The life and music of Cher comes to Broadway, with three actresses
Yeah, right. Suuuuure.
That’s what Rick Elice thought back in 2014 the first time he got a call from someone saying, “Hi, it’s Cher.” He was convinced it was a pal playing a prank. It wasn’t.
It was the actual Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winner herself, calling to see if Elice, who’d written the hit “Peter and the Starcatcher” and had co-written (with Marshall Brickman) the book for “Jersey Boys,” would consider writing the book for a musical about her life. Elice politely declined.
Over the next few months, he fielded calls from producers — and Cher again. He explained that his husband, acclaimed actor Roger Rees, was dying of brain cancer, and that was his priority.
Rees died in 2015 and later that fall, the phone rang again. Guess who?
“Cher said, ‘I’ve read everything you’re going through, I know exactly what it is, believe me, and I think you need to get out of the house … and visit me in Malibu,’” recalls Elice.
Cher, he’d soon learn, has an uncanny ability to get people moving, and not just on the dance floor. That ability to push herself and others past hard times and harsh critics fuels “The Cher Show,” a rousing new bio-musical written by Elice, now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre. It features a slew of her hit songs, outrageous costumes by her lifelong designer Bob Mackie, three actresses (including Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block) playing Cher, and one little-known fact about the American icon that may surprise even her most ardent fans.
On that first trip to Malibu, Elice was skeptical. When it came to Cher’s hyper-publicized life, didn’t we know it all?
Not nearly, he learned. "She said, ‘People think I’m enormously confident because I prance around the stage in a G-string, but it takes courage to do that when you’ve always been shy and afraid of people.'"
“I was shocked — she seems so un-shy,” says Donna Bach-Heitner, an East Meadow chiropractor who saw a preview performance of “The Cher Show” with her husband. “I guess some people just have a certain resilience.”
Given that resilience, Elice decided multiple actresses should play Cher, appearing onstage together to support and challenge each other. Newcomer Micaela Diamond plays hippie Cher, aka “Babe,” from the early “Sonny and Cher” variety-show era; Teal Wicks is “Lady,” the glam Hollywood Cher; and Block portrays “Star,” the pop-chart diva.
Cher’s ability to reinvent herself intrigued Elice most, perhaps because he was grieving. Even today, Elice can still tell you without hesitation the number of weeks it’s been since his husband’s death (174, as of this interview).
He realized he shared something in common with the superstar — a sense of loss, which he could hear in song lyrics, like “Do you believe in life after love?” He told her it’s the thing he struggles with every day.
Block faced a different struggle. Known for her soaring belt and ease at playing strong-willed characters, the actress found herself nervous when first meeting Mackie to discuss her costumes.
“Words like pasties came up, and whether or not underwear could even be worn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, WHOA, WHOOOOA!””
Block, who’s 46, bursts out laughing. “I went in there with the disclaimer, 'You know my body is not the same as Cher’s.'"
Mackie is sympathetic, recalling those early fittings.
“It’s tricky, putting these clothes on an actress who didn’t grow up wanting to be Cher.”
Though she’s never had to reveal this much skin, Block has become more comfortable in the wardrobe, calling it her “coat of armor.” Albeit an abbreviated one. “I needed to embrace this woman not just from the inside out but the outside in,” she says.
The audience, in turn, embraces each Cher actress, with every attention-getting look.
“It’s amazing. She rises out of the floor, and the audience goes crazy,” says Mackie, noting Block’s entrance in the outrageous gown and Mohawk that Cher wore to the 1986 Oscars ceremony.
Block has 28 costume changes in the show, the quickest around 20 seconds, she estimates, with eight people backstage to assist. It’s Broadway’s version of a NASA liftoff. “I literally stand there and you hear: ‘Shoes?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Dress?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Wig?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Final look? Water?’ 'Check, check.'"
“Her changes are unbelievably fast,” Mackie agrees. “And they just keep getting faster and faster.”
The arrival of “The Cher Show” on Broadway marks something of a 2018 trifecta for Cher. She’s already garnered attention recently thanks to her appearance in last summer’s “Mamma Mia” sequel, and as a Kennedy Center honoree. (That awards ceremony will air on CBS Dec. 26.)
But this musical’s revelation — that Cher’s flamboyance stems more from shyness than vanity or chutzpah — may keep people chattering.
“Well, she was never shy about the clothes,” Mackie admits. “Maybe because she looked so amazing with very little on, it never occurred to her to be neurotic. Of course, there are women with beautiful bodies who are terrified to be seen, so … I don’t know.”
For Block, this seeming dichotomy comes down to grammar. Cher recently joined the actress in her dressing room, Block recalls. “I said, ‘Here’s how I know you — you’re not a BUT, you’re an AND. It’s not that you’re this but that — you’re fearful and yet there’s something wonderfully strong about you. You’re vulnerable and yet totally open. You’re glamour and yet rock and roll.'"
Cher smiled, and grabbed Block’s hand.
“There was kind of this decompression, an exhale, as if to say 'You get it,'" Block says.
Elice agrees. Cher’s strength grows out of fear, not in spite of it, he believes.
“You don’t become a strong person because you conquer fear,” he says. “That’s a male idea. The secret is learning to manage your fear, being able to function as an artist, as a woman, while living with it. She’s found her own way to be strong.”