Dylan Turner is … William Haines
Dylan Turner is … William Haines

Us silent-film bloggers have guilty pleasures too, you know. My weaknesses are a spot of Hollywood scandal – and a good musical. A new West End show, opening at the Arts Theatre in February, promises a touch of both. The Tailor-Made Man tells the tale of William Haines, the openly gay silent film actor who defied studio pressure to marry and put an end to rumours about his love life. He stayed with his long-term boyfriend Jimmy Shields instead, and when the studios turned their back on him, he switched careers and became a popular Hollywood interior designer – working for the stars who had been his colleagues along.

THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is the true story of William Haines, the silent screen star who was fired by Louis B Mayer of MGM Studios because he was gay and refused to marry and give up his lifelong partner Jimmy Shields.  The new musical will receive its world premiere at the Arts Theatre in London opening on Thursday 21 February 2013, following previews from 13 February, for a limited eight-week season ending on 6 April.  It will star Faye Tozer as Marion Davies and Dylan Turner as William Haines.

In 1930, William “Billy” Haines was one of MGM’s most idolised male stars, second only to John Gilbert.  On screen he was tailor-made to get the girl in the last reel.  On the back lot he cruised every bit player and stagehand in sight.  Billy lived openly with his lover and former stand-in Jimmy Shields.  This was tolerated by the studio until rumours started to seep out into the wider world.  Louis B Mayer ordered him to marry the sultry silent screen vamp Pola Negri.  Billy refused and so Louis B Mayer fired him.  Billy’s defiance of the studio led to his second and even more successful career as an interior designer to the stars.  THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is a powerful story about Hollywood and its system and hypocrisy, but above all it is the story of Billy and Jimmy’s turbulent, passionate love affair that survived and lasted over 50 years.

So there will be silent film scandal and glamour aplenty on the West End stage next year, but the question that concerns me is, will The Tailor-Made Man be any good? Mack and Mabel or Sunset Boulevard? Dylan Turner, who will play Haines, has a string of solid West End musical credits behind him, and Faye Tozer, who will play his loyal pal and co-star Marion Davies, does too. You might also remember her from Steps. Ahem. No word yet on who will play Shields, Mayer or Negri.

Faye Tozer is … Marion Davies
Faye Tozer is … Marion Davies

The musical has been adapted by the well-regarded playwright Amy Rosenthal from Claudio Macor’s play of the same name. He’ll also be directing the show. The songs are by Adam Meggido and Duncan Walsh Atkins who worked together on the improvised musical Showstoppers. I had a dig through the archives to find some reviews of Macor’s work – and I found some positive notices about his other work, but just this, from the Independent in 1993 about the play version of  The Tailor-Made Man. I’m afraid it’s not pretty.

The story of Hollywood’s first openly gay movie star, William Haines, Macor’s script is badly hampered by the writer / director’s ambivalence towards both his hero and that dirty rotten town.

Macor shows Haines cavorting arrogantly from sailor to sailor in public parks while his companion, Jimmy, waits long-sufferingly at home. He reveals how Haines was built up by the studio system only to be knocked down once his lifestyle became an embarrassment. But Macor also shows himself half in love with the glamour of the era and Haines’ unpalatable egotism.

This uncertainty of tone is compounded by a cramping set and a series of performances which almost look like parodies. Simon Tweed’s Haines can’t put a charming spin on Haines’ callous treatment of Jimmy. Marion Davies and Carole Lombard become goggling bimbettes, Louis B Mayer a muttering administrator. At least these escape the risible hatchet-job that Macor and actress Rebecca Forrow wreak on Pola Negri.

At the end, Macor uses Haines’ and Jimmy’s later, happy professional and personal relationship as interior decorators to the stars, to make a plea for Haines as a gay hero for today. But most of his scrappy production is at odds with the claim: it’s only in Hollywood that a happy ending makes everything right.

“Goggling bimbettes”? And what did they do to poor Pola Negri? Fingers crossed that in the translation to musical, The Tailor-Made Man has been improved – surely this is too good a story to become a bad show? Read more about William Haines here, on the excellent The Kitty Packard Pictorial blog.

The Tailor-Made Man will be at the Arts Theatre from Thursday 14 February to Saturday 6 April 2013. You can book tickets online here.

  • Do you know something I don’t about The Tailor-Made Man? Please comment below