The irony is not lost on Rick Elice—before writing the script for The Cher Show, now running at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, he was not a Cher fanatic.
“There were many, many songs of hers that I knew once I started listening to them,” says Elice, a Tony nominee for the book of Jersey Boys. “But I certainly didn’t come in saying, ‘You must hire me because I know everything about you.’ In fact, I said, ‘You probably shouldn’t hire me because I hardly know anything about you.’” As is usually the case, playing hard to get worked and Cher was won over by Elice’s honesty.
He, in turn, was won over by Cher’s kindness during the period after the death of his husband, Roger Rees. “She said, ‘I’ve read everything that you’ve been through. I’ve been through my version of it. I understand, and I want you to get on a plane and come out here, and I think we should get to know each other. It’s time for you to rejoin the human race,’” Elice recalls. “And I said, ‘Cher, you’re quoting Thornton Wilder to me?’ And she said, ‘No. I’m quoting Hello, Dolly!.’” And it was the first time I’d laughed.”
Thus began Elice’s time with Cherilyn Sarkisian La Piere Bono Allman. And, as it turned out, Elice’s casual acquaintance with Cher’s hits proved to be a boon. Without extensive knowledge, he was able to find new layers of meanings to the songs as his three Chers—Babe, Lady, and Star—grapple with life, fame, and the entertainment business.
“Merely presenting [a song] the way everyone expects to hear it wasn’t as interesting to me as finding a way to help the audience hear it as if for the first time,” Elice says. “They talk about the first time an audience heard ‘The Rain in Spain’ in My Fair Lady without knowing that she was going to get it right, and how exhilarating it was. Rather than having audiences say, ‘Oh well, here comes “Believe”’ it’s, ‘Oh! Oh! I see, there are words to that song, and those words mean something.’”
In the creation of any musical, the songwriters usually end up cannibalizing the script. In this case, it was Elice eating up his own words armed with an iTunes playlist, scrolling through songs wondering, “OK, let’s find the song that could eat the scene I’ve written most effectively.” And with the help of director Jason Moore and music supervisor and orchestrator Daryl Waters, Elice was able to both surprise the audience and deliver on expectations. “It really is a very, very extravagant onion we are peeling the layers of,” he says.
The Cher Show currently plays Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre (250 W 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues) in an open-ended run.