My turn to tell the story - for the first and, hopefully, last time. As producer, director, actor, designer, etc, I can give the definitive history if anyone can. To both of you reading this while I am alive, my best to you.
Hundreds of young actors start theatre companies and do safe material like Romeo and Juliet, The Glass Menagerie, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, etc. Who is gutsy (or foolish) enough to tackle one of the most beloved films with performances sketched into the audience's minds? Before I go on, I commend all those who were brave and took this crazy journey with incompetent young me. I've never been involved in something as unique as Rebel, not just the play but the gossip around it. People love the film. It is very personal to so many people. They are very protective of it. I understand that. We were always damned if we do, damned if we don't - We were TOO James Dean or NOT ENOUGH James Dean. (How can you act a part that was customized around the stars without touching territory they did?) Before we ever opened, we sat around making up the so-called 'clever' titles reviewers would use, "Rebel Without Applause", "Tear Them Apart," knowing we were targets for being so audaciuous. Years later, as an accomplish director and producer, I can say the leads acted the Hell out of it. The performances were truthful and raw. When people find out I was involved in Rebel, (an understatement) they want to know everything. I try to just shrug it off. So, this one time, let me control the narrative and hopefully close the book on Rebel and maybe teach some kid in my shoes a thing or two.
My 1st full weekend in NY, after starting at NYU, I went to an open talent call at McDonald Richard's agency. I was 'fresh off the bus' from Ohio. The kind, blue-blooded lady said, "You look like James Dean." I thanked her and she said, "Oh, that wasn't a compliment. No one wants THAT anymore. You will never work. unless you change everything" Oh. I did grow up near him. Any similarities were unintentional. (Ironically, years later, when she was no longer around, I booked tons of work through their agency without changing a thing.) The next 5 yrs, I easily got the J. D. comment 100+ times before a manager suggested I make it into a positive. Interesting idea?
I started looking into the stage rights of East of Eden and Rebel. The internet was young, but I found live performance rights to Rebel were sold decades before. Through an antique book store, I paid way too much for an old copy. I was excited to find it, but it was far from ideal. Clearly, it had been intended for high schools and community theatres, so there were many filler roles so they could cast more students/community actors. There was no way to change that, so, hopefully through directing, we could gloss over the many certain hiccup moments. I was early 20s so this all sounded like a piece of cake. I had to have a Theatre Company to get the rights, so in about 3 seconds, Barely Balancing Theatre (from a line from Lisa Loeb's 'Furious Rose') was formed (We did all the legal paperwork later.), and I booked The Chernuchin Theatre at American Theatre of Actors on 54th St. It has a 2 level stage which I pictured when imagining the play. (What they didn't tell us, well, was 20x more than they told us. There was no way to get from the stage to the 2nd level. We posted a plea online for a spiral staircase of bizarre dimensions and a place in TX (will add their info when I find it) we're lovely enough to sell us one at cost, plus the freight charges. (Little did I know, those were like 3 times more than the staircase cost). It was still a major score.
The moment the Backstage casting notice went out, I was flooded with emails and manila envelopes. (Never use your personal email or home address for casting. Yeah, it seems obvious, NOW!) The very first email, from an anonymous jerk (long before they became an internet norm, went on and on about how Rebel was cursed and that we were next to die if we proceeded. I hadn't expected that but kept the email. There were quite a lot more like it, but I'd grown immune after the first one.
Casting was difficult but fun. (Were they talented enough and did I want to possibly put a curse on them?!) We had several thousand submissions. Luckily, I cast a few lead roles immediately and they were vital in helping find the rest of the cast. Several of them became family. Late, 2004, we did a freezing cold press photo shoot at Belvedere Castle in Central Park. Crowds gathered to watch us freeze our asses off to get these great photos. (Coke O'Neal did the photos. He was supposedly a friend of some slimy guy #1 that wanted to be a producer early on. More on him later.) We also had a homeless man show up and insist on auditioning. He somehow snuck in to a warm rehearsal studio. He wanted to know if he was cast right there on the spot. Sadly, he was terrible. So we gently did the, "We'll call you if interested." But he had no phone. (Go figure!) He told us where he hung out and we promised to find him if interested.
Word of mouth was building, we rehearsed our asses off, we made Liz Smith's national syndicated column. (Holy Shit!) We opened, and I thought people would be beating down the doors. They came. There were no lines around the block though. Reviewers didn't bother as we were only running for a few weeks and by the time their review would see print, we'd be closed. (Paper still ruled over the internet.) Anyhow, we set box office records for the theatre. We passed out flyers in Times Square at the TKTS booth, and people were excited as they knew the show. Then they saw all tickets were $20, versus the then $175 Bway seats, and decided it was a joke. We quickly printed flyers with $50 tickets w a ' coupon code' for $20 tickets, and people were very happy. That was my first lesson in marketing. And sadly, an eye opener on what people want in their theatre. A 'deal' is much more important to them than quality.
We closed to a full house, but months later, we were still getting the most heart-warming, deeply personal letters from audience members. They were largely from older male audience members who connected with the Jim and his father scenes. Even several wives wrote us telling how it changed their husband's relationship with his father as he was able to confront their issues while there was still time. THIS is why we make art, not for the critics or even the paycheck (which there was none).
Early into production, chatter started from the Indiana Tour Board about bringing the production to James Dean's hometown that summer for the first 'DeanFest' - to honor the 50th anniversary of his death. The 'slime ball #1' mentioned above, supposedly knew the people in Indiana, and he offered to speak to them on our behalf, as he wanted to be a show producer. Once, they stopped showing interest in bringing us out there, I spoke with them directly. Turns out slime ball told them we didn't want to come but they could do his own (still unproduced?) one man show on James Dean instead. Everyone felt awful when we realized we'd both been lied to. Joshua Coleman and I flew out that summer, performed as Jim and Buzz and met with the amazing Dean fans. The residents of Marion and Fairmount, IN were amazing. It also drew the attention of a German film company who was making a documentary on Dean and interviewed us and had Josh, Aubrey, the 'gang' and I performing again in Central Park.
Back to NY, our trip to Indiana and the buzz from people watching us film the documentary sparked more press and we somehow started gaining lots of attention for unknowns, donors came forward to make a continued production a possibility. My main problem with the original run was the script. So I rewrote it, making it more a piece of theatre than a screenplay. Original screenwriter, Stewart Stern had created it as a Greek Tragedy, and it all takes place over 24 hrs. It would work better in the theatre this way. Using his notes, we submitted the revised script for approval and minus a line or two, the publisher and FINALLY Warner Bros. approved all of the changes. It allowed for a smaller cast and to avoid the 'too like the movie' we did recasting. (We tried to lean away from the film in casting. Lesson learned, if it's not broke, don't fix it.) It hurt the few people we replaced, and I hate that.
ATA's Chernuchin Theatre was booked for the rest of the year, so while we were relieved not to have to deal with them again, we searched for a space with a two-level stage. Theatre Row's Lion Theatre had a small 2nd level and they sold us on how creative we could get if we used the 2 levels. We already had the staircase. Contract signed. 2 weeks before opening, I stopped home between work and rehearsal only to find an overnighted letter saying we must cease production. We'd been in rehearsals again for months. I faxed back our signed contract and went to rehearsal pretending all was OK.
Over the next days, I spoke to many of their lawyers, the publishers gave us permission that Warner Bros. claimed they didn't have, though they too had signed off on the changes. We had no lawyers, so I got to handle that too. We did have a contract signed by all parties allowing us permission to do the show. (Plus, another section of Warner Bros. was contacting us to find a way to cross-promote their 50th anniversary James Dean DVD box set.) The other half was doing everything to scare us to shut down. They agreed to let us do the show, but we had to change back 2/3 of the script. (!!!) We reverted back to the original clunky script.
We moved into the Lion Theatre om 42nd St. three days before we re-opened, (at $4k a week, you don't have the luxury of long rehearsals IN the space). We arranged to install our Texas-sent spiral staircase to the 2nd level when the building staff told us we didn't dare. We can use the 2nd level, but we don't dare attach anything to it or the stage floor. ??? So what choice did we have? None. Though they booked the space on using the 2nd level as the selling point, they now told us it was unsafe to use. As it was mainly my character(s) up there, I offered to sign any kind of waiver that if I got hurt or died, it was all my doing. Nope. We had to re-stage the pivotal scenes. We also had to find a way to physicallyt block off the 2nd level so it didn't hang over us the entire play.
This took so much time, AND we had to change the rest of the script back at last second, so we had no dress rehearsal. We were thrown in front of a packed house with critics for our first attempt on that stage. (Whine. Whine. Whine. YES, the unpredictable is the theatre. You roll with the unknown, that is the thrill, but this was far and beyond the norm. Having produced a dozen shows since, some to huge success - others to personal failure, Rebel was entirely beyond the norm.) While most shows have 4+ weeks of 'previews' before being reviewed, we didn't even have 1 night. So, the record of early reviews is quite nasty, especially as most the papers sent their unknown failed actors, now critics, to attend this unknown theatre with the buzz. They wanted to earn acclaim by crucifying us, and we understood that. I won't pretend they weren't often justified. Still, everyone in the cast gave their all under the awful circumstances and gave solid performances. No one quit. I quickly learned how reviews are usually more about the reviewer than the show. Again, not whining. That is the theatre and its lessons were priceless. Everyone stayed the course.
The final day of Rebel at Theatre Row, several members of Sal Mineo's family attended. They could not have been more complimentary. That was a highlight for me. Finding a way for the actors to earn a commission on top of their meager stipend, some actors made way more than they would have under a Bway contract. This was a threat to the union, which I was a supporter and member of for too many years. We clearly were a threat to their status quo and thus, despite having produced the most pro-union plays in the last 10 yrs, I became villian #1 (and hopefully still am to this day). The theatre is more important than what they think.
Despite once again setting box office records, another show had the theatre booked the day following our last show, so we sawed the set into pieces and threw it in the trash, returned the rental lights and said goodbye. The next morning, I was woken by a call from the theatre. The following show couldn't come in and 'the theatre would make it worth our while' to continue. I did try for a few hours to see if it was possible, but vacations had been booked, extra work shifts had been arranged to make up for missed time, and it just proved improbable. As redeeming as it would have been, it wasn't meant to be. Later that week, Showbuisiness Weekly released a rave review and listed us as their MUST SEE of the week. We were closed. Maybe in 2055, Artificial Intelligence can do a live filter, and we can do a revival that makes us look 17 again, and finally tell the story as it was meant to be. I loved the show so much, I'd have played it nightly until they carted me off.
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