“Stars that used to twinkle in the skies are twinkling in my eyes, I wonder why” –Â Irving Berlin’s lyric from “You’re Just in Love” willÂ resonate perfectly with theatergoers and movie “stars” who have “been there once or twice” and recognize the pun in the title ofÂ Justin Love, the new musical at the Celebration Theatre.
The musical takes a timely look at hypocrisy as it exists in the upper echelons of Hollywood, where actors are often not who they appear to be and publicists struggle to maintain those images. Reflecting its mission to shed a spotlight on provocative issues, it was a perfect choice for the inaugural production of Celebration’s 30th anniversary. The story is by David Elzer and Bret Calder, the book by Elzer and Patricia Cotter, and the score by Lori Scarlett and David Manning.
I was told American Idol’s Adam Lambert attended the press opening the night prior but didn’t want photos taken saying, “this is family night for me,” and his request was honored. Lambert was there to see Terrance Spencer, who had traveled all over the world dancing in his touring show.Â But who needs a photo when you can get a rave Lambert tweet — “@LoveMrSpencer and cast were so fab in “Justin Love” at the Celebration Theatre in LA tonight. We laughed hard!”
After the show we walked down Santa Monica Boulevard for opening night festivities at the iconic Formosa Café, where I spoke to gorgeous Adam Huss, who plays a sexually conflicted married movie star hiding behind his glamorous image. He was understudying a role in Women of Lockerbie at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, and he was about to go on, for the first and last time, “when I got a phone call from Michael Kric (Kricfalusi, Celebration’s executive director). I had tried out for [Celebration's] Altar Boyz a couple of years ago. They loved my voice but I couldn’t move.” He laughs. “I mean I couldn’t learn the dance moves quick enough.” Anyway, Kricfalusi was now telling Huss that “they were having last-minute auditions [for Justin Love] because they lost their lead.”
What happened to the other guy? “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say, but he booked a TV pilot and left. I went to a callback the next day and they asked me to hang around a bit.Â An hour later they said, “˜Can you rehearse tonight?’ I felt in my heart that I needed to do this. I told myself, whatever nerves you have, get rid of them and go for it.”
Huss explained his feelings about show biz “marriages”. “I read about it in the tabloids and think, nah, nah. But with so much evidence to the contrary, you wonder. I don’t know how they do it unless they are best friends and love each other and [they're] doing each other a favor. Again, I’m not in that situation, so I don’t know if at that level I’d be thinking, ‘screw everything, I want to keep this forever, and I’ll do what it takes.’ I just don’t know.
“Here’s the deal. In New York and LA people are open-minded. But in Middle America where these movies sell, they’re not. People bag on celebrities for hiding who they may be, but the whole world isn’t as forward-thinking as those who live in bigger cities. If you’re a lawyer, sexuality doesn’t matter. But if you’re a movie star, everyone wants to sleep with you or be you and if you’re gay, maybe they don’t.
“It’s changing but I don’t know if it will ever change for people at the level of Tom Cruise. People bring up Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Neil Patrick Harris and I’m happy for them but they’re not movie stars, they’re TV stars. For instance, I think someone like Bruce Willis, if he were gay, would have a problem. It’s tough. I respect everyone’s journey. There are people who say, if you’re gay, just say it. But, I respect people’s choices.”
The very dapper John Michael Beck – matching silk tie and pocket handkerchief are not often seen at theaters on Santa Monica Boulevard — took over as artistic director last July.Â “At this point, I happily feel the weight of 30 years, and it has been a humbling experience because I really want to live up to what my predecessors have done.”
He credits production values as an essential element of their success. “If you examine shows from the past 30 years, you don’t see representational sets or lighting or props like two chairs and a black box. It elevates the acting, directing and choreography when you give people an environment they can actually live in rather than just a space “˜I’m acting’ in.”
The economy had a negative impact on theaters all over the country, yet the Celebration has survived for 30 years. What are they doing besides vying for grants and hoping to sell tickets? “As a nonprofit we have the benefit of finding donors willing to give and receive a tax deduction, but it does dry up; 2008 was a hard year. We are slowly recovering. We go back to the Pasadena Playhouse. That was an eye-opener and a wake-up call for every theater and every artistic director. You have to look at saving pennies.
“We examine our budgets almost a year in advance, and before a show is announced we ask ourselves if it can be done effectively without compromising artistic vision. That’s our primary focus. Some sets and costumes cost more than others, so it’s about identifying what we really need to spend money on and where we can spend less.”
With that in mind, what happened to the Celebration’s announced plans to present Design For Living? “That was my heartbreak. Basically we lost funding. It happened literally a week and a half before our first preview. We needed either really great advance sales or really great donations and we got neither. It was the perfect storm.Â It’s my goal to bring it back.”
Beck is very proud of Justin Love. “David Elzer has been our publicist for 10 years. Talk about inheriting riches. One day he asked that I read a script he had been working on. Well, it seemed like the perfect fit. I don’t think this is a musical we could have done in our first year. No one would have bought it. This show takes place in Hollywood, and we’re mirroring what’s happening in tinseltown right now. That’s what we’re about at Celebration. We put a mirror up to society and say look at this.”
Any concerns about provoking controversy? “We all know it happens. Isn’t it about time, in the 21st century that you step up? I like to think the Celebration is ahead of the curve, and it is for us to call it out. Maybe some good comes out of this. We’ve been very successful with The Color Purple and last season with Leslie Jordan (Fruit Fly). A lot more influential people from the studios come to see our shows. People listen to what we say. We’re not just doing gay plays to be gay. We’re doing them to be socially relevant and give voice to people who don’t have one or who are intimidated from having that voice.”
Alet Taylor plays Hollywood bitch babe publicist Buck Ralston and nearly steals the show. At the party I told Taylor that my escort Jimmy Cuomo, production designer for the new syndicated sitcom First Family, saw her name in the program, remembered she had just taped an episode and said, “She’s terrific and very funny”. He was right. Taylor beams, “Oh thank you. Yes, in the scene I’m eating cookies that my mother used to make and I say, “˜it tastes like I have my dead mother in my mouth’.Â Such a great line.”
Elzer produced a show she was in (Having It All at the Noho Arts Center) and eventually asked her to do his workshop. “I don’t ever get to play a bitch. I’m usually the quirky, neurotic, innocent sidekick. Well, maybe not so much anymore at my age.” She laughs. “The role is based on a combination of people. You have to be careful because if you just play mean, she’s a caricature. Every mean person I’ve ever met has some kind of fragile part to them, some kind of fear. It’s fascinating to play a hot mess. Those angry people are really so tender.”
Her two young daughters were recently talking about how a boy could marry a boy. “I think it won’t be much of an issue in the future. I explained to them how at one time African Americans couldn’t marry Caucasians and Jewish/Christian marriages were controversial. We don’t even think about that anymore. At some point this too will be laughable and that would make the PR position of Buck in these matters obsolete, but I think that’s still far in the future.”
Taylor explained how getting older in this business was a positive. “I don’t need to be kissed anymore on stage.” Another bonus of aging came at auditions. “I don’t walk into a room wide-eyed anymore. I’m like ““ what do you need? This song or that song because I gotta go pick up my kids. I no longer worry about whether my hair is perfect, I think about the character. When I was younger everything had to be perfect — my hair, my dress, my makeup. Now the parts are so messy, I just put my hair in a bun and it makes me a better actress not to worry about those things. You concentrate on the storytelling.
“I worry but there’s really nothing I can do about it. I like getting older. I cry less; things are less confusing ““ even though my face and body are falling down. I swear to God; I was putting on my pantyhose and I kept trying to lift them up then I realized it was my skin I was pulling at. But seriously, everybody gets older; either I’m going to fight it or age gracefully. What I did was get married and have kids. I knew in the long arc of my career there would be employment. My family is everything to me, and that keeps me grounded.”
Director Michael Matthews helmed The Color Purple, which received 13 Ovation nominations for the Celebration including one for best director. “This is the third musical I’ve ever done and my first world premiere. Being able to workshop and help mold the show into what it is now makes me proud. At the end of the day, my job is to illuminate the script and tell a good story really well with my cast who are all collaborators.”
Matthews believes in directing these characters by “embracing their faults. When we ask why would my character do this, we realize it’s because the character is not perfect and wants something so badly, he will go to the ends of the earth to get what he wants.”
It was important for Matthews to cast actors who could bring his vision to the stage. “We were looking for the right chemistry with the material. The choices some actors made showed me they were people I could work with in a new musical that was moving forward at a rapid pace. I wanted actors who were passionate about it. Even my designers, when they bring passion and that spark you know you’ve got something.”
The show deals with big movie stars who need to keep “secrets” and be perceived as straight. Do you see that changing in our lifetime? Matthews takes a long thoughtful pause, “In this show Chris sings the lyrics, “˜Someone goes first. Someone has to go first. Someone always goes first and if you can go first, you should go’. I think we’re all waiting for someone to go first. When that happens we will be set. When my actors or someone in my crew is unhappy in the middle of the process and having a bad day, I tell them ‘you are in charge of your own experience’Â and somehow I feel that it correlates with what is going on in Hollywood with these stars.
“If they want their experience to be shared with everyone else, they are in charge and it’s their own business. However, at the same time I want someone to have the courage. I want someone to go first, and I want someone to be a role model for all those kids who need someone so badly. You know we say it gets better but sometimes it just doesn’t.”
The question appears to touch Matthews in a very personal place. “It does. I did a show [also at the Celebration] last fall called What’s Wrong With Angry? that I was super proud of. It touched on “˜it gets better,’ dealing with gay bullying and gay suicide. I feel like more people could be doing something about it if they had the courage that some of these 14-year-old kids have to stand up for themselves. We look at Hollywood and they can’t. I find that interesting. It’s their own business and I understand that. but we need role models. I should say, we have role models but we need more.”
As Irving Berlin wrote, “There is nothing you can take to relieve that pleasant ache. You’re not sick. You’re just in love.” Justin Love continues at the Celebration through November 18.