(March 18, 2007)

A Nail-Biter for “Curtains” Director Ellis

This is the seventh installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

At several points along the way to Thursday's opening night, it appeared like it might be curtains for "Curtains," director Scott Ellis recalls.

Ellis, who has been involved in the project for the better part of seven years, brings it to the Hirschfeld after losing the original book writer, Peter Stone ("1776"), in 2003 and then, 17 months later, losing Fred Ebb.

In 2003, the question was asked of John Kander and Ebb: Should we continue without Stone?

When they said yes, Ellis said the show needed a writer, someone who knew the murder-mystery form. It needed Rupert Holmes, whose first musical, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," had won three Tonys, including best musical.

They got Holmes, and he rewrote 90 percent of what was there. The main premise remained: a musical-theater-loving outsider coming into a show.

Ellis recalls that the composer and lyricist were of different minds about "Curtains," at least in the early going.

"The thing with Freddy with this particular project - and I think Kander would admit this - I think Freddy jumped on board with this from the very beginning," he said. "Kander was a little more hesitant about it.

"In fairness," he added, "it has changed from what it was, with Rupert coming in, and it found what Kander lovingly calls its heart. Then Kander jumped in. But Freddy was there from the start."

Then, on Sept. 11, 2004, Ebb died.

After the initial shock of losing a friend and mentor of 20 years - they met when Ellis was performing in "The Rink" in 1984, in the same theater where this new show will open - the director said his thoughts eventually turned back to "Curtains."

"My immediate reaction, my gut, was, 'Oh, I guess that's it for the show.' I remember feeling sad about it because I thought it was a good show," he said.

Ellis called Holmes. Both wanted to continue.

"I said, 'It's simple. It's going to be John's decision. He's either going to say yes or no,' " Ellis said.

A few weeks later, they gathered at Kander's house - "which was strange, since we always met at Fred's," Ellis recalled - and they put the question to Kander alone this time.

Should we continue?

Kander said he wanted to go on with "Curtains."

"If one person had said, 'No, let's stop this,' I think it would have stopped, but it was always just one thing sort of hooking into the next and moving forward," Ellis said.

The huge hurdles weren't keeping the show from gaining momentum, Ellis said.

"For everything that you think, 'Oh, this is the reason it's going to stop or it's not going to work,' there's a decision that then makes it work even better. Like David Hyde Pierce coming on board," he said.

"If it weren't going forward, perhaps I would have stopped it, but at each stage, we were moving forward. When we added David Hyde Pierce, we took a huge step forward and we started writing with him in mind.

"I always loved the idea of this outsider coming in who loved theater," Ellis said, "so I kept pushing for it."

The director felt there was something there.

On Thursday, what was there will be here - on Broadway.