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Once sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein, writer Louisette Geiss conceives a #MeToo musical

Alysha Umphress (center) and the cast of "The Right Girl."
Alysha Umphress (center) and the cast of "The Right Girl."Ordinary Sunday

For Louisette Geiss, writing a musical inspired by her story of sexual harassment at the hands of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein provoked contradictory feelings. On the one hand, she says, it’s been “cathartic” and healing to create something positive out of a traumatic experience. On the other, it can be “triggering” to recount what happened to her, as it is, she says, for all survivors. “In some ways, I was reliving it, and it can be grueling,” Geiss says over the phone from her home in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s hard to live in that space and remind yourself of the reality of what you went through.”

As the assault allegations against Weinstein cascaded across the news in October 2017, Geiss chose to add her voice to the growing chorus. She said Weinstein had sexually harassed her at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, after he invited her to pitch him a movie script. An actress and fledgling screenwriter at the time, she subsequently gave up her career in anger and frustration. “I wanted to corroborate the other women’s stories,” she says, “and I thought the more of us who spoke up, the harder it would be for him to say it didn’t happen.”

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Weinstein’s downfall was the catalyst for the #MeToo movement and led to a cultural reckoning.

Three years later, Geiss and producer Howard Kagan are shepherding to the stage a new musical based on Geiss’s story and the accounts of two dozen other MeToo survivors. “The Right Girl” features music and lyrics by Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren, a book by Geiss and Kagan, and is directed by Tony winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “The Scottsboro Boys”). A developmental version of “The Right Girl” has been filmed and will be seen for the first time Sunday at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, screened for a live, socially-distanced audience.

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The show centers on Hollywood executive Eleanor Stark (Alysha Umphress), who has spent years climbing the ladder of a male-dominated business to become the chief creative officer of a movie studio. Years later, she’s confronted with evidence of sexual abuse that’s happening right down the hall. Her boss, Paul (Tony Yazbeck), appears to be preying on women whose careers he holds sway over.

“It raises the question, how could she have missed it? Was she somehow complicit?” says Kagan, who also produced the Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” “Then once you know the truth, what do you do about it? How much risk to your own career are you willing to take? So she has to make a decision whether to help the women achieve justice and change the culture or try to sweep it under the rug.”

“I find that predicament dramatically enticing,” Stroman says. “She has to decide what to do, to possibly lose everything she’s worked her whole life to achieve or to keep quiet and let it happen.”

Three other women intersect with Eleanor. Marie (Robyn Hurder), a character partially based on Geiss, is a former screenwriter who was blackballed by a powerful Hollywood producer and left the business to become a real estate agent. Paul’s assistant, Kaili (Jenna Ushkowitz), may be in a position to expose the truth, and Lisa (Merle Dandridge) is a reporter pursuing the story.

In creating “The Right Girl,” the creative team sat down with two dozen survivors who’d been sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful men in show business. “What they all talk about is how … so many of them were blackballed,” says Kagan, who has set up a royalty pool for those women to share in the show’s profits if it ends up making money. “And much of the storytelling they had in mind was not really being covered by the press.”

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Louisette Geiss
Louisette GeissCourtesy of DKC/O&M

“I wanted to bring to light the stories of these different women,” says Geiss, who was a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Weinstein. “I’m amazed by their bravery. It is heart-wrenching. We have a few monologues that show how challenging it was for these women to come forward, and we even use some of the actual words they said to us.”

When it came time to finding a composer, Geiss had only one person in mind: Diane Warren, a music biz icon who’s written nine No. 1 hits and 32 Top 10 songs for artists ranging from Cher, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston to Toni Braxton, Rod Stewart, and Aerosmith. Geiss figured it was a long shot, but a few months into the project, she attended a women’s summit where Weinstein survivors were honored. “And who’s onstage there at the finale but Diane Warren!” Geiss recalls. “I was like, ‘This is my chance!’ ”

Warren was there to perform her and Lady Gaga’s Oscar-nominated “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. Geiss rushed up to her as she left the stage and told her about the project. Warren was impressed with Geiss’s passion and agreed to meet with “The Right Girl” team. Before long, she’d signed on.

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“I’d written ‘Til It Happens To You,’ and I think that song kind of helped push the #MeToo movement forward,” Warren says. “Music has so much power, so it definitely gave a voice to that movement.” The song, a ballad that grapples with the distress and pain of abuse but with an underlying message of empowerment, will be featured in “The Right Girl.”

While Warren has never written a musical before, Kagan believes her versatility as a songwriter dovetails well with the genre. “Her lyrics are story-heavy, and she has many different styles in her quiver. She also writes incredible hooks, and you want audiences to be humming the songs when they leave the theater.”

Still, Warren credits her collaborators for helping her adjust to the structure and forms of musical theater. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own,” she says. “Howard and Louisette [who are also credited as lyricists] added elements to the songs that I wouldn’t know how to do, since I come from the Top 40 radio world. But you acclimate to it.”

With the pandemic mothballing live theater, Kagan couldn’t take the show out for a trial run at a regional theater. So he went with the next best option: Stroman and her team rehearsed the show remotely as a Zoom-based workshop, with the actors recording themselves at home. Then all the scenes, musical tracks, and performances were edited together into a film.

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“I’m reluctant to sit on our hands, because this material is really urgent,” Kagan says. “These women are used to being silenced. So they made me promise that we would not just stick [the project] in a drawer. It’s our responsibility to get their stories out into the world.”

Indeed, Geiss says that she and other survivors “understood that it was almost our duty to share our stories” publicly, despite the emotional toll it’s taken. But she hopes the show will help “open the minds and hearts of people” and has the effect of creating “lasting change” in society.

“That’s the beauty of this show. We take a very difficult subject, but the goal is to move people and incite them to make a difference in the world.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.