Sunday, February 28, 2021

The troubled life of a Hollywood lyricist

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The tumultuous personal and professional life of lyricist Al Dubin, who, with composer Harry Warren, wrote a legion of hit songs for films during the 1930s, is depicted in the new musical “I Only Have Eyes for You,” now running at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood. Among the standards created by the songwriters is the play’s title tune along with such numbers as “42nd Street,” “September in the Rain,” the 1936 Oscar-winning “Lullaby of Broadway” and innumerable others.

The production is the brainchild of producer Corky Hale, a noted singer, jazz pianist and harpist in her own right. Hale, who is married to the iconic composer Mike Stoller (of the songwriting team Leiber and Stoller), said that from the time she first became acquainted with Dubin’s work decades ago, she fell in love with the beauty of his lyrics, citing the following lines as an example — “I will gather stars out of the blue … for you, for you” — and she wanted to bring his story, which is not widely known, to today’s audiences.

“Let me tell you why I spent all this money, with investors, to do this show, which was well over a million dollars: I am sick to death of everything (on stage and screen) that is ugly and mean and terrible. Everything is torture, killing, scandal, burning,” Hale said, adding, “I got fed up one day, and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to put on a show that has beautiful music and a love story.’ ”

The love story refers to the marriage between Dubin and his wife, Helen, whom he adored from the first time he met her, though their union turned out to be a rocky one. And the play is done very much in the style of the time period it covers, with more than 20 songs by Warren and Dubin, and includes ballet, tap and jazz choreography. 

Hale produced two earlier versions of the show, one in 1997 at the Tiffany Theatre on the Sunset Strip and the other in 2003 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. But for this production, she brought in the husband-and-wife team of Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling (“Peggy Sue Got Married”) to create a new book aimed at making the character of Dubin more sympathetic than he probably was in real life.

Despite his talent and success, and his marriage to the love of his life, Dubin played around, was unreliable professionally, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. To soften him and provide one explanation for his self-destructive behavior, the book writers created a character named Patrick who serves with Dubin in the first world war (Dubin actually did serve) and gets killed when he takes Dubin’s watch one night. “He [Dubin] felt so guilty. They added that so that you did have pity for him. Patrick was a fiction,” Hale said.  

What may be closer to the truth, according to Hale, is that Dubin never got any support from his parents. “They said, ‘Shlemiel, you’ll never make money writing words. We want you to be a doctor or a lawyer,’ which all Jewish parents want. They never encouraged him, never, and he was going to show them.”

Hale, who calls herself a “nice Jewish farm girl,” having grown up in a small Midwestern town where there were few Jews apart from her own family, said that Dubin really upset his mother when he converted from Judaism to Catholicism to please his wife.

“I know — a shandah for the neighbors,” joked Jared Gertner, who portays Dubin. “My mother would never forgive me.” 

The actor said one reason he wanted to play this part was that it is a character role that is nevertheless the lead in the show. “As a character man myself, you mostly play the funny supporting roles, or the co-lead, or you are the leading man’s best friend, that sort of thing. So to get to step in and be the leading man in a musical was and is a real thrill for me.”

Furthermore, he said, he was drawn to the prospect of working with esteemed director and choreographer Kay Cole, who has been involved with all three incarnations of the show. Cole, in describing what attracts her to the main character’s story, said, “What draws me is he’s brilliant and he’s troubled, like many human beings. His humanity lives within his lyrics. And that’s where his heart is.”

As for the question of whether or not younger audiences will be interested in hearing songs from another era, Cole said they’ve been coming and seem really excited by Dubin’s music. 

“They didn’t really know the music, but they were inspired to find out about the music. So I would say it’s got a big age range. I’m always fascinated by what an audience responds to, and we’ve had so many wonderful young people respond, [as well as] older people and middle-aged people — I think they’re responding to the entertainment value, and the angst and interesting storytelling.

“Everyone’s participating in that show for those 2 1/2 hours, together as a theatrical community. And it will never be the same again, because it’s a different audience every night.”

“I Only Have Eyes For You” continues through June 12. For ticket information, visit 

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