Ghosts, goblins and global panic collide at Hearst Castle in a musical written by Brandman University professor John Freed and composer Jeff Dunn. It opens July 20.
Their musical about an unforgettable weekend at San Simeon gets its world debut at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, California. Freed’s Brandman colleagues and students can catch a complimentary preview on July 19.
Four years in the making, “Castle Happy: Love and Tomfoolery in Hearst’s San Simeon” has gone through a few changes since Freed first started working on what was originally called “All Hallows at Hearst Castle.” It’s the fourth play but first musical for the Brandman University School of Arts and Sciences professor of humanities.
“The title change has to do with changing the story into a happy experience of why we used to go to musicals. I’ve tried to come back to a more ’50s or ’60s style musical – more positive,” said Freed.
Set in 1938, the musical takes place in events surrounding a lavish Halloween party hosted by William Randolph Hearst for his mistress, Marion Davies.
In attendance are Marion’s 17-year-old niece Patricia, who fawns over movie star Errol Flynn; Flynn’s girlfriend of the day, Bette Davis; and a bumbling actor wannabe, Arthur Lake, who will eventually gain fame playing Dagwood in the “Blondie” film and radio shows. Not pleased with Patricia’s infatuation with Flynn, Hearst and Davies target this “nobody” Lake as Patricia’s future husband.
Freed sees it as a more realistic view of the relationship between Hearst and Davies than portrayed in “Citizen Kane,” the Orson Welles movies based on Hearst. In Freed’s view, Hearst and Davies are a loving couple. “Is it better to be a mistress or a wife? He’ll still be in love with you after 40 years together,” sings Davies, at one point in the musical.
It takes time
Freed originally thought the Hearst Castle goings-on would make a great reality-based play. He began considering the idea of a musical while attending the Dramatists Guild conference in 2013 and hearing composer Stephen Schwartz talk about how “Wicked” came to be. At that conference, composers and playwrights had a “speed dating” kind of opportunity where playwrights had 5 minutes to pitch ideas and composers responded with 5 minutes of music. The goal was to find a play/music match that would lead to collaboration.
While his first effort at collaboration, based on his Chicago match, didn’t work out, Freed kept thinking about what music would add to his play. A Bay area acting group Freed joined to find potential readers and actors for another play led him to Dunn, a composer and lyricist. Then the real work began.
In January of this year, they held a major workshop, bringing in director Clay David and music supervisor Jason Sherbundy. Following that, “we basically rewrote Act II,” said Freed.
Learning to let go
Letting others weigh in on the musical’s direction wasn’t easy for Freed, a cultural historian whose other plays are also fact-based. He’s had to learn to rely on David and Sherbundy to help make it work as a performance and not a history lesson.
Casting, for instance, can make a huge difference. The original Act II included parts for Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, iconic figures that they discovered it was impossible to cast with actors who met both the physical and singing requirements.
“Things move and change,” said Freed. He drew the line at the director rewriting some lines but appreciated his perspective on how far to push the gender-bending aspects of the drama and other details.
The songs once meant for Chaplin and Gable are now being sung by a pair of servants, who also help make the set and costume changes on the minimalist stage. “As a playwright, I would never have thought of that,” said Freed.
The play’s director explains it this way. “Castle Happy is very much an ensemble piece with the cast on stage most of the time. Since we can’t possibly reproduce Hearst Castle on the Altarena stage, we’re using lighting and choreography to move things quickly and make it seamless and magical. The chambermaids and butler will spin on stage, move something slightly and spin off as Bette Davis spins in. Very choreographed and very much a 1930s style of elevated glamour and sophistication.”
“I’ve learned so much about musical theater,” said Freed. “It’s a huge learning curve – the difference between being a playwright to being part of a team and that’s good for me.”
He also sees potential in “Happy Castle” living on past its eight-performance, two-week run in the Bay Area. He thinks of this debut as the “New Haven” period of old movie musicals, where changes get made before they head to Broadway.
No matter what happens, his own work continues, including his full-time work at Brandman and producing two web-based video productions of his other plays. “I’m still a playwright. That’s how I identify. But never say never.”
As for the audience, he hopes they come around to his changed point-of-view about “Happy Castle.” “It took me a long time to realize that it was OK to use the ‘happy’ word. These days, especially, maybe we need more happiness from the castle.”