Elva Miller cut a most unlikely figure for a strumpet to celebrity.
There she was, a childless housewife of a certain age with the waistline and sensible shoes to prove it, living frill-free in the suburban 1960s — though her frugal husband did allow her pin money for private recording sessions. In the studio, she would lay down tracks of her vibrato versions of hymnal classics. Some reporters, later trying to retrace the arc of her remarkable stardom, wrote that she was sending the recordings to orphanages, others said the music was for funeral homes, while another quotes her saying it was “just for the ducks of it.”
In any case, the recordings, braying chaos that they were, betrayed little promise. Her voice was compared to the sound of “roaches scurrying across a trash can lid,” according to The Book of Lists 2.
She would later tell Life magazine that though she had tried out for the choir of her First Presbyterian Church, her voice “proved to be a little too independent for ensemble work. I have a heavy voice and they wanted a blend . . . Among the 100 voices, mine stood out like a sore thumb. So it became a matter of dispute and I thought, better let it go.’ ”
Instead Mrs. Miller let it rip — solo — and she was, briefly, famous. Famous enough to find herself on the Billboard charts, famous enough to receive a telegram from Elvis Presley before she appeared on the Ed Sullivan show where she got a gig with Bob Hope’s USO show for the troops in Viet Nam. So famous that — though still standing oddly erect, wearing wholly un-hip clothes, and chronically incapable of staying on the beat — she would perform clubs from Coconut Grove to the Royal Tahitian. She was called the Petula Clark of Sun City.
And in devastatingly short order she would find herself back in obscurity, where she largely has remained.
Until just lately, when Mrs. Miller’s 15 minutes of fame became the reason that a group of Broadway veterans — their collective Tony, Emmy, Drama Desk, even Pulitzer awards may weigh about the same as Mrs. Miller herself did — are working away in an Edgartown studio. They are rehearsing a new musical called Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.
It’s the latest work to spring from the pen of James Lapine, who is best known for his Stephen Sondheim collaborations Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Passion, as well as for Falsettos. Mr. Lapine is directing a two-week workshop production of his new musical at the Vineyard Playhouse, opening next week.
“We live in a culture where people are big and then they disappear and they’re just on reality has-been shows,” said Mr. Lapine. “[Mrs. Miller is] the first person, I think, who was chewed up by the culture and spit out.”
The story goes that a young-gun musical arranger, while recording the pitch-imperfect Mrs. Miller’s choral efforts, convinced her to try the pop tune Downtown. He gave the demo tape to a producer for Capitol Records. And the rest, the next 18 months or so anyway, is history in muumuus and army boots.
Mrs. Miller — she was always Mrs. Miller — recorded A Hard Day’s Night, These Boots Are Made for Walking, Catch a Falling Star, a country album, even Green Tambourine. Now you can find her performances, including a classic rendition of Inka Dinka with Jimmy Durante at the piano (and her on top of it wearing a giant corsage), on YouTube.
“I think it’s an interesting story for a number of reasons,” said Mr. Lapine, who writes during the summers at his Edgartown home. “The world of entertainment is now so reality based. I don’t watch American Idol or those dancing shows, [but] they put people in front of audiences where they can be booed off, and booted off. In a way, she was kind of like that. She was kind of the first real person who was stuck on a stage — and she was essentially made fun of. But you never know whether she knows she’s being made fun of or whether . . .” he shrugs and interrupts himself: “She has great powers of denial, this character.”
The playhouse production’s star is Debra Monk. Recognizable for her Broadway roles in Chicago, Curtains, Company and many more, she denies any trouble getting her acclaimed voice to warble. “I’ve been doing a riff on that since I was a kid,” she said, recalling off-key ladies in her own church. “I always made jokes . . . so it’s natural for me.”
“But I don’t play her as [the butt of a joke],” said Ms. Monk. “She thinks it’s all wonderful and great and exciting . . . She felt, always thought, she sang well, and that she had something to offer, that the young kids might enjoy singing it. She was getting attention and she was getting money and having a really good time.”
Mr. Lapine introduced Ms. Monk and the rest of the cast to a small Island press corps on Tuesday. As the actors ran through a few musical numbers — Monday Monday, Girl from Ipanema, Wild Thing — Ms. Monk played Mrs. Miller as the disarming ingenue with a mean whistle, and proper manners if not pitch. The young backup singers harmonized, hands to their ears to keep their parts straight as she strayed, as Mrs. Miller grew in pride on the makeshift stage of the Edgartown rehearsal space.
“To me, it’s a lot about fame and how fame seduces you in a way that you’ll do anything,” Mr. Lapine said. “That’s what we see all the time in this culture, is that people will do anything because they had their five minutes and they want another five.
“Drug rehab and pregnancies — it’s like they do it to get into the paper,” he said, bemused. “It is seductive, to get that attention, no matter who you are. If people are hanging on your every word, then it’s hard to have no one hanging on your word. And you know, I know actors who’ve gone through that, particularly women, young women who are washed up so quickly.
“It’s a strange culture.
“Stardom is the goal,” he said, puzzled that someone as unlikely as Mrs. Miller was seduced by it. “And now, you watch these reality shows and you realize they’re all acting — there’s no reality left. Because everyone’s watched these reality shows and they know what they need to do to get on it, so they’re all characters: this one is the bad person, this one is the ditzy person, this one is the slutty person — you know, it’s like I don’t think you can find real behavior any more.”
On stage Tuesday, the behavior was playful. Larry Bryggman, an Emmy award winner for his daytime roles, a multiple Tony nominee for his Broadway roles, and a regular fixture in Aquinnah for nearly 30 summers, said he had turned down another Broadway role (“It was a lot more money but a bad show”) to do this. “It’s a lot of old friends,” Mr. Bryggman said of the Mrs. Miller crew, “and it has been a lot of fun.”
“Plus,” said the father of kids aged 5 and 8, “this is the first show I’ve done . . . that my kids can come to see. They’ve never seen me in a play.” His film roles (Die Hard with a Vengeance), are mostly inappropriate.
Plus, there’s the show’s potential. It will go to New York. “It’s just a matter of where,” said Mr. Lapine. Mr. Bryggman said “You always hope [a workshop production will develop into a New York hit]. Proof did that, Prelude to a Kiss. Romance did that, too,” he recalled of previous roles.
Mr. Lapine is meanwhile enjoying playing with the new work. “I think for a musical, you have to pick an idea and characters that sing, that inherently call for expression through song. You always want to pick a subject that interests you and is bottomless so you know you won’t get bored,” he noted about the process of choosing an idea he wants to develop.
Tony winner Michael Starobin is here doing musical direction, coreographer Lisa Shriver has left the latest Aaron Sorkin Broadway show to work on this.
So Mr. Lapine is eager to see how Mrs. Miller works for Vineyard audiences, but hopes to keep it safe, for now, from the Variety and New York Times reviewers. Relaxed in khaki shorts and sneakers, the unassumintheatre star enjoyed some pizza between rehearsals and said he and his wife, also a writer, are considering making the Island their permanent residence. “We keep extending our stays. If I can work here and start shows here . . .” he said, leaving possibilities open.
He has been working more with the Vineyard Playhouse, lately directing Jenny Allen’s one-woman show there. “I think it’s important that any theatre company understand its strengths and its limitations as an institution,” he offered when asked what a small quality theatre needs to survive these days. “They also have to understand their audience. I think the Vineyard Playhouse does ambitious work, certainly compared to many other theatres which often tend to produce more middle-brow material.”
Though he has directed other writers’ work, he mostly does his own, which poses its own challenges.
“When you direct your own work, you have to be careful to understand whether the problems with the material are in the writing or in the directing,” he noted. And, he said, “At some point you have to stop rewriting, and make whatever you have work on stage.”
See what he has when Mrs. Miller does her thing at the playhouse, starting with previews on Thursday.
Opening night is Sept. 20; show continues Tuesdays to Saturdays. For tickets, call 508-696-6300.