Actor and Comedian Jerry Lewis will be in Nashville for the next month so, but don’t expect to run into him in Five Points or Centennial Park. He’s spending his days and nights, deep in the bowels of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Perched on a director’s chair, he’s at the helm of a musical version of his 1963 film, The Nutty Professor.
At a recent rehearsal, Lewis is helping actor Michael Andrew, who plays Dr Julius Kelp. It’s the part Lewis played in the film (along with Kelp’s cocky alter-ego, Buddy Love). Andrew is having some difficulty with one of the show’s musical numbers, which requires him to quickly spin a woman sitting in a swivel chair.
“Don’t manhandle her, Michael,” Lewis booms. Everyone in the rehearsal studio cackles at his fake outrage. Michael Andrew interjects, “I thought it would spin easily, but it didn’t.” Lewis fires back, “I told you months ago: do not think!” He returns to his director’s chair and laughs quietly to himself.
It’s taken a long time for Jerry Lewis to get to this point. He’s been working on Nutty Professor for eight years. Now, he has 32 performances in 24 days to grab Nashville theatre-goers and the New York critics among them-if the show is to make it to Broadway.
SITTING IN THE AUDIENCE, BUT NOT LOOKING AT THE STAGE
This musical isn’t Lewis’ singular creation. He’s enlisted help from some well-known Broadway names. Marvin Hamlsich composed the music. Four-time Tony winner Rupert Holmes wrote the lyrics and dialogue. When the show opens, Holmes won’t be back stage or in the sound booth. He says he’ll find a good seat in the auditorium, where he watch the audience’s reaction.
“I know I’m doing okay if I look and there’s kind of a smile on everybody’s face, even though we’re not in comedy,” Holmes says. “They look rested. Sometimes they look younger. They don’t know I’m watching, but it’s a great thing to observe.”
Holmes has 32 performances to get the show to what he calls “a good place.” That’s much less than most Broadway musicals, where there’s usually months of rehearsal followed by two months of previews to work out all the kinks.
PERFORMERS AND CREATORS STAY FLEXIBLE, LEAVE EGOS AT THE DOOR
In a preview, any part of the show could change at any time. It’s possible Jerry Lewis could yell “stop!” right in the middle of a performance.
JoAnn Hunter is choreographing Nutty Professor. As a performer, her first preview came in a production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. She was a dancer in the show, directed by the legendary (and temperamental) choreographer.
“You would come in every day and a number is cut,” Hunter recalls. “Literally a complete number would be cut from the show.” Casting could change on a whim, too. “He didn’t like you in that number? [He] pulled you and put somebody else on.”
Drastic changes of a different kind are happening in The Nutty Professor. Already, the creative team has rearranged all of the music in the first act, dumped some props, and even altered a number called–appropriately enough-”Everything You Ever Heard Is Wrong.”
“Jerry came up to me and he goes ‘what happens if they did a false ending?’”, Hunter says. She was a bit puzzled at first, but then she realized Lewis was talking about having the cast sing the end of the song, pause a few seconds, and sing the last few bars again. “We did it literally on its feet,” says Hunter. After a few directions to her dancers, “Boom! They just go.”
Jerry Lewis loved it, applauding when the number was finished.
Relearning something you’ve being doing for months can be tough for performers. For choreographers and composers who create musicals, it can be just as hard to let go of a joke or a song.
After four decades in theatre, Rupert Holmes says he’s learned to take it in stride. He refers to his songs and dialogue as “offspring.” But he knows the show as a whole is more important than any single part. “You have to tighten the show, shorten the show,” he says.
If Holmes gets the show tightened and shortened enough, Jerry Lewis’ dream of taking The Nutty Professor to New York might come true early next year. Like everything else in this show, however, nothing is certain.