behind the creation of Tales of Tinseltown by composer Paul Katz and myself.
In the movie tribute, That’s Entertainment II (1976), there’s a section about a bunch of Hollywood stars who hopped on the musical movie bandwagon during its 1930s heyday, from a fiercely choreographed Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady to a fearlessly singing Clark Gable in Idiot’s Delight. Arriving concurrently was an influx of Broadway musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Alice Faye, who became the American Idols of their time; and others, like Ethel Merman, whose oversize personalities couldn’t quite be contained by the silver screen.
Another influence for me was America’s Sweetheart (1931), a particularly naughty Rodgers & Hart musical about Hollywood. I familiarized myself with the show as researcher for Dorothy Hart’s biography of her brother-in-law, Thou Swell, Thou Witty: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart. The show featured such daring rhymes as:
“With my John and MY Max,
I can reach a climax,
That’s proof positive,
That a lady must live.”
But my greatest incentive for this show was personal. It was an experience that made Elmo Green, the flustered young Jewish writer in Tinseltown, my most autobiographical character. In 1984, what seemed like a whirlwind career ascension reached an unexpected downturn. I had just won acclaim writing the off-Broadway show Charlotte Sweet. My next project was Mrs. McThing, based on Mary Chase’s hit play. Mrs. McThing was chosen over many submissions as part of a new program, at the Goodspeed Opera House (East Haddam, CT), to launch new musicals. The composer was Emmy-winning Jack Urbont. Goodspeed’s administrators called our show “a potential new Annie” (a musical which had originated at Goodspeed). Then, everything went haywire. A series of calamities, disagreements, and last-minute rewrites was capped when one of our leads was replaced 48 hours before critics started attending. Our creative team, many of whom had been part of the close-knit team from Charlotte Sweet, now clashed. Nonetheless, our first two reviews were raves. Then, high hopes were dashed by the review that really counted, Variety: a scathing pan that torpedoed all prospects. I plunged into depression.
What finally bolstered my spirits was a book depicting far worse career dives than mine, Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. Reading about the desperation and depravity of some Hollywood luminaries was a feast of schadenfraude. It sparked a therapeutic wellspring of creativity. Overnight, I envisioned a cautionary allegory that could be leavened by nostalgic movie allusions, silliness, and song. The show would be in the style of those uplifting 1930s movie musicals, many produced at the height of America’s Great Depression, films I’d watched as a child on TV’s Million Dollar Movie. I started with the self-referential character, Elmo Green and created an analogous storyline.
Within a month I’d written half a libretto and been introduced by agent Charles Hunt to a composer who was perfect for the project, Paul Katz. Paul had an extraordinary ability to take my lyrics and conjure up the full range of musical modes popular during the 1930s, adding his own contemporary spin. By July, 1985, only eight months after my return from Goodspeed, the new Colby/Katz show was in rehearsal. Tales of Tinseltown was first produced off-off Broadway by the Directors Company (Michael Parva, artistic director). We benefited from an exceptional creative team and cast, two of whom—the timeless Nat Chandler and Alison Fraser— are on this recording. Though popular, the show needed some rethinking, which would occur in subsequent productions.
Within the show, Paul and I were to conjure many icons of classic movie musicals. Characters evoke Ethel Merman, Mario Lanza, Gene Kelly, and Joan Crawford. Ellie is reminiscent of everyone from Judy Garland to June Allyson. We found places to suggest the styles of Shirley Temple (“Sounds in the Night”), Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta (“Hunchy”), Astaire & Rogers (“All Over the Place”), The Wizard of Oz (the farmhands in “I Belong In Hollywood”), Busby Berkeley (“Keep In Step” evokes both “We’re In the Money” and—set on a aeroplane—“Flying Down to Rio”), and even All That Jazz (the hospital scene—“For Your Career”).
The show was subsequently optioned for Broadway and for London (destinations that were never quite reached). Producers Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonazales-Fallà co-presented versions at such theatres as the George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick NJ) and the Coconut Grove Playhouse (Miami FL). It was they who cogently guided my transforming the show from its original all-sung, all-rhymed format. Thru-sung musicals had been a specialty of mine in cases like the Gilbert & Sullivan style Charlotte Sweet. However, Paul Katz and I refashioned Tinseltown into more of a screwball comedy script—though still largely musicalized—in keeping with its Hollywood movie motif. Though the show was being refined with new songs such as “All I Dreamed,” its balance of satire and despair needed some fine-tuning in the second act. Beyond the lunacy, this was—after all—the cautionary tale of very talented people who nonetheless feel compelled to compromise themselves to achieve their ambitions. The challenge was to flavor the froth while retaining the substance. The show was announced for a possible Broadway move during the meager 1988-89 musical season, where ultimately no score was nominated for a Tony Award and the retrospective Jerome Robbins Broadway won Best Musical with little competition. However, Tinseltown wasn’t ready at that point. And its original journey ended there.
Notwithstanding, this was a show that I—and many others—loved deeply. In various settings, its songs were performed by Michael Feinstein, Julie Wilson, Kate Baldwin, Marcia Lewis, Alix Korey, Jason Graee, Nora Mae Lyng, et al.
In 2004, producer Dale Young and our friends at the Directors Company presented a major staged reading in NYC. Most auspiciously, in 2007, a revised Tales of Tinseltown proved a huge success as produced in Hollywood itself by the Actors Co-Op, whose theatre was located nearby the Hollywood Sign, a landmark figuring pivotally in the show.
Tales of Tinseltown is now licensed by Stage Rights. It is with deep gratitude and joy that Paul Katz and I have been able to arrange for this recorded version, with its dream cast and superlative producing team. We thank all our champions and Indiegogo investors for making this preservation possible.