When Nancy Reagan passed away two years ago at age 94, it sadly closed the book on the storied Reagan romance that began on a harmless blind date at Chasen’s Restaurant on November 15th, 1949 in West Hollywood, CA (the restaurant closed in 1995). Even after Ronald Reagan succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in 2004 — ending a historic life that saw him as a Hollywood power player and the President of the United States between 1980 and ’88 — Nancy was still very much in love with her soulmate and did everything she could to keep his memory alive.
Nowadays, lifelong romances like that are rare, and increasingly rarer if it constitutes two individuals who have a wide-ranging influence on the world at large as much as they do on each other. The El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, CA, has suitably decided to tell of the engaging date that occurred nearly 70 years ago, which brought the up-and-coming actress, Nancy Davis, and the President of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, to a booth at the dining establishment.
Written by Sam Bennett, and directed and choreographed by Kay Cole, “In a Booth at Chasen’s” is a musical which runs from November 9th through the 25th on the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, and details how Ronald, who had been reeling from a divorce from actress and philanthropist Jane Wyman, was looking to offer career advice to Nancy; however, an undeniable attraction was sparked, prompting a two-year courtship and proposal that led to an exemplary union.
In many ways, Ronald’s marriage to Nancy defined him more than his tenure in film or politics did. Though both always retained their own individuality, they were the missing pieces to each other, mutually supportive until the very end. Performers Brent Schindele and Kelley Dorney star as the incomparable and nattily dressed couple (costume designer is Kate Berg) in an 85-minute retelling of their initial date on one set (by Adam Walmsley) in a production that is intimately inviting, as if one could travel back in time and watch the first page of this romantic epic be turned.
Certainly, what makes “In a Booth at Chasen’s” particularly interesting is the fact that there are several songs to complement the flirtatious words exchanged, adding to the magnetism that characterized the Reagans. The show is not only produced by Ron Dante, who earned his reputation by collaborating with Barry Manilow and on Broadway musicals, but is composed by the esteemed Phil Swann and Al Kasha, the latter of whom is a two-time Oscar winner (along with songwriter Joel Hirschhorn) for Best Original Song — “The Morning After” and “We May Never Love Like This Again.”
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Kasha, 81, was a prodigy from the start, who, at only 22, became a producer for Columbia Records. He has enjoyed prosperous working relationships with music’s greatest luminaries — including Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, and Burt Bacharach – and gained deserving recognition for the indelible impact he’s had on film, music, and musical theatre.
A short time ago, Kasha opened up to LAexcites about the impact he thinks the Reagans had, how “In a Booth at Chasen’s” came together, the style of songs written for the musical, what he anticipates from the final product, and much more.
How did the idea come about to do a musical on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and why was it decided that their fateful date at Chasen’s would be the focal point?
Kasha: Of course, that’s where they first met. Nancy really wanted to date and marry him. She knew everything about him and was a very astute woman overall. Reagan, who was a guy’s guy, had previously dated beautiful women, but Nancy obviously stood apart.
Phil Swann, whom I wrote the score with, said ‘Let’s do a musical on the Reagans.’ I said, ‘That could be difficult, especially as a two-person musical.’ Afterwards, I analyzed what all great musicals are about, especially ones written by Rodgers & Hammerstein, such as ‘South Pacific,’ ‘The King and I,’ and ‘Cinderella.’ The common thread is that they bring two separate worlds together.
In Ronald Reagan’s case, he was a sporty guy from Illinois, and she was more refined, and was focused on taking lessons with teachers and that sort of thing. Ronald was always at that restaurant (Chasen’s), and Nancy asked everyone about meeting him, and he agreed. Over lunch, they talked about him being a rancher and acting in westerns; they were both charming and that’s how it happened. We’ve written it in such a way so that it includes their world as well as music to show how these people operated. It’s a musical about two people coming together.
How did you come into the fold with Phil Swann to compose the songs for this musical?
Kasha: He (Phil Swann), like me, is a member of the Writer’s Guild and the Music Guild. We’d both go to the meetings and that’s where I met him. He was complimentary and had the idea about doing the musical. The idea fascinated me and so I did lots of research on the Reagans – for example, how Ronald loved to tell jokes and how he was generally very friendly. We had to bring the two worlds of Nancy and Ronald together through song, and so we did it. It begins with them being introduced to each other, hitting it off, and then we see some doubt between them.
Can you describe the songwriting process for “In a Booth at Chasen’s – in particular, the moods that you wanted to evoke with the style, tempo, instrumentals, lyrics, and so on?
Kasha: The first song focuses on Ronald Reagan and how he met his wife at Chasen’s. We get the idea that Nancy is very interested in him, but they have some conflict as he feels she’s being too aggressive. The feeling of the music is reminiscent of the ‘40s – that’s the kind of style and tempo we wanted to capture. One of the songs is also a samba on the dance floor, which guests will enjoy watching.
Nonetheless, each song, while it has its own tempo, is consistent musically throughout, as it should be. Take ‘Maria,’ for instance (from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’). The theme of that song runs throughout the entire show. With any story you’re telling, the locale plays a big part in the style of the music, and through each song, the dialogue comes, where every syllable should matter.
This goes way back, but when I was eight years old, I played Ethel Merman’s little boy, Jake, in Irving Berlin’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ Each song had a personality about it, and the songs dealt with the history and backgrounds of its people.
Perhaps irrespective of their politics, what lasting legacy do you think Ronald and Nancy Reagan have left on the world – both as individuals and as a couple? And why do you think their relationship was as durable as it was, lasting until the very end?
Kasha: One of the reasons why they lasted was because they were a beautiful political marriage. They had a vision, and she was, in fact, stronger in carrying this out than he was. I think of Ronald as a square guy who was charismatic and everyone’s best friend.
What do you think the biggest takeaway people will have upon the conclusion of seeing “In a Booth at Chasen’s”?
Kasha: We’ll discover that we really didn’t know these people. The musical is about change over time. Old-school audience members will definitely be into the show, and the new school will learn what we’re trying to convey – which is that people are realistic and don’t necessarily mirror fairytales, though Ron and Nancy we’re pretty close to it. This is the kind of story you can demonstrate through song, which is what we do to inform people of the humanity of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
For more information about “In a Booth at Chasen’s” please visit inaboothatchasens.com