There’s Something About Jerry

Choreographer du jour spills all; among forgotten royals, is it Joan or Constance?

“She’s a dyke/you can see it by the way that she stands/She’s a dyke/There’s something wrong with her glands/She’s dyke with a giggle and a comb/Let’s test her for testosterone.”

These Jimmy Webb lyrics, sung by choreographer Jerry Mitchell, from the aborted 1985 Michael Bennett musical, “Scandal,” provided an instant of hilarity at Seth Rudetsky’s Chatterbox at Don’t Tell Mama, on June 16. This final project of Bennett’s, before his death, was, frankly, all about sex, and never made it to Broadway in a time in which, as Mitchell described, “Every day, the front page of the newspapers was AIDS, AIDS, AIDS.”

Mitchell, the blindingly talented hope of Broadway musicals, gave the ultimate insider’s view of the business as he described his first arrival in New York from Paw Paw, Michigan, so green that he slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment and hit Times Square without the exact street address of his audition.

“I just figured I’d find it, somehow,” he said.

An early job was as swing for Lauren Bacall’s “Woman of the Year.”

“That was huge fun––I think she and [co-star] Harry Guardino had some personal magic going on,” Mitchell explained. “That happens to everybody who does a show at the Palace––like Dee Hoty and Keith Carradine in ‘The Will Rogers Follies.’ I got noticed, too––a good dancer, very tall, ok-looking for a kid, and she didn’t like that.

“Our choreographer kept saying, ‘Make sure when you dance you always look at her,’ and I usually did, but she couldn’t keep tabs on me because I was always in different places and that bothered her. She got really pissed off with me one night when I was warming up onstage and accidentally knocked over a prop dummy for the opening number. She screamed at me, ‘Be careful with the dummies! Be careful with the lifts!’ And I screamed back, ‘I am careful with the dummies! I am careful with the lifts!’” David Taylor, our stage manager, gave me a thumb’s up behind her.

“The next day, she comes in and I’m warming up and she says, ‘Hi, Jerry!’ I was a bigger bitch than Bacall, and she liked that. She tested you, and if you didn’t completely cower she respected you.”

Mitchell said of his time making the film “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”: I got to hang out with a lot of gorgeous men in their underwear. Dom DeLuise has home movies somewhere. It was 1981 and he had some sort of home movie thing and we’d be on the set in our underwear and he’d say, ‘Oh, do some sit-ups, do some push-ups!’ We’d have parties with Dom back in the hotel room. Somebody would have to go in one room and pretend to be dead and we would try to get them to move.”

Of his recent Tony win as Best Choreographer for “La Cage aux Folles,” Mitchell said, “I’m very honored, but I think I won it not just for ‘La Cage,’ but for the past five years.”

Mitchell does have a beef with the TDF Astaire Dance Awards: “I don’t care that they didn’t give me the award. But they gave it to Norbert Leo Butz [for ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’] and I went to Norbert and said, ‘I love you, I’m your choreographer, but as soon as you get that award, I’m taking it away from you and giving it to Andy Pellick [the standout Cagelle].’ And when they give the TDF Best Male Dancer award to Hugh Jackman for ‘The Boy from Oz’ over Noah Racey for ‘Never Gonna Dance,’ they’re fucking out of their minds. They’re gonna have to do a lot of ass-kissing to get me to support them. This has nothing to do with me––give an ensemble award to the Cagelles. Hello!”

There should be a lot of “Hellos!” in Mitchell’s upcoming musical “Legally Blonde,” which he’s directing and choreographing.

“I am psyched about it because I love the movie and think I can tell that story,” he boasted. “The producers allowed me to be part of choosing the right team, and the songwriters who hit it best were Larry O’Keefe [Batboy] and his wife, Nell Benjamin. Our opening number is ‘Ohmigod’––‘Ohmigod, you guys, looks like Elle’s gonna win the prize!’ It sets up the world of her upcoming engagement to Warner Huntington III, and how she won’t buy the dress with the half-league stitching on silk, ‘because it will pucker, that’s in last week’s Cosmo.’”

Also in the works for Mitchell is the musical of “Catch Me If You Can,” written by “Hairspray” team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, from a Terence McNally book, directed by Jack O’Brien. Mitchell admits to not knowing what’s up with the “Hairspray” film.

“I think I’m choreographing, but they don’t have a script yet,” he said. “It was Jack’s idea that we applied to be co-directors to the Directors’ Guild of America, but they won’t let two people direct a film.”

Hollywood, Broadway, glamour, sex, scandal and family secrets are all present in Brian Kellow’s biography, “The Bennetts” (University of Kentucky Press). Kellow, features editor of Opera News magazine, spent years of exhaustive research on this largely forgotten show biz royal family, and has come up with a fascinating book, the perfect summer read.

The family patriarch, Richard Bennett (1872-1944), was one of the foremost stage actors of the early 20th century, making his mark in works by Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard and Maxwell Anderson. But his fame was eclipsed by that of his daughters, Constance and Joan, who achieved movie stardom. Constance was the highest paid film actress in the early 1930s, a husky-voiced, rail-thin, dazzling blonde, known as the chicest woman in Hollywood, with a devastating comic style––“Topper,” “Bed of Roses,” “Moulin Rouge,” Our Betters”––and temperament. Feisty, shrewd and married five times, she was embroiled in a highly publicized court battle with the family of millionaire hubby Phil Plant, over their adopted son, Peter. She died suddenly at age 60, due, perhaps, to the effects of a final, deadly face lift.

Joan dyed her hair black in 1938, in imitation of Hedy Lamarr, and morphed from a sweet ingénue into one of film noir’s most unforgettable femme fatales in Fritz Lang classics like “Woman in the Window” and “Scarlet Street.” The kiss-kiss bang-bang of these films was somewhat echoed in real life in 1951when her husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover, Jennings Lang, in the groin, in one of the biggest scandals of the era. Best known today for the gothic soap opera, “Dark Shadows,” she lived to be 79, and was married to her fourth husband, David Wilde, who Kellow discovered had a penchant for cross dressing.

Middle sister Barbara was the most tragic of them all, never achieving the success of the others, and becoming an alcoholic.

Kellow told me that he was getting tired of being cast as someone who only wrote about the opera and decided to do something about a subject that hadn’t been done to death.

“I met Joan about a year before she died,” he said, “and it was interesting because she really didn’t have anything to say. There was no perspective left and her memory had just faded, although she was perfectly with it. But it was clear that this was an interesting story. She had written a book in 1970, ‘The Bennett Playbill,’ or somebody had written it for her, and although it’s got valuable facts, it’s really kind of a gloss. She would not cooperate in terms of coming out with any of the real dirt. But the more I spoke to different family members, what really interested me was that Richard was this titanic figure of the stage, considered very much the equal of John Barrymore, and he had these three girls who took his legacy in such completely different directions.”

Like that other sister act, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, the Bennett girls have their separate fan bases. I am an avowed Constance worshipper, and feel that Kellow gave her, not to mention her gorgeous second husband, actor Gilbert Roland, somewhat short shrift. Kellow prefers Joan, the basis of a lively, friendly debate between us, based on her more human qualities, as well as what he sees as a considerable acting gift which developed over the years.

“Connie certainly had an amazing presence and personality that came across beautifully on film. And Joan certainly did improve. I think some of her early performances are dreadful. She needed a director and was then capable of quite impressive work. In the John Frankenheimer Playhouse 90 production, ‘Thundering Way,’ she’s astonishing, but someone told me that he never saw a director harass an actor to that degree, he had to weed it out of her. Joan was very unsure of her talent. She did not think she was a very good actor. A very honest woman.”

Kellow is currently tackling the life and career of Ethel Merman. Yes sir!

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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