Pictured is the large cast of playwright Ray Cooney’s world-premiere musical,‘Twice Upon a Time.’
(photo by Alysa Brennan)
During his youth, playwright Ray Cooney had ambitions of being an actor, maybe the next Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier. Although his thespian heart never strayed far, his comedic writing talent developed into worldwide success on the stage.
Known in Britain as the “master of farce,” Cooney brings the world premiere of his latest musical “Twice Upon a Time” to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center this week, one of the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' most ambitious productions.
With 17 productions staged in the West End, Cooney's works have been translated in 40 languages on stages around the world. “Twice Upon a Time” is his first musical in 15 years. Other venues were considered, including the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, but the size was considered an obstacle. It was then the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center was considered.
“Even though it's a small cast, it is a big show,” Cooney said. “You have to have, there's no way around it, because there's two complete stories that you weave in and out, 1929 Chicago and today. So it's heavy on principals. There are 12 principals and you need 12 more in the ensemble. It's big. We looked at the budget and we went, ‘Wait a minute. We can't do it here. It's just not large enough.'”
“Twice Upon a Time” alternates between Prohibition-era Chicago where Johnny Ray (Brandon Michael Perkins) joins Bugs Moran's (Sam Zeller) gang and falls in love with Ruby (Misty Cotton), a showgirl with a connection to Moran; and present-day England where Steven Tancred, a lawyer, re-evaluates his engagement to his boss's daughter. Steven's desire to quit smoking sends him to an Indian hypnotherapist. While under hypnosis, Steve is transported back into 1929 where in both worlds he has a difficult discussion to make with many consequences.
The inspiration for “Twice Upon a Lifetime” came nearly 10 years ago, and over those years the show evolved from a movie concept to a musical about four years ago. Four workshops and regional theater tryouts then took place in England. From there, the title changed, more rewriting took place and more than half of the musical numbers were also rewritten. With the vast number of changes, Cooney said he considers “Twice Upon a Time” a world-premiere musical.
Cooney said casting the leading man was one of the production's difficulties.
“He's never off the stage and he has to be able to do a reasonable English accent and obviously a great gangster accent,” Cooney said. “He has to be a fantastic singer, dance a little bit, and he's got to be in his mid to late 20s or look as though he is. It's a really difficult role to cast, which is one reason why I thought about doing it here. It's not easy to find this kind of performer in England. You're looking for Michael Crawford 30 years ago. Over here there's much wide choice and in Brandon we have found a really terrific new guy.”
But Cooney gives credit to the entire cast, which also includes Robert Machray (Mr. Pilsworth), Millicent Martin (Mrs. Clark), Monica Smith (Mrs. Pilsworth), Kevin Symons (Jeff Walters), Danny Bolero (Dr. Patel), Jennifer Malenke (Barbara Pilsworth), Carly Nykanen (Miss Dixon) and Jeff Rockwell (Fingers), or their work.
“It's a lovely team,” he said. “The quality of the work here is really good.”
A writer's life
Cooney's “working class” parents - his father was a carpenter and his mother a store cashier - “scrimped and saved” to send him to a good school but the “young Cockney boy” had a desire to leave school and become an actor. He made a deal with his parents.
“If I can get a job in the professional theater in my summer's holiday before I was due back to school, I could leave school and become an actor,” Cooney said. “During the summer's holiday I walked around all the agencies in London saying, ‘I'm going to be an actor.'”
About a week before his time was up, when he was just 14 years old, he got an audition for the musical “Song of Norway,” and he never looked back. He left school and had a number of acting jobs before enlisting in the army from 1950 to 1952 as part of the country's national service.
Cooney said his two years as a soldier probably helped him in his ambitions.
“That's when I realized the best way to get through this was to be funny,” Cooney said. “Because I was an actor they would all have a go at me. ‘Oh, you're a fu***** actor.' So I learned to try and be funny, and that helped me very much as an actor and probably helped my writing as well.”
After his two years were up, Cooney joined the Weekly Repertoire Company, where before he finished, he did around 200 plays, a different play every week.
“I didn't realize what I soaked up,” said Cooney of this acting experience. “I didn't realize what I knew about the theater and the structure of plays. I was just busy playing tennis and chasing the girls and learning my lines and doing the plays and having a wonderful time. Then I got into a long run on the West End of London which ran for four years.”
It was around 1956 that Cooney began writing his first play, “One for the Pot,” even though he really didn't know the proper structure for a play, which became a big success on the West End. Even with a “lot of mistakes” in the beginning, his career as the “master of farce” was soon under way. Other hits soon followed including “Run for Your Wife,” the West End's longest running comedy, and “Funny Money,” which was made into a movie starring Chevy Chase in 2006.
Cooney has also worn the hat of a producer as well, but reluctantly after a producer dropped out of a show at a West End theater even when the theater was booked. Cooney stepped in and helped raise the money so the show could go on.
“I borrowed my mother's burial money and sold the car and took a mortgage out on the house and got a few friends to chip in,” Cooney said. “I became a producer and a director and a writer and an actor.”
One London play he produced, “Whose Life is it Anyway?,” became a 1981 film starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Even with his success as a producer, and especially a director, Cooney said his first love is still acting.
“I still prefer acting more than anything,” he said. “Everything else I've done is hard work. Being a director, every actor saps your energy. There are lots of responsibilities.”
In 1983, Cooney created the Theatre of Comedy Company and became the artistic director, and in 2005 he was honored with an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E.
While Cooney's work stems from English playwrights he grew up with, American playwrights inspire him as well.
“What I admire about American comedy writers like Neil Simon is that they can somehow manage Š you obviously want them to sympathize with your leading characters, but what Neil Simon manages to do is to make people laugh a lot and have a tear in their eye during the same production,” he said. “Americans are better at that.”
Cooney's family life has been a success also. He's been married to his wife, Linda, for 45 years and has lived in the same home on the outskirts of London for 42 years. They have two sons, Danny and Michael, who each have two children of their own. While Danny lives in Australia, Michael is building a career in Hollywood. His screenplay, “Identity,” was made into a film starring John Cusack in 2003 and his latest, “Shelter,” featuring Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore, is soon set for production.
Even celebrating 60 years in the business last year, Cooney said he is nowhere near retirement and still loves the response from the audience.
“It's great if you're on the stage or standing in the back of a theater and to hear people laughing in the theater this size on the nights when it's full, you've got a thousand people, total strangers all sitting there laughing and applauding all together,” he said. “You get that feeling sometimes in a church and you've brought a congregation together.”
Mary Stewart-David wrote lyrics for “Twice Upon a Time” and the music is by Chris Walker. The musical director is Dennis Castellano.
The Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' production of “Twice Upon a Time” opened Feb. 13 with previews, which run through Friday, Feb. 15, with 8 p.m. start times. The gala press opening will take place Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. The show closes Sunday, March 2, with a 7 p.m. show.