"Are you through? Jesus Christ! You're boring."
The press conference for the stage musical of The Nutty Professor has barely started, and already the man of the moment has violated two cardinal rules of Southern hospitality: Be gracious to your host, and don't use the Lord's name in vain.
That said, it's hard to blame Jerry Lewis. He's responding to a lengthy introduction by Mac Pirkle, co-founder and former artistic director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre. Pirkle, well-versed in the refined social graces necessary to be the skilled facilitator he is, takes time to acknowledge all of the show's sponsors, the folks from TPAC (where the musical runs for the next three weeks), and other cast and crew members — nearly three solid minutes' worth of introductions.
Lewis' wisecrack is met with mostly hearty laughter, including Pirkle's, though a few nervous chuckles suggest that some of those present might be unaccustomed to East Coast brashness or Rat Pack-style ball-busting. The laughs are more explosive when he abruptly cuts off a reporter's murmured, meandering question.
"What?" he barks, peering into the front row. "Jesus Christ, you did a goddamn commencement speech! You want to get the key factor? Just ask me a simple question. Speak up. I have to remind you, I'm 86 years old. I haven't heard anyone in almost five years. I've been doing Johnny Belinda and not knowing it. Go ahead, make your point, honey."
But even when his unscripted (and un-PC) asides bring groans from the press corps — like his off-the-cuff observation that women are supposed to speak softly — he shrugs as if to say, "What'd ya expect? I'm Jerry Lewis!"
Were this a vintage Jerry Lewis movie, the guest of honor would ... well, first, he wouldn't be the guest of honor. He'd be the schlep on the sidelines: the spastic grip instructed to lug in a potted plant, or the production assistant unwisely tapped to pour a glass of water for the visiting dignitaries. Failing that simple task — we picture flames, chaos, a seltzer-water geyser, someone losing their pants — he'd run shrieking through the crowd, braying in that nasal air-raid-warning voice that's been tried by every kid who grew up after 1950.
But the Lewis sitting on the dais is not the softhearted screw-up persona known to his creator as "Jerry." He's the comic whose public appearances caused riots and disrupted traffic back in the Eisenhower era. He's the director who invented the video-monitoring system that changed the way movies are shot, and whose film students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He's the suave, brusquely confident showbiz legend who's entertained countless millions and created no small amount of controversy — sometimes both at once, as longtime host of the MDA Labor Day Telethon.
This Jerry Lewis has outlived and outlasted almost all his peers. And with The Nutty Professor — a hopefully Broadway-bound stage musical of the 1963 film many consider his reigning classic — he has a shot at the kind of late-career left-field success his contemporary Mel Brooks pulled off with The Producers. The story would pretty much write itself: Beloved comedy idol roars back in his twilight years, demonstrates his mastery of yet another medium, shows he's lost none of his creative edge.
That is, of course, if the musical is good — and if it can make itself heard above the recent glut of undistinguished stage musicals derived from popular movies and TV shows. The Great White Way and regional theaters are littered with their corpses. And even if the material is good, a hit Broadway show is about as far from a sure thing as contemporary entertainment offers. That places even more burden upon this TPAC test run — a gamble that could put Nashville on the map as a workshop for promising new musicals, or make it that much harder to land another.
But one man has supreme confidence in the project. In his eyes, his collaborators — composer Marvin Hamlisch, whose lengthy credits include the epochal '70s musical A Chorus Line, and librettist/lyricist Rupert Holmes, who won a Tony for The Mystery of Edwin Drood — are wonderful, marvelous. His male lead is going to be the biggest star Broadway has ever seen. His female lead has more talent than any 30 women he's ever met. His choreographer is the best choreographer in the history of the world, and the kids she's working with, well, they're going to blow the doors off the theater. Of course they will!
Look who they've got for a director.
Jerry Lewis sits in an embroidered director's chair in a rehearsal room deep in the bowels of TPAC. If you saw the alarming photos of Lewis that were widely published several years ago, with the star bloated almost unrecognizably by medication, he looks reassuringly trim and invigorated today. He wears a black shirt open to the sternum, and a glint of gold on his feet catches your eye — the masks of comedy and tragedy, emblazoned on his tailor-made shoes.
As part of the press circus, Lewis has agreed to a brief photo shoot, including a session for the Scene's cover. Just because he has agreed to it doesn't mean he is going to pose for it. Photographer Eric England asks the director if he would sling his arm over the back of his chair — you know, casually — and look back at the camera, as if to say, "Why, I didn't see you folks back there!"
Like hell he will. "You know what it's going to look like, don't you?" Lewis shoots back, not so much rude as bluntly matter-of-fact about something he's been asked to do 100,000 times and knows won't work. "Like I put my arm up there, and did exactly what they told me, and there's no spontaneity." Here's what he'll do, he tells England, directing even when it's not his show: He'll give him plenty to work with in the short amount of time, just watch and shoot.
England, grinning, goes to work. And so does Lewis, punctuating his conversation with lightning strikes of silly faces and goofy poses. To illustrate his point, he tells an anecdote about a GQ photo shoot he once did. The photographer showed up with four assistants and an arsenal of cumbersome accessories.
"He walked into my office in Vegas and had six —" Lewis catches England fiddling with a light. Uh-oh. Without pausing for air, he snaps him to attention: "Are you still with me, Eric?" England laughs, resumes shooting.
"He had six or seven trunks of props and stuff that he probably thought he'd use for the shoot," Lewis continues. "I had a little red nose, and I put it on, and I said, 'Bob, this is all you are ever going to need.' And sure enough, the photo editor picked that and it was the whole layout."
A couple of things stand out about this moment. One is Lewis' uncanny command of names. One marvels at whatever mnemonic device allows him to retain the names of temporary acquaintances, from passing media to crew members, among the many people he meets each day. It's a skill that likely dates back to the Dale Carnegie era of winning friends and influencing people, yet it remains generous and thoroughly disarming. You haven't lived until you've heard Jerry Lewis call your name back to you unprompted.
The other is that Lewis' instincts about what is and isn't funny have been honed to a switchblade's point over a career that spans eight decades. Above all, he prizes spontaneity — a hallmark of his groundbreaking early TV appearances, where he thought nothing of running amok and seizing control of the camera during a live broadcast. When he gives orders, people listen, and focus. For many children of the 1960s and '70s, Lewis was a more formative part of their childhoods than Sesame Street.
"I don't get star-struck," England says later, still buzzing about the meeting, hoisting his camera bag outside TPAC on Deaderick Street. "But that was a big deal."
The Nutty Professor has its official debut July 31, but it began previews Tuesday — just one day before the anniversary of two of the biggest milestones in Lewis' career. It was the week of July 25, 1946, when Lewis performed his first gig, on the stage of Atlantic City's 500 Club, with a charismatic crooner named Dean Martin. And it was 10 years later to the day, on July 25, 1956, that the biggest act in show business called it quits, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis exited the 500 Club's stage by separate aisles.
Maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal. But the recent documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, an eye-opening career overview studded with all-star testimonials, shows that in their heyday Martin and Lewis had a maniacal popularity that predated Elvis as well as the Fab Four's arrival on American soil. As successful as their movies were, and all have their moments, it was the anarchy and combustive chemistry of their live shows and TV appearances that made fans into fanatics. Their breakup devastated devotees, among them one of The Nutty Professor's key creative talents.
"When I was a boy, the most traumatic event in my life that had occurred was the breakup of Martin and Lewis," says Rupert Holmes, who himself enjoyed success as a '70s pop star, most notably with "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." "It's hard to understand now that before there were The Beatles, Martin and Lewis were The Beatles. They were simply the coolest guys on the planet. You wanted to be either one of them, or both of them, or just get to hang around them. And it was devastating to me when they broke up, and we thought that was going to be the end of all that magic."
As a solo star, however, Lewis quickly became the box-office backbone of Paramount Pictures — so much so that studio chief Barney Balaban famously said that if Lewis wanted to burn down the studio, the exec would gladly hand him the matches. At the same time, Lewis, who'd worked under the tutelage of one of the '50s most innovative comedy directors, Frank Tashlin, proved a gifted and inventive filmmaker. His 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy, is a near-silent comedy with a string of ingenious sight gags; his 1961 follow-up, The Ladies Man, pivots on an intricate multi-story set that requires impressively elaborate cinematic choreography.
But his best-known film — his most enduring popular success, and the movie most often cited as proof of his comic genius — remains 1963's The Nutty Professor. In it Lewis plays Dr. Julius Kelp, a klutzy chemistry professor with Coke-bottle lenses and a mouthful of beaver teeth who concocts and drinks a powerful potion. It's a setup swiped from "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," only Lewis' masterstroke was to have mild-mannered Kelp turn into a different sort of monster — a boorish, arrogant yet devilishly handsome lounge lizard named Buddy Love.
Over the years, The Nutty Professor has been read as everything from Lewis' veiled kiss-off to Dean Martin (which he has always denied) to a weakling's compendium of appalling macho traits. In some ways, it's the inverse of Lewis' career, where a suave, brashly confident artist creates a fumbling alter ego. That ambiguity helps to make it an extremely adaptable property. Eddie Murphy had a career-rejuvenating triumph with his 1996 remake, and a cartoon version a few years ago featured Lewis' voice.
"The storyline was written by Robert Louis Stevenson — anything that goes wrong with it, it's his fault," Lewis says near the end of a long and taxing press day, settling into a chair in his downstairs TPAC dressing room. "But nothing goes wrong with it because it is a creative smorgasbord. You can do so many things with the two characters. You can bring stuff to Buddy that you can't bring to Julius and you can bring stuff to Julius that you can't bring to Buddy."
Still, to hear Lewis tell it, he wasn't exactly bowled over when the idea for a Nutty Professor stage musical first reached him. The idea actually originated with another die-hard Lewis admirer: an aspiring entertainer named Michael Andrew who'd found steady work singing big-band standards on the jazz circuit.
While growing up in Wisconsin, Andrew saw The Nutty Professor at age 9 and watched agape as Lewis toggled back and forth from nerdy Kelp to swingin' Buddy. The latter reminded the boy of his father, a studly character whose nickname back in the day was "The Operator." The entire performance, Andrew recalls, was "magic." Later, in his high school years, he found that even though he wasn't an athlete, a little bit of Buddy Love's bravado channeled through his dad did wonders for his popularity.
"I was the kid who got picked dead-last for every sport," says Andrew, who definitely looks the part of Buddy more than his nutty alter ego. "I was not the coordinated guy. ... But I was able to kind of hold court in a way, because I had some of that style. And I was able to sort of fake it, kind of the way we're doing here with this character of Buddy."
Flash forward to the 2000s. Andrew had made the acquaintance of Ned McLeod, a former Nashvillian who had worked throughout the '70s and '80s in film and TV production before moving into entertainment law and theater. He'd handled clients ranging from Beyoncé to Menopause: The Musical, and he saw Andrew as a blue-chip prospect.
McLeod listened as Andrew reeled off a number of ideas for possible star vehicles. Only one really caught his fancy, though: a stage musical based on The Nutty Professor. At some point, that would require talking to the man whose mind gave birth to Julius Kelp and Buddy Love both. McLeod set up the meeting.
"My first meeting, I was just shaking," Andrew recalls. "I was there with Ned, but Ned pushed me in the room first. He thought that was important, because I was the guy who had the idea, and thankfully Ned was the guy who got me to present it to him. So he pushed me in that room, and there [Jerry] is in this big, chairman-of-the-board-looking room with a big desk.
"And he's sitting there, and he lets me walk all the way to the desk, and as warmly as you could possibly do" — Andrew adopts a hushed Jerry Lewis voice — " 'Hello, Michael.' Just like I'd known you all your life. Welcoming, unassuming. And then, when we got into the meetings, after a little while, he heard me do the voice in some archival footage, and he turned to his manager at the time and said, 'Well, the kid's got the voice almost perfect.'
"And I said, 'Well, I should. I've been doing it since I was 9.'
"And without a beat, he said, 'That don't matter. You could have been doing it wrong all that time!' "
At first, Lewis says, he didn't bite. "I didn't want to touch it," he recalls. "It was my ... it was my grand work in my film career. I didn't want to fool with it." But he says he was swayed by Andrew's passion for the project. Although Lewis describes himself as "a man with a hard-on temperament" who doesn't change his mind easily or often, he began to imagine a Nutty Professor musical. He also began to picture handing his classic role over to Andrew, on one main condition: Andrew had to play it his own way.
"That is what I told him from Day One," Lewis says, all business. "We cannot have you do an impression of Jerry; that's not what this show is about. You have to come with your own juice and play the two people with the same irreverence that I played them. But get me out of your head and concentrate on making the two people even better than they were."
Several years would elapse, though, before Andrew's Julius Kelp would touch a beaker. First, the show couldn't just use the original Lewis-Bill Richmond script, and it needed songs. Lewis says Hamlisch and Holmes were "the first that I asked and the first that I hired."
"They're two champions," Lewis says. "They're both Academy Award winners, Tony winners. Name it, they've both [done] such extraordinary work. Rupert Holmes is probably the smartest man I have ever met in my life. He's smart because he knows what he does and how to then sell it. He's probably the best salesman I've ever known.
"Marvin comes in and puts his hands on the piano and it's glorious. The funny thing was that in a rewrite I had a written a little bit of a — what it was, was maybe a little raunchy of a joke. So I go, 'Marvin, you have a problem with this?' He said, 'I'm the guy that wrote "Tits and Ass" [from A Chorus Line]. I don't have a problem with anything.' "
For Holmes — whose résumé extends from The Buoys' macabre 1971 cannibalism pop hit "Timothy" to Where the Truth Lies, a best-selling mystery predicated on a comedy team very much like Martin and Lewis — the challenge became how to elaborate upon what Lewis had already done in the movie. The answer, to him, lay in the unique possibilities a musical presents.
In the movie, Holmes says, "You can't suddenly have the person turn to you and sort of reveal to you — even though they don't know you're there — how they feel. And so we sat down and thought, 'What does Julius Kelp feel about being Julius Kelp?' ... And then we got to really fascinatingly think about, 'What does Buddy Love think about Buddy Love? Does he only love himself? How firm is his confidence? Is he unshakable? Is he unquenchable?' "
Among the beneficiaries of this approach was Marissa McGowan, the performer cast as Stella Purdy, the student love interest played by Stella Stevens in the movie. For McGowan, a Broadway trouper whose résumé includes Les Miserables, the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde! and the recent revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, it meant gaining an inner voice and character dimensions that weren't in the source material.
"I actually didn't see the movie until after I got cast in the show," McGowan says. "So when I auditioned, I just kind of approached the material the way I thought it should be approached, not really having any preconceived notions of who Stella is, or how she should be played.
"Fortunately, in the musical, I'm given the gift that you get to know Stella so much better. And I get to sing beautiful songs that tell you about her dreams and her hopes, and you really get to know her core and what she's about. And she's an amazing young woman."
After much work, the team ended up with 19 songs and a book that embellished Lewis' original while retaining some of its classic bits. Yes, fans, rest assured you'll see the legendary "Alaskan Polar Bear Heater" routine in which Buddy browbeats a bartender (in the movie, perpetual Lewis foil Buddy Lester) into making a cocktail of brain-pickling proportions.
"It's amazing how that got to people. The Alaskan Polar Bear Heater — I'm always asked about it," Lewis says. "I drink it every day."
One person who watched this process with much interest was Mac Pirkle. As former head of the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, he had made the development of new musicals a mission of the city's pre-eminent theater company. Along those lines, The Rep encouraged talents as diverse as esteemed Music Row songwriter Mike Reid and former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung.
Pirkle and McLeod had known each other since their high school days in Nashville. As his old friend looked for places to road-test The Nutty Professor as a prelude to a possible Broadway run, Pirkle saw TPAC and Nashville as a great fit. Local audiences know theater without being jaded about it, he reasoned. And the production wouldn't be under a microscope the way it would in cities with more theater coverage.
"I think some of it definitely had it to do with Ned and I being connected," the lanky, balding Pirkle says amid the press-day hubbub. "That's kind of the inside story. But I don't think it would have happened if Nashville wasn't what it already is. Because I think what began to appeal to everybody is the audience that's going be here. The fact that the show is going to play to a good Mid-American audience that is not unfamiliar with theater. That helps a lot."
At the press conference, Lewis offered a much more succinct reason for the show's trial run in Music City. Asked why Nashville, he answered, in a perfect deadpan that brought down the house, "Nobody else would have us."
To be sure, the day introducing The Nutty Professor to the assembled press is a carefully orchestrated dog-and-pony show, intended to display Lewis' active participation in the project (and not coincidentally, settle any questions about his health after the low-blood-sugar scare he gave people a few weeks ago). Even so, there's an undeniable thrill watching Lewis instruct the show's cast in the finer points of comic timing — like getting to watch Alfred Hitchcock lay out the mechanics of onscreen murder.
Lewis eases off his chair and walks gingerly to the bare-bones table that serves as the makeshift lab for Dr. Julius Kelp, nerd compos mentis. (The real set is upstairs at TPAC's Polk Theatre, its home for the run.) He braces himself at first, looking hunched and frail. But as he explains to the actors what he wants them to do, his voice gathers intensity, his gestures grow more expansive, and the years seem to fall away.
As reporters and camera crews look on from the mirrored sidelines, the chorus launches into a varsity-musical showstopper called "Everything You've Ever Learned Is Wrong," leaping and clapping from makeshift bleachers. It builds and builds to a big full-throated hands-in-the-air finish, leaving the young cast (some with roots in local institutions such as Belmont and the Nashville Ballet) flushed with exertion and excitement.
From his chair, Lewis calls over his lithe, upbeat choreographer, JoAnn Hunter, whom he introduced at the press conference as "the best goddamn choreographer you've ever seen in your life." After the theatrical equivalent of a pitcher's conference, she passes along Lewis' instruction to the cast: Before the big finish, throw in a couple of fake endings, beats that create dramatic stops as the singers rouse themselves to a crescendo.
Limbering up, the singers begin clapping again and jiving in unison as the music gathers gospel-like fervor and volume and force. This time, they drop out just as you expect the song to hit its peak — a fake-out that gets a chuckle from onlookers the first time, then a bigger laugh the second time. When the cast actually gets there, holding the climactic high note for seconds on end, the room erupts in applause. The beaming, breathless chorus members receive Lewis' effusive praise like sunflowers tilting their heads toward light.
The hope now is that The Nutty Professor musical will be the latest — perhaps the last — huge surprise in a career defined by them. Lewis, after all, was far from his heyday when he gave a laser-sharp dramatic turn in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film The King of Comedy — a movie whose satire of ghermy psychosis now looks decades ahead of its time.
And even his relatively obscure projects cause ripples. Few people may have seen his last film as director, the underrated 1983 comedy Cracking Up, but one viewer was sufficiently inspired by it to make his own quasi-slapstick feature called Keep Your Right Up. Thanks and back at ya, Jean-Luc Godard.
Though Lewis the director insists that Michael Andrew not imitate his portrayals from the film, The Nutty Professor's success may ultimately depend on the how well the production recaptures that Jerry Lewis magic. It's not irony, sophistication or social satire — just that irrepressible urge to unleash the goofball id within us all. As Chevy Chase puts it in Method to the Madness, "Everybody's like him in the morning when they get up and look in the mirror and start making faces. Everyone's like him when they want to try to be funny. We're all like that. It's just that he was the best."
As the photo shoot is wrapping up, an interviewer sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and cannot let it pass. He asks if it would be possible to get a picture doing silly faces with the master, the man who elevated the cross-eyed daze and distended kisser to an art form. As before, his reply is hilarious, blunt and brutally frank in its hard-earned showbiz pragmatism.
"Can we do a silly face picture together? No," Jerry Lewis says. "A silly face costs you. Everything else is free."