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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."