An annual Actors Fund fundraiser March 15 in Manhattan will feature a star-studded, staged reading of Valley of the Dolls — adapted by Dallasites Bob Hess and Doug Miller from the 1967 film [but see UPDATE, below]. The movie, of course, was based on the infamous–but-now-campy, multi-million-selling Jacqueline Susann novel from 1966. It was the great age of bad novelists like Harold Robbins, and Valley was, in the words of one writer, “a beginner’s manual on sex, adultery, lesbianism, drugs, abortion and the perils of getting what you wish for.” The “Dolls” of the title are the names for the uppers and downers that the three young main characters — the other ‘Dolls’ — use to get through their troubles with men and love and success.
The stage version by Miller and Hess (in photo below) was originally presented by the Uptown Players in August 2007, but although it was wildly received (“20 theaters around the country called us up asking to read the script,” says Hess), the theatrical-rights situation kept their show from returning to the stage.
The cast for the Actors Fund reading in New York will feature Tovah Feldshuh, Martha Plimpton and the cross-dressing Charles Busch playing the Susan Hayward role (a character based on Ethel Merman, who allegedly once was Susann’s lover, an image that can make a person flinch).
Art & Seek talked to Bob Hess while he was on the Fair Park set of Code 58, the new Fox TV series being shot in North Texas. Fittingly, Hess was playing “some character’s father in a flashback from the ’70s.”
Art&Seek: What led you to adapt VD in the first place?
Hess: It was originally a substitute show. My partner, Doug Miller, was going to direct Legends for Uptown, and they lost the rights. So I said to Doug, No one seems to have adapted this movie to the stage, and given the Uptown audience, given the cult appeal of the film, this could work.
A&S: What’s the source of the cult appeal — and it’s for the movie, right, not necessarily for the novel?
Hess: Right. The movie and the book are really very different, and the movie is definitely where the cult appeal is. We were amazed by the appeal. It’s bizarre. It’s one of those things where so many things are tied up in it. Partly there’s the whole mystique around Sharon Tate, the character she plays is a troubled victim, and then there’s what happened to Sharon Tate afterwards [the wife of Roman Polanski, she was murdered by Charles Manson's gang in what became known as the Tate-LaBianca Murders].
So that’s inside of it. And then there are so many good actors saying so many great bad lines — and saying them badly. [The time-capsule cast is something to behold; in addition to such stars as Patty Duke and Lee Grant, it includes Joey Bishop, George Jessel and Martin Milner],
A&S: Great bad lines — such as? It’s been years since I’ve seen the thing.
Hess: Oh my God. “Get outta my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me!” “So ya come crawlin’ back to Broadway? Well, Broadway doesn’t care for booze and dope!” “I have to get up at five in the morning — and sparkle, Neely, sparkle!”
You know, it’s littered with these things. And the audience is just waiting for them.
[Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley wrote the original screenplay. Other choice lines include, "Mother, I know I don't have any talent, and I know I all I have is a body, and I am doing my bust exercises."]
A&S: What was the situation with the stage rights? I heard you faced some serious restrictions.
Hess: Well, it was really bizarre how it ultimately worked out. We went first to 20th-Century Fox, and they said, A movie? Are you doing something with a movie? And we said, no, it’s for a stage play. And they said, then you’ll need to talk to the Jacqueline Susann estate. So we went to them, and they said, 20th-Century Fox owns Valley of the Dolls completely — completely. We kept going back and forth and everyone kept saying, no, you’re talking to the wrong person. Go there. No, go there.
Ultimately, no one seemed interested, no one claimed to own the rights. So we put the thing together and did it. And you know how these things are, that’s when we heard from a lady named Lisa Bishop [she is the stepdaughter of Susann's late husband -- the author's last surviving descendant]. And she does indeed own the rights. So Uptown was able to get permission for their production and their production only.
A&S: How did the Actors Fund get permission? How did they hear of the show?
Hess: One of their producers Googled ‘Valley of the Dolls stage productions’ and he got Uptown Players and he called us. They thought it’d be great for their annual benefit. And then Lisa Bishop got involved. She’s going to be there. I think she sees this as an opportunity, now that there’s a New York City production, to do something with it. She’s had lots of adaptations submitted to her, none of them has been produced. Theater a Go Go did do a production of it in the ’80s, but it was very, very spoofish, made fun of the movie. And I don’t think you can spoof a spoof. We actually paid homage to the movie. There was no winking or nudging, and I prefer that greatly, and so did Doug. We celebrated its badness.
UPDATE: A representative from Tiger LLC, which controls the rights for the Jacqueline Susann estate, called and made the following points:
The adaptation being done in New York is not the one written by Bob and Doug, although they are thanked in the program.
The estate was not contacted by Hess or Miller regarding stage rights. It was Uptown Players who contacted them.
Valley of the Dolls has been produced on the stage numerous times before this. In fact, Lisa Bishop produced stagings in Los Angeles and New York. She has also produced previous staged readings for charity events for GLADD and the Victory Fund.
And rather than being an exceptional event, the upcoming reading in New York is one in a series of adaptations for film and TV that the estate has overseen.
A&S: Does she — or Charles Busch — see this as a potential vehicle for Busch?
Hess: Possibly. This is all conjecture. I think the producer sees it having the chance to be another Hairspray. I don’t think it quite has that niche appeal. I think this show fits more like the Shear Madness niche or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. One of those shows that people take out-of-town friends to see because it’s novel, but it’s still something they know.
But we gave the producer carte blanche with it. And Charles will certainly put his own spin on it. Of course, he was really excited about doing the Susan Hayward role. Everybody who does drag dreams of that role. Susan Hayward is so deliciously awful in it. She has a dreadful song — supposedly from some musical — called “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” with a terrible mobile swinging around over her head during the whole number. It’s the kind of song that makes you think, ‘What musical could this possibly be from? This is the dumbest song ever written.’
So Charles and the guy who directs all Charles’ things [Kenneth Elliott] have taken our adaptation and adapted it. It’s still a staged reading, a 90-minute show without intermission, but they’ve got a full orchestra playing. And they’ve got a lot of Broadway names in it. Jane Krakowski was just wrecked that she couldn’t do it. They were going to have her do the Sharon Tate role but she had to shoot 30 Rock.
But Lisa Bishop is bringing in a lot of people to see it. I know she’s got something cooking — she was adamant that we not appear in the program as ‘adaptation by.’ For all I know, she may say, Thanks, but my friend Danny is going to adapt the movie as a Broadway musical. Bye.
I have no idea. But we’re hoping she’ll love our version so much, she’ll say, Let’s talk, boys.