Louis Prima and Keely Smith are struggling to save a marriage. If their relationship goes down in flames, so too might their lucrative lounge act. They have joined forces to become a Las Vegas sensation, but the emotions they tunefully profess in front of the microphone -- infatuation, desire, fidelity -- are the very things that, away from the audience, are tearing them apart.
"That was really good," director Taylor Hackford tells Vanessa Claire Smith, who's playing Smith, after she and Jake Broder, co-starring as Prima, rehearse an emotional scene of marital discord. "But you can be a little testy there."
The 64-year-old filmmaker then turns his attention to Broder, coaching him on how to shade his dialogue with some barely concealed contempt. "It's said with a smile," Hackford tells Broder of a particular line, "but it's meant to be daggers."
It's precisely the kind of intimate, soul-baring backstage banter Hackford has gravitated toward in the music movies he has directed and produced -- "Ray," "The Idolmaker" and "La Bamba." But the scene between Prima and Smith was not unfolding in front of Hackford's cameras, and there wasn't a cinematographer or a key grip in sight.
For the first time in his career, Taylor is directing a stage play, and he's taking the leap from film to theater with no safety net: He's personally bankrolling the Geffen Playhouse production, opening Thursday.
"I feel very much at risk," Hackford says between run-throughs, as he tries to pare the show's running time to about an hour and a half. "We have to prime the pump and get people there at the beginning, because if not, we'll be closed in five weeks. We are totally dependent on ticket sales."
Hey boy, hey girl
At its most basic level, “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” is the story of how one random encounter can change a life.
Prima, a New Orleans jazz, swing and big band marvel, was watching helplessly as his music was about to be eclipsed by rock 'n' roll. Then Smith, a 16-year-old singer, met Prima, 21 years her senior. The sum of their singing and comic parts -- a Sonny & Cher act years before Sonny met Cher -- was far greater than any change in the country's musical tastes could derail, and their high-energy act became an influential Las Vegas sensation throughout the 1950s.
The musical's origin follows a similar chance meeting trajectory.
Vanessa Smith (who is not related to Keely) struggled making it as a Los Angeles actress; her marriage had ended in divorce, and she had given notice for her bartending job. She was pouring some last-week drinks at Hollywood's M Bar and Restaurant in late 2007, days before she planned to throw in the towel and return home to Monroe, La. But that night, Broder was rehearsing at the bar's performance space, playing the cult 1950s hipster comedian/singer in "Lord Buckley in Los Angeles."
Smith liked what she saw and heard, and bought Broder a single-malt Scotch after the show. She asked him if he might be interested in being in a play about Prima and Smith. Broder said yes.
"Show me a script," he said.
"There is no script," Smith replied.
"Well, go write one," Broder answered.
Before long, she and Broder started assembling the piece together, weaving live song performances ("That Old Black Magic," "Just a Gigolo," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and many more) with scenes of Smith and Prima's meeting, falling in love, and separating. "Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara" gradually took shape.
"What we had was a very classical piece -- a tragedy -- that had in its roots plays like 'Amadeus' and 'Pygmalion,' " Broder says. "It was a version of 'A Star Is Born.' "
Says Smith: "All she ever wanted to do was please him and make him happy. She ended up being an amazing vocalist, but he helped her find that in herself. And he created his own destruction in making her more appealing."
A few years before the encounter at the M Bar, Hackford, having recently finished the Oscar-winning Ray Charles biography "Ray," was trolling around for new movie ideas.
"My mother was a big Keely Smith fan," Hackford says of the singer, who turned 77 last week and still does an annual Valentine Day's show in Palm Desert. "I would listen to her incredible phrasing as a kid wandering around the house."
Just like the performers and writers Smith and Broder, Hackford was intrigued about what happened to Smith when she met Prima, and how their personal and professional lives were transformed when they joined together not only as an act but also as husband and wife.
"The interesting thing about Louis Prima," Hackford says of the showman, who died in 1978 at age 67, "is that he reinvented himself with Keely."
Yet as their Las Vegas lounge act exploded in popularity, their marriage was tested by the fame and fortune it engendered. Hackford saw the same dramatic arc as Smith and Broder: "A Star Is Born." He met with Keely Smith to discuss a movie, but nothing immediate became of it.
Not long thereafter, Hackford's talent agent came across a review of Vanessa Smith and Broder's show, which was playing at Los Angeles' tiny Sacred Fools Theatre. "There was no air conditioning, and it was unbelievably hot," he says. "Everybody was sitting in pools of their own sweat. But Jake and Vanessa just killed it. It was great."
Hackford wasn't the only person bowled over by the show, which subsequently transferred to Hollywood's Matrix Theatre and won the 2008 Ovation Award for best musical in an intimate theater.
"There were a lot of offers from a lot of people," Broder says. "There were some New York offers, there were some Las Vegas offers, and some regional offers. But we turned everything down. Because there is something here that is worth working on -- and developing something is better than exploiting something."
Hackford had been working to adapt the 1992 movie "Leap of Faith" into a Broadway musical with composer Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast") and lyricist Glenn Slater ("Sister Act: The Musical"), but the show's opening was delayed, and Hackford couldn't wait.
But the "Leap of Faith" workshop experience had whetted his appetite for stage work, and he saw in Smith and Broder's show "the potential of something that could work even better," the director says. "The emotions, the music and their feelings were right. But the facts weren't always right. You had the form, but you wanted to accentuate the emotional pain of their parting."
Having met with Keely Smith (Smith and Broder hadn't, and did most of their research at the library), Hackford also knew something that could give "Louis & Keely" a little more juice: a tantalizing, long-rumored romance.
"Keely told me things that she hadn't told anyone," Hackford says. Part of what she shared were details of the affair she had with a singer even better known than Prima.
That was Frank Sinatra.
"We have to create a feeling that we're in the past now," Hackford says to his cast and crew, which in addition to Smith (who looks a lot like her character) and Broder (who doesn't) now features two more actors than the original production: Nick Cagle (playing Sinatra) and Erin Matthews (Smith's mother and several of Prima's paramours).
"I don't know how we do that," Hackford says as he continues giving notes, wandering around the 130-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the Geffen's smaller space for newer and experimental work. "There's a little bubble here -- a flashback -- but how do we do that? If we can't make it work, we'll think of something else."
It's a telling moment -- Hackford, the movie director, trying to figure out how to replicate a cinematic effect without cinematic effects. His demeanor offers an unusual comparison too. On movie sets, Hackford's directing style is famously demanding -- "I'm fairly forceful," he says -- but in the theater, he's collegial, collaborative.
"Theater is a different world," says Hackford, who recently completed filming the independently financed "Love Ranch," which stars his wife, Helen Mirren. "And I am working with the authors."
During that recent rehearsal, Hackford was trying to polish the play's most personal moments. "This is the first time that I can actually say the offstage drama is starting to cook," Hackford told his creative team, which includes his "Ray" choreographer, Vernel Bagneris. "Now you have to fit it into the music."
To keep the show's running time close to 90 minutes -- "I really believe you should be able to see a play and have time to go out to dinner afterward," Hackford says -- he has cut out several songs, including "Tenderly" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." "We don't want any holes. We want to keep it going. That's music to my ears."
In addition to gassing the play's pacing, Hackford is also trying to guide the audience as much as possible. Because he can't rely on his usual quiver of camera moves and montages and cuts, Hackford repeatedly tells his actors how to draw attention to themselves or certain parts of the stage. "He will say to us, 'I can't see you in this shot,' " Smith says.
"When you do the kiss, people over here will just see your back," he tells Smith and Broder from a corner of the theater. "So try to do it 50/50." Asked by the actors what that means, Hackford explains that it's a filmmaking term describing a shot in profile.
Moving from a film set into a theater, says Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates, is less tricky than the reverse. "I'm not saying one job is harder than the other. I'm saying that the learning curve is different," says Cates, who has directed movies, television and the Geffen's productions of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Picasso."
"Filmmakers are all comfortable with the responsibility," Cates says, "and they know actors, they know script, they know how to tell a story. But unlike film, you can't cut to a close-up. You have to make a point of where the audience should look. But Taylor is very smart, and he asks people, 'What do you think of this? What do you think of that?' "
When the Geffen, which is struggling to raise money and sell tickets to its mainstage shows, was unable to fund "Louis & Keely," Hackford went out and raised the financing of more than $100,000 himself, pooling his own money with funds from investors.
"Look at Broadway -- they had all these shows close -- there's not a lot of expendable money out there," Hackford says. "I want to do the show. I am obsessed with it. But it's part of the theater thing: Everybody takes a gamble, and we'll see if it pays off."