Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith created and star in the multi-award-winning Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara! onstage through Labor Day Weekend in the Skirball Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse. It all began in 2008 at the Sacred Fools Theatre, then moved to the Matrix last fall and now it is going into its 6th month at the Geffen.The two phenomenal - and very humble, I may add - talents took time out of their busy schedules to talk about the show.
Q: How did the idea germinate for this show? You guys are so young! It's amazing to me that you know the music of Louis and Keely so well.
JB: This is Vanessa's seed. What is funny is that musically and story-wise, I'm the dirt. I've been unconsciously preparing to grow a story like this my whole life. Between being a jazz musician, playing Lord Buckley, Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway, and working so intensely with the audience, I've written stories about musicians who struggle with their humanity before.
VCS: I grew up around the music in Louisiana. My grandfather was a fan and would see his (Prima) shows at the Royal Sonesta, and he became a character in one of my earliest works about jazz-era New Orleans. In my research, I found myself more drawn to Louis Prima's love story with Keely Smith, and began actively writing this story when I met Jake in December 2006. He joined me in the writing later in 2007.
Q: Tell me how and why director Taylor Hackford encouraged you to change the show.
JB: Taylor wanted to add more drama and infidelity to the show. He thought we had something strong before, but thought that the audience could really cry properly at the end if we had more clarity about the journey of their love affair in a conventional narrative, rather than purely onstage.
VCS: And…through Taylor's long friendship with Keely, he knew stories that we hadn't found in any literature or in the documentary about Louis Prima. We really endeavored, with Taylor's help, to make this version of the show more accurate to what really happened. We also changed songs around to reflect the most popular titles in the Louis/Keely canon.
Q: Where are you taking the show after the Geffen? Is Broadway or Off-Broadway a goal?
JB: World domination...children in Malaysia singing 'I've got it Bad'...
(after laughter dies down)
(after laughter dies down)
VCS: New York is most surely a goal. However, at the moment, we have received interest from numerous theatres, yet have not made commitments to any of them.
Q: Jake has described himself as the dirt in the mix, so, Vanessa, I think this question is more appropriate for you. How did you prepare to play Keely? Did you meet her?
VCS: I have met Keely, but at that point we had already been performing the show for several months. So in order to prepare, I would listen to her CDs over and over again, just to burn the nuances in my brain. Nobody could ever re-create perfectly her sound, but one can get at her very specific vowel changes and phrasing. As for the acting of it, I've approached it like any other role: find the essences of the character, her honesty, her dry wit, her big heart, and play through the filter of that lens.
Q: Well it works, because I remember seeing her on The Ed Sullivan Show and you look and sound remarkably like her. Are you constantly changing the show from week to week, night to night, or is it pretty much set at this stage?
JB: It changes. I like to think of it as Stand Up Tragedy.
VCS: We have the freedom of being the writers of the show. We have been known to change lines in the show from time to time in the moment of the scene to more accurately describe what we're experiencing. But the variances are usually slight. Sometimes, we like them so much, we put them into the script.
Q: You work so well together. That is certainly clear! …
Frank Sinatra is not played as an impersonation of Sinatra. Neither are Louis and Keely for that matter. But, somehow, Sinatra's mannerisms and vocal style are downplayed. Is there a specific reason for that?
JB: Oh. I thought he was trying to do them. Oh well. Nick (Cagle) has the hardest job in the show. Everyone knows Sinatra, so they have a very clear picture in their mind's eye and ear of him. So his every move is scrutinized for authenticity by the audience in a way that mine and Vanessa's aren't.
VCS: We didn't want a Frank impersonator. We wanted a good actor that could sing and get at the moral ambiguity of the character we had written. Portraying real people is very challenging. Do we go for a cartoon impression, or do we try to find the soul of these people? I think Nick does a great job of finding the charisma and machismo of Frank, without doing a blatant imitation.
Q: I understand you did the recording at Capitol Records in Hollywood in one day. That’s truly amazing! Talk a little about that!
JB: It was a glorious, freaky experience. We came off of 8 shows and went into this huge iconic building that is in our show even, with the ghosts of the greats on the walls and up our noses, challenging, supporting and intimidating us. Wanting to hold back and save the vocals for later was the plan, but the spirit of the moment took over (for 18 hours) and we just played our hearts out and almost everything on that album came from that day. Lord above.
VCS: Jake was like a mad scientist that day, getting everyone to be at their best. Our company had had the advantage of playing this music for more than 200 shows at that point, so there didn't have to be a whole lot of takes. Nevertheless, it was a long day. Our poor bassist had to put anti-inflammatory cream on his hands before the last song of the day.
Q: Jake, what's the greatest challenge as an actor playing Louis?
JB: Fighting the battle between feeling the love of a glorious woman (Keely) and the legacy of a showbiz mom and the love for an audience, and Louis’ colossal ego, and making it a fair fight.
Q: Vanessa, what's yours playing Keely?
VCS: My greatest intimidation was that I was portraying someone that was still alive, and that she would show up one day. Which she did, to my surprise... and it wound up being one of the most sublime experiences I've ever had as an actor: Watching her watch me be her. Everyone has such high expectations for how she should sound and act. I've worked very hard to be able to fill those legendary shoes.
Well, they do indeed fill those legendary shoes. See them at the Geffen until September and buy the CD!