“A man amongst men”
Described by Joan Crawford as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood”, new musical The Tailor-Made Man focuses on the 50 year love affair between Hollywood star of the 1920s William Haines and interior designer in the making, Jimmy Shields. Discovered in a talent competition, Haines signed for MGM, who accepted his homosexuality as long as he kept it under wraps. When a liaison with a sailor led to his arrest, MGM boss Louis B (LB) Mayer demanded he marry a woman to save his career and maintain his clean-cut image but Haines, with the support of his lover Shields, walked away from Hollywood and together they set up a hugely successful interior design business.
Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor’s book whips through events with a keen sense of pace, the story covers a substantial number of years, and uses a flashback framing device of an older version of Jimmy is interviewed by a keen young reporter who makes him reflect on a life past. There’s an element of drama for sure, but where the show really blossoms is in the evocation of the gossipy environment of Hollywood stars off-duty and the perfectly pitched depiction of a loving gay relationship. Dylan Turner makes a chisel-jawed Haines and Bradley Clarkson is a puppyish Shields but they both show several sides to the lovers, making them complex but likeable individuals who are clearly better together and they have a sincere, beautiful chemistry together.
It is a curiously put-together musical though, spreading its appealing songs – written by Duncan Walsh Atkins and Adam Meggido – much wider than just its leading men. Jimmy and William get a handful of the key numbers and the crucial second-half reprises which confirm the earworm potential of at least two of the songs. But several other characters get show-stopping numbers: Mike McShane’s LB rips through the vituperative Family which lays bare the mogul’s self-involved ethos; Kay Murphy sizzles as the decadent Pola Negri with a stylishly choreographed routine from Nathan M Wright; and Michael Cotton – an actor who has been quietly working his way into contention as one to watch – is wonderfully touching as screenwriter Victor, hapless in his unrequited love.
It isn’t immediately clear what the show gains from its framing device of the interview with the elder Jimmy. It brings an overly melancholy note to proceedings, especially in its final scene, which sits rather at odds with the story at large and also skews the focus a little away from its celebration of a love story. But make no mistake, The Tailor-Made Man is a deeply charming piece of musical theatre, unashamedly old-fashioned in spirit but winningly modern enough to win over even the most jaded of souls. From the vivacious portrayal of fag hag Marion Davies by Faye Tozer who shares a wonderfully witty song with her men at the tail end of the show, to the pulsing bass of the onstage band led by Walsh Atkins, there are delights aplenty in this well-acted, well-sung ode to love.