A Big Break for Richard Maltby, Jr. and Bette’s Baby Stars Off-Broadway

News   A Big Break for Richard Maltby, Jr. and Bette’s Baby Stars Off-Broadway Playbill.com writer Harry Haun provides the latest insight into the buzz Off-Broadway and beyond.

Richard Maltby, Jr.
Richard Maltby, Jr. Photo by Matthew Blank

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IT'S SO NICE TO HAVE A LYRICIST AROUND THE HOUSE: "No, actors aren't allowed to speak," cracked York Theatre Company's artistic director, James Morgan, as he mockingly headed lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. off at the pass when he stepped up to thank York for reviving Big, the 1996 musical he wrote with David Shire and John Weidman. At the Saturday matinee, on 15 minutes' notice, he took over the role of the toy manufacturer and will continue with it for the rest of the run (Oct. 15-19).

"It, literally, was 'You're going on,'" recalled Maltby with a slight shudder. "I got the stage manager to highlight my lines, and I just went on." Not only did he not look over-rehearsed ("That's true: I wasn't over-rehearsed"), but he displayed some unsuspected terpsichorean skills, dancing with John Tartaglia on the electronic floor keyboard to "Chopsticks" and "Body and Soul" — songs he hadn't even written.

This is not the first time that Maltby saved York's bacon while it was reviving one of the Maltby and Shire musicals. George Dvorsky's voice went out after Act One of Closer Than Ever, and Maltby stepped right in, book in hand, and finished the show.

The version of Big that York is doing is what director Eric Schaeffer put together for the national tour 14 years ago. He reinstated eight songs dropped before Broadway, and the three creatives couldn't be happier. "This is the real show," purred a contented Shire. "It's what should have opened. Maybe we'll get another shot at it." On opening night, he told the crowd he called up his new thespian-lyricist and asked how it was going. "It's going great," Maltby replied, "but I don't like getting notes."

GREY DAY A-COMIN': Let's see now, there's the Tony, the Oscar, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Saturn, the Drama Desk Award, the National Society of Film Critics Award — but nary a Musical Salute! from the Encompass New Opera Theatre.

Roderick Hill
Roderick Hill Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Well, that will be remedied Sunday, Oct. 26, when Joel Grey joins composer Jeanine Tesori as honorees at Encompass' annual gala at the National Arts Club.

Grey is the first performer — and Tesori the first female composer — honored by the organization in a decade of galas that began with Sheldon Harnick's 80th birthday. Nancy Rhodes, Encompass' artistic director and founder, has in the interim honored the likes of John Kander, Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman, Jerry Bock. Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire, John Weidman, Maury Yeston, Joseph Stein, Marvin Hamlisch and Alan Menken. Now 90, Harnick is serving as honorary chairman for the event.

Among the talent participating in this year's salute will be Bebe Neuwirth, Tonya Pinkins, David Garrison, Lisa Kron, Judy Kuhn, Christopher Sieber, Karen Mason, Jeffry Denman, Michael McElroy, Ron Raines, Patricia Schuman and David Pittsinger.

A THRICE-TOLD TALE OF HORROR: The first cry for help was the article David Holthouse wrote for The Westward, an alternate Denver weekly. Ira Glass read the piece and put it on his radio show, "This American Life." Markus Potter heard the story and, as adapter-director, turned Holthouse's article into Stalking the Bogeyman, a stunner of a play now at New World Stages. "I was blown away and had this overwhelming feeling to get this out to a greater audience," explained Potter, who directed it as well. It's the tragically true story of Holthouse (Roderick Hill) plotting to kill the man (Erik Heger) who had raped him as a seven-year-old.

NO KIDDING: Composer John Kander and his new lyricist, Greg Pierce, who debuted as a team last year at the Vineyard Theatre with The Landing, are doing their own thing and collaborating on the musical book for a show called Kid Victory. Eric Schaeffer will world-premiere it in February at his Signature Theatre in Arlington. The director will be Liesl Tommy, who was represented last March at the local Signature Theatre (on West 42nd), helming Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate.

Garry Marshall
Garry Marshall Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Kid Victory is about a youngster who is abducted and the repercussions for his family when he returns. Choreographer-actor Jeffry Denman's cast as the kidnapper. "It's not a comedy, and I'm not tap-dancing, that's for damn sure!" he promises.

Other musicals filling out Signature's 2014-15 season are Diner by Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson from Levinson's 1982 film, and Soon, an original by Nick Blaemire. He stars in the Atlantic Theater Company's new musical, Found, opening Oct. 14.

A BAD SPELL? As titles go, Extreme Whether — Karen Malpede's "eco-drama" about an embattled American climate scientist (Jeff McCarthy) now at Theatre for the New City through Oct. 26 — might strike you as misspelled, but it turns out there's a classy explanation. The publicist, a very literate and straight-ahead guy named Jonathan Slaff, avers that it's a reference to Hamlet's "To be, or not to be: that is the question; / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?"

In the context of this play, Slaff relays, "This is our chance to ask whether or not we shall act (on our own behalf, to save the planet). Extreme weather is what climate change produces so Extreme Whether is the question before us — whether we recognize the danger or not." Ah, yes, that IS the question, all right...

TALKBACK LAUGHTRACK: Garry & Mike (director Marshall & playwright Bencivenga) have been postscripting their play, Billy & Ray (director Wilder & mystery writer Chandler), with hilarious talkbacks that sometimes run 47 minutes.

For instance: Marshall recalled his Broadway guest shot in 2006's Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. He was plucked from the audience and "interviewed" by Short's overbearing talk-show host, Jiminy Glick. "I called him up and said, 'Hi, Marty, I'm in town. Can I come see your show? I'm free Wednesday.' He said, 'Yeah. In the show, I bring up a celebrity from the audience, and I do this Glick character. I do about 10 minutes, and you could be my celebrity. OK?' And I said rather humbly, 'Well, Marty, I think you can get a bigger celebrity than me,' and he said, 'Not on a Wednesday.'"

Vincent Kartheiser
Vincent Kartheiser Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Wilder, of course, worked in Loud. He barked orders in fractured Viennesed English while baseball broadcasts blared on, spewed obscenities and witticisms with equal vigor, swung a cane for added emphasis and brainstormed his way through a script.

Kartheiser hits the ground running, decked out in suspenders, short-sleeve shirts and signature hat. "Vinnie has to be energetic the entire play — driving, pushing," said Marshall. "It's a very difficult, demanding role and not everyone's up to it."

Two referees round out the cast of characters — secretary Helen Hernandez (played by Sophie von Haselberg, in her New York debut) and producer Joseph Sistrom (played by Drew Gehling, fresh from Jersey Boys where he was Bob Gaudio).

"Joe Sistrom was a bit of an unsung hero in this thing," claimed Bencivenga. "His name is not on the film. Once it was a hit, it became 'An Arthur Hornblow Jr. Production.' But all the way through, Arthur was going, 'I'm shutting this down.'"

Sophie von Haselberg, who moves about the stage with a certain familiar brassy authority, came to work the other day very excited that she had signed her first autograph. There promises to be more. Her mother, Bette Midler, caught an early preview, approved heartily and promised to return for the opening night.

J. K. Simmons in "Whiplash"
J. K. Simmons in "Whiplash"

"Bette and I did a movie called 'Beaches' when Sophie was four years old," recalled Marshall. "I carried her around, saying, 'Let's go see what Mommy's doing.' Now she's here, and she carries herself. She's not just somebody's daughter. She graduated from Yale with a master's in fine arts. She's a person who's very talented."

Incidentally, Cain came up with the plot for "Double Indemnity" — and his other lethal love-triangle, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" — attending the murder trial of Ruth Synder, whose electric-chair death made the front page of the New York Daily News, inspiring Sophie Treadwell's play, Machinal (which Roundabout revived in January).

Several decades passed before it became clear that "Double Indemnity" was the 1944's best flick. Singing priests were big then, and adulterous killers weren't, so it came in second for the Oscar to "Going My Way" — maybe third if you count the Best Picture competition of David Selznick's flag-waving homefront saga, "Since You Went Away."

Selznick advertized his World War II epic as "'The Four Most Important Words Since Gone With the Wind'" (which he also produced), irking Wilder enough to take out a counter ad that insisted his "Double Indemnity" was the two most important words since "Broken Blossoms," D. W. Griffith's big weeper of 1919. Selznick was incensed and considering legal action but backed off when the director he was then working with (Alfred Hitchcock, on "Spellbound") put in his two words' worth in yet another ad. This one read: "The two most important words in movies today are Billy Wilder."

BENNY SOUTHSTREET WENT WEST: It's good to see that J. K. Simmons, who played Benny Southstreet to Nathan Lane's Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and earned a Drama Desk nomination for Das Barbecu, has kept up with his music — well, not exactly but certainly with a vengeance. After 1993's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, also with Lane, he abandoned Broadway for Hollywood, amassed 142 credits in 20 years and became one of the readily recognizable faces in film, television and commercials. But he said he hopes to be back on the Main Stem in a few years when he attended this year's New York Film Festival to premiere his latest film, "Whiplash." In it, he plays the Music Teacher from Hell, displaying the same kind of brutish, debasing behavior that Lou Gossett displayed in a boot camp ("An Officer and a Gentleman") and George Kennedy displayed in a chain gang ("Cool Hand Luke").

They won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, and Simmons seems headed in the same direction — although, considering his scorched earth, the category seems a misnomer. It's a primal-scream kind of performance, but the delicate way he holds his fingers as he conducts betrays his musical background. Ever seen Charlton Heston conduct?

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