“Smart Blonde” is a play that has been percolating in playwright Willy Holtzman’s brain for three decades.
“I always wanted to write (Judy Holliday’s) story about how political blackmail turned into gender politics,” Holtzman says.
He is about to achieve that goal as “Smart Blonde” opens at City Theatre with a world premiere production that runs from Nov. 15 through Dec. 21 in the theater’s Hamburg Studio.
The music-filled drama is set in Manhattan in 1964 as Holliday is recording an album — “Holliday With Mulligan” — not long before she died.
“Every song attaches to a different moment in her life,” Holtzman says. “Part of our mission is to help share the music that was within her.”
Some of those songs are familiar standards — “What’ll I Do” and Cole Porter’s “Bad for Me.” Others will be new and surprising, even to longtime fans of musical theater.
Many will remember Holliday for her roles as the dumb blonde who ultimately outwits the politicians and businessmen who attempt to manipulate her.
It was a role she played both on Broadway and film in comedies such as “Born Yesterday” and “Bells Are Ringing” as well as in the movie “The Solid Gold Cadillac.”
In real life, she had an IQ of 172 and hated that she was repeatedly typecast in those roles.
Nevertheless, Holtzman says, in 1952 she reluctantly followed the advice given to her by her bosses and adopted her Billie Dawn persona from “Born Yesterday” when the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security called her to testify about connections to the Communist Party.
“They told her to go in and play dumb,” says Holtzman, who read the transcript of her testimony. “It was like a one-act play.”
Her play-acting short-circuited the investigation, allowed her to continue working in show business and spared Holliday from being forced to name people she knew who might be associated with organizations the committee deemed un-American.
But, Holtzman says, what that cost her in terms of self-respect, no one knows.
The commission of “Smart Blonde” arose out of a conversation Holtzman had with City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden in 2010 after his play “The Morini Strad” played at City Theatre.
Some will have seen an earlier version of the play when it had a reading as part of last year’s Momentum Festival at the theater.
Asked to suggest ideas for a play, Holtzman related Holliday’s story to Brigden and told her Holliday had inspired him to become a playwright.
“When Willy first told me the story of Judy’s life, I was amazed at all she had accomplished at a time when women in show business rarely called the shots,” Brigden says. “I also love the vivid setting: mid-century Manhattan, replete with smoky jazz clubs, Broadway openings and the McCarthy trials. There’s also the music: standards from the era sung by the incomparable Andrea Burns, who is playing Judy.”
While he’s happy to see the show opening, Holtzman will be sorry to let it go. “I always wanted to serve Judy’s memory,” he says. “But it’s one of those dramatic collaborations that make you happy but sad that you’re not going to have an experience like this again for a while.”
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, email@example.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.
Born: Judith G. Tuvim, June 21, 1921 in New York City
Parents: Abraham Tuvim, a journalist who also raised money for Jewish and social causes, and Helen Gollomb, who taught piano at the Henry Street Settlement
Education: Graduate of the Julia Richman High School in New York City, 1938
Name change: In 1944, while working in Hollywood, changed her name to Holliday from Tuvim, the Hebrew word for holiday.
Family: Married Dave Oppenheim in 1948. They divorced in 1957. He was a clarinetist who became a dean at New York University and was the main architect for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He died in 2007. Their son, Jonathan Oppenheim, born Nov. 11, 1952, is a film editor and producer.
Died: June 7, 1965, in New York City
• Switchboard operator for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater; scriptwriter
• Lyricist and performer for a group called The Revuers that included pianist Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The Revuers performed first at Max Gordon’s nightclub in Greenwich Village and later on an NBC radio program.
• In 1944, she signed a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox but was released from the contract and returned to New York City in 1945.
• “Greenwich Village” (1944)
• “Winged Victory” (1944)
• “Something for the Boys” (1944)
• “Born Yesterday” (1950)
• “The Marrying Kind” (1952)
• “The Solid Gold Cadillac” (1956)
• “Bells Are Ringing” (1960)
• “Kiss Them for Me” (1945)
• “Born Yesterday” (1946-49)
• “Adam’s Rib” (1949)
• “Dream Girl” (1951)
• “Bells Are Ringing” (1956-1959)
• “Hot Spot” (1963)
• Academy Award for best actress for Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday” (1950)
• Tony Award for best actress in a musical for Ella Peterson in “Bells Are Ringing” (1957)