NEW YORK - Woody Allen traditionally keeps most of the details about his current film-in-progress secret, even from the cast. For Everyone Says I Love You, his first musical, he didn't even warn the actors that they'd have to sing and dance.
Plain song and dance
"I didn't want people to open their mouths suddenly and be like Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy and have these brilliant, trained voices come out, which are technically perfect but which don't have feeling to them," he explains. "I wanted to get a musical where people like you and me could just sing as they felt. I'm happy to croak out half a song myself, or let Julia Roberts croak out half a song. All that was important to me was the sincerity behind it.
"So I never told anybody it was a musical. I cast the people, and I didn't tell them they'd be singing or dancing, and I didn't ask them if they could. If they were good actors or actresses, I hired them for the role. Two weeks later, Dick Hyman, the musical director, called them and said, `You've got to learn your songs.' A number of them were shocked and said, `I can't sing! I can't dance!' And he said, `That's exactly what he wants. Those who do it well, fine. Those who don't, also fine. It should just be like you're acting, acting, acting, and then singing, as an extension.' "
The only performer whose singing was dubbed was Drew Barrymore, who plays Skylar, a debutante who vacillates between an earnest lawyer (Edward Norton) and an ex-convict (Tim Roth). Barrymore says that she and Allen "decided together that because I have such a deep and raspy voice [here she takes on Skylar's high, breathy voice], and for Skylar I changed my voice because she's so proper, she'd never have a rasp or a croak. I couldn't sing like that, though. It really pisses me off because when I was growing up, everyone said, `Oh, deep, raspy voices are so sexy,' and now I get, `Are you sick?' "
Allen, however, says, "She just felt that she couldn't in any remote way approximate human sound. She felt she was dead tone-deaf and couldn't do it. I had no real choice there. I didn't want her to feel humiliated through the movie, and she was the perfect actress for the role. I couldn't think of someone who would be more WASPy yet run off with a gangster than Drew, so I didn't want to lose her. But I didn't hire a professional. I hired another young girl Drew's age [Olivia Hayman] who had never done anything in any movie before, never done any professional singing before. I wanted to have a normal singing voice, not a ringer."
The songs in Everyone are mostly little-known show tunes from more than 50 years ago. Says Allen, "I like those songs. I have a reasonably good knowledge of songs from 1900 to 1950. That's my era, the Porter-Kern-Gershwin era. I find those songs -- and this is my own personal taste -- the most beautiful of all the American songs."
Allen, who still creates scripts on the manual Olympia typewriter he's had since he was 16, has churned out an average of a film a year for a quarter-century. The 61-year-old filmmaker says that what still drives him to work at a prolific pace is "a guilty feeling that I'll regret it if I don't do it. I feel I'm young enough and healthy enough to work. If I took a year off and wrote a book, one day, I would feel that, gee, you were young enough, and people wanted to back you financially, and here you are, 75 years old, and you can't get any money to make a film, and you can't get out of the wheelchair. So it's nothing other than an irrational sense of guilt. Or a very super-rational sense of guilt."
Allen says he's never run out of premises for movies. "I've never worried about that. I have the other fear: that I'm going to die before I finish all the matchbooks in my drawer."
Yet he seems to worry that he'll run out of gags. That, apparently, is why he's not above using a joke in Everyone that refers to the way Mia Farrow discovered his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn five years ago -- through nude photos of Previn she found in Allen's underwear drawer. "Anytime a joke emerges that I think is good," he points out, "I'm so grateful to be able to get the laugh in the movie that I have no inhibitions about where it comes from."