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From Judy Garland to A Gentleman’s Guide

From Judy Garland to A Gentleman’s Guide

Robert L. Freedman

Tony-winning writer Robert L. Freedman brought Judy Garland to television life, but it was a long road to Broadway for his drag-friendly musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

His TV movie credits include Disney's Cinderella, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston; the GLAAD-awarded lesbian drama What Makes a Family, starring Brooke Shields; and the Emmy-winning miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, starring Judy Davis.

But it took 10 years from the time Robert L. Freedman and his collaborator Steven Lutvak began writing the darkly comic musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder until it finally opened on Broadway.

The show went on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, for Freedman's book, Darko Tresnjak's direction, and Lindo Cho's costumes, plus a slew of Drama Desk and other awards. While the Broadway production wraps up January 17, the national tour (which plays San Francisco now through December 27) will run through July 2016.

"I always tell writers that you've gotta really love what you're working on because you'll be living with it for a long time," says Freedman. "We survived a lawsuit, delays, and canceled productions." But the show certainly did go on.

The musical was originally based on the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, about a scheming heir who comically murders eight members of an aristocratic family. When the rights to the film traded hands, Freedman and Lutvak rewrote their show based on the source material -- Roy Horniman's 1907 comic novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.

JEFFERSON MAYS AS LADY HYACINTH

They were set to open at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2010 when the rights holders hit them with a lawsuit that shut down the production for 13 months -- until a judge dismissed the case. Productions at the Hartford Stage and San Diego's Old Globe earned a rave from The New York Times, and they finally opened on Broadway in November 2013.

"Horniman was part of Oscar Wilde's circle, and the novel is similar to Wilde's wit and comments on society," says Freedman. The wit of Wilde and Noel Coward inspired Freedman's book, and there are influences of Gilbert and Sullivan and English music hall in Lutvak's score.

The eight odious members of the D'Ysquith family who get bumped off throughout the show are all played by Jefferson Mays (pictured above) on Broadway(and John Rapson on tour). Two of the characters are women, portrayed in deft drag turns.

"There's Lady Hyacinth, an unmarried woman of a certain age who's devoted her life to helping those less fortunate -- but all the good charities are taken," Freedman says. "And there's Lady Salome, who is an actress -- a terrible actress. Both Jefferson Mays and John Rapson really embody the parts and give the characters some truth."

But the performances are not what we typically think of as drag. "Drag itself is an art form," he says. "Good drag involves hours of preparation and makeup -- and they're beautiful. But these have to be thrown together in 20 seconds. A quick change, a little lipstick, and go!"

When the decade-long journey of Gentleman's Guide culminated with the show and Freedman receiving Tony Awards, "it was completely surreal. I was floating," he says. "Opening on Broadway was the dream come true. Getting the nominations and awards was amazing."

A previous dream came true when producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron hired him to write the 2001 miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, based on her daughter Lorna Luft's book.

"At first I thought, Oh, my God, I get to write a movie about Judy Garland! Then I thought, Oh, shit. I wanted to do it justice and I wanted to do her justice," he says. "As a performer, there was never anyone better -- and there never will be."

Judy Davis and Judy Galand

"I read everything there was to read about her. Lorna Luft's book had a lot of personal experiences and so many happy memories," he says. "One thing that her family hates is when people look at Judy Garland's life as a tragedy. I didn't want to do anything pathetic, that made you feel sorry for her. From scene to scene I tried to find the emotional reality with her, versus her as a movie star."

"They'd already cast Judy Davis (pictured above), which was a huge advantage. I was able to be inspired by her as well as Judy Garland when I was writing it," he says. "And Tammy Blanchard was incredible as the young Judy." Both Davis and Blanchard earned Emmys for their performances. Freedman received Emmy and Writers Guild Award nominations for his screenplay.

His writing life post-Gentleman's Guide and that Tony Award is definitely looking up. "I'm writing a dramatic movie for HBO that Robert Redford is set to direct, I've got a pilot for cable in the works, and a couple of new musical dream projects of my own," he says. "But a career is a roller coaster. Right now I'm on a high."

For information, tickets, and the tour schedule of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder,go here.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder in four minutes:

The making of Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows:

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