When I was 16 years old I first thought about the idea of making my favourite story, Alice in Wonderland, into a gritty, dark exploration of the human spirit, told through music. It took another 16 years for me to write the first draft, which I recorded in a run-down garden shed with the help of friends John Ellis on guitar/ final mixing and Norm Fisher on bass. Everything else on the demos I played or sang, dub after dub of harmonies, pumping a foot pedal to punch in, all in different voices to try to make it sound like there were diverse characters on the recording. I learned how to program drums, keyboards , run my adat/atari studio and recorded the 26 songs for Alice that way, getting more and more comfortable with the spiders and wood bugs crawling over the mixing board as time went by.
When the recordings were finished, I started putting together images of how I saw the characters, working with a sketch artist to make them come to life, then photocopied the images and added them to the text to make the first of about 10 versions of the script, which started at about 35 pages and bloomed to over a hundred. One of the first lessons I learned was from the then Artistic Director of the Vancouver Playhouse, Susan Cox, who loved it, wanted to do it, but ended up going to Edmonton before we could make that happen. But she did tell me before she went something I have never forgotten: If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. The first draft was incomplete in that I had written it from the perspective of someone who already knew the story, knew the characters. I had to go back in and redraft to fill in the blanks, which was an amazing experience.
When I finished that draft, I got a document binder and started making scripts to send to producers. I sent one to Jack O’Brien at the Globe in San Diego, he loved it, but they were booked for the next couple of seasons…he did send me a lovely letter that gave me more courage to take the next steps. Then I heard that a Broadway producer, Mitchell Maxwell, was in Vancouver, raising money for his new production, “Play on”. He was currently producing “Damn Yankees” starring Jerry Lewis in the London West End, on a bit of a roll with that. I annoyed every person I thought might know where he was staying, and finally found out he was staying at the Delta downtown I think it was then, but that he was leaving to go back to New York the next afternoon.
I raced to London Drugs and bought a $30 walkman, 8 batteries, a gift bag and stuffed it with the walkman(fully loaded with batteries and one of 2 cassettes(act one of Alice) already inserted. Then I wrote a cover letter by hand(very little of the modern internet conveniences then) introducing myself and Alice in Modernland. I made it look pretty, then took the bag to the concierge of the hotel, and gave him $20 and begged him to give it to Mitchell Maxwell when he checked out…which apparently he did.
The next day I received a call from Maxwell. He was very interested in Alice, wanted to do an off-Broadway workshop at Shetler studios, with a young(then) director he was interested in working with, Stephen Dexter, who lived in London. The next thing I knew, I was saying goodbye to my husband and 4-year old son, and on my way to London for a week to work through the script with Steven, going to see “Damn Yankees” and out for dinner with Jerry Lewis and company and then before I knew it, we were rehearsing in New York with a cast of Broadway actors and musicians. It was pretty low frills though, lots of script adjustments we done sitting on the bathroom floor of the studio where it was quiet enough to think…wrote one of the Duchess’s new songs on that floor, no piano, just pencil and staff paper, worked it out on piano while the cast was on lunch break and the amazing BJ Crosby and band learned it that afternoon!
The workshop performances were attended by Eric Nederlander, reps from the Dodger family, Sheldon Epps, Jack O’Brien and several other big players on the scene. Two performances, two standing ovations from an audience of about 100 industry insiders per night.
I came back to Vancouver walking on air! There was so much positivity, Maxwell wanted to do another expanded, 10 week workshop to take Alice to the next level and then…Play On! went bust. Investors got snippy and Alice was on hold. Luckily I had taken care of the legal aspects of that happening before the workshop, so I still owned 100% of Alice and was free to take her elsewhere. Which I did.
Eric Nederlander expressed serious interest in Alice. The Nederlanders own about a million theatre seats in the USA, several of those theatres on Broadway. I flew to New York with then manager, Lou Blair, to meet with Eric. He told us over a very nice lunch that he wanted to produce Alice, that October(it was late spring when we met), in the Schubert theatre I think it was, where a certain Jerry Seinfeld was doing his first big stand up show since ending the Seinfeld show. Jerry was due to close and the theatre was not yet booked. But first, Eric told us, he was getting married and it was a huge NY society thing…he laughingly told us that everything he owned including his own ass was monogrammed by his fiance, a young Jessica Sklar, who he had been living with for 5 years. They were getting married, honeymooning in Italy for 3 weeks, and then he would return to focus on getting Alice up and running.
I didn’t really need the jet to fly me home after that meeting, I was a self-propelled rocket, flying high!! Course a few weeks later I’m thinking…hmmm…haven’t heard from Eric, when, as I was grocery shopping I noticed on the magazine rack a People magazine with a picture of Eric on the front and a caption that read something like,” Nederlander set to sue Jerry Seinfeld for alienation of affections. What had happened was that Eric and Jessica had gotten married, gone on honeymoon, come back to NY where they were planning a party a couple of days later where their friends were going to come by and watch the wedding videos. Jessica decided on the day of the party to go for a quick workout at their gym, where she met Jerry Seinfeld for the first time. She never came home. Jerry did close his show at the Schubert not long after, but Eric went into seclusion for about a year…and wasn’t too keen on renewing contact with anything that reminded him of that time, which did not bode well for Alice.
I ended up, through a series of coincidences, finally taking Alice to Kirsten Brandt, then the creative director of a cutting edge theatre called Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego, and together we produced a very economical but gorgeous version of Alice. At that time a man named Steven Traxxler, of Jam Theatricals, based out of Chicago, had shown a huge interest in Alice. Jam was a perfect fit in many ways for where I wanted to take Alice so six months pregnant with Jesse, I made the trip to Chicago to meet him and his crew. He flew out to see the World Premiere of Alice at Sledgehammer and was impressed enough to want to co-produce it at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, then hopefully get it up and touring, eventually making it’s way back to New York. This time I really worked hard at not getting too optimistic, but I couldn’t help being excited! I was so close after all the years a sweat gone in to finally getting my dream up and running!! I went to see the Moore theater, a grand old dame, a little run down and seedy…perfect for Alice. Steven started negotiations with the Moore and then…?!? 9/11 happened. Most of the theatres across the US went dark. Then the bombing of the opera house in Moscow…the whole of the musical theatre business reeled, and the idea of risking investment on an unproven musical was not welcomed for quite some time.
Recently I’ve been upgrading my website, and as part of that process, I came across an 11 minute promo reel we did from the Alice production at Sledgehammer. As I watched it, a flood of memories washed over me, a couple of tears too. But I think Alice will find her way someday. I believed in her and in this show so much, that even after all the heartaches along the way, I constantly keep my eyes and ears open for an opportunity, for a way to get her into another producer’s “gift bag”. I believe in this kind of entertainment so much, I wrote a whole other opera….but that’s another story. This story is about my old favourite saying, “The difference between winning and losing is quitting!” And I’m no quitter!:))
Alice will find her way, and when she does, I’ll be there clapping for her.