Mention the name Betty Hutton to folks nowadays, and you’ll most likely receive one of two responses: “Oh, from Annie Get Your Gun“ or a blank stare.
It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that the platinum-blonde musical comedienne, who was Paramount’s top leading lady in the late 1940s and early ’50s, is a vague recollection to contemporary audiences. It’s a cultural oversight that the married creative team Diane Vincent and Sam Kriger are anxious to correct with the premiere of the new musical Nuttin’ But Hutton, which opens Saturday at NoHo Arts Center.
Described as “a joyous celebration of the songs of Betty Hutton”, this musical comedy revue sets out to raise awareness for the late great Hutton and the perhaps lesser-known body of musical work that was created for her.
Conceived, written by, and starring Vincent, this project is very much a personal labor of love. “It’s the only child I’ve ever had, and I have the stretch marks to prove it,” she jokes. “It was born out of an interview I saw on Turner Classic Movies [TCM] in 2000 with Betty Hutton. I was just captivated by her story. I knew only two films of hers: Annie Get Your Gun and The Greatest Show on Earth. Outside of that I had seen nothing of her on film. In the interview they showed a bunch of her film clips where she is singing these wacky, wild, crazy novelty songs and I just went “˜Wow, I need to know more’.”
What Vincent and her husband and co-writer Sam Kriger found, however, was that Hutton’s rising star precipitated a depressing fall. Hutton’s personal life was far from the happy-go-lucky musical comedies that she was known for. Hers was a rather tragic saga dotted with four failed marriages, depression, addiction, a nervous breakdown that led to her being institutionalized, and ultimately her death at 86 from colon cancer.
“Her rise and fall was just so interesting to me,” Vincent explains. “How do you go from being Paramount’s number one star…to working as a cook in a rectory in Rhode Island, being hospitalized for a mental breakdown, being estranged from all of your family and your friends, and having only a priest to hold you up and show you that you’re worth something?”
While some writers might view such heavy material as dramatic fodder, Vincent and Kriger made a conscious decision to steer clear of Hutton’s downfall out of respect for the artist and to preserve the spirit and integrity of her work in musical comedy. Alternatively, they crafted an entirely new screwball comedy script centering around a character named “Dee Dee”, a Betty Hutton fan who is trying to mount a tribute revue.
“We wanted to respect her, we didn’t want to dwell on her shortcomings and that type of thing,” Vincent explains. “For years I have been tracking these biographical musicals — and I am not pooh-poohing any of them — but there was a formulaic pattern to them that I wanted to deviate from and not make it a revue-style show where you are basically narrating her story.Â So that’s why I am not playing her, that is why we are not telling her life story in that way, as some of these other biographical musicals have been done.”
Hutton is not the only real-life woman to have shaped the character of Dee Dee, Kriger adds. “Diane’s nickname is Dee Dee, and she is playing Dee Dee in the show.Â The character Dee Dee is really a theatrical version of who Diane really is. Like she says, you can come to our house and turn on any one of our TVs and it will be on TCM.Â It will never be on any other channel.”
Vincent is quick to deflect the focus back to Hutton and pay homage to the joyous and uplifting aspects of her body of work. “As I found out more about her life story, it was the music that I wanted to celebrate. The music deserved to have a new viewing by a new audience, because it’s such glorious music from these world-class songwriters who wrote for her. I felt my personality lent itself to the material naturally anyway because I am a bit of a whack-job myself, so I felt that I could do justice to the material — at least that’s what we’re hoping.”
As Vincent and Kriger moved into the developmental stages of their script, they brought on Larry Raben to direct. A formidable stage actor himself as well as the director ofÂ The Wedding Singer and Hairspray at Musical Theatre West, Raben reminds Vincent just how imperative it was to her that this show remain a tribute, not an impersonation. “This is a loving tribute show to her material, so you have created this character Dee Dee who is obsessed with Betty Hutton. She is obsessed with old Hollywood, with those kinds of musical numbers and shows, so it’s set in modern times. We have all have encountered those people in our lives that just want to dress retro.Â They really are from the wrong era, and I think that is what Dee Dee is — she is living in the wrong time.”
“Yes, a part of me really does feel like I was born in the wrong time,” Vincent agrees. “I love the clothes, I love the music, and I love the style of that era and the films. The golden age of Hollywood — I wish I’d been there, I think it would have worked.Â First of all, body type alone. I got the shape for that. Women had curves back then. Larry saw me in my Spanx yesterday, so he knows I have curves.” She laughs. “I always say that I have an hourglass figure, and all the sand’s on the bottom.”
Known throughout the world for her Lucille Ball impersonations, Vincent views Nuttin’ But Hutton and the character of Dee Dee as a welcome departure, creatively speaking. “I didn’t want to come out in a bad blonde wig,” she agrees. “When [Betty] did this material she was in her early 20s and I am a good — 10 years past that.”Â Another laugh. “Plus I make my living as an impersonator anyway; I am a Lucy impersonator. So I have done that for a long, long time and have made a very good living doing Lucy. Lucy never got to sing. So I leave the impersonations to Lucy and celebrate Betty in a different way, without putting on the regalia.”
Wishing to pay tribute not only to the musical comedy numbers themselves, but also the screwball comedy style that Hutton was widely associated with, Kriger, Vincent, and Raben have tried to infuse their show with that Preston Sturges-esque, screwball sensibility. “We just loved her movies and we said “˜let’s model our show-within-a-show after one of her movies’,” offers Kriger. “We needed the characters to all have some kind of an arc, even if it’s a silly arc, and they need to have a reason to be.”
As Raben explains it, plot certainly fits in with the madcap, road-show sensibility. “Dee Dee has been pitching this Betty Hutton idea all over town and she has finally ended up at the last card in her rolodex. This is the last place she wants to take the show, it’s a broken-down producer named Buster Haymeister, and as she gets to his office, she sees that not only is it a rat hole, but he keeps getting calls from creditors the whole time she is trying to do her pitch. Buster actually gets interested in her material and becomes proactive to get the show seen, because he suddenly realizes this is great material.Â As a troupe, they get energized and you will have to see the play to see what happens in the second act.”
Vincent quickly pipes in, “It’s a real cliffhanger!”
The journey of mounting this production has not been without its challenges. As Raben says, “New musicals are not for sissies.” But across the board, the ease and confidence which the group exudes is attributed to the quality and caliber of the company they have assembled.Â “You want to have all 64 Crayolas in your box. But that is the wonderful part about the L.A. theater scene — there are so many places that new work can be produced.Â Musicals are notoriously hard because the economics are off the charts.”
As Kriger explains, one of the more daunting elements to getting this show off the ground was doing it in the world of 99-seat theaters, which is new territory for the creative leads. “This might be the first time Larry has worked in this world. Diane and I haven’t done 99-seat since 1989. So we knew it was going to be different.Â But everyone is so talented, enthusiastic, and so dedicated — from the cast to the designers to the creative team — they all are just decent human beings, on top of being talented, which was really important to Diane and I when we got started on this project.Â First thing we said was “˜we are gonna do it and do it right, and we are going to get all the best people’.”
A critical member of that team is renowned choreographer Lee Martino.Â In a show featuring more than 20 numbers, all in the same musical comedy vein, distinguishing them was tricky. “I’m so lucky to have [Lee],” Raben gushes. “She is so smart and so celebrated.Â The big challenge for us was that Betty Hutton did one thing really well, and the people that wrote for her wrote only to her strengths.Â She would start a song such a normal, happy person and then reveal “˜but really I’m a kook’. So all of the songs have that kind of “˜Jack Black thing’, if you know what I mean. He seems like such a nice guy and then spazes out.”
“Maybe we should have Jack Black play it,” Vincent quips.
Vincent and Raben credit their ensemble cast as a critical factor in bringing the show and the musical numbers to life. “Triple threat? No, no, no. We’ve got quintuple threats because they sing, dance, act, be funny and sing vocal harmonies,” Vincent states. “We all believe in the project and we want to flex our muscles and keep busy. God, to have these guys”¦I couldn’t ask for a better company. If you’re gonna do a one-woman show, you might as well have four good-looking men in it with you!”
As musical director for Michael Feinstein and many other world-renowned artists, Kriger would not be likely to compromise on the quality of his musicians.Â Nuttin’ But Hutton boasts a six-piece band assembled and led by Kriger, who says, “We have some of the best players that have ever played in a 99-seat theater. These are all world-class players and they really loved the music and they really wanted to do it.”
As Raben mentioned, new musicals are a tricky business. But the sentiment across the board is that the goal of this production ends where it began, with the hopes of raising awareness for the life and music of Betty Hutton.Â Kriger elaborates — “I think our greatest motivating factor is that we just want people to be so happy and just love the music and say “˜Oh my god, I had no idea that Frank Loesser wrote that.’ That’s what we really want. Hopefully people will go out and Google Betty, and I think that will provide word of mouth that we want for our show. It’s really a joyful experience we want to bring.Â Yeah,Â we want to make money too, but that was never a factor. Diane and I never looked at each other and started adding up ledgers. Just the joy that it gave to us”¦we knew in our bones it would give joy to other people.”
Raben, however, cites some practical reasons for why Nuttin’ But Hutton has potential to do well regionally. “Every major theater community has a belting diva/comedian, three really good chorus guys and a character actor. So as long as people can handle the vocal demands, it really is a show that can do well for a lot of regional theaters.”
With a mischievous smile, Raben continues, “I also want people to come away singing the praises of “˜Diane Vincent!’”
“Nooooo!” she laughingly groans.
“It’s really true,” Raben tells her sincerely. “You have been in this business a long time and are a really well-respected part of the community. For people to get to watch you do 26 of these numbers, it’s really going to be a treat.”
Steering the focus away once again, VincentÂ goes on to talk about how excited the creators of the show are to present Hutton’s story in a new way. “This has been a long journey.Â Even though the idea was born in 2000, Sam and I are so busy doing other things that we’d pick it up and put it down. During all this time we thought, “˜What if someone else picks it up and runs with it?’. We wanted to be the first and hopefully I think we are.Â But the more that’s out there about her, great! We are happy to know that we are the first to present it this way.”
“As Victor Hugo said, “˜There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” says Kriger. “And I think the time has come for this.”
Vincent sighs adoringly. “I love when my husband quotes Victor Hugo.”
Nuttin’ But Hutton, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens Saturday. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through April 28. Tickets:Â $34.99. www.nuttinbuthutton.com. 800-595-4849.