Richardson — Lucille Ball has inspired generations of women, not only with her brilliant comedy skills, but as a strong woman making history in the heyday of television, marrying the Cuban musician she loved, and keeping her redheaded smile above water when the dream started to unravel. So who inspired Lucy?
Pegasus Theatre is presenting The Cuban and the Redhead, a new musical with original book, music and lyrics by Robert Bartley and Danny Whitman, opening Friday Sept. 14 at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts.
Promising a score reflecting 1940s Big Band sounds and hot Latin rhythms, the show follows Desi (Storm Lineberger) and Lucy (Leslie Stevens) as they play out their love story and make TV history in the glamourous Hollywood of film stars and the new world of television.
TheaterJones talked to Dallas actress and cabaret singer Janelle Lutz about her role as the Hollywood ’30s film star Carole Lombard, said to be Lucille Ball’s early idol and longtime muse.
TheaterJones: You’ve played the volatile Judy Garland in two acclaimed performances: The Boy from Oz, in 2014, and The End of the Rainbow, in 2016, both at Uptown Players. Now you’re playing Carole Lombard in a new musical. What draws you to these roles?
Janelle Lutz: I think it’s fascinating to play real women. It’s cool to try and bring them back to life and do a portrayal of them that honors them, especially with Judy, and now Carole. I was always a Judy fan, and grew up watching A Star is Born and Meet Me in St. Louis long before I auditioned for a show about her. The biggest trick in portraying a real person is to not make it a caricature, and not do an impression of the person. I think that this is a real person who lived and died, and maybe I can find ways to make them real and human.
First off, what is Carole Lombard doing in a musical about Lucille Ball?
She is in the musical because Carole was Lucy’s idol. Lucy went to the movies to escape the hardscrabble life around her, and she saw Carole Lombard on the screen. For Lucy, Carole had a life to strive for; she longed for that kind of glamour, and to be loved and respected like Lombard. Lucy thought, I want to be her. In the show’s story, Lucy is watching Carole in both her career and her love life, as a model. Carole was this goofy, comic elegant lady on the screen, and Lucy loved that. In our story, Carole really wanted to get out of show business and just live a private life with Clark Gable every day, rather than being on constant display. Lucy, however, was career driven in her own personal life.
Lombard died in 1942 at 33 in a tragic plane crash in Nevada. Are you a ghost in the show?
The show encompasses many years in the Lucy and Desi marriage. Carole fits in before 1942. The last time you see Carole is a year before her death. You don’t see her after that, so, no, I’m not a ghost. Everything about Carole is presented in real time. I appear in the first act and second act. Carole’s role is not a lot of stage time, but she’s important to some big impactful moments. You’ll see.
I thought you looked just like Judy Garland in those shows, with your short dark hair and petite figure. How much does an actor’s physical looks matter in creating a historical icon on the stage?
It’s a fun part of a role to work on. Again, it comes down to impressions versus caricature. For all actors playing real people, it helps to look like the person, but it’s not a requirement because so much can be done with costumes and makeup. When you portray people with a specific trademark, like Lucy’s red hair, that part is easy. When you see her red hair style, you see Lucille Ball.
How are you preparing to play Carole Lombard?
I generally watch the movies. I grew up in California watching old movies. I don’t know how many times we watched My Man Godfrey, the quintessential Lombard film. I’ve watched more of her films, and also researched how she is in a different place. I went to YouTube and found clips of her interviews and TV spots and recorded them on the phone and I listen to them when I drive. She had a Transatlantic accent, an old Hollywood way of talking. It’s a little southern and kind of quick and a little British. It’s like Cary Grant talks in old movies. Carole almost sounds British sometimes. She sounds American posh, but not British. It was her; it was how she spoke, in films and in the clips. The way people talk and walk is important for me in getting the character. I look at the body movements. Carole Lombard has an understated, absolute elegance in her movement. Even when she’s running to do a crazy screwball scene, or when she tiptoes. She always has her hand in the right place. There’s a natural glamourous feel about her.
You’re a popular musical theater star in Dallas, what do you think of this new show? Can you comment on your own songs?
I love this show. It’s a beautiful story that hasn’t been told before, the story of Lucy and Desi and who influenced them and how they made it through. The music is absolutely gorgeous. One of my songs I love is titled “Simpler Life.” It’s about Carole’s wish to be at home with her Clark. The other one is a surprise.
What do you want us to take away about Carole Lombard from this show?
I think the biggest thing I’d like audiences to take away specifically for Carole is that people will simply remember her. Many people in this generation don’t remember what she did in movies. She was funny and she was glamorous, but she was also deeply human. I want people to see Carole Lombard as a woman with a story to tell. She was much more than a platinum blonde in silver lame.
Anything else you’d like to add about your experience working in this new musical?
It’s been wonderful and educational to see something created, and be a part of it. It’s an incredible show on the page; I just hope we can bring that brilliance to the stage.