Theater

Twentieth-Century Vaudeville Stars Tackle 21st-Century Issues in The Headliners

Jeremy Rill as Julian Eltinge in The Headliners.
Jeremy Rill as Julian Eltinge in The Headliners. Courtesy of Olga Lopez
Celebrated local playwright Jeffrey Neuman has long been drawn to vaudeville. "So much of what we have inherited in American pop culture comes to us from the vaudeville stage," Neuman says. "It has a fascinating cultural history that is rich and incredibly robust. My point of entry to the art form was through musicals, especially Chicago and 70, Girls, 70, which I wrote about in my dissertation."

For his master's in dramaturgy at the University of Colorado Boulder, Neuman examined the use of metatheatricality — elements within theater productions meant to draw the audience's attention to the fact that they are watching a performance — in the musicals of John Kander and Fred Ebb.

"In 70, Girls, 70, John and Fred tried to use vaudeville conventions to tell a story, but it was this terrible flop because they didn't have the guiding force of a strong director," Neuman explains. "Then, with Chicago, they were working with Bob Fosse and able to realize their vision in what has become a cornerstone of American musical theater. I had the greatest experience writing it and was friendly with Fred Ebb while working on the project. I wrote him a letter, and he called me out of the blue. I would interview him for the dissertation, but we would also talk as friends. Fred would send me letters from the same spools on his Smith Corona typewriter from 1929 that wrote Cabaret and Chicago."

While he's always loved musicals, Neuman had never tried his hand as a librettist, but his latest work, The Headliners, "felt like it was calling for that," he says. "The music was an extension of the personalities of these vaudevillian performers; the music isn't necessarily there to tell the story, but to enlarge the characters."

Cherry Creek Theatre's The Headliners, which had a sold-out opening weekend and runs through May 21, tells a fictionalized story of real-life entertainers Eva Tanguay, a vaudeville comedian played by Norell Moore, and Julian Eltinge, who was famed for his female impersonations and is portrayed by Jeremy Rill. The narrative focuses on the pair breaking gender norms when they announced their engagement more than a century before the United States legalized same-sex marriage. With Tanguay wearing a tuxedo to propose to Eltinge, who was dressed as a traditional bride-to-be, they challenged society's understanding of gender roles and marriage.
click to enlarge two actors on a stage
Norrell Moore as Eva Tanguay and Jeremy Rill as Julian Eltinge in The Headliners.
Courtesy of Olga Lopez
"Whenever I write a play, the first question I ask is, 'Why does this need to live on the stage?,' because there is a lot of stuff that doesn't need to be theater," Neuman says. "I don't believe this story would make a good movie or book; however, I knew it would be lively on stage because vaudeville thrives on the stage. It's definitely a play for mature audiences, because it tackles complex issues about gender and sexuality. And in light of the recent bans on LGBTQ+ performances across the country, a story about cross-dressing and gender identity feels particularly timely, even though it is set in 1908. I hope it inspires thoughtful conversation."

Neuman has been working on The Headliners intermittently for eleven years, during which time the plot changed significantly. "This wasn’t the play I set out to write," he notes. "I wanted to tell Eva’s story. She was wild and eccentric, and I felt from looking at pictures of her that her story needed to be told. However, when I went looking for information about her, I found conflicting information online. A lot of that happened because Eva liked to make up stories when she talked to the press, so the biography that she would tell people was different from report to report. She is in large part to blame for the fact that we don’t know much about her."
click to enlarge Jeffrey Neuman playwrite.
Jeffrey Neuman worked on The Headliners for more than a decade.
Courtesy of Cherry Creek Theatre
The original concept for the play focused on the final interview Tanguay gave to the press.

"Eva was desperate for press until her dying days," Neuman says. "She had aged in a way she didn’t find appealing and was a very vain human being, so she gave her final interview to the press sick in bed through a window with the curtain drawn while a reporter stood outside her bedroom in the garden. That was the story I wanted to tell, but I couldn't find a way to make it theatrical. It might make a good book or movie, but I didn’t feel like it would make a good play."

When Andrew L. Erdman's Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay was published in 2012, Neuman hoped that a full biography about Tanguay's life would inspire ideas for his play, but he was disappointed. "Nothing featured in the Queen of Vaudeville really spoke to me," he explains. "I had been expecting to figure out how to unlock this story, but that didn't happen, so I reread it, and there was a page and a half in there about a publicity stunt she pulled with a fellow from vaudeville. I was fascinated by this gender-flipped betrothal, and thought that was an idea I could really sink my teeth into."

Both Tanguay and Eltinger were certified stars, so when they took to the stage at the Alhambra Theatre in New York in August 1908 to mock marriage traditions, the world was watching. Although some people were quick to write it off as a gimmicky publicity stunt, Neuman's play explores the personal stakes of the two stars and the reasons they chose to perform this satirical engagement. Combining vaudeville songs with a timely story, The Headliners explores the intersection between celebrity, identity and power.

As for the play's title, "Eva and Julian were headliners, technically, because that is what they called stars back then," Neuman says. "The idea of grabbing headlines to ingrain in people’s lives felt similar to the rise of reality television and celebrity culture in today's world, and was appropriate for who they were."

He finished the play just before COVID hit, and although The Headliners was selected as a finalist for the O'Neill Award in 2021 and the Woodward/Newman Award in 2022, it had yet to be performed live for an audience. Neuman learned that the Cherry Creek Theatre wanted to dabble in new play development via a Zoom workshop, and he submitted The Headliners. The theater then offered him a slot for this season.

Nick Sugar was selected as director, and his background aligned perfectly with what Neuman's script demanded. "My history in Denver is that I've done a lot of plays from the LGBTQ community, a lot of Terrence McNally, Nicky Silver and Larry Kramer, and have enjoyed telling those stories," Sugar says. "I was brought into the project by Jeff, who gave me the script a couple of years ago. I loved it and told him if he was ever developing it, I would love to direct the play. What really intrigued me about The Headliners was that the characters were true-life vaudeville performers, and I was curious about the optics of looking at these people from today’s point of view. Also, I just really enjoy musicals."
click to enlarge man and woman kissing
Norrell Moore as Eva Tanguay and Jeremy Rill as Julian Eltinge in The Headliners.
Courtesy of Olga Lopez
All of the music in the show is derived from boxes of Tanguay's original sheet music, archived in a trunk at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan.

"Aside from the academics who have gone to this museum to survey what is in the boxes, hundreds of pieces of vaudevillian sheet music remain untouched," Neuman says. "When I found out about them, I reached out to the museum, and the staff was incredibly helpful. They sent me scanned versions of her sheet music. I didn’t write this to be a reclamation piece, but we really should claim them as pioneers of theatrical and LGBTQ+ history; it feels good to bring these songs to life, because they have not seen life in years."

Neuman credits music director David Nehls with making the score sound accurate to the time period. "When I got the sheet music, David was able to instantly sight-read it," Neuman says. "He brought the music to life and gave it so much flavor and color. We weren't attempting to modernize it, except for some things to protect the actors' voices; rather, the goal was to be true to its period and origins."

After years of work, Neuman is thrilled to see his musical's world premiere. "Everyone and their mother should come to see it," he says.

The Headliners runs through May 21 at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, 350 South Dahlia Street. Find tickets, times and more information at cherrycreektheatre.org.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories