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When Garbo Talks!

Garbo Musical Premiers in Long beach

By Stan Jenson

Buddy Kaye’s contributions to the Great American Songbook include “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (Frank Sinatra), “A – You’re Adorable” (Perry Como), “The Old Songs” (Barry Manilow), and “Speedy Gonzalez” (Pat Boone).
Late in Kaye’s 84-year life, he decided to create a stage musical. He wrote a script tracing actress Greta Garbo’s journey from silent films to major Hollywood talkies. He penned the lyrics to the songs and asked his songwriting buddy Mort Garson (“Our Day Will Come”) to add melodies to the lyrics. As he lay dying, Kaye realized he would never see his lovechild produced on the stage, so got a commitment from his son, Richard, that “Garbo: The Musical” would not die along with its creator.
Richard had been raised in a home that revolved around music and had followed his predestined path toward becoming a successful music publisher. When his father died in 2002, he picked up the “Garbo” script where the elder Kaye left off and tried to figure out how to get it onstage. The widow of composer Alan J. Lerner (“My Fair Lady”, a close friend of Richard’s, coached him and introduced him to producers in the Los Angeles. He became the music consultant board member of Broadway on Sunset, and through that position met director Jules Aaron. Aaron — who has directed more than 200 productions for stage and television and is the recipient of 18 Drama-Logue awards, three Backstage awards and three Los Angeles Drama Critics awards — was immediately attracted to the script and in 2003 directed a staged reading for the Court Theatre.
Richard used the reactions from that reading to aid with a significant rewrite of the script. He even added a couple of songs his father had written for other situations. Such songs are referred to as “trunk songs,” because they are pulled out of the songwriter’s trunk after his death. The trunk songs he chose ended up being some of the best in the show.
A staged reading of the amended script was presented in 2008 at Long Beach’s International City Theatre (ICT) as part of a series of staged readings. Aaron once again directed, and Kay Cole choreographed. At the end of the reading, the producers asked the 300-person audience if they would like to see the play produced in full, and the response was overwhelming. This month’s opening is officially the world premiere.
The show begins with 17-year-old Garbo’s discovery by leading Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller at the Royal Academy. Stiller wanted her to play a major role in one of his movies. He was so impressed with her talent and beauty that she became his protégé, eventually moving in with him. Stiller was openly gay in the 1920s, and his character performs the song “She Could Have Been the One Woman For Me” in the show.
Garbo was rumored to have liaisons with both men and women, and in the play there is an unspoken sexual tension between Garbo and her female acting coach.
Louis B. Mayer happened to visit Europe while working on a project for MGM Studios and saw the film with Garbo in it. He immediately wanted her for his own studio and ended up hiring Stiller to direct a film for him, knowing the director would bring his ingénue along as part of the package.
Stiller and Garbo eventually arrive in Hollywood, where Garbo moves in with John Gilbert, one of the most popular leading men of his era. The production finishes with Garbo just beginning Anna Christie.
“When Garbo Talks” follows the chronology of events in her life, though some of the character relationships have been fictionalized. We see her transform from a working-class, European girl into one of the biggest – and most reclusive – movie stars in the world. She broke the stereotype of film actresses, wearing bellbottom trousers and men’s shirts. She was an icon of bisexuality, a vegetarian, championed equal pay for women and was a role model for the modern woman.
“When Garbo Talks” plays at ICT, located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach. Tickets are $32 - $45 and available at the box office, at (562) 436-4610 or www.ticketmaster.com. More information about the play is at www.WhenGarboTalks.com.