The starry Broadway premiere of the Off-Broadway, regional-theatre and Hollywood hit by playwright Robert Harling opens April 4 at the Lyceum Theatre following previews since March 15.
"Laughter through tears," as they say in the warm comedy, is the emotion that might best describe the experience.
Tony Award-nominated director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) directs a company of varied actresses who play strong but loving Southern women who gather in a Louisiana beauty parlor to swap gossip, get or create hairdos, and bond in the face of personal loss. The ladies include Christine Ebersole as M'Lynn; Rebecca Gayheart as M'Lynn's daughter, Shelby; Lily Rabe as newcomer beautician Annelle; Marsha Mason as crusty Ouiser, Frances Sternhagen as Clairee; and Delta Burke as parlor owner Truvy. Both Rabe and Gayheart are making their Broadway debuts, alongside such veterans as Mason and Sternhagen.
The 1987 play, originally seen in a popular Off-Broadway run, exploded in regional theatres and became a starry hit Hollywood movie with Julia Roberts as Shelby and Sally Field as M'Lynn. Harling jumped into a film career, writing screenplays including "Soapdish," "Laws of Attraction" and "First Wives Club," although he said he's now itching to get back to playwriting. The intimacy of the story told in Steel Magnolias is what attracted the actresses to the project, they told Playbill.com. Harling placed his one-set play in Chinquapin, Louisiana, a stand-in for his hometown of Natchitoches, where his sister (a big fan of the color pink — or "blush and bashful," as she says in the play) yearned to be married and have a baby despite a serious illness. Shelby and M'Lynn are based on Harling's mom and late sister.
The production remains set in 1987. "It's not a work in progress," Harling told Playbill.com. "The play came from...a very particular instance at a moment that was very special to me, about the death of my sister. I don't wanna mess with it."
When it was an Off-Broadway hit 18 years ago, there was talk of moving the play to Broadway, but Harling said "because the story was so special to me, and it was a celebration of my sister's life…I would much rather it run longer in a smaller house" than fizzle out in a bigger theatre, where it would have been more costly to run.
It was producer Roy Gabay's idea to put it on Broadway this time around.
Steel Magnolias is produced on Broadway by Roy Gabay, Robyn Goodman, Danzansky Partners, Ergo Entertainment, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Susan Dietz/Ina Meibach, Michael Galvis/Billy Huddleston, and Elsa Daspin Suisman/Martha R. Gasparian.
The creative team for the Broadway production of Steel Magnolias includes Anna Louizos (set designer), David Murin (costume designer), Howell Binkley (lighting designer), Ken Travis (sound designer) and Bobby H. Grayson (hair designer).
Prior to its long run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Steel Magnolias originated in New York at the WPA Theatre.
Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, matinees Wednesdays at 2 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. There will be no performance April 5. For ticket information, contact Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200.
Of director Jason Moore, Harling said, "Jason has this fresh, exciting, ingenious vision. And he's from Fayetteville, Arkansas. He knows these women, he knows this territory, he knows this world. We were in sync. Who could say no?"
In Steel Magnolias, Christine Ebersole will get her hair washed on stage at every performance.
"Washed and set and put under the dryer and taken out and teased and sprayed eight times a week," she told Playbill.com on Feb. 15, the day after the first rehearsal. "I'm praying that my hair does not fall out!"
The Tony Award-winning actress of 42nd Street, who plays M'Lynn in the warm comedy, asked, "Do I get extra pay for that? Hazard pay? I’ll have to look into that…"
After just a day together — including a dinner at which they got to know one another off-stage, and a script read-through at which they cried — the women of Steel Magnolias said they felt a bond.
"It's kind of like we always knew each other, it was weird," Ebersole said. "It's kind of a sisterhood. It's kind of fun, it's like a big slumber-party kind of feeling. There's a dynamic about it that's powerful."
The dinner party thrown by the producers was a bonding experience.
"We all were talking about things that were so intimate to us, as if we had known each other for years," Sternhagen said. "I think the men who were there were kind of stunned."
At 22, Lily Rabe, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh, is the youngest in the all-female company.
"Sitting at that table, it was amazing," Rabe said. "These women have such history and have had such rich lives. I realized how young I am. I feel already like I've been around them much longer than I have."
Producing partner Robyn Goodman said, "When Roy Gabay asked me to partner on it, I said, 'Let me read the play.' I remember seeing it and loving it, but that was so many years ago. I sat down and read the play and I was blown away by it, for many reasons. Not only the laughter — it's hilarious, as everyone knows — but it's a play about how to experience life and how to grieve, as well, and about a community of women, which you rarely see on a stage in New York. Very few plays address that. I got very excited about the roles we could cast for women."
Goodman continued, "It's about how women love each other and support each other and make each other laugh and scream at each other."
All of the characters, except Annelle, are based on women Harling knew in his hometown, although he was nervous that he'd insult some for portraying their less flattering sides.
"I didn't tell people who the characters were based on," Harling said. "They knew it was my mother and sister, because the events were well-known in my community, but I didn't want to say, 'This crotchety old witch is based on you.' I didn't want to say that. But what wound up happening was, I'd go back and every woman in town was saying, 'He based Ouiser on me! He did. I'm Ouiser!' I thought, well, OK, nobody's gonna sue me."