Author, author! West End playwright/director picks Redondo's CLOSB for new musical premiere
Even by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ James Blackman’s hyperbolic standards, his enthusiasm for this latest production is notable. “It feels like a big Broadway show that’s always been here. It could have been done at the Music Center, the Pantages or the Ahmanson. Cooney has the weight to go to these places. But, we’re thrilled that he picked us. It truly says something about the South Bay. In our world of musical theater, having this play at CLOSBC is like being a part of the launching of the space shuttle. It gives us great opportunities for the future.”
“ It” is “Twice Upon a Time,” a new musical by British author and director Ray Cooney. Cooney selected the CLOSB to premiere his first new musical in 10 years because of his mutual admiration for Blackman. Cooney’s previous plays include “Funny Money,” which was made into the 2006 movie starring Chevy Chase, and “Run For Your Wife,” whose nine years in the West End, made it the longest-running comedy in the district’s history.
In 2005, he received the O.B.E. (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) “Should we call you ‘sir’?” asked this empire-challenged reporter. “No, that’s only when you’re a knight,” said Cooney. “The OBE is a bit down the ladder. I call it my ‘Oh, Bloody ‘ell.’ But it really was very nice to receive because it usually goes to great Shakespearean actors and such.”
To date, Cooney has had 17 plays staged in London’s West End. He’s hopeful, after its South Bay premiere, that “Twice Upon a Time,” will be his 18th West End production. Cooney is no slouch at hyperbole, himself. During an interview last week, he said of Blackman, “He’s the biggest theatrical character I’ve ever met. He’s great; he sums up theater. He would have had a ball in the 1920s. And he’s so enthusiastic. ‘Oh my god, Ray, this is a hit, it’s a smash. Forget about London, this is Broadway.’ You can’t help but get carried away by his enthusiasm. I love him.” “I missed my era,” Blackman replied simply.
Cooney’s enthusiasm for Blackman and CLOSBC stems from his visit to the Redondo Performing Arts Center last year to watch “Sophisticated Ladies.” At opening night, Blackman did his usual comedic monologue dressed in white tie, white gloves, and black tails.
Time for time-travel
Any world premiere in theater is a big deal, whether the showplace is London, Boston, off-Broadway or, in this case, Redondo Beach. “Twice” opens CLOSBC’s 17th season of producing four musicals per year, plus the Hermosa Beach Playhouse series. Blackman said he laughed out loud when he first read the script of “Twice.” And he adored the music upon first listen.“ This play feels familiar, but it’s brand new. Ray is so very, very smart,” said Blackman. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened since we won our first Ovation award (LA Stage Alliance recognition for theater excellence) and, at that time, I ran up and down PCH holding the trophy.”
“Twice Upon a Time” is basically a love story. An awkward triangle ensues. And, oh yes, the main character time-travels between present-day Guilford, England and 1929 Chicago. Our hero, Steven Tancred, is a hotshot Guilford lawyer who has two assignments: Quit smoking – or lose his job – and evict an old dowager from an apartment so that a client can develop the property. Steven is engaged to the boss’s daughter, but he’s admittedly suffering cold feet. He submits to hypnotherapy to address the first problem. During treatment, he discovers that he has another – much more exciting – life in 1929 Chicago, where he is deeply involved with flat-nosed thugs whose names end in vowels.
In his Chicago life, Steven is Johnny May, rookie hoodlum under the tutelage of Bugsy Moran. Naturally, he falls in love with flapper Ruby, Moran’s main squeeze. Author Cooney has been working on this play for 10 years. “And, I’m sure, I probably haven’t done another musical in 10 years,” he laughed.
“I wrote a play called ‘Time’s Up,’ the premise being that a government employee encountered an office rule that there be no smoking. He goes to a hypnotherapist for his smoking cure, is put into a trance, and regresses to when he was Guy Fawkes, who in the 17th century tried to blow up the British Parliament building.”
“We tried it out and it worked okay, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t quite right, so I gave it up,” said Cooney. “Two years later, I woke up one day and said, ‘Of course – this should be a movie.’ I developed a good script and brought it over here – I had a few connections – and everyone I showed it to said, ‘Oh my god, Ray, this is great, this is fabulous.’ Well, this went on for two years and nothing happened.” (The British Parliament building was the target in the 2006 movie “V for Vendetta,” starring Hugo Weaving in a Fawkes-like plot.)
“ Then, I woke up another morning and said, ‘Of course – this is a musical.’ I mapped it all out and gave it to…composer Chris Walker, and they thought it was wonderful,” said Cooney. “They had a tough time in the beginning because the story is quite convoluted. We didn’t get it right the first time, so we went through several readings and run-throughs until all felt comfortable.
“ Overall, for me, it’s been about 10 years in the making – the Guy Fawkes play, the movie script, and this one. Now I think it’s time to just do it,” said Cooney.
Many years and many plays
Cooney started acting when he was 14. “I did lots and lots of weekly repertory plays, a different one every night. I did this for a number of years,” said Cooney. “By the time I got a job on the West End, I’d probably done about 250 plays in weekly repertory. “During my first West End play, which ultimately ran four years, I thought I’d better do something with my life other than chase girls and play tennis, so I started writing. I just had this quirky brain and I didn’t realize how much I knew about the mechanics of the theater,” he said.
Can an aspiring actor gain similar onstage experience today? “No, it won’t happen again. I mean, it’s a wonderful life; you had all the camaraderie. It was like being in the trenches in the first World War. As actors, you needed each other desperately because sometimes you were learning very long roles in five days while still doing another play at night. And you had to learn the lines accurately because, if you forgot them, you didn’t know which play you were in,” said Cooney.
“There are a few stock companies around, but very, very few. There’s still the off-Broadway theater, but you can’t make a living. I wasn’t making much, but I had enough to pay for my digs, buy a bit of food and an occasional glass of beer,” he said. “Today, you can’t earn a living unless you’re in television or such. All actors today have to have other jobs.”
Cooney’s past experience and understanding of the plight of today’s actors allows him to empathize with the young cast of “Twice.” He is the first to arrive at the company’s rehearsal space on Artesia Boulevard and the last to leave, ever mentoring the skills of his charges. Cooney admits to being temporarily oblivious to the pressure felt by the cast and crew of producing a world premiere. “I didn’t know that initially, but I realize it now. The rehearsals, for example, have to be fit around both the schedules of the non-union cast members and the union principals,” he said. “Everybody is so enthusiastic here. And they’re all so very young – they think I’m Shakespeare or something. But, they all work so hard, they give themselves to it, and they love what they’re doing – and they’re so pleased to be working. It’s a tough city, this is.”
There are a couple “ringers” in the cast. Millicent Martin, a Broadway veteran and old friend of Cooney’s, plays Mrs. Clark, the stubborn old lady our hero is trying to evict. Martin’s television fame in the U.S. first came in her satirical crooning on the network production of “That Was The Week That Was” in the 1960s.
Another familiar face in the cast is Robert Machray, who plays the head attorney in the Guilford law firm. Audiences will recognize him from his hundreds of guest shots on TV shows including “Seinfeld” and “Cheers.” Cooney said of lead Brandon Michael Perkins: “He’s absolutely perfect.”
Cooney believes the next step for the play, after CLOSBC, is London’s West End. “As one critic said after a London reading of the play years ago, ‘It offers lots of love and a few tears,’” said Cooney. “If you can make an audience do that, it’s not bad.”
By Tom Fitt