BootLeg Betty

For The Boys: How It Became A Theatrical Musical

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Post Tribune
Let’s hear it ‘For the Boys’
By hedy weiss
Theater Critic/hweiss@suntimes.com
August 10, 2011


It was 20 years ago that a movie called “For the Boys” arrived on screens, with Bette Midler and James Caan starring as popular performers who entertained the troops under the auspices of the USO (United Service Organizations), first during World War II, then during the Korean War (with the McCarthy era as part of the 1950s home front) and, finally, in Vietnam.

The principal characters were Dixie Leonard, a big band singer (loosely modeled after singer-comedienne Martha Raye), who teamed up with (and often outshone) Eddie Sparks, a comic who was something of a composite of Bob Hope and Dean Martin.

The movie, which followed the pair’s volatile love-hate relationship over many decades, was not an outright musical, but it was infused with popular songs and war zone performance sequences. Yet for some reason it failed to light a fire at the box office — perhaps because feelings about the Vietnam War were still so raw, or because the subject matter was out of sync with peace time, or because Midler, perceived as the essence of fun and campy nostalgia, was just being too serious.

Nevertheless, Aaron Thielen was a fan of the film (as, I readily confess, was I).

“I saw the movie when it was first released and later caught it on cable,” said Thielen, now artistic director of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., and a former actor, dancer and choreographer. “And I kept thinking: This should be a stage show. At the time, I had no aspirations to write a musical. And when I mentioned my idea to Terry James (executive producer at Marriott), he said, ‘Don’t waste your time; there will be far too many hoops to jump through to get those rights.’”

So Thielen put his idea on the shelf. But as he began working more and more with writers on the development of new musicals, he felt uncomfortable about the fact that he had never written anything of his own.

“So, purely as an exercise, I decided to try my hand at ‘For the Boys,’ making some changes to the movie version and thinking about how it might work onstage,” Thielen said. “And when I finally showed it to Terry, he said, ‘Pretty good.’”

Thus began the genesis of “For the Boys” — the musical — which starts previews Aug. 17 at the Marriott and receives its official world premiere Aug. 26. Directed and choreographed by the ubiquitous Marc Robin (who has staged such Marriott productions as “Hairspray” and “All Night Strut”), the show will star Broadway veterans Michele Ragusa and Timothy Gulan, along with a large cast of heavy-duty Chicago talents including Anne Gunn, Summer Smart, Bernie Yvon, Michael Lindner and Johanna McKenzie Miller.

“Crazily enough, right after I showed Terry (James) the script, he happened to be talking to the Marriott’s New York-based lawyers, Thomas Distler and Marsha Brooks. And out of nowhere, Brooks said something about how much she and her husband loved the movie ‘For the Boys,’ to which Terry responded, ‘You will not believe this, but I have a script for the show right here.’”

That was about 2 1/2 years ago. The lawyers read the script, loved it, sent it around for other opinions, and then told James and Thielen to move forward on the project. The original screenplay writers (Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub) read it and liked it. The next step was to go to 20th Century Fox.

“I thought that was where it would all fall apart,” confessed Thielen. “But after a year or so, and lots of talking, they said yes. No one else had optioned the idea. The studio had lost money on the movie. So it was really no risk for them. And if everything works out, they will get a percentage of the box office. But I also see it as a real leap of faith.”

The Marriott has the rights to work on the property for two years, and there is much fine print in the rest of the agreement. As it turned out, getting the rights to the many standards being used was one of the trickiest parts of the project, though close to two dozen songs (only six of them heard in the movie) will be used in full or in fragments, including “GI Jive,” “Billy-A-Dick,” “Stuff Like That There,” “PS I Love You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Remember You” and “What A Wonderful World.”

“Our main goal is to honor the original piece and remain true to the characters,” Thielen said. “We also want to celebrate the USO, with which we’ve developed some great ties and for whom we are doing our opening night benefit. They’ve been so generous in supplying us with archival material. And with help from our projection designer, Sage Carter, we’re using black-and-white and color video to suggest the changing mood in the country, though musically we stay pretty close to the big band tradition. We won’t be doing Jimi Hendrix.”

Nor will this be a nonstop dance extravaganza, even though Robin invariably pulls out all the stops in that regard.

“I’ve always loved this movie, and loved Bette, too,” Robin said. “But I’m all about embracing my history, too. And as the years have gone by, I’ve grown more and more interested in the dramatic aspects of musicals. So we try to suggest the shift in Americans’ sense of war — from the radio and brief newsreel coverage of World War II to Vietnam, ‘the living room war,’ where television coverage made such an impact. Of course, we’re also having great fun with this show, centering it on the USO’s mission to entertain and boost morale, using the music of the Andrews Sisters, giving a sense of the USO dancers and the 1950s-style TV variety shows, too. And as you know, I can never resist a big tap dance number.”

Robin is well aware that “all sorts of people” will be coming in to take a look at this show. But as he put it: “Aaron and I are really thinking about this production. We are fully focused on the here and now.”

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