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A musical on trial

Times Staff Writer

IF fortune smiles on “Most Wanted,” a musical about a fame-hungry serial killer who saves his last bullet for himself, the theater world may have on its hands another testament to the power of drag queens.

For nearly six years, off and on, three respected theater pros -- Mark Bennett, Jessica Hagedorn and Michael Greif -- have been grappling with its risky, unorthodox material. The template for “Most Wanted,” which begins a two-week workshop production today at La Jolla Playhouse, is the life of Andrew Cunanan, an alluring, chameleonic party boy from the San Diego gay-bar scene. In 1997, he went on an unexplained, 2 1/2 -month cross-country killing spree, climaxing in his infamy-sealing trophy killing of fashion designer Gianni Versace.

The show’s artistic aim, its creators say, is to use the Cunanan saga as a lens for examining America’s celebrity culture, a society in which people whose only assets may be a sexy come-on and a willingness to parade misbehavior in public can become objects of mass fascination.

Bennett had the initial idea. He has long been an A-list theatrical sound designer, with such credits as Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning “The Coast of Utopia.” But he dreamed of succeeding with a full-blown musical.

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Cunanan popped into Bennett’s shaven cranium as he sat in the almost-empty Mandell Weiss Forum, waiting out the tedious “tech week” process of rehearsing a show’s nitty-gritty logistics.

“For a very long time,” Bennett was thinking about why celebrity and fame have become an American pastime and preoccupation -- and how he might explore the question in a musical.

“I felt it was symptomatic of a bereftness in our individual lives, that we kept looking obsessively” at the parade of short-term attention-grabbers flitting by on “Entertainment Tonight.” A story like Cunanan’s “could sing in a certain way,” Bennett was convinced. “The tricky part is finding out just what that way would be, finding a structure for the story, and the right people to work with and really explore it.”

The three co-creators first worked together in 1998 on the La Jolla premiere of “Dogeaters,” Hagedorn’s stage adaptation of her own novel about social and political ferment in her native Philippines.

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Their show has developed in spurts, when the trio, all based in New York City, were not attending to other business, including Greif’s staging of “Grey Gardens” on Broadway, and Hagedorn’s completion of two-thirds of a dramatic trilogy for the San Francisco theater company Campo Santo.

There have been writing or workshop sessions for “Most Wanted” in wintry Wyoming, along the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York, on the Sundance Institute’s idyllic Utah mountainside, and in assorted apartments and studios in New York City.

Hagedorn signed on after Bennett mentioned his idea to her at a theatrical soiree in New York. She flashed back to the late spring of 1997, when she saw the killer’s most-wanted poster in Greenwich Village and noted that, despite Cunanan’s description as “possibly Caucasian,” he was clearly a Filipino.

“So it was already burned into my brain” when Bennett spilled his idea, Hagedorn recalled. “I thought, ‘how perfect,’ because it’s about the outsider, and it’s complicated, and it’s about race and class and sex, and living in America and a sort of twisted immigrant’s dream. It was right up my alley.”

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Nobody had to warn her of the pitfalls: “I thought, ‘It’s going to be dangerous, and it’s going to be a headache.’ ” She turned to Greif because the storytelling challenges resembled what they had faced together in “Dogeaters”: “How to not be sensational and how to really look at it deeply.”

Fairly early in the process, Hagedorn, who has written the dialogue and cowritten the lyrics with Bennett, felt she had met one of the crucial challenges facing any writer: the ending. She wrote an irony-laced closing monologue for the young reporter from the celebrity rag Guilty Pleasures, on whom the killer bestows coy, telephoned tidbits. The book she writes after the fact makes her the big derby winner in the tale’s run for riches and fame.

But how to get there was another matter. A more or less straightforward chronological telling had a test-run at the Sundance Theatre Lab in 2005, and was quickly ditched.

“It was predictable,” Bennett said. “We felt like the piece asked that we shake it up from the get-go.”

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Some time later, as composer and playwright pecked away in Hagedorn’s apartment, their drag queen rose to the rescue. Previously given a cameo in the script’s back pages, she started “shaping and shaping and shaping herself,” as Hagedorn puts it, complete with a sassy and savvy demeanor. Named Stormy Leather, the drag queen became the sardonic, all-knowing mainspring for telling and commenting upon the story -- which would now be framed by her act as mistress of ceremonies at Uncle Buck’s, a cabaret that’s supposedly in San Diego, but spiritually closer to “The Twilight Zone.”

Hagedorn says she grew up among drag queens in the Philippines, where her mother loved to take her to their shows, and often had them over as house guests. “ ‘My aunties,’ I used to call them, and they’re beloved to me.’ ” Bennett spent his scuffling days after graduating from Vassar College writing songs for the campy, cross-dressing Ridiculous Theatrical Company; later he played piano for a London drag ensemble, Blue Lips. As for Greif, few stage directors have gotten more mileage out of a drag queen than he did in “Rent,” which featured the bighearted Angel.

“As characters, they can give you all this dynamic power, and really hard-earned wisdom and wit,” Hagedorn said.

Rehearsing as the queen, but not yet in drag, Ken Page, the mountainous Broadway veteran who played Old Deuteronomy in “Cats,” is showing that Stormy, too, has a heart. He summons Teresa, the killer’s mother, to relive her son’s birth. She sings a mother’s lullaby and prayer that must oscillate from loving to anguished to crazed, the three emotions sometimes colliding. Page’s compassionate looks and comforting gestures as emcee help Leah Hocking, as Teresa, negotiate the moment’s thorny complexity.

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Greif pronounces the discovery “quite beautiful.” The quest for emotional complexity and storytelling clarity has taken one more step ahead.

Or maybe not. This is, after all, a workshop presentation of a piece still in progress, the latest in La Jolla’s Page to Stage series that lets audiences peek in on new work as it’s being debugged (past shows have included “I Am My Own Wife” and “700 Sundays,” which went on to win Tony awards).

Maybe the drag queen won’t be the answer, after all.

But after six years of imagining and re-imagining, do these three have the will and stamina for further radical surgery?

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“I think you fall in love with your characters if you’ve got your head on right, no matter who they are,” Hagedorn says. “That’s the reason you can live with it so long and work so hard. If you love them, you can dig them up again and take them to some other place.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com


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