Back in high school, Ed Dixon penned three entire musicals—we’re talking book, music and lyrics!—and almost four decades later, the playwright is as busy as ever.
Over the years he’s written critically praised plays such as Scenery and Murder at the Apthorp, plus notable musicals like Fanny Hill, A Park Avenue Christmas and Whodunit… The Musical, which he calls his “little musical that could” and the opera Shylock.
Dixon has appeared on Broadway in everything from No, No, Nanette to The Scarlett Pimpernel to Les Misérables, singing “Master of the House” at over 1,700 performances as Monsieur Thenardier. Or you may have seen him at Signature as Max von Mayerling in the memorable Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard.
Most recently, Dixon appeared on the Great White Way as Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins, and it was that experience that was the genesis for Cloak and Dagger, a new screwball musical comedy send-up of the 1950s film noir that will play at Signature Theatre from June 12 to July 6.
“Hilariously enough, I was in Mary Poppins and sharing a dressing room with the guy who runs my licensing company (Jim Hindman) and the minute I joined the company he kept saying ‘what are you writing next, what are you writing next?’” Dixon recalls. “I saw 39 Steps and I just loved the idea of there being a protagonist and heroine at the center and two character guys who play everything else and I thought it would be a great concept for a musical.”
Dixon’s first thoughts turned to The Maltese Falcon, but he knew obtaining the rights would be an insurmountable mountain to climb, so he decided to write an original musical in the film noir vein.
“What I really wanted to do was something zany, light and fun, so I came up with this idea for a 1950s romp, film noir in standard locations throughout New York,” he says. “I made an outline of locations and it turned out to be a detective’s office where this blonde bombshell comes in and she ends up running away from him and he chases her through the Bowery, Chinatown, Little Italy, to the top of the Empire State Building, 42nd Street, a burlesque house, the docks and finally out to sea and back to New York.”
When he finished, he called his good friend Eric Schaeffer at Signature and told him about his four-character idea.
“I knew it wasn’t Signature’s typical piece, they are known for dark, edgy shows, but I told him I thought it was something that would be an interesting deviation for them,” Dixon says. “We did a reading of the piece with the cast we have now, and at the end he said, ‘we’ll do it.’”
Doug Carpenter and Signature fave Erin Driscoll (Miss Saigon, The Threepenny Opera) star as third-rate detective Nick Cutter and the beautiful blonde bombshell respectively, and Christopher Bloch joins Dixon in playing the “Character Men,” who between them play nearly 20 roles.
However, it was never Dixon’s intention to be in the musical.
“Quite the contrary. One of the funniest things in the arrival of this piece is that I have been in show business for 45 years and the one part of it that I do not embrace is fast changing. I detest them,” he says. “When you have them in a show it makes your life miserable. The Character Men are not the starring roles and they change 20 times, all of them fast changes, and when Eric first asked me to do it, I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s no wonder that Bloch playfully mutters under his breath whenever he sees Dixon. “We’ve been rehearsing two weeks and at least 30 times he’s looked at me as to say, ‘don’t look at me, you wrote this,” Dixon laughs. “It’s been an interesting journey being here changing my clothes every three seconds.”
Perhaps a bigger challenge for Dixon was juggling his acting and writing duties, since the productions is making its world premiere and he is still jostling with the script.
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“In the first days you are so busy trying to notice wrong notes from other cast members as they are learning and you want to give them time to learn so you don’t want to be on top of them—there’s a natural unfolding in the way people learn things—but you don’t want to let things get set in a wrong direction,” he says. “To listen to the tempo from the musical director and lyrics and notes and lines and punch lines and whether I need to remove a word to make a joke land, it’s a lot of hats.”
Making things easier is for him is his long friendship with Schaeffer, who is directing the play, and already having working relationships with the others as well. Dixon also did two workshops of the play (one with Schaeffer) and did “about 100 re-writes” so he had the book edited a great deal already.
“There’s a very lighthearted feeling in the room so it makes it somewhat easier,” Dixon says. “The design is very beautiful, the orchestration terrific and I am very thrilled with the cast.”
Ed Dixon and the cast of the new musical Cloak and Dagger