I Only Have Eyes For You: On Al Dubin and Bringing the Golden Age Back to Hollywood

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“Come on along and listen to, the lullaby of Broadway…”

[dropcap]The[/dropcap] man who wrote these words, lyricist Al Dubin, was himself tempted by the lullaby of Broadway — cutting class at the age of fourteen to see Broadway shows and hawk material on Tin Pan Alley. Dubin wrote the 1935 Academy Award winning song, “Lullaby of Broadway,” and countless other classics with Harry Warren. These hits that would become the soundtrack of the 1930s — dotting Busby Berkeley films and sung by stars like Ruby Keeler, Al Jolson, and Carmen Miranda. Dubin and his songs now sit at the center of his own musical, I Only Have Eyes For You.

The life story of Al Dubin is a tale at odds with the tone of the work he produced. His history, one of a man with immense talent whose vices continually got in his own way, is an all too familiar one in show business — but it’s unusual to see it in a musical, particularly one with tap dancing, rather than a drama or the tabloids.

Producer Corky Hale first encountered this dichotomy in the 1980s after performing Dubin’s songs at a “Lyrics and Lyricist” event at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Al Dubin’s daughter was there that night, and she and Hale connected — eventually forming a bond that enabled Hale to go beyond the music and uncover the story of Dubin’s life. Having learned more about the artist himself, Hale became fascinated with the contrast between Dubin’s beautiful lyrics and his excessive, troubled lifestyle.

Inspired by her husband, songwriter Mike Stoller, and his success in bringing his songbook to the stage in Smokey Joe’s Café, Hale originally produced a smaller scale version of an Al Dubin musical in 1998 at the now defunct Tiffany Theatre – a production overseen by current director and choreographer, Kay Cole. Now, the production returns to Hollywood with a team of new writers and Cole in tow — making its premiere at the Montalban (where, coincidentally, Smokey Joe’s Café had its debut in 1995).

Cole calls it “the first fully-realized production, à la a Broadway production.” She seems to be a natural fit for overseeing the development of this new musical — Cole originated the role of Maggie in A Chorus Line, and worked on numerous shows as both an actor and director as they were being developed. Because of this, she says, “my gift is to mold and develop something that has not been done before.”

But in one sense — it has been done before; Dubin’s songs, sung by iconic performers, are viewable in countless films and were immortalized onstage in 42nd Street (which, by a twist of fate, comes to the Hollywood Pantages on the heels of I Only Have Eyes For You). So why should audiences take a risk on this unknown property that makes use of beloved standards?

Nikki Bohne and Jared Gertner. Photo by Michael Lamont.
Nikki Bohne and Jared Gertner. Photo by Michael Lamont.

For Hale, a self-described “Pollyanna,” she wanted to produce a show that would bring audiences “happiness.” Aghast at the proliferation of dark, angst-ridden stories on television, Hale says her greatest wish is that “people will go out singing, and hopefully, tap dancing.” An admirable goal, but one audiences might achieve through a film or a production of 42nd Street.

Director Kay Cole, however, contrasts the fictional backstage tale of 42nd Street with the autobiographical and personal nature of I Only Have Eyes For You. Whereas 42nd Street gives you Dubin’s music, “this shows the heart of Al Dubin within his music,” she says.

Cole also speaks to the unique opportunity to contextualize these classics of the American songbook within Dubin’s own narrative and how lyrics arose from his own life.

“He was very, very prolific,” Cole says, “and the likelihood of anybody ever having the opportunity to see that before is highly unlikely, because all they did was hear his music.”

For Cole, the project is about “connecting the artistry of someone with their humanity.” Still, within this exploration of Dubin’s drinking, gambling, and womanizing, Cole and Hale have relied on the structure and tropes of classic musicals. Hale notes that all of the songs were selected with care to reflect and enhance the story. She was wary of “shoehorning” in songs, a trap all too common for shows looking to slot pre-existing music into a new storyline. Cole speaks to the humor inherent to the show, noting “we find a delightful and charming way to express his humor and still celebrate his complexity as a human being.”

One of the other unique elements of the show is the chance to see classic Hollywood stars like Ruby Keeler and Carmen Miranda brought back to life. Contemporary audiences may not be familiar with these icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but both Hale and Cole hope the glimpse they give here will encourage audiences to seek out their films and music.

To set the musical further apart, Cole has also taken care to stage numbers in surprising and untraditional ways. For instance, the song “42nd Street,” which is traditionally staged as a show-stopping tap dance, is here a stylized number in the vein of “One” from A Chorus Line. The show travels from the 1920s through to the 40s, which Cole says has allowed them to explore a wide range of dance styles.

Resituating the familiar and beloved within the new and unexpected — this is the hallmark of I Only Have Eyes For You. Songs like “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and “We’re in the Money” find a new home when paired with the personal story of their lyricist.

As Cole puts it, “it’s an old style musical, but it is celebrating with a new vision.”

NOW PLAYING: I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU at the Montalban, through June 12.

i only have eyes for you iconStraight from his brilliant turn as Elder Cunningham in “The Book Of Mormon”, Jared Gertner stars as 1930s lyricist Al Dubin in a show that delivers a veritable banquet of great songs. Dubin was one of the premier songwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen is a writer, actor, and director. She currently writes about arts & entertainment for Neon Tommy, as well as a monthly column about groundbreaking women in Hollywood for Ms. In the Biz. She holds a B.A. in History and Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California, as well as a Master’s in British History from the University of Oxford. Because she doesn’t have enough degrees, she is also currently working towards a M.A. in Arts Journalism at USC. Theatrically, she can mostly be found at the Antaeus Theater, where she is a proud affiliate.