I met Al Dubin the other night. You may be wondering who he is. You know him, and you know guys like him. He’s a famous lyricist whose upbeat ultra-famous pop songs fueled Broadway plays way back in the 1930s and were subsequently whistled and hummed at breakfast tables and in barber shops for a generation. Upbeat songs sung by dimpled and well-scrubbed chanteuses called “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” — written by a f—ed-up and ultimately bitter lyricist who couldn’t get out of the way of his own vices. That was Al Dubin.
No, not Kurt Cobain, or Keith Moon. And no…not Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse. This was Al Dubin, and I met him through an incredible musical that has renewed my faith in live theater.
“I Only Have Eyes For You” is a work of art that pays homage to classic production standards without looking dated. The art direction and choreography worked in unbelievable harmony. Mobile sets are wheeled in and out without the help of blackouts. Fluid. One set, that was the interior of a Pullman car where Dubin was in conversation with Al Jolson’s wife — was moved into position by dancers who became parts of the train itself — choo-choo’ing in unison as a rhythmic background to the dramatic interplay between Dubin and Jolson.
And through it all, a real orchestra played in a real orchestra pit.
That’s how I met Al, channeled through actor Jared Gertner. Here was the effervescent schlub — the stage-door Johnny who wooed the impossibly hot and totally out-of-his-league actress with his lyrics and not-so-subtle borscht-belt charm. We’ve all known Al Dubins before, and Gertner made sure that we connected to Dubin in a familiar way. Homespun and hokey took a backseat to a flawed honesty whose vulnerability never became cloying.
“I Only Have Eyes For You,” played to a packed Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood. When the play ended, and the cast took their curtain calls — they brought out producer Corky Hale Stoller to take a bow. Corky is no stranger to successful songwriters.
Married for 45 years to Mike Stoller (half of the fabled songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller), Corky was immersed in the same industry that stoked the flames of Al Dubin’s creativity and demons — both through her relationship with Mike, and her own fertile history as a musician and a performer who packs them in as tight as they were at the Montalban Theatre.
Corky accompanied the legendary Billie Holiday, and collaborated as a pianist and harpist with some of the most iconic musicians who’ve ever lived — from Tony Bennett to George Michael and from Barbra Streisand to Judy Collins.
When I spoke with Corky, it was obvious that she was more birth mother than producer of this musical. Corky delivered the musical years ago, and it seemed that she was still feeling the echoes of that childbirth.
“I went to see a one-man show on Oscar Levant, and I thought, ‘Wow, you know what? I’d like to do a show based on Dubin.’ I got a writer, and we wrote it, and it ran for three months at the Tiffany. The L.A. Times wrote, ‘One of the 10 best shows of the year.’ So, a 1,000-seat theater in Coconut Grove, Florida, heard about it, and said come on down and we’ll put it on with you. Well, that guy had his own carpentry shop, his own costume shop, he had all these various things except for actors. I brought the actors out, I put together a band out there, and it ran for a month.”
It was at this point that the exuberance of her memories faded, and Corky revealed, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into with this one.”
I saw the results of what Corky got herself into. It was well worth the effort.
“I Only Have Eyes For You — The Life and Lyrics of Al Dubin” is playing through June 12 at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood.