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Out with a bang

Special to The Times

YOU’RE ... A ... Special kind of people known as show people / You live in a world of your own ... / You don’t know how lucky you are!

These are words that could only be spoken -- or rather, sung -- by a genuine musical theater buff, hoofing it and playing it up to the ensemble as he belts his tuneful case. And that true believer also just happens to be the local detective, here to solve the murder of the leading lady during a show’s out-of-town tryout. And, oh, by the way, while he’s here, he’s got a few ideas about how to save this bomb of a show!

That “detective” is actually actor David Hyde Pierce, rehearsing onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre this month. And the “bomb” is the show within the show, not the new John Kander/Fred Ebb/Rupert Holmes musical, “Curtains,” that premieres Aug. 9, directed by Scott Ellis. The cast includes Tony winners Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba as well as Jason Danieley, with choreography by Rob Ashford and music direction by David Loud.

A backstage musical and murder mystery combined, “Curtains” is a whodunit in more than one sense of the word. It may also be the last new work to be produced on this scale from Kander and Ebb, one of Broadway’s best composer-lyricist teams. And while that fact alone won’t likely spell curtains for the American musical, it’s certainly a sign that generational change is waiting in the wings.

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Kander and Ebb, the duo that created such musicals as “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Zorba” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” began working on “Curtains” in the early 1990s. The original book writer, Peter Stone, died in 2003. Then just a year later, in a twist worthy of the musical theater he so loved, Ebb died suddenly. The creators were left not only with fodder for a conspiracy theory, but facing the very real question of whether the show must go on.

It did, and the result is classic Kander and Ebb. “ ‘Curtains’ has an edge because it’s a murder mystery, but it is also just a big old valentine to the musical theater,” says Ellis, the Broadway director who has done four previous projects with the duo. “This show is not as dark as their others, although there is murder. But it’s really embracing that ‘putting on a show’ thing, which I love.”

Writer-composer-novelist Holmes, whom Ellis brought onboard after Stone’s demise, was given free rein to rewrite and to contribute additional lyrics. But he had no intention of letting the original idea die an untimely death. “What I wanted to bring out was the love that not only the detective has for musical theater but that everyone has for that world that they’re privileged to be in,” explains Holmes, the Tony Award-winning creator of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Accomplice.”

“We hardly ever think about what a strange occupation it is,” he continues.

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Pierce also feels the evidence adds up to a historical moment for the stage. “Fred’s work before, and John’s work now, along with Rupert, I think they’re all at the top of their game,” says the actor, who most recently trod the Broadway boards in “Spamalot” but is perhaps best known for the TV series “Frasier.” “It’s a little tricky, but that’s also what makes it fun.”

And for Holmes, as for so many others through the decades, a Kander and Ebb show is, well, to die for. “It’s the embodiment of heartbreak and the thrill of an opening night,” he says. “They’re musical theater as much as musical theater has been. They’re it.”

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Getting it right is murder

IT is late April, and the Ahmanson stage is largely bare, due to a just-opened production of Robert Wilson’s “The Black Rider,” when Ellis and his partners in crime arrive for their first L.A. production meeting. Much of the team, including the director, has flown in from New York for the day, and many are laying eyes on the space for the first time.

Crew members lurk backstage, sometimes looking on, as Ellis spreads color copies of Anna Louizos’ set designs and William Ivey Long’s costumes on the stage floor. Louizos scrutinizes sight lines, while Ellis and the technical design team move from audience to stage and back, trying to envision the actual sets.

The conversation turns to a key set element, a dead-on re-creation of the ornate proscenium arch of the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where the fictional musical within the musical is trying out in 1959, when “Curtains” is set. By placing the faux proscenium within the Ahmanson’s, it not only evokes the atmosphere of a classic theater, it also underscores the notion of a show within a show. And more pragmatically, it helps mitigate the often distant feel the venue tends to have.

“Can we cheat the opening a bit more?” Ellis asks Louizos. “It’s just so big. And there are so many times when we have only two, three, four people onstage. I want to keep it intimate.”

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A couple of weeks later, in early May, Ellis has made another quick escape from the Big Apple and is holed up at one of his regular haunts: Le Montrose hotel in West Hollywood. The director, whose production of “Twelve Angry Men” is part of the Ahmanson schedule next year, knew about “Curtains” long before he began trying to move it toward production. “I was always interested in the piece, but I didn’t think it quite worked,” he says.

As is often true with musicals, the creators were following some false leads at first. “It started off to be another story entirely,” recalls Kander. “Then Peter and Fred and I developed a story about a murder that’s taken place in a musical that’s out of town in Boston. The original title was ‘Who Killed David Merrick?’ It was about various levels of reality in the theater.”

About five years ago, Ellis suggested they do a reading. Hearing it aloud, the creators realized they still had work to do. A year later, another reading. “I thought, ‘This still isn’t working,’ ” recalls Ellis, “and we really didn’t get any bites” from producers or backers.

Shortly thereafter, Stone died and Holmes was put on the case. “He did a really extraordinary job of writing a new script based on work that Peter had done before,” Kander says. “We really started from scratch,” concurs Ellis. “The book -- which means the show -- is now 90% different. There’s new music that was written and music that was cut.”

Holmes took reinventing the story as his task. “I loved the premise, the very basic idea that a murder is committed at a musical that is hoping to reach Broadway, and the detective who arrives happens to also love musical theater.”

Yet major change was needed. “The first thing I suggested was that it should be a period musical set in 1959, as opposed to contemporary,” Holmes explains. “I felt that its highly theatrical characters and melodramatic mystery would live far more merrily in that time before Mackintosh and Mickey Mouse began to dominate Broadway, and that by placing the story in that period, ‘Curtains’ would have the chance to convey some of the simple, joyful wonder I felt as a boy witnessing the great musical comedies of that era.”

Then, just when Holmes was within striking range of finishing a draft, in September 2004, the 76-year-old Ebb died suddenly of a heart attack. The creators were stunned and faced with the question of whether to continue.

They felt the decision was Kander’s to make, and the composer opted to forge ahead, even without his partner of 40 years. “This was work that was being done, so with each you have to see it through,” says Kander. “But it was scary doing the first show without Fred.”

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A third reading was set. But ultimately, although Ellis had already approached Pierce about playing the detective, the actor’s unavailability at the time led the creators to opt for a private reading. That turned out to be a shrewd move, since the show wasn’t ready after all. “The first act actually worked pretty well, and the tone was correct,” recalls Ellis. “But the second act did not work.”

After yet another rewrite, and thanks to the unexpected delays, Pierce was able to join the team. “This seems to me to be quintessential Kander and Ebb: very funny, very dark, but ultimately something that is strangely uplifting despite the subject matter -- like ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret,’ ” he says. “And I think some of the songs in the show are up there with the best they’ve done -- some real killer numbers.”

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Revisionists’ history

REHEARSALS began in the city Kander and Ebb once wrote a song about, “New York, New York.” The production was shaped there before transferring to L.A. a month later for technical rehearsals.

So the usual suspects were gathered, on a hot and humid day in early June, in studios on 42nd Street, for the first day of rehearsal. By late afternoon, the cast was in one room, seated behind music stands learning songs, while Ellis, Kander and Holmes were conferring in another.

The three were going through the show number by number, searching for clues as to how they might fine-tune the tuner. “Scott, Rupert and I work very closely,” explains Kander. “One of the things that helped me a lot is that Rupert himself is a composer, and he’s been very supportive.”

Yet Kander had concerns with his score. “As a composer, I felt it was so much of an up-tempo and showbizy sound that it seemed I wrote in a monotone,” he says. “In this revision, it’s much rangier than it was -- in color, style, expression.”

For Ellis, the major difference between the current version and its earlier iterations is that now there’s a character -- Pierce’s detective -- with whom the audience can identify. “Now you slowly begin to care about somebody, where originally you didn’t,” he says.

For actors playing such characters, carrying the weight of the show is no mean feat. “The challenge as an actor is that because he’s the detective he has a lot to say,” explains Pierce. “You have to find ways to shape and vary that, keep in your head what he knows and when he knows it and also work on the music.

“There’s a lot of information to keep in mind. I’m still discovering places where I say, ‘Hmmm, I must know this.’ It’s that kind of stuff that makes you insane, which the audience will never know.”

*

A leap of faith

TOWARD evening, in the second week of tech rehearsals on the Ahmanson stage, Pierce is for once worrying about something other than what does his character know and when does he know it. He’s strapped into a flying harness for the first time, about to leap off a scaffold platform, with only the strong men pulling ropes in the wings to save him from a crash landing on the stage deck.

A personable star, well liked by cast and crew for his considerate ways, Pierce is looking more tentative than usual as he peers toward where he’s supposed to descend. But the actor is game, and leap he does -- to a safe if not quite opening-night-ready landing.

Then the actor and the crew do it again, and again, and again, until the move is perfected. After all, getting it right can take time.

So, in fact, can bringing a musical to the stage. Even with the names Kander and Ebb, it took some doing to get “Curtains” produced.

In the spring and summer of last year, Ellis arranged two more readings, in large part for veteran Broadway producer Roger Berlind and Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie. “Through Scott, we got Roger Berlind’s interest,” says Kander. “And that, along with Scott’s friendship with Michael Ritchie, led to this production.”

“The music is terrific, and the story is compelling,” says Ritchie. “Add to that the creative team and a new score by one of the best composing teams in Broadway history, and I would have been an idiot not to produce it.”

Unlike most musicals today, “Curtains” is not based on a movie, book or play. “It is retro in the best way, in that it is a big, bold Broadway musical that harkens back to the glory days of musicals,” Ritchie says.

It’s also a large, expensive show, with a cast of 28, and according to Ellis, a cost of about $12 million. But CTG is putting in only somewhere between $1 million and $3 million, according to Ritchie.

It may not be the last Kander and Ebb musical, but it may be the last to be produced on this scale. And if it moves to Broadway, it could well be the last Kander and Ebb show to make it there. At the time of Ebb’s death, he and Kander had four unfinished musicals, including “Curtains.” Since then, “The Visit” was done in Chicago and will be seen in Washington, D.C. “All About Us,” based on “The Skin of Our Teeth,” is set for a staging in Westport, Conn. And “Minstrel Show” doesn’t yet have a production.

Yet as thrilling as the premiere of “Curtains” may be, it isn’t just another opening, another show. It is also a bittersweet moment for the American musical theater, which may never see another partnership to rival Kander and Ebb.

“There’s a song in the show which is such a wonderful Kander and Ebb song called ‘A Tough Act to Follow,’ ” says Holmes. “And I don’t think they knew they were writing about themselves when they wrote it.”

*

‘Curtains’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Opens Aug. 9. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Sept. 10

Price: $30 to $95

Contact: (213) 628-2772


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