A not-so-merry mix: Shakespeare, bluegrass and Randy Quaid

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A not-so-merry mix: Shakespeare, bluegrass and Randy Quaid
From left: Chris Frank, Jack Herrick and Clay Buckner in the musical "Lone Star Love,” in New York, Nov. 22, 2004. Shows stumble and fall on the way to Broadway all the time. Then there’s “Lone Star Love,” which after nearly two decades as a regional-theater staple, finally crashed thanks to the mercurial behavior of its star, Randy Quaid, which resulted in his lifetime banishment from Actors’ Equity. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Lisa Birnbach

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Shows stumble and fall on the way to Broadway all the time. Then there’s “Lone Star Love,” which after nearly two decades as a regional-theater staple, finally crashed thanks to the mercurial behavior of its star, which resulted in his lifetime banishment from Actors’ Equity.

The actor: Randy Quaid, who with his wife/manager, Evi Quaid, has since been in the news largely for brushes with the law. Today, almost 13 years after its aborted Broadway opening, the creators of the show are reluctant to speak the names of the couple at the center of the cancellation.

He is “the actor who caused an unbelievable fracas,” or simply “that actor”; she is known as “her.”

Flash back, though, to happier times, when “Lone Star Love” was simply a bouncy Texas-set updating of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” complete with bluegrass music.

Its origin story begins in 1973 with John Haber, a young graduate of the University of North Carolina who returned home to Chapel Hill with an MFA in directing from New York University’s Tisch School. The local troupe Everyman Company asked him to direct “Henry IV, Part I” at the outdoor Forest Theater on the Chapel Hill campus.

They wanted to cast banjoist Tommy Thompson, a member of the local bluegrass band Red Clay Ramblers, as Falstaff, the portly friend of Prince Hal in the drama. Falstaff, as you may remember, was a vain rogue said to be Shakespeare’s own favorite character.

Haber thought that the comic Falstaff from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was better suited for the company’s mostly amateur cast. So he modernized and set the production in Windsor, Texas, post-Civil War. The band played incidental music from the side of the stage and at the curtain call performed “Happy Trails.”

As a noble, Falstaff is an outlier, but “‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ is Shakespeare’s only play about common people,” Haber explained recently. “After the Civil War, Texans started making money as cattle ranchers, just [the way] wealth was being accumulated in England in the 15th century. And I could picture John Falstaff as a southern colonel.”

When Haber moved back to New York, he joined the Dodgers, a producing entity, and worked on other shows. The Red Clay Ramblers came to have a higher profile as well, releasing several albums and touring internationally.

The play’s journey restarted in 1987 when the renowned Alley Theater of Houston asked the Ramblers if they had any ideas for a show they might bring to the venue. The band had just performed there (and in New York) in Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind.” Thompson remembered the Texas-set “Merry Wives” he had once done and called his old friend Haber.

The Ramblers wrote a full score of music and lyrics, and Haber made changes in the script that combined Elizabethan language with cowpoke action. The musicians played Col. John Falstaff’s wingmen, held up props and generally added to the merriment of the enterprise.

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis put it on the following year. From there the show meandered — the Players Theater in Columbus, Ohio; Duke University; the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

It was a bona fide regional theater crowd-pleaser. Next stop? New York.

Workshops were organized in 1996, and in 1999, with Jim Belushi as Falstaff. “We loved him — he was great,” said the composer, Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers. Unfortunately, Belushi had commitments to his ABC-TV series and couldn’t stay with the musical, which was now called “Lone Star Love; or, the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas.”

It took five more years, but “Lone Star Love” finally opened at the John Houseman Theater off-Broadway, under the auspices of Amas Musical Theater. The production was immersive before that became so trendy; audience members were ushered to the stage where the cast served up a barbecue meal. (Some thought that was too country, but when the 2019 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” did something similar it was considered brilliant.)

Jay O. Sanders, a New York stage stalwart, portrayed Falstaff off-Broadway. Beth Leavel played one of the merry wives. “Pleasant, competent, thoroughly innocuous” were some of the phrases Charles Isherwood used in his Dec. 9, 2004, New York Times review.

Still, “Lone Star Love” had a lot going for it: words by Shakespeare, a familiar plot, charming music and, most important, investors who were willing to put money into it.

They included seasoned Broadway producer Bob Boyett, as well as Ed Burke, a newly retired businessman from Chapel Hill. He had just sold his company and wanted to get into the producing game. He flew to New York to take a three-day seminar to learn how. Given his North Carolina provenance, the instructor introduced him to “Lone Star Love.”

That the creators were fellow Tar Heels felt promising. “Living in North Carolina,” Burke told me over the phone recently, “I was country come to town. But I got hooked.

“I went to opening night, I wrote a check, and I met Bob Boyett, the lead producer,” he added. Before long, he and his wife, Eleanor, were writing checks frequently.

A cast album was recorded and the show was nominated for best musical by both the Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel awards. Although it didn’t win, it had momentum, and after closing off-Broadway in 2005 the producers had Broadway in mind as the next logical step.

Boyett suggested that John Rando (“Urinetown”) come aboard to direct. (His eventual credit was creative supervisor; Randy Skinner was the director/choreographer). He also called in Robert Horn (who later won the Tony for “Tootsie”) to co-write the book.

The gang realized they needed a higher profile star for Broadway. In 2007 Rando and Horn met with Randy Quaid at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. In 2005 the actor, a native Texan, had been Emmy nominated for playing Col. Tom Parker in a miniseries about Elvis Presley. The same year he had a choice movie role in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Despite a career filled with distinguished performances, though, he was still best known as Cousin Eddie from the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movies. This musical Falstaff would mark his Broadway debut.

“He was smart and understood where we were going,” Horn said of the meeting. “It was a lovefest — we thought we’d found the perfect fit.”

Looking back, Burke said, “Boy, did we pick the wrong horse.”

That August, after some New York rehearsals, the production moved to Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theater for a pre-Broadway tryout, with the New York opening scheduled for December. (“Hairspray” had gone to Broadway from the same theater.) In order to procure Quaid for the gig, he was given an unusual amount of creative approval.

Problem No. 1: the fat suit. According to Burke, Quaid, on the advice of his wife, refused to wear it for the role.

“Not only did our script contain references to Falstaff as a fat man — I counted eight at the time,” Burke recalled, “Jack had even written a production number called ‘Fat Man Jump.’”

Instead the couple suggested, over many objections, that Falstaff should wear a “gigantic codpiece,” as it was described to me. An actor from the Seattle company remembers a crack that was shared among the performers: “It looks like he’s wearing his understudy in his underpants.”

Participants in the Seattle production were generally loath to be quoted on the tryout but did provide glimpses of the turmoil as captured in emails from the Quaids to the creative team.

“With all the deceit going on and lack of paying key creative elements for the production Randy’s contract being unethicly [sic] passed around, he has no trust in the working process he does not agree to any changes,” read one note from Evi Quaid. “He no longer trusts the creative teams [sic] agenda or to Honor his contractual rights in this production. He is not willing to make changes in the script.”

As friction grew between the Quaids and everyone else, life in Windsor, Texas, became far from merry. One day, Horn said, he went to the Quaids’ hotel room to talk over line changes. “Mr. Quaid was agreeing with me and showing me respect,” he recalled, “but Mrs. Quaid didn’t like the fact that he was trying to find a middle ground.

“The nice conversation descended into chaos,” he added. “I got out of that room. It was the last time I ever spoke to them.”

Stories of misbehavior flew out of Seattle and into the New York tabloids.

“Jack [Herrick] and John [Haber] suffer from the fact that I was not a New York producer,” Burke recalled. “If you write enough checks you can call yourself a producer. But we had an unmanageable situation. Our contract wouldn’t allow us to hire another actor. It guaranteed that Randy Quaid would take the role on Broadway.”

When it became clear that “Lone Star Love” with Randy Quaid could not transfer to Broadway, a closing notice was posted, per union requirements. Quaid’s understudy performed as Falstaff for the final two weeks.

Twenty-three members of the cast and crew formally complained to Actors’ Equity about the actor’s behavior, on and offstage. After a Los Angeles hearing to review the complaint, he was banned from the union for life and fined $81,000 — two weeks’ pay for the other members of the company. The Burkes shelled that out, fearful that the actors would never collect.

In a 2008 article in Backstage magazine, Quaid shared a letter indicating that he had chosen to resign, saying the union “tolerates racism and mounts witch-hunts and McCarthyism.”

The marquee was already up at the Belasco Theater on Broadway, but the show never made the move. The New York Times reported the shutdown briefly: “Over the past few weeks, Mr. Quaid’s wife, Evi Quaid, said, there had been backstage bickering between the Quaids and one of the show’s producers, Ed Burke. Mr. Quaid had negotiated an unusually high degree of creative approval for the show, and there were disagreements about his interpretation of his character, who is based on Falstaff.”

“How do you take a fornicator, an adulterer, an alcoholic and an identity thief and make a family show around him?” Quaid was quoted as saying. (Efforts to reach the actor and his wife for this article through their lawyers in Vermont, Virginia and Los Angeles were unsuccessful, as was outreach through their social media channels.)

Boyett, the lead producer, remembers things a bit differently.

“The cast wasn’t the biggest consideration for me as a producer,” he said by telephone. “I don’t really blame the Quaids. When we closed the show out of town we thought we should rest the property. The timing wasn’t good. And then we all were busy with other things.”

Subsequently, the Quaids were charged with vandalism on their former California home and for failing to appear in court while on bail. (The office of the Santa Barbara district attorney confirmed this past week that the charges were still outstanding.) In recent interviews and on social media they’ve attested to the presence of what they call “Starwhackers” — a cabal of people who are out to kill celebrities.

Almost 30 years since he first got involved with what promised to be a lighthearted romp, Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers remains philosophical about the experience.

“You can’t hold your breath for Broadway,” he said, chuckling over the phone from Chapel Hill. “Work has continued on that show, and the producers have abiding faith in it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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