Harvey Weinstein accuser Louisette Geiss recalls feeling more than a prickle of anxiety when cold-pitching songwriting legend Diane Warren on penning music and lyrics for her sexual harassment musical The Right Girl during a women’s conference in Santa Monica in Oct. 2019.
“I ran up to her and said hello, I’m Louisette Geiss, I’m a Harvey Weinstein survivor and we’re going to do a musical about 25 women telling their stories, and I’ve got Howard Kagan and Susan Stroman, so I’d love if there’s any way I could speak to you about this at a later time,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Turns out that Hail Mary pitch about a #MeToo musical based on true stories did far better with Warren than an earlier screenplay pitch that Geiss did with Weinstein at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, only to endure horrific sexual harassment in the then-Hollywood mogul’s hotel room.
“Diane said, ‘I love the idea, here’s my cell phone number,’” Geiss added ahead of a Zoom movie version of The Right Girl, set to screen on Sunday in front of a live audience who will be settled into socially distanced seats at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittfield, Mass.
The way the 11-time Oscar original song nominee tells it, Warren was immediately intrigued with Geiss’ pitch, having already co-wrote “Til It Happens to You” with Lady Gaga for the 2015 campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground, which became an anthem for the #MeToo movement.
But, as with so many star-driven projects that come her way, Warren was at first wary that The Right Girl would ever get made. “People tell you about something, and then they don’t call you back and they forget about it or it doesn’t happen,” the Grammy and Emmy Award-winning songwriter explains about her initial reticence.
But to Warren’s surprise, Geiss did get back and The Right Girl, directed and choreographed by five-time Tony Award winner Stroman and co-written by fellow theatrical rainmaker Howard Kagan, got off the ground.
“The next thing I know, it was happening with some amazing people like Howard Kagan and Susan Stroman, legends on Broadway. There were some pretty heavy-hitters there,” Warren recounts. Around a dozen fellow survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assaults at the hands of around 10 Hollywood industry executives gathered in Warren’s Los Angeles studio last Feb. 25 to tell their stories.
That allowed the mega-hit scribe to pick up a guitar and start creating the music and lyrics along with Geiss and Kagan for a musical destined for an off-Broadway or regional theater run. But only weeks later the COVID-19 crisis hit and Broadway and much else in the entertainment industry went dark.
For director Stroman, who had done small readings with the cast for The Right Girl, but had yet to hold bigger workshops and rehearsals to choreograph their singing and dancing, the global coronavirus spread suddenly curbed her creative juices.
But, not for long.
“Instead of waiting for the pandemic to be over, we thought, ‘Well, let’s go forward so we can work on the script and work on the music, and how they blend together and how they push the plot forward,’” Stroman remembers.
For Geiss, who saw her Hollywood acting and screenwriting career derailed by Weinstein in 2008, only to resurface in 2017 with an accusatory press conference at Sundance, putting the musical project on the shelf was not an option. Weinstein may be in jail, but other powerful execs in Hollywood that have serially abused women and men have gone unpunished.
“The time for this show is now as we delve into stopping these predators, so we weren’t going to wait,” she explains. Persisting through the pandemic to develop The Right Girl is taking a page out of what Geiss adds is the survivor’s playbook to stoically keep working in the trenches.
“We just have to roll with it. And I’m working with a lot of people who are forward-thinking and malleable and know how to evolve, giving any circumstances,” she explains. That’s fine by Warren, who insists not giving up or taking no for an answer has been the story of her life.
“I thought that was amazing. Through all this, when everything was shutting down and people were packing up, they said, okay, we’re rolling up our sleeves and we’re just going to do this and get it done,” Warren recalls.
She adds The Right Girl project mirrors the #MeToo campaign in refusing to be denied a platform for survivors of abuse and assaults to heard. “It’s like a metaphor for the movement, that nothing was going to stop (the musical) from being developed. I’m really amazed at what they accomplished,” Warren insists.
As it stands, the Nov. 1 screening of The Right Girl in a New England theater will have around 160 socially distanced audience members viewing the work of 19 actors that workshopped their roles online while sheltering in their homes as they recorded their parts.
The cast of The Right Girl includes Alysha Umphress, Jenna Ushkowitz, Tony Yazbeck, Heath Calvert, Steve Rosen, Robyn Hurder, Merle Dandridge, Polly Baird, Jessica Bishop, Jim Borstelmann, Joshua Buscher and Richard Gatta.
Rounding out the ensemble cast is Leah Hoffmann, Joline Javier, Donald Jones Jr., Bryonha Marie, Sarah Ann Masse, Anthony Wayne and Cory Lingner.
Stroman calls the Zoom movie a “work in progress” designed to get valuable feedback from the Barrington Stage Company audience. She adds the actors gave her their full attention as Stroman was face-to-face with their Zoom screens.
That’s without the usual distractions of a Broadway show rehearsal for Stroman where investors hover in the wings and stage designers or crew members forever interrupt with questions to help bring life to her adventurous choreography.
But getting different actors to speak or sing in time on Zoom proved a major logistical challenge with time-lag and Internet congestion issues. “So we had to lay down some tracks and that’s not easy to do,” Stroman recalls of ironing out the production kinks.
The Barrington Stage Company audience also won’t see the spectre of Weinstein, now in prison for sexual assault and rape convictions, or any graphic depictions of abuse against women carried out by powerful men in Hollywood.
Instead, The Right Girl, based on a book by Geiss and Kagan, portrays the journey of Eleanor Stark, a fictional CEO of a legendary movie studio who is confronted with the revelation that a respected male executive she had risen through the ranks of Hollywood with had been abusing women all along.
That leaves Stark having to work out the role she must play in the story of her industry’s most fiercely guarded secret. For Stroman, audiences for The Right Girl will get to mostly see and hear women and their message via the musical about doing the right thing.
“This story will apply to any abuse of power where someone has done something wrong and one person that could make a difference,” she explains. For Warren, known for her empowerment ballads about women and for star singers like Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and Leann Rimes, The Right Girl is allowing women silence breakers to at long last tell their stories.
“We all want to be heard. We all want to be seen. We all want to know what these women have gone through. I had my own experience with it as a kid and I didn’t really talk about it with my parents,” Warren says of a sexual assault she faced when molested as a 12 year-old.
That story only came out after Warren and Lady Gaga co-wrote “Til It Happens to You” for The Hunting Ground, which ironically was released by The Weinstein Company. “All of a sudden, I blurted it out. So music is a powerful tool to get voices heard. What’s better than music? It goes right to your heart,” Warren says, as she adds The Right Girl is no message musical that just rubs the viewer’s nose in uncomfortable truths.
“It’s a fun show too, there’s comedy in it,” Warren says. For Geiss, the excitement is also in the Barrington Stage Company this weekend hosting the first performance for a new American musical, albeit as a Zoom movie, before a live, indoor audience amid the pandemic.
And that’s before The Right Girl eventually becomes a live stage production after the current Broadway drought ends or the #MeToo music undergoes yet another COVID-era iteration.
“Honestly, we shall see what the next stage, no pun intended is. Or maybe I should say pun intended,” Geiss jokes.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.