Patti Smith’s glowingly reviewed Just Kids notwithstanding, most celebrity autobiographies don’t rise to the level of what critics would call greatness. Their authors’ literary sins include pomposity, willful omissions, the rewriting of personal history and a tone that can, if the material is read just right, become hilarious in a way the celeb never intended.
Actor-writer Eugene Pack had an aha moment about the entertainment potential of celebrity autobiographies when he came across Vanna Speaks by Wheel of Fortune’s svelte blond letter turner Vanna White.
“It was so fascinating that she wrote a memoir,” Pack says from that celebrity Mecca, Los Angeles. “She wrote about one day when her belt broke, trying to hold onto the belt and still flip the letter panels. I got some friends together, and we read from celebrity autobiographies out loud, as an experiment. It was obvious that it was so much fun to do and to watch.”
Thus was born Celebrity Autobiography, a theater-comedy hybrid in which celebrities read from the earnest works of their fellow stars.
The long-running hit, which became a Bravo television special in 2005 and won the 2009 Drama Desk Award for unique theatrical experience, has played in New York, Los Angeles and points in between. Beginning Thursday, the show makes its Miami debut in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where it will run through May 15 with different celebs for each of its two weeks.
Pack’s actress wife Dayle Reyfel and Burn Notice star Sharon Gless are the constants, appearing both weeks.. This week’s shows also feature actor-comedian Mario Cantone, Saturday Night Live alumna Rachel Dratch, Broadway veteran Craig Bierkoand Pack. In week No. 2, comedian Paul Provenza, Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Tony Award winners Cady Huffman and Roger Bart get in on the fun.
The show’s format allows busy stars to do the briefest of runs with little or no rehearsal. Gless, for instance, is making her Celebrity Autobiography debut while also shooting Burn Notice. But the star of the long-running cop show Cagney & Lacey says she had such a great time performing in A Round-Heeled Woman at GableStage in Coral Gables earlier this season that she jumped at the chance to do more theater in her adopted hometown.
Gless will play Elizabeth Taylor in what Pack calls a mash-up of books by Taylor, singer Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, revisiting that famous Liz-stole-Eddie scandal from three points of view. She’ll also tackle Ivana Trump and a much-younger pop star she’s saving as a surprise. And she’s thinking of suggesting to Pack that maybe she should read from her producer-husband Barney Rosenzweig’s 2007 memoir Cagney & Lacey … and Me.
“I’m tempted. But I haven’t read it yet, because I want to stay married to him,” Gless says with a laugh. “Tyne [Daly] read it and stopped speaking to him for awhile.”
Pack, who says he doesn’t see Celebrity Autobiography as mean-spirited or snarky, knows that wonderful celeb books do exist. But those aren’t the ones that work in his show.
“It’s the lack of self-awareness that we love,” he says.
Excerpts from the chosen memoirs reveal precisely what Pack means.
From My Life by Debbie Reynolds: “You can actually feel pressure when Elizabeth Taylor tells the world that you’re depriving her of a lover. I guess you can even feel Elizabeth should always have a lover, even if it’s yours.”
From The Unimaginable Life by rocker Kenny Loggins: “I want to let your love open me like an envelope.”
From How I Play Golf by Tiger Woods: “I would just get up there and bang the ball hard into the hole.”
And from You Have To Stand for Something or You’ll Fall for Anything, written by former View panelist-turned- Celebrity Apprentice competitor Star Jones before her weight-loss surgery: “Take away the wigs and the eyelashes and my fabulous clothes, and you’ll find me at White Castle, feasting on a half dozen of those greasy square burgers.”
Vilanch, a master craftsman of jokes for celebrities in their shows and on the annual Oscar telecast, often finds himself playing Jones in Celebrity Autobiography. And he understands the genre that works for Pack.
“When you’re on TV a lot, they ask you to write a book. And when you’re confronted with a huge advance, every aspect of your life becomes of cosmic significance. The more minutiae you can put in, and the seriousness with which it is conveyed, just makes jaws drop,” he says.
Cantone has been doing Celebrity Autobiography for three years, but he played hard to get for awhile because, he says, “I don’t like to leave my house.”
He took the plunge when he got the chance to appear opposite one of People magazine’s sexiest men, Ryan Reynolds. (Who wouldn’t?).
“He read from Geraldo Rivera’s autobiography and read about Liza Minnelli,” Cantone says. “I did Liza, and he had to put the book in front of his face because he was laughing so much.”
Bart, who played a weeping Carmen Ghia in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the “mad” doctor in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and murderous pharmacist George Williams on Desperate Housewives, loves doing Celebrity Autobiography because Pack keeps freshening the show with new material — which, Bart notes, is abundant.
“The key to this is when authors don’t have a sense of humor about what they’re writing. That makes it funnier. I like it when they’re earnestly self-absorbed,” he says. “There will always be a supply of bad celebrity books. And the show is easy, fret free. I can have a day. I’ll come in glowing from the beach and smelling of coconut oil.”