It was like a focus group on "Mad Men."
At least one of those presenting the new product in an unfinished version had doubts about its marketability. Others were more enthusiastic. All were observing the market research exercise and taking notes.
Did those at the session like it? Were they enthusiastic about it? Was the product worth polishing and presenting to the public?
There was no see-through glass at this trial. It was held in downtown Long Beach's Center Theater in November 2008, and the test sample was an audience of 349.
"The response was tremendous," said Richard D. Kaye.
The product was a musical comedy, at that time called "Garbo the Musical," and the enthusiasm was for a staged reading put on by International City Theatre. Now, nearly two years later, the full version opens tonight in the same theater, with a new title, "When Garbo Talks!"
Kaye's father, song lyricist Buddy Kaye, was working on the musical when he died in November 2002 at age 84.
"I promised him while he was working on the show that I would see that it got on stage," said Kaye. "The day after he passed away, I was at his house in Rancho Mirage, and I saw the script sitting on top of his desk. So I just said, `I'm going to keep my promise,' and I picked up the script and started working on getting the show produced."
In the last eight years, the piece has gone through rewrites and revisions, and the staged reading
"I had submitted the script to Shashin Desai (ICT's artistic director) and International City Theatre several times in hopes that he might want to produce the show," Kaye said, "and in 2008, he contacted me about doing a staged reading.
"So Jules Aaron, the director, and I got eight actors and a piano player/musical director together and did the entire show," he said. "At the end, during the feedback session, Shashin asked the audience, `Would you like to see this show as part of our next season?' And the audience gave an overwhelming response. What's interesting is that he didn't expect the kind of turnout or that reaction. But the name Garbo has a certain magic to it. There were grandparents there with their teenage grandchildren. So I think it's got a wide demographic."
Desai gave the OK, but asked for some changes.
"I listened very carefully to each of his comments and started to work on the book revisions," Kaye said. "and then he scheduled it as the closing play of the ICT's 25th season."
The musical tells the story of Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Sweden, from the time Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer discovered her after seeing her first Swedish film, through her legendary career as perhaps the greatest silent-film star of all, up to the release of her first sound film, which was promoted by Mayer with the now legendary slogan "Garbo talks!"
The play was Buddy Kaye's first musical, although he was a legend himself in more than one way. As a song lyricist, he collaborated on hits for six decades, up to "The Old Songs" for Barry Manilow.
At last Saturday's Long Beach Symphony concert, the audience heard the theme from one of his most famous songs during a performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. Kaye took the theme and wrote the words for "Full Moon and Empty Arms," a hit for Frank Sinatra, among others. Another song, "Till the End of Time," was based on a Chopin polonaise. Probably his biggest hit, which went to No. 1, was "A - You're Adorable (The Alphabet Song)."
Although his main interest was songs, he also co-wrote, with Og Mandino, "The Gift of Acabar." The inspirational allegory became a self-help classic still in print and selling briskly in many translations all over the world.
The detour into playwriting toward the end of his life came because of Buddy Kaye's frustration with the music industry, his son said.
"He was witnessing the changes and thought the only place where you can market good traditional-type songs would be in a musical, and he started focusing his energy there," Kaye said. "He had worked with Mort Garson (who died in 2008) on a recording of `The Little Prince,' with narration by Richard Burton, that won a Grammy for best children's recording, so he would send Mort, who lived in San Francisco, lyrics and tell him what type of song, and Mort would compose the music. And they made demos until they got a recording that was what they were looking for.
"We had about 20 songs. One was not completed, and one turned out to be irrelevant with the script changes that have occurred," Kaye said. "So we actually had to find two trunk songs, which are songs that are previously written by the composer and author."
The songwriting team had also been working on a musical about Lily Langtry, an actress from the 19th century, and two of the songs from that project needed only slight changes to fit into the Garbo project.
In working on the script, Kaye said he stuck pretty closely to real events.
"The chronological time period is accurate to what was happening in her career, and the people are all accurate," said Kaye. "However, we have fictionalized the events to whatever degree necessary to make it work as a musical. We also added the sexual tension and undercurrent between Garbo and her (female) acting coach. The acting coach is real, and everybody knows that Garbo was bisexual, although it's denied by her family, which says it's only conjecture. But everybody else on the planet says it's fact.
"I actually discussed this with my father before he died, whether we should bring that element into the show," Kaye said. "Garbo had a relationship with a woman named Mercedes de Acosta that was very publicized, and we originally had her in the show. But she didn't meet Mercedes until 1932, and our play ends in 1929. So we decided to bring her acting coach, Signe, back at the end to have the sexual undercurrent, but we don't really delve into that aspect of Garbo's life because, from what I've read, anything of that nature occurred later."
The play also explores Garbo's unusual relationship with her first director, Mauritz Stiller.
"She moved into his home when she was 18 years old while they were working on the film," Kaye said. "She was a young girl and taken by him and fantasized having a relationship with him. Stiller was an openly gay man in Europe in the 1920s, which was very unusual in that era. She thought she could change that."
In sports and in acting, much is written about retiring at the top, but few stars can give up the glory and walk away. Perhaps the most famous who did is Garbo, who made her last film in 1941 at age 36 and almost never looked back.
"Maybe 10 or 11 years later, she actually did a screen test," said Kaye. "I've seen it, and she looked unbelievable."
The film was never made.
Part of the reason she quit was because of her total commitment to the art of film acting. Her last film, "Two-Faced Woman," had been heavily re-edited because of the censors at the Film Board.
"She felt that the film was completely butchered and ruined in editing," said Kaye.
Not much is known about Garbo's personality, other than her artistic temperament. After she retired, she became famous for her impossible pursuit of privacy and the famous statement, "I vant to be alone," which actually was "I want to be left alone."
Although Kaye and others can only speculate on her inner life, there was plenty of drama in the events of her more public life, and Kaye thinks they resonate today.
"A very important point about this story is that although it takes place in the 1920s and it's about screen icon Greta Garbo, it's still a modern story of somebody being discovered, working hard, coming to Hollywood, rising through the ranks and dealing with the emotions and all the obstacles in her path," he said.
"So whether it's 1920 or 2010, it's the exact same journey."
Al Rudis 562-499-1255 firstname.lastname@example.org
When Garbo Talks!
What: World premiere production of new musical by International City Theatre.
When: Opens at 8 tonight and continues at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 7, with additional shows at 8 p.m. Thursday and Oct. 28 and 2 p.m. Oct. 30 and Nov. 6.
Where: Center Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd.
Tickets: $50-$60 tonight; otherwise, $40-$45 Friday through Sunday, $35-$40 Thursday.
Information: 562-436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org.