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Hot Flash! A Menopause Revue

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the pantheon of favorite topics for musicals, love stories loom large, from “Carousel” to “Camelot.” And classics redux aren’t far behind: “My Fair Lady,” “Man of La Mancha,” “The Wizard of Oz.”

But collaborators Barbara Schill and Dave Mackay don’t have to worry about plowing worn-out terrain. They’re the team behind a new musical revue about menopause. Yes, menopause.

“Is It Just Me, or Is It Hot in Here?,” which opens in a Theatre InSite production at the CBS Studio Center in Studio City on Friday, might sound like a dark horse candidate for hitdom. But a musical about tortured political prisoners (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) probably didn’t sound like it would fly either. Ditto Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.”

Besides, Schill has inspiration--and perspiration--on her side. The idea came to her in a flash. “I started having hot flashes myself and was pretty miserable, so I decided to make the best of a situation,” says lyricist, book writer and co-composer Schill, seated next to Mackay, in her publicist’s mid-Wilshire office one recent afternoon.

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“I usually see the humor in things,” she continues. “Being able to laugh at it helped get me through.”

Then too, the time appears to be ripe to market midlife. Certainly the bookshelves are full of entries on the topic, from Gail Sheehy’s “New Passages” to Germaine Greer’s “The Change.”

“This is a major aspect of life that we know very little about,” says director Michael Arabian. “Now that the baby-boom generation is this age, there’s more information that has been provided, just because a mass number of people are demanding it--which is why it’s the perfect time to do this.”

“The writing is funny and insightful about the issues of women in and approaching middle age,” Arabian says. “These are issues that women have always kept to themselves. Now, coming to see this, they [can] realize that they all have this in common. And men will finally understand what their women are going through.”

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A divorced 55-year-old mother of two married sons, Schill has run a paralegal business since 1988 and has had a lifelong interest in both writing and the musical stage.

“When I was about 15, our family took a trip [from Tucson, Ariz.] to New York, and I got to see ‘Bells Are Ringing,’ ” she recalls. “I thought, ‘When will I ever be able to do something like that?’ And here I am, like 90 years later, finally doing it.”

Writing lyrics became an avocation, but not a vocation. “I’ve always written lyrics in my head,” Schill says. “I’ve done fun parodies for people at parties. I never thought it was any big deal because it was something that came easily to me. I never thought of it as any particular talent, something that I could do.”

In 1993, she began taking piano lessons with jazz musician Mackay, 65, who has been a professional since he was a teenager. Shortly after that, they started writing songs together.

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In mid-1994, Schill came up with some lyrics for a song about the so-called change of life experience. “It started with the idea for a single song, then a lot of humorous ideas came into my head,” she says. “I had pages and pages of ideas for lyrics, then I realized there was enough for a revue. Then the story started to develop.”

The project had its own momentum practically before Mackay and Schill realized it. “It came about very naturally,” says Mackay, who is married but has no children. “I knew that she had this idea about doing a project on menopause and we just started collaborating. It has been fun. It still is.”

The work was previously staged, in a more limited form, at the Cinegrill in Hollywood on three separate occasions, in March, October and December of 1996.

Since then, Schill has expanded the book and fleshed out the characterizations. The core scenario, however, remains essentially the same. The action takes place during the course of a one-day informational seminar about menopause. An eclectic group of middle-aged female participants is led by a slightly younger woman who is conducting the meeting in order to fulfill the requirements for her master’s degree.

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Although Theatre InSite is known for its environmental stagings, this time the action takes place within the confines of a sound stage and is not as site-specific as some of the group’s previous productions. “This is the most traditional thing we’ve done,” Arabian says. “There is an open circle [for the audience] that is connecting with the circle in which the actors are seated. The idea is that the audience has come to a seminar on women in midlife.”

At first, the women are guarded with one another. “The characters come in presenting themselves the way they want people to see them --as being perfectly fine and OK-- and as the day goes on their defenses break down,” Schill says. “They meet one another and they come to know themselves.”

Along the way, each of the characters navigates a turning point, expressed in song. “One is in a marriage, behaving like a martyr . . . and she has a breakthrough,” Schill says. “Another one has a lot of trouble making decisions. Another one is a Barbie doll wannabe and kind of a toy for boys, so she has her breakthrough. And the therapist has her issues as well.

“It’s not like a bolt of lightning kind of thing, but they get to recognize what’s going on with them, what the real issues are. It’s not always what they thought it was. There’s a little bit of me in every one of them.”

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For those who haven’t gone through what the characters are dealing with, the show offers a learning experience. Even Mackay--who will perform his and Schill’s original compositions as well as some parody numbers during the show--says the production has given him new insight.

“I’ve learned more about women from doing this show than ever,” says the pianist.

“A man of any age really could learn more about women in two hours--if he would really listen to this--than he could from reading any books. Guys could learn a lot about their feminine side from seeing the show too.

“I don’t think you have to be going through menopause to understand,” Mackay says. “Not being a woman hasn’t made it impossible for me to tune in.”

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The topic of aging and confronting change is not, after all, inherently gender-bound. Yet the central activity of the revue is the kind of confessional dialogue that has long been stereotypically associated with exclusively female gatherings.

In fact, even the creators disagree about how men and women talk with one another.

“There’s an openness that happens right away with women,” Schill says. “Women get together and all kinds of things start coming out. You know how that is. The intimacy is there, almost from the beginning. With men it’s, ‘How ‘bout them Bears?’ ”

“Well, that’s a little tough,” Mackay says. “I would say that women don’t come out with being intimate right away. Not in the slightest. They’re there [in the seminar] to find out and, what happens is, they haven’t faced a lot of stuff that’s going on yet and. . . .”

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“Uh oh,” says Schill, with playful affection. “Is this a fight?”

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“IS IT JUST ME, OR IS IT HOT IN HERE?” Theatre InSite, CBS Studio Center, 4024 Radford Ave., Studio City. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 6. Prices: $25. Phone: (213) 466-1767, (818) 953-9993.


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