When Wladziu Valentino (“Mr. Showmanship”) Liberace died February 4, 1987 at the age of 67, he had achieved, during his heyday of the 1950s–1970s, record-breaking acclaim as the highest-paid entertainer in the world. Idolized for over four decades by way of concerts, recordings, film, TV and continuing adulation in this country and abroad, his spectacular showbiz success may have been obscured by Steven Soderburg’s recent sensational HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas, which focused on Liberace’s liaison with Scott Thorson, his former bodyguard and chauffeur (the title comes from Thorson’s book), and on the nasty consequences of their split.
The title of the HBO movie pretty much conveys its theme: Liberace’s flamboyant and promiscuous homosexuality, knowledge of which at the time would have ruined his career, and his depressing last years, alone, ill and often in litigation. Enter producer, lyricist, composer and Sag Harbor resident Barbara Carole Sickmen who, with the blessing of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, was given exclusive option rights to Liberace’s words and images. She’s now poised to present “an original musical” that she says will resurrect and celebrate Liberace as America’s supreme entertainer, and that she also hopes will revitalize Broadway.
Called I’ll Be Seeing You: The Liberace Musical, the project which Sickmen began years ago with the late Marvin Hamlisch is now in its post-production phase and reflects continuing collaborative work with singer, songwriter, pianist, Broadway star and recording artist Johnny Rodgers, and with dramatist and screenwriter Roger O. (“Pippin”) Hirson, who worked on “the book and structure.” The concept, she says, is “unique.”
It starts with a young Liberace (26) who is discovered—“Hey kid”—by 42-year-old Ben (Bugsy) Siegel in 1946 at the Stork Club in New York. Ben (she prefers this to Bugsy) invites Lee (the name he was known by to his friends) to Las Vegas, where The Pink Flamingo Hotel and Casino had just opened. Two visions meet—Siegel’s, which was to control the gaming capital of the world, and Liberace’s, which was to be more than a piano player. In I’ll Be Seeing You Ben buys Lee a $40,000 piano, one of several instances of dramatic license or “imagined alliances” Sickmen did not feel uncomfortable creating. Maybe Ben, who loved music, might have been an entertainer instead of a gangster, she speculates; perhaps he was trying to change his career (this was one year before being rubbed out). The musical also suggests that Ben and Lee might have had a kind of father-son relationship. She did a lot of research, but she wanted to present an upbeat musical that would be not only “truthful but positive.” For sure, the synchronous rise of Liberace and Las Vegas in the late ’40s constitutes a significant chapter in American cultural history.
Resonance for the East End includes not only the fact that the Sickmen lives with her husband in Sag Harbor, when not in the city, but a slight connection to the Bay Street Theatre by way of new artistic director Scott Schwartz, the son of Stephen Schwartz, the award-winning lyricist and composer (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) whom Sickmen chatted with casually about her project a few years ago.
Bay Street is in her thoughts, she says, as well the Pasadena Playhouse, which has expressed an interest in possibly mounting a concert version of the musical. As for the star—no one’s certain yet, though she’s been thinking about Douglas Hodge, known for La Cage aux Folles.
“There’s a lot of interest in Lee in the UK,” she says, no doubt related to Liberace’s having been presented to Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother after a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium in 1960, not to mention the infamous 1956 libel suit he waged against The Daily Mirror columnist “Cassandra,” a result of which spawned the oft-repeated Liberace line that he “cried all the way to the bank.”
I’ll Be Seeing You—named after Liberace’s theme song—does not deny Liberace’s homosexuality, which included an early and secret love affair with the gorgeous Rock Hudson (captured in the song “Beautiful Man”), but Sickmen’s emphasis is on The Entertainer, the “bedazzled, bedecked, bejeweled” theatrical phenomenon who knew, as one song puts it, the “Rules of Showmanship.” Sickmen acknowledges the dark side, however, and she says that when she was working on the courtroom scenes—she read original trial transcripts—she sobbed. “Song of the River Thames,” one of 21 numbers in the musical, shows how anguished Lee was at having to perjure himself. But Sickmen promises “a blaze of glory ending,” one that she hopes will give some sense of what it was like when Liberace knocked ’em dead at the SRO Radio City Music Hall shows from 1985-1987, Rockettes and all.
Stay tuned, though, she winks, for a final surprise. This is a “great comeback story,” she says, and she’s delighted that the Liberace Foundation called her “a gift to the gay community” by undertaking an original musical about an American original.
For more info, including an opportunity to be part of the production team, contact Barbara Carole Sickmen at [email protected].