It’s possible that someone could respond with complete indifference to the news of a holiday production called “Love Actually Live,” opening Wednesday in Beverly Hills.
There may well be Christmas shoppers who, upon passing the banners at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, do not lose control of their vehicles. Pedestrians who wonder, “What’s that?” as they stroll toward Crate & Barrel down the street.
For “Love Actually” devotees among us, though — the ones who see director Richard Curtis’ bittersweet 2003 anthology as quite possibly the greatest holiday movie ever made, who have associated rituals involving Kleenex and clove-scented hot drinks, who can (and relentlessly do) recite the script by heart — there are so many questions.
What do they mean, “Live”? Is it a screening, with orchestral accompaniment, like at the Hollywood Bowl? Or a full-on stage musical adaptation? With another actor replacing Hugh Grant as an unusually eligible prime minister? And another actress taking Emma Thompson’s role as a wife betrayed (by Alan Rickman, no less)? And still others subbing for Bill Nighy as Santa, a radiant 17-year-old Keira Knightley and the guy who proclaims his love to her using cue cards?
But how can they possibly? And why?
Sure, the movie has its haters. In the Atlantic in 2013, Christopher Orr called it “the least romantic film of all time.” Lindy West’s reassessment for Jezebel included the phrase “cynically vacant faux-motional cash-grab garbage cinema.”
Some storylines in “Love Actually” do reflect a pre-#MeToo-era view of women. They suggest that women are meant to be idolized as beauty objects and coveted respectfully from a distance.
And yet tickets reportedly are flying out of the Wallis’ box office. So we spoke to the show’s creators: the L.A.-based theater company For the Record working in collaboration with the Wallis. Here’s the intel — four things that a “Love Actually” fan needs to know about “Love Actually Live.”
1. This show is a hybrid, probably unlike anything you’ve seen before.
“Love Actually Live” is part film screening, part jukebox musical.
The set has large screens that double as scenery and fly on and offstage. Film clips are projected on these surfaces too, creating a multidimensional environment. During and between clips, actors stand beside and below the screens, acting out scenes. The dialogue that you hear is from the movie clips, but music from the soundtrack is live, sung by the stage cast and played by a 15-piece orchestra.
It’s tricky to describe how it all comes together. Explanations often involve hand gestures. Adapter and director Anderson Davis, a longtime member of For the Record’s creative team, started with one hand behind the other, then slowly switched their positions.
“It’s like taking the foreground and background of the film — the music in the background, the dialogue in the front — and just sort of flipping the relationship,” he said.
Paul Crewes, artistic director of the Wallis, held his hands a few feet apart and then brought them together, interlacing his fingers. “It’s not layering two genres on top of each other. We’re intertwining them,” he said. “We’ve chopped them around and put them together.”
2. The spirit of “Love Actually Live” is loving hommage, not parody.
For the Record began about 10 years ago in a Los Feliz bar as cabaret-style performances of movie soundtracks. Co-creator and executive producer Shane Scheel and his collaborators had noticed how much care certain directors — Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Baz Luhrmann — put into selecting the music for their films.
“Often the lyrics — they tell you something about the character that might not even be in the movie,” Davis said. “There’s a whole subtext that’s happening. It’s like all we had to do is just turn up the volume on the soundtrack, and it was there.”
Actors from the movies participated in For the Record shows. One of them, Tracie Thoms, began reciting a bit of dialogue, just to “lightly contextualize” the songs, Davis said. “And it didn’t seem nearly as cheesy as the idea sounded when she first brought it up.”
Some of the film directors got wind and showed up to watch. They seemed to understand that the aim was to celebrate their work.
Tarantino, Davis said, “was just really excited about the connections that I was making from movie to movie, you know, like how characters could coexist.” The scene in the bar back in those days often was surreal. Bruce Willis watched another actor pretend to be him in a scene that also starred Willis’ daughter, Rumer.
Davis acknowledges that casting the daughter of movie stars might look crass or cynical. But he insists it’s a joyous reflection of life in Hollywood. And it’s just as weird for the celebrities as it is for audiences.
Rumer Willis plays a number of roles in “Love Actually Live,” and when she was having trouble with a dance sequence during tech rehearsal, Davis said he told her teasingly, “The problem we have here is that you won ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ so we have to get it up to that level.”
3. “Love Actually Live” isn’t so earnest that it can’t have fun with the film’s silly, questionable or dated elements.
Even for fans, “Love Actually” can be a guilty pleasure. Many of the love stories raise more questions than they answer.
“Rom-coms, they’ll get a bad rap, because sometimes they play to the lowest common denominator,” Davis said. “But I do think that Richard Curtis is doing it smart. He’s underappreciated as a writer. If you just watch a single scene, it starts here, they have this beautiful discovery, it’s funny, it’s charming, it’s a little bit sad, it’s a little bit naughty. It has all the things.”
Although the script focuses primarily on relationships between powerful men and subservient women, Davis said, it does offer hints that attitudes were due to change. “Like when Hugh Grant’s character, the prime minister, says it’s elitist and wrong that he doesn’t know much about his female employee. It wasn’t like the power dynamic was completely ignored. There was an awareness that gender roles needed to be adjusted.”
4. It’s a guilty pleasure even for the artistic director of the Wallis, who counts himself a fan of the movie.
“I challenge anyone not to be!” Crewes said. “Whatever age, whatever generation, whatever background you’ve got, there’s something about ‘Love Actually.’ There are so many stories. Everybody can relate to one.”
What about the story of Colin, who after a string of failed seduction attempts, flies to Wisconsin in the deranged conviction that American women will like him better than English women do? And he’s right? (His accent immediately wins over three knockouts in a bar.) Is this story relatable to Crewes, a recent transplant (with his wife and children) from England?
“No,” he said. “I think that might have been a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of somebody.”
‘Love Actually Live’
Where: Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions, including New Year’s Eve); ends Dec. 31
Tickets: $35-$125 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 746-4000, TheWallis.org