STOCKBRIDGE — It's 1956, and three of America's great songwriters, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen, are at a crossroads in their lives, seeing that their careers could be over. At the time, rock 'n' roll had become the king of tunes, and the King himself, Elvis, was an overnight sensation.
Put that story in the hands of an Emmy award-winning playwright and a Tony-nominated director and you get an alluring story — with great music — resulting in Berkshire Theatre Group's world premiere of "Coming Back Like a Song!," a new play by Lee Kalcheim and directed by Gregg Edelman.
The play opens today and will run through July 21 on BTG's Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge.
In the play, the three old friends — Berlin, Arlen and Van Heusen — get together to hash out the possible end of their musical usefulness, at Berlin's apartment on Christmas Eve in New York City. There, they end up drinking, fighting and singing.
Kalcheim said that Berlin, Arlen and Van Heusen have an impressive opus to back up their fame: Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and "Always;" Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" and "The Man That Got Away;" Van Heusen's "Swingin' On a Star" and "All the Way."
Parts of 37 of their songs, some whole and others just a line or two, make an appearance in the play.
"This is really not a musical and really not a play, but something in between, where music is at the heart of everything between these friends," Kalcheim said. "They are older, a new type of music taken over, and it's fair for them to say: `It's finished, our careers are over, we can't write that stuff anymore!'"
The idea for the play, Kalcheim continued, was based on history but had a bit of whimsy added to it. The three songwriters were known to meet at Berlin's apartment.
"For my research, I bought various memoirs and biographies of those three, and I read about their lives, and they were fabulously different characters," Kalcheim said. "Berlin was an icon, Jimmy Van Heusen was part of Sinatra's Rat Pack and was tremendously successful as many of those great Sinatra albums of the '50s and '60s were full of his songs. Harold Arlen was a superbly talented songwriter, but also lived a very difficult life, much of which is at the heart of this play."
In working with such rich biographical material, Kalcheim said he asked himself a single question: "What would it be like if it's 1956, and rock 'n' roll is taking the world by storm and then I bring these three men together to confront that idea?"
Considering the playwright's above prompt, Edelman, who has been directing at BTG for three years, replied that it would be a "deeply human and creative tale of three of the 20th century's great American musical talents, played by three outstanding actors."
"Coming Back Like a Song!" features Tony Award-nominated David Garrison as Irving Berlin, Philip Hoffman as Harold Arlen and David Rasche as Jimmy Van Heusen.
Edelman added that, along with playing such legendary entertainment industry figures, the actors must also be able to sing well, and have a sense of timing that complements so many parts of so many songs included throughout the script.
"Musicality is so important to these actors, and it's hard to fake musicality" Edeleman said. "We started with parts of 37 songs in this show, and just recently we had to trim a few out in the interest of a scene's flow, and the emotion we want to capture there."
The director explained how his actors were the right fit for such an ambitious world premiere.
"David Rasche is a tremendous talent, who not only sings brilliantly, but also plays the piano, which is a very important thing to bring to the stage," Edelman said. "David Garrison, I've worked with before, and I knew he'd be perfect for playing Irvin Berlin. And it turns out Philip Hoffman had done one of Lee's shows in a reading at a music festival, and I also knew him and admired his work. He's the perfect actor to bring out the complicated nature of Harold Arlen's life."
With the cast rehearsing intensely, Edelman concluded by saying that audiences will take right away to the fruits of his actors' labor.
"We've had to layer this in just like an oil painting and be very patient with the process," Edelman said. "The audience will feel like they actually met these three men. This is a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall and witness three of the greatest songwriters of the last century, who also had a complicated relationship. At the end of the night, the audience will know they've seen three really talented artists, but also very interesting and remarkable human beings."