Years ago, a producer approached Tony-nominated playwright and director Michael Leeds about developing a musical based on the life of Hollywood heartthrob (and closeted gay man) Rock Hudson.
While that project never took off, Leeds found himself fascinated not so much with the handsome Hudson, but with Henry Willson, the homely, gay and larger-than-life agent who groomed him—and many other young actors—into stars.
A decade later, Leeds’ play about Willson, Hudson and his bevy of boys, “Starmaker,” is receiving its world premiere at Island City Stage.
“Willson sort reminded me of Mama Rose from ‘Gypsy,’” said Leeds during a quick interview between rehearsals, “the ultimate stage mother. He was this combination of agent extraordinaire and Roy Cohn, the first Hollywood manager before they called them managers. Willson found these young men, gave them new names, told them what to wear, introduced them to Hollywood. He created paragons of masculinity, heterosexuality. It was this gay man’s joke on the world.”
In between projects, Leeds returned to the play, rewriting and tweaking the dialogue along the way. It was given a staged reading at Lynn University’s Jan McArt New Play Reading Series and more changes were incorporated.
Audiences will immediately notice the presence of a Greek chorus.
“Henry was so bigger than life, I wanted that Greek chorus—people who would play different roles, but speak to us about Henry—correcting him when he was talking to us, serving as his conscious.”
That Greek chorus includes some of his most successful proteges: Tab Hunter (who also would later come out as gay), Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun and Lana Turner. The only character who doesn’t speak to the audience, Leeds noted, was Hudson.
In his role as director, Leeds faced an unusual challenge preparing actors who were too young to remember these stars from Hollywood’s golden era.
“They did their research, but there’s also some universality to the theme of following your dreams, which each of them did. It’s a story about the need to be true to yourself, both Henry and Rock. Hollywood called them ‘Beauty and the Beast’, but both were living out a lie and there was a cost,” the playwright explained.
More than 50 years later, Hollywood leading men are still afraid to come out and risk their careers, Leeds pointed out.
Back then, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (himself a closeted gay man) was investigating homosexuals and even proposed quarantining gays and lesbians. Today, LGBT people are facing renewed bigotry and discrimination, shrouded in hateful tweets and calls to make the country great again.
“It was a very, very threatening time and it’s easy to understand what it was like for Rock then and actors today,” Leeds added. “As hard as it is to believe, these themes still resonate today. What wouldn’t you do to be a star? If you could be Julia Roberts, if you could be Brad Pitt, what wouldn’t you do to have money and fame? When you start to think about that, the goal post moves.”
Island City Stage presents the world premiere of Michael Leeds’ “Starmaker,” Aug. 8 – Sept. 8 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $38 at IslandCityStage.org.