By Michael Miller
9:36 AM PST, November 29, 2012
When Madeleine Barker's fellow cast members handed her the Oscar in the Claire Trevor Theatre, she felt excited for herself and a little sad for Judy Garland.
Barker, who plays Garland in UC Irvine's upcoming musical "Tinseltown Christmas," had been busy in recent weeks studying her role, watching performances on DVD and reading about the often-turbulent life behind them. Then, during rehearsal one day, "Tinseltown" director Don Hill told the cast that he had a surprise.
That turned out to be an Oscar — the one Eileen Heckart won in 1972 for Best Supporting Actress in "Butterflies Are Free." Hill, whose husband, Luke Yankee, is Heckart's son, let the actors pass around it for inspiration.
As Barker held the Academy Award, she realized she was enjoying a moment that mostly eluded Garland. The actress got a special Juvenile Award for her role in "The Wizard of Oz," but went home empty-handed in competitive categories.
"Judy, she never received an Oscar," said Barker, an undergraduate majoring in musical theater. "So it was kind of strange to hold that and know that she never got a chance to have it.
"Everyone thought she was going to get one for 'A Star Is Born,' but it went to Grace Kelly for 'The Country Girl.' And then, when Liza [Minnelli] won one for 'Cabaret,' she said, 'This is for Mom.' So it was interesting holding it and feeling the weight and feeling the history and the love behind it, and knowing that that was something she never experienced."
In researching Garland, James Stewart, Natalie Wood and Bing Crosby, the cast of "Tinseltown Christmas" got to know their characters, not just as stars, but as seasoned professionals — Oscar heartbreaks, stage parents and all. It's somehow fitting, then, that the play features a story in which the four actors return as ghosts to spread Christmas cheer because ... well, it's their job.
Film history — with a wink
Like more than a few Hollywood scripts, "Tinseltown Christmas" took a stop-and-start journey on its way toward production.
Playwright Chana Wise (first name pronounced "HAH-na") got the original premise from the Academy for New Musical Theatre in North Hollywood, which had held a brainstorming session and come up with an idea about movie star ghosts visiting a lonely woman on Christmas Eve. Wise, a member of the academy, sent a one-paragraph pitch to UCI, which encouraged her to develop a 15-minute sample.
Once Wise, along with composer Carl Johnson, got the go-ahead to write the entire script, she realized she lacked one thing: an extensive knowledge of Christmas movie classics. The nearest Hollywood Video, which stocked a wide array of them, became her favorite haunt.
By the time she finished her research, Wise considered herself an old movie buff and applied that savvy in the script as much as she could. "Tinseltown," which follows the ghosts as they urge a pair of bickering neighbors to fall in love, is rife with in-jokes and even irreverence; when the neighbors seem to have hit it off midway through, the ghosts stick around because, after watching so many romantic movies, they know a plot twist has to come soon to tear them apart.
The disembodied stars have been assigned by a higher power to brighten the Christmas season — and if they fail, they risk being demoted to Halloween. At one point, when the female neighbor tries to shake her visitors off by declaring that she isn't celebrating Christmas, they're quick with a song: "We do wonders with Muslims and Mormons as well / the Hindus are pleasant and rarely rebel / so Buddhist or Baptist, we don't pick and choose / and being in show biz, our friends are all Jews."
That last group includes Wise herself, who seldom watched Christmas movies growing up. Although she was a relative latecomer to the classics, she grew to love their craft, to the point where she had her characters lament in the script that modern Christmas movies often run along the lines of "Home Alone 3."
"There doesn't seem to be anything that people just sit down and watch every year," Wise said.
'Better than a corset'
Will "Tinseltown Christmas" make the time capsule too? Hill, who serves as vice chair of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and heads its stage management program, has hopes that it will find an audience beyond campus — and the RSVPs over the next week may help determine that.
"We have a number of producers and theater people coming to see it opening weekend and next week, so we're scouting it out in hopes that it may have legs and walk some place," he said.
Although UCI has done staged readings of Academy for New Musical Theatre scripts before, "Tinseltown Christmas" is the first to get green-lighted for a full production. Hill said part of what attracted the school to Wise's show was its potential for wide appeal, not least with older generations who had a fondness for Hollywood classics.
In honing the show for a wide audience, the producers ran into one sticking point with Wise's original title: "Black and White Christmas," which some feared would be interpreted as a racial commentary. Ultimately, Wise decided to substitute the more generic "Tinseltown."
"Black and White," in fact, referred to the original fashion concept for the movie star ghosts, who were supposed to appear in colorless clothes and white makeup (except for Garland, who sported Technicolor hair). According to Hill, that idea was scrapped in part because it might look too mournful, and in part because Hollywood, at the time the stars' holiday films were made, had long started experimenting with color.
Hues aside, the producers aimed to capture the old styles as much as possible — and created a running joke with Wood's character, who appears onstage as a grown woman but still sports her childhood clothes from "Miracle on 34th Street," which she's noticeably outgrown.
Amanda Minano, who plays Wood, said the play's costumer urged her to avoid carbohydrates over Thanksgiving to ensure that the costume would still fit.
"It looks a little bit awkward and uncomfortable, but it isn't too hard to wear," she said. "It's definitely better than a corset."
If You Go
What: "Tinseltown Christmas"
Where: Claire Trevor Theatre, UCI
When: 8 p.m. on Dec. 1; 2 p.m. on Dec. 2; 8 p.m. on Dec. 6; and 7, 2 and 8 p.m. on Dec. 8
Cost: $11 to $15
Information: (949) 824-2787 or drama.arts.uci.edu
The Ghosts of 'Tinseltown'
The new holiday musical "Tinseltown Christmas" stars the disembodied forms of four Hollywood icons: James Stewart, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Natalie Wood. Here's the rundown on each one — plus comments from the actors who play them at UCI:
Best known as: The lovable Everyman in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and other Frank Capra classics; also took edgy turns in Hitchcock thrillers
Holiday classic: "It's a Wonderful Life"
Oscar? Best Actor in 1940 for "The Philadelphia Story," honorary award in 1984
Actor Connor Bond on playing him: "I was looking for the style of acting. ... He's modeled after, in this particular scenario, 'It's a Wonderful Life,' so I looked at some of his later stuff, but mostly tried to keep the physicality and the vocal — because, of course, his voice gets older and a little more shaky as he gets older. I tried to keep most of the physicality and vocal work centered around 'It's a Wonderful Life,' in that vein."
Best known as: Mickey Rooney's pal in the "Andy Hardy" movies; Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and the star in "A Star Is Born"; by some accounts, the world's greatest gay icon
Holiday classic: "Meet Me in St. Louis"
Oscar? Special Juvenile Award for "The Wizard of Oz," but no competitive prize
Actor Madeleine Barker on playing her: "Judy had such an iconic way of holding herself and speaking and how she dealt with people. ... One thing that I loved so much about Judy is her capacity to love. I think she would feel very deeply for people and for certain situations, and [I'm] trying to make that apparent and give that to the audience. She's been a joy to watch — I mean, someone as incredible as her."
Best known as: America's quintessential crooner; also a laid-back leading man in "Going My Way" and other family chestnuts, plus the "Road" series with Bob Hope
Holiday classic: "White Christmas"
Oscar? Best Actor in 1944 for "Going My Way"
Actor Jeff Salsbury on playing him: "I think, with him, it was just getting that carriage, that persona, that was just him. 'Cause he was himself on vinyl. He was himself in the movies. He pretty much got his personality not really diluted or anything in any medium that you saw him or heard him in. So I was trying to get that casual, good-natured, breezy kind of vibe that you get from him when he's at the top of his game."
Best known as: Actress who grew up on screen before her untimely death: child star in "Miracle on 34th Street," teenager in "Rebel Without a Cause," adult in "West Side Story"
Holiday classic: "Miracle on 34th Street"
Oscar? Three nominations but no wins
Actor Amanda Minano on playing her: "She was absolutely wonderful. She was the type of person I would have loved to go out and get drinks with or something and just talk, because she was so passionate about her craft. ... It's just been so much fun trying to get into her mindset — and, of course, you're not trying to impersonate, but just to tap into that mentality that was Natalie Wood, and that persona."