"You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls." That's just one of the great/bad lines from Jacqueline Susann's 1966 novel—still the top selling fiction novel of all time and maybe the most successful book ever universally drubbed by critics. The book, of course, became the 1967 movie, which also was critically scorned but a smash at the box office in the same year as Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde. Valley of the Dolls starred Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward in a big-budget trash wallow of sex, skin, terrible singing and drug-induced paranoia.
The movie's now regarded as "the gay Citizen Kane" and would seem as natural for adaptation to the stage as, say, Sunset Boulevard. A few campy drag versions have popped up over the years in San Francisco and Provincetown, but nobody's tried to recreate for the theater the movie's archly serious, broadly acted (and thus unintentionally hilarious) tone.
Until now, that is. Dallas actor-directors Bob Hess and Doug Miller will spend the next year translating the Valley of the Dolls screenplay (by Susann, Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley) into a two-act musical. Hess and Miller, who've had a personal and creative partnership for four years, were granted the rights to the screenplay only recently by 20th Century Fox. The show will be the capper on the Uptown Players' 2007 season and is scheduled to open next fall.
"This is going to be our life," says Hess, currently starring in Theatre Three's Vieux Carre. "I think it could be like Rocky Horror. People who love the movie know the awful 'takes' [facial expressions] and reactions in the big scenes. They're memorable. The audience will be expecting them, and we hope to keep them all in the show."
Like Uptown's recent hit Pageant, which featured guys in gowns competing in a drag beauty contest, Valley of the Dolls will be performed "without any winking and nudging at the audience," says Miller, who played the oily emcee in Pageant.
Dolls would seem to be a good fit for Uptown, which specializes in gay-themed fare. But Hess and Miller said they had to work to convince Uptown's co-founders, Craig Lynch and Jeff Rane, that the show should be in the company's season. If Uptown had passed, they were going to take it to Kitchen Dog, says Hess.
Though Valley of the Dolls features only one gay character, the swishy Ted Casablanca, the film is up there withThe Wizard of Oz as a gay fave, says Miller. (Trivia: "Ted Casablanca" is better known now as the professional pseudonym of E! Online gossip-guy and Highland Park native Bruce Bibby.)
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Miller and Hess say they're also hoping to secure the rights to the movie's soundtrack of truly awful pop tunes by Andre and Dory Previn. One of the songs, "I'll Plant My Own Tree," sung by has-been Judy Garland-type Helen Lawson (Hayward in the film), was recently named the worst movie number of all time. If they can't use the Previn songs, they say they will ask Dallas composer Lee Harris to come up with reasonable facsimiles.
Speculation already has begun over which local actresses will get which of the leading roles. Hess and Miller confirm that they're considering Jennifer Green for the Duke role of musical theater starlet Neely O'Hara (the one who goes to rehab for her addiction to pharmaceutical "dolls") and Cara Statham Serber for Tate's character, porn princess Jennifer North Polar (who commits suicide rather than undergo a mastectomy). Green and Serber are currently onstage in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
If Dolls is a hit at Uptown, Hess and Miller say, it might spawn future productions elsewhere. "I could see theaters in Houston and Austin biting at it," says Hess.
Are they worried that working together on the bitchiest script in the west might bruise their relationship? "We've promised that we will not fight over this for the next year," says Hess. "Besides, if you can live through the renovation of a house—which we did—you can withstand anything." --Elaine Liner