Preview: Right place, right time has led to many creative successes for Beaches playwright

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Serendipity has played a major role in Iris Rainer Dart’s life and career, especially with Beaches, her 1985 blockbuster novel about the enduring friendship of two women who met on a beach as children.

Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey played Cee Cee Bloom and Bertie White in the 1988 film, and now Dart is in Calgary working on the musical version of Beaches. It previews May 18 at the Max Bell Theatre with the official opening on May 24. Dart collaborated with the late Thom Thomas on the book for the musical, and with legendary composer Mike Stoller on the songs.

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The idea for a novel about enduring female friendships was planted in Dart’s head in her 20s.

“A close friend of mine said to me one day that, if one of us had to die, she hoped it would be her because she couldn’t conceive of living in a world without me. It was her way of telling me how much our friendship meant to her, and I thought I really needed to write a novel about what is a universal experience for women fortunate enough to have intense friendships,” says Dart.

It took almost a decade before Dart found the inspiration for her main character in the irrepressible Cher, who had become a friend when Dart was writing 63 episodes for the Cher Show, and then the Sonny and Cher Show in the early 1970s.

“Though Cher was definitely an influence for Cee Cee, there is a lot of me in that character, too. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was a child performer in children’s shows from the time I was six, and by the time I was eight, I was a regular on a TV show called Happy’s Party. I continued acting throughout high school but I was never super comfortable on stage. Still, I thought acting was what I was meant to do, so I enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University as a theatre major.”

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It was there that Dart became interested in writing musicals. He first was a show she called Whatserface.

“Several students offered to work on one or two songs but I wanted someone to write the whole musical with me. The only person to offer was a junior, and I was not impressed, but I had no other choice.”

That 16-year-old was Stephen Schwartz who would go on to write such musicals as Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. They wrote two college shows together.

“After I graduated, I still thought I was going to be an actor. I had the choice of staying in New York and pursuing theatre, or going to Los Angeles and trying to work in film. I chose Los Angeles because of the sunny weather. I got such small roles that even my mother could have been excused for missing me in them. I continued taking acting lessons, and one day my teacher told me something I already knew, that, as an actress, I was a very good writer. He said he could introduce me to someone who could mentor me, and that person turned out to be Gary Marshall.”

Dart worked on such Marshall sitcoms as Love American Style and The Odd Couple, and, through Marshall, she met George Schlatter who produced Laugh-In.

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“It was George who hired me for the Cher Show. I was the only woman on the writing team, and I knew, from day one. those men did not want me in that room. They actually needed me more than they realized because Cher was tough and demanding, and they were afraid of her. Whenever she didn’t like a script, they’d send me in to talk to her. Cher and I bonded because we were both going through a divorce. Cher from Sonny, and me from my first husband, a rock promoter.”

When she began to create Beaches, Dart wrote three chapters and an outline of her idea. Her TV agent gave it to a book agent who shopped it around.

“The publishers didn’t think it was a commercial idea, but they liked my writing, so they asked if I had any other ideas. Steve had worked in a studio mail room and had tons of stories, so I pitched that idea, and they picked it up and I wrote The Boys in the Mail Room, a kind of trashy Hollywood novel. When that sold, they said they’d like to look at my Beaches pitch again.

“By that time I was dating my husband Stephen Dart. When I showed him the chapters, he said it sounded like Bette Midler. I got the package to her, and she wanted to meet. She said she loved the idea, and if I wrote the novel, she’d turn it into a movie one day. By the time the novel came out, she was working at Disney and she wanted to produce as well as star in it. Disney was worried because of the ending, so they looked for someone with comedic sensibilities. They brought in Gary Marshall. It was 22 years later, but we were back in each other’s lives. Gary had such heart and such a wonderful sense of humour. It’s what Beaches needed.”

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After Beaches, Midler suggested Dart should write a musical for her. The result was The People in the Picture, the story of three generations of Jewish women, for which she won a Tony nomination as the writer.

“I don’t think Bette was ready to play a grandmother at that point in her career, so the role went to the wonderful Donna Murphy who was nominated for a Tony Award for best actress in a musical.”

It was on that project that Dart first teamed up with Stoller and where she met Theatre Calgary’s artistic director Stafford Arima.

“Stafford and I became, and remain great friends. It was Stafford who first suggested I turn Beaches into a musical. I flew to Calgary to see Theatre Calgary’s The Louder We Get in 2020. I fell in love with the Max Bell Theatre, so when Stafford suggested we do the premiere of Beaches The Musical in Calgary, I was delighted.”

Delighted doesn’t begin to describe how Dart feels about what she calls “the Rolls Royce production team assembled to work on our show. No expense has been spared to bring the top Broadway talent to Calgary for this premiere.”

Beaches the Musical runs at Theatre Calgary from May 18 to June 16.

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