Sunday, 10 March 2013

William Haines, Arts Theatre, London… Tailor Made Man (2013)

Faye Tozer and Dylan Turner
Tailor Made Man is not just the best silent-movie-gay-love-story-interior-design-musical in London, it's maybe the best musical?

William Haines story is one of the most extraordinary of all in old Hollywood. Winner, along with Eleanor Boardman of Samuel Goldwyn Company‘s New Faces of 1922 contest in 1922, he went on to star in over 20 films over the next decade before Louis B Mayer pulled the plug in dramatic fashion.

Haines was always himself and, startlingly, this meant he never tried too hard to hide his homosexuality not just off-duty but even in his films. He was an honest actor with a decent range who was naturalistic but also knowing and inclusive.
Billy Haines
This spritely musical grew out of Claudio Macor’s stage play of the same name dating from the 90’s, at a time when few of Haines' films were ever seen let alone available on home video – so great was his fall from Mayer’s good grace.  For this production, Macor wrote the book, along with Amy Rosenthal, and also directed.  The music was composed by Adam Meggido with lyrics from Duncan Walsh Atkins

The result is a joyous celebration, which allows Haines’ sense of humour to shine through and for a rapid connection to the visceral spirit of the times – a decade of decadence and dance.

Dylan Turner and Bradley Clarkson
A musical is a contrived art form in many ways but it serves this kind of story surprisingly well. Biographical dramas can get bogged down in the facts and strain underneath the weight of sequencing known chronology but with a musical you can just sing the story onwards as required. There’s dancing too with classy choreography from Nathan M Wright, making the most of a relatively small stage. And, of course, there’s  interior design!

Dylan Turner plays William Haines and has the right amount of good looks, charm and cock-sure confidence to convince as the man who seemed to breeze through to stardom. Bradley Clarkson plays Jimmy Shields, Haines’ life-partner who stuck with him through his rise, abrupt fall and subsequent re-emergence as an in-demand designer to the stars.

Vivien Carter and Clive Ward
The story begins with the elder Shields (Clive Ward) being interviewed by an architectural journalist, Betsy Dawson (an eye-catching Vivien Carter) not long after Haines’ death from lung cancer in 1973.

We move back to the early twenties as William travels to Hollywood with Eleanor Boardman (played by Holly Easterbrook)  -  another  great talent from the era who deserves more attention.

He meets Jimmy cruising through New York and their life-long affair begins, just as Billy’s silent career starts to take off, albeit after a few years worth of supporting roles.

Macor cleverly avoids too much film-by-film detail and prefers to use Billy’s relationship with Marion Davies to encapsulate his many leading lady friendships.

Faye Tozer looks very little like Davies but she puts in a memorable shift as William Randolph Hearst’s girlfriend – a fun loving party animal who finally found her niche alongside Haines in King Vidor’s classic Show People. Tozer’s voice is stage-strong and she carries off the peroxide playfulness very well.

Davies accepted Haines for who he is as did Anita Page, Boardman and Joan Crawford who famously described his relationship with Shields as the best marriage in Hollywood.

Faye Tozer and Mike McShane
But Haines’ paymasters were less forgiving. Mike McShane gives an almost show-stealing turn as the bluff hetero bully Louis B Mayer. LB was just about willing to tolerate Haines when he was good box office but he was quick to cut him down once his behaviour led to scandal.

Billy was caught cruising with a sailor and refused to marry his way to a PR alibi. In this version of events Pola Negri is suggested as the prime candidate for the lavender wedding. I’m not sure if this is true but it’s a good excuse for a routine with Kay Murphy excelling as a humorously-clichéd version of the Polish star.

That’s another thing about musicals… accuracy is less important than “feeling” and a good tune. I’m very happy to see anyone sing about silent film and in this case to accept a Negri from a parallel universe… conflated with Cyd Charisse’s Brooks’-inspired dancer in Singing in the Rain and still grieving her “Rudy” a decade after his death…

Billy goes off the rails as his career collapses and Jimmy deserts him temporarily. He returns just as his lover has hit rock bottom and the two begin to build their lives anew: We’ve Got Time is their anthem and beautifully expressed by both actors.

Marion also stands by the boys especially when they are driven from their LA beach front home by hoards of white supremacists intent on meting out rough justice after they believe that one of their sons was propositioned. In real life the case was dropped due to a total lack of evidence but no charges were brought against their attackers…

With Marion and WRH’s help, William begins to build a reputation as an interior designer, sprucing up some of her many properties before being commissioned to work on other stars’ houses.

I’d read about this aspect of Haines’ career but never appreciated just how successful and influential he became over the ensuing decades. For more details check out his company website and an interesting article in Architectural Digest. You can still buy Haines’ furniture but you need deep pockets!

The show ends with Design a song about matching your exteriors to your interior life: "...the life you live is all about design!" ...something William Haines did with style and persistence!

At the end my wife pretty much started the standing ovation and as I joined in we were clapping not just a great show from the talented cast but also Mr Haines himself.

Tailor Made Man runs until the start of April in the intimate Arts Theatre (home to some of the friendliest front of house staff in the Capital!) - if you’re anywhere near London I’d heartily recommend it. Hopefully it will tour and get the longer run it deserves.


  1. i saw this show twice and loved it, i thoroughly agree that it deserves to go places

    1. There's talk of a cast recording but I really hope it gets a second run.

      I also went twice... all musicals should be this well designed!