Check out the poster for Celebration Theatre‘s new musical Justin Love — the one that asks “What if Hollywood’s Biggest Movie Star Had A Secret?” Does the guy wearing aviator glasses that reflect another man’s face remind you of a certain “A” list celebrity icon whose third marriage recently collapsed?
Don’t jump to conclusions, says David Elzer, who co-wrote the book for Justin Love, which makes its world premiere on September 21 as Celebration inaugurates its 30th anniversary season.
“I don’t know it’s really about [Tom] Cruise,” says Elzer. “I want people to come and make up their own minds about what it is. There has been a lot of speculation about any number of other actors, like John Travolta lately, or younger Hollywood stars. The parallels are obvious, but there are so many that this could really be about.”
Justin Love tells the story of budding writer Chris Andrews, who moves to LA to pursue his dreams and lands an assistant job at a publicity firm that reps action star Justin Rush. Their mutual attraction complicates an arrangement Justin has in place with wife Amanda, who finds herself unexpectedly reuniting with a tabloid photojournalist named Mitch she knew from her high school days.
“It’s a love letter to Hollywood and to this crazy life we’re all living here,” offers Elzer. “It’s a little bit about the people who come out to be famous and who are never going to be. About the contracts and releases everyone signs if they want to be associated with a celebrity. There’s a lot going on that is not necessarily about the main relationships. I think audiences are going to have a great time.”
Elzer’s Demand PRoductions is co-producing the show with Peter Schneider (Lion King, Sister Act at Pasadena Playhouse and the West End) in association with the Celebration. The duo is behind a number of award-winning and nominated musicals including this year’s top Ovation Awards nominee The Color Purple (Celebration). The list includes Having It All, Girls Talk, Life Could be a Dream, The Marvelous Wonderettes and Winter Wonderettes among others.
Elzer also heads Demand PR, a highly regarded theatrical public relations and marketing firm in LA. It’s how he met his co-writer Patricia Cotter and Lori Scarlett, who penned music (with David Manning) and lyrics for Justin Love.
Cotter is an Emmy-winning writer (Win Ben Stein’s Money) whose plays and musicals include The Break-Up Notebook starring Jane Lynch, Three and Best/Worst (Apartment A Theatre), 2005’s The Break-Up Notebook: The Lesbian Musical, Mulan, Jr. and Rocket Science: The Musical (in development). Scarlett earned Ovation, LADCC and Garland awards for The Break-Up Notebook: The Lesbian Musical. Other musicals include F**King Hipsters!, which debuted at New York’s Signature Theatre last year and 2003’s Sneaux!, who enjoyed a six month run at the Matrix Theatre.
“I did Lori’s first show Sneaux and then I did The Break-Up Notebook: The Lesbian Musical,” Elzer explains, while the trio sits inside the Hollywood theater prior to a Sunday preview matinee. “I was actually the press rep for Apartment A, where Patricia had been writing a lot of her plays. I was a huge fan of hers.”
Seeing Break-Up was the catalyst for Elzer to dip his writing toe into musical theater. “I took Lori out for drinks and told her how much I just loved her work. You see so many songwriters and it’s just “˜moon/June’, you know? She has a real voice. I had a couple of ideas for a musical and I wanted to commission her to write one together, because I think she’s the real deal.”
Elzer’s personal experience in celebrity and film publicity anchors the show’s premise. His past stints range from personal publicist to head of worldwide marketing at Trimark Pictures and vice president of publicity at Paramount Classics. He switched to theatrical PR in 2000 to handle the first Lion King tour in Los Angeles. While Justin Love deals a lot with the contemporary TMZ celebrity culture, it’s also a coming-out tale that examines how people stay true to themselves in these arranged situations. That’s what drew Scarlett in.
“I loved working with David [on Break-up] and this was just fascinating emotional terrain for me,” Scarlett explains about their initial conversation seven years ago. “I read the gossip websites. I’m kind of a junkie for that but what is it actually like, you know? You can speculate but unless you know somebody that’s gone through it”¦I mean what’s it like when he comes home and she’s there? How do they date, how do they negotiate that? How does it feel? So I loved the whole idea of archetypal Hollywood characters that populate the show.”
“I’ve had many experiences dealing with this kind of an issue,” interjects Elzer. “Where actors don’t want to come out, don’t want to talk about sexuality and actually hide their sexuality. I had an experience that struck me at that time as being, if it’s true, how sad for the actor but also how sad for his actress wife. At what point in the process does she realize her deal is a real bum deal because she can’t lead a full life? She can’t fall in love, she can’t be true and everybody is whispering about her. So that’s what really always struck me. And this has been going on in Hollywood forever.”
“I was also relatively new to LA and to California [at the time],” adds Scarlett, a former Ohioan. “There’s a very optimistic energy here, which I think is in the show. The idea of the characters and the places just popped to me. It just seemed like it would make a great musical.”
Miles to Go
Once Elzer and Scarlett started to flesh out the premise, Elzer brought in Bret Calder, a former development exec at Frank Levy’s Catalina Production Group, to help develop the story. Cotter attended the first staged reading in 2007 and was asked to help take the piece to the next level. Besides getting a chance to work with Scarlett again and explore a writing relationship with Elzer, Cotter says she was drawn to the project by two things.
“One, what Lori said about California,” she elaborates. “The idea that anything can happy here. That’s what drew me to California. For better or for worse, you could be a trillionaire or you could be the guy in the Spiderman outfit on Hollywood Boulevard. You’ll see it in the [show’s] projections — this feeling of lightness and openness that’s kind of beautiful.Â I haven’t seen that in a musical before.”
The second reason Cotter cites for her interest in the project is the misperception that recent revelations by people like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and rapper Frank Ocean mean that everyone is now free to come out publicly. After all, with Ellen DeGeneres celebrating her tenth season as the toast of daytime television, surely “Everybody’s out. It’s so not a big deal anymore,” according to this line of thought.
But “it’s completely untrue,” Cotter says. “It’s not true and we’ve seen it. I won’t go into it but even with the casting of the show. Do you know what I mean? So it’s the idea that you can be out and have just the same film or television career. It’s not true and it’s still heavy and it’s still weighted. It’s still hard to come out if you’re a 16-year-old kid anywhere. I love that we’re mentioned in the [Democratic National Convention] platform and all that, but there’s still a prejudice. I like that we’re addressing it, especially here in Los Angeles.”
To emphasize that fact, the show’s press materials include a July Huffington Post piece by Hollywood PR guru Howard Bragman, “Miles to Go Before We Sleep,” written in the wake of Cooper’s and Ocean’s public revelations this past summer. Bragman writes, “No, do not let the casualness fool you. Most of the public figures that have come out have taken decades to reach that decision. And even if you think you already knew and their pronouncements are no big deal, I’m here to tell you it is a big deal.”
“It’s steps, you know?” says Scarlett. “I remember when Rosie O’Donnell came out. My parents live in Ohio and my mom just loved Rosie. She came out and my mom was like, “˜You know what? I’m still going to watch the show.’ That was the step because she’s an evangelical Christian so these are their small steps. I think eventually we will be at a place where somebody’s sexuality doesn’t figure into how they’re viewed.”
“Lori has written a beautiful song called “˜Someone Goes First,’ which I think speaks to what we’re talking about,” says Elzer. “And to anyone who’s brave enough to stand up for what they believe and who they are in any aspect of their life.”
“Make it easier for somebody else to do it,” adds Scarlett, who has penned more than 36 different songs for the show over the past seven years, with 19 of them remaining in the score. “But somebody gets the worst of it, you know? Somebody attracts the most hate and gives up the most. But for the next person, it’s just a little easier.”
Elzer cites the recent Chick-fil-A flack as an example of battles still to be fought. He then explains he came out at 18 in 1979. “I was like first on my block, for sure, and it was a big deal. I know my coming out made a difference. I know that where we are today is because of people back then who said I know this is who I am. This isn’t a choice. We still have a long way to go, but to watch the DNC and see our President support this in my lifetime and feel that I was a teeny-tiny part of that is very gratifying.”
He believes Justin Love offers another step forward. “Besides it being unbelievably entertaining, there is some heart and message tucked into it I think is going to resonate with a lot of people.”
The cast also includes Alet Taylor as Buck, Terrance Spencer as Donovan, Grant Jordan as Syd, Joe Donohoe as Lou, Gina Torrecilla as Mary, Afton Quast as Sue, Adam Joseph Reich and Sabrina Miller as the rest.
A Little Dog Laughed in Hollywood
Douglas Carter Beane’s 2006 comedy The Little Dog Laughed earned Julie White a Tony Award for her portrayal of lethal lesbian über-agent Diane, who tries to keep her closeted rising star client Mitchell from coming out after falling for bisexual rent boy Alex. She wants him to star in an Oscar-worthy role as a gay man. Diane ultimately convinces him to stay in the closet so he can succeed in a career she knows has an extremely limited shelf life — major movie star. When asked about similarities, Cotter and Elzer are clear theirs has a much different take.
“I didn’t see Little Dog Laughed, which I think is good,” states Cotter. “Ours is really a love story. What brings Justin out is he meets somebody. That’s the other thing that drew me to the story. It wouldn’t occur to this young guy Chris to go back in the closet. It’s like, why live a lie I haven’t lived since junior high? When you see someone truly living an honest life, it’s really attractive.”
Elzer admits that when Little Dog first appeared, he fielded a lot of questions about his then-embryonic show, but the issue was already playing itself out in the popular zeitgeist. “It’s not a secret anymore that there are gay movie stars who are closeted and have contract wives. We are telling a story in a completely unique way: A) it’s a musical, and B) it’s not just one love story, it’s actually three. And hers is almost as important.”
All are excited that Matthews is helming the show for the opening of Celebration’s 30th anniversary season, both because of his long association with the theater and his creative vision. For Elzer, the timing, alchemy and location of the core team offer a synchronicity to be savored.
“What I love about us opening the 30th anniversary season for the Celebration is you have two gay men [Elzer and Matthews], a lesbian [Cotter] and a straight woman [Scarlett] who have together created an original musical about Los Angeles and Hollywood right here in Hollywood. It’s a mishmash of all of us. It just seems so appropriate, both for this theater and for this time in our lives.”
Justin Love, Celebration Theatre, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, 90038. Opens September 21. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through November 18. Tickets: $34.99 www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323-957-1884.
***All Justin Love production photos by Michael Lamont