What is our fascination with the old black-and-white detective mystery stories made in the 1940s and early 50s? Whether it’s Dick Powell in his gumshoe alter ego (when he had finished his gig serenading Ruby Keeler) or Bogart (the tough guy everyone loved), these old so-called “film noir” movies are fun to watch on television. And there are quite a lot of them. Some are well-known like “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Out of the Past,” or “The Blue Dahlia” (credited as the first detective “noir”); some only the most ardent film fans remember. One of the best, according to my husband who’s nutty for all black and white movies, is “The Dark Corner” with Mark Stevens as the detective and a young Lucille Ball as his tough, sexy secretary.
The moniker “film noir” comes from these movies’ distinctive lighting — lots of dark shadows, which made them cheaper to make, post World War II, when Hollywood was churning them out. What you can’t see in the dark doesn’t have to be very elaborate. The film makers compensated by using sharp camera angles and other visual tricks that produced distinctive-looking films. And, of course, the stories were in sharp contrast to the bouncy Hollywood musicals of the time. “Noir” often featured an anti-hero, many times a seedy detective, and some blond bombshell of questionable morals who led him on a not-so-merry chase. Even Bob Hope parodied “film noir” with “My Favorite Brunette” in 1947.
However, forays into mystery on the musical stage have not been as successful. Just this Broadway season, “The Woman in White” failed to find an audience, even with music by the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber. “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was a success, playing December, 1985, through May, 1987, complete with alternative endings so the audience could decide “Who dunnit?” Well reviewed, but not considered a “hit.” Cy Coleman’s music spiced a real “noir” spoof, “City of Angels,” which opened in late 1989. Though it ran for a little over 900 performances, it never joined the list of musical greats. Even several Sherlock Holmes musicals couldn’t sleuth their way on the Great White Way with success. (Though Holmes is a totally different species than any American detective, so maybe that doesn’t count at all.) A very funny “Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” played off Broadway at Circle Rep for a few months in the spring of 1987. And this past fall, the wacky Christopher Durang had a musical parody of glamorous “noir films,” “Adrift in Macao,” with music by Peter Melnick, which premiered at the Philadelphia Theater Company and may yet show up in New York or New Jersey.
But it is “Gunmetal Blues,” now in previews and opening Friday, April 7, at George Street Playhouse, that has the distinction of being one of the most widely-produced mystery musicals while virtually unknown in New York City. Written by Scott Wentworth with music and lyrics by Craig Bohmler and Wentworth’s wife, Marion Adler, it bills itself as a “hard-boiled detective story enhanced by a bluesy jazz score.” One of the West Coast productions even made a cast album. Born as a cabaret act at Canada’s Stratford Festival, it made a very brief appearance in 1992 at what is now the Rattlestick Theater in New York City, performed by Wentworth and Adler, but it went almost unnoticed. This may just be the perfect time for “Gunmetal Blues” on the East Coast.
Actress/singer Alison Fraser, who first played “the Blonde” in a production of “Gunmetal Blues” at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in 1994, tells me in a phone interview that this was its only major East Coast production. It was Fraser who brought the script to the attention of George Street artistic director David Saint. Fraser appeared in productions at George Street during the past two seasons, first in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” and last season in “Lend Me a Tenor.”
Three actors play and sing a full complement of the stock characters from the detective story “film noir” genre, beginning with the seedy cynical gumshoe, a piano player like “Sam” in “Casablanca,” and, of course, the blonde bombshell. Fraser plays all the blondes in “Gunmetal” — five total. “A wonderful part for an actress to explore these different characters,” says Fraser. Her favorite film noir is famously obscure and loved by all “noir” freaks: “Detour,” released in 1946, starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, and Edmund McDonald. Never heard of them? That’s OK, says Fraser: “It’s about as down and dirty as noir gets. Probably C-listed, not highfalutin’ like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Maltese Falcon.’” But it’s Ann Savage’s performance in that movie that Fraser feels has most informed her turn at George Street.
With the number of characters at her disposal on stage, Fraser also has drawn from other famous film blondes. “One character has a lot of Veronica Lake,” she says. Lake was famous for her blonde hair cascading over half of her face, and she was almost always paired with Alan Ladd. “And I have a wonderful Gilda dress.” Remember gorgeous, seductive Rita Hayworth singing “Put the Blame on Mame?” All that red hair going to waste in black and white. But when she made the film noir “Shanghai Woman” for her then-husband. Orson Welles, he had her cut her hair and dye it blonde, of course. As for the dress, Fraser warns, “I’m walking out with that one. It’s so gorgeous.”
In film noir, the blonde bombshell is often a nightclub singer, but she usually only gets to sing one song, and maybe that one, not even all the way through. Then she was off in the pursuit of seduction and intrigue. Needless to say, Fraser in “Gunmetal” will sing a lot more than that.
In an E-mail interview David Saint, who is directing this production, says he traces his influences largely to “The Maltese Falcon’ and notes his fascination with its “complex relationship between Bogart and Mary Astor with its simultaneous attraction and revulsion.” And Fraser says this production is more than music and mystery, with “emotional depth not often found in musicals. It’s not like you’re going to see ‘Forever Plaid.’”
But mystery is “the Thing” and with that in mind, George Street has devised a special offer they call “See it Again, Sam.” Their promo says: “Now that you know how the story ends, see Gunmetal Blues again and watch the puzzle pieces fall into place.” The deal for the second viewing is two tickets for the price of one. Fraser recommends this second viewing: “You’ll notice clever clues that passed you by the first time. One time is not enough.”
Reading about film noir, I came upon an article that describes the post World War II period, when noir was in its heyday, as a time of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. Writer/critic Tim Dirks in an online story about film noir, writes: “Fear, mistrust, bleakness, and paranoia are readily evident in ‘noir,’ reflecting the chilly Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present.”
Says Saint: “The characters [in ‘Gunmetal Blues’], like many people during a wartime period, have had illusions shattered and dreams destroyed.” Fraser adds: “Each character has a mysterious and disturbing past and present. None of them is a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Even the ingenue has a disturbing backstory.”
Continuing his description, Saint says, “It is a genre in which a veil of distrust, doubt, and paranoia hangs over everything. It’s a world of smoke and mirrors where identities are concealed and motivations hidden.” Fraser raved about the set, designed by Michael Anania. “It’s very ‘Lady from Shanghai’ — all about mirrors and shattered glass.”
“While ‘Gunmetal Blues’ has the polish of a high style caper,” Saint says, “It is not so much a parody of the film noir as a contemporary homage to it. The time when the musical takes place is deliberately vague — is it the 1940s, ’50s, or is it today? Let’s just say that near the end of the show, the characters’ hopes are voiced in the lyrics of one of the songs.” He quotes the lyrics: “Time will heal the loss, love will heal the pain. In the morning light we can find our lives again.”
Film noir and musical comedy in one package: sounds like a perfect combination for our times of uncertainty, angst, and dread, I think. And if this isn’t how you see our world, let me know which alternate universe you’re in and I’ll join you. Meanwhile, I’m going to escape into musical comedy that always cheers me and a mystery where there’s a light at the end of the “noir.”
Gunmetal Blues, through Sunday, April 30, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Musical detective story written by Scott Wentworth with music and lyrics by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler. Directed by David Saint. Stars Alison Fraser. $28 to $56. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, April 5 and 6, 8 p.m.; opening night, Friday, April 7, 8 p.m. 732-246-7717.