FROM THE ARCHIVES: How Nick & Nora Became the Stuff of Broadway Legend

Special Features   FROM THE ARCHIVES: How Nick & Nora Became the Stuff of Broadway Legend
 
Arthur Laurents, Joanna Gleason, and Barry Bostwick talk martinis and musicals in this interview about the troubled Broadway musical that played 71 previews at the Marquis Theatre.
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Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason Nathaniel Kramer

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

In 1991, book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. set out to adapt the Thin Man movies into a sleek and sophisticated Broadway musical—to the tune of $4.8 million.

Laurents also directed the troubled production, which played 71 previews at the Marquis Theatre before opening December 8. It closed December 15 after playing nine regular performances. Starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason as the titular characters, Nick & Nora also featured Christine Baranski, Chris Sarandon, Debra Monk, and Faith Prince—who earned praise from critics (and a spot in musical theatre comedy history) for her indefatigable performance as Lorraine, whose death was played out in various scenarios throughout the evening.

Gleason and Bostick are set to reunite May 2 at 54 Below for a Nick & Nora reunion concert that will feature songs from the score, in addition to rarely heard material cut during previews and workshops. Get tickets here.

To commemorate the special event, we a look back at this Playbill interview from November 1991.

And watch the original television commercial:

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles still claim the affection of film buffs for their entertaining and stylish Thin Man movies of the 1930s and ’40s. But Broadway now has its own Nick & Nora. Meet Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason, Tony-winning stars who do something Powell and Loy didn’t.

This Nick and Nora sing and dance while solving the inevitable mystery. All singing, all dancing, all sleuthing. In the new $4.8 million musical, in previews from October 8 and opening November 10 at the Marriott Marquis Theatre, Bostwick and Gleason are putting their own imprint on writer Dashiell Hammett’s legendary characters.

What’s more, writer-director Arthur Laurents, who went back for inspiration to the original Hammett stories, isn’t bound by the prissy censorship rules that once governed Hollywood.

“The movies had to be sanitized in those days,” Gleason says. “You had gritty, sexy stuff from Hammett, which had to be cleaned up. We don’t have to clean it up that much.” She describes Nick & Nora as “sexier than the movies were,” citing an example. “The opening song is called ‘Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?’ and dancing can mean any number of things.”

“You’re going to get some heat from us,” Bostwick promises.

The musical whodunit, set in 1937 Los Angeles, has a new plot created by Laurents, best known on Broadway for West Side Story and Gypsy and screenwriter for such films as Rope, The Snake Pit, The Way We Were, and The Turning Point. Produced by Terry Allen Kramer, Charlene and James M. Nederlander, Daryl Roth, and Elizabeth I. McCann, the show has music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., choreography by Tina Paul, sets by Douglas Schmidt, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, lighting by Jules Fisher, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, and musical conducting by Jack Lee. The cast of 21 includes Christine Baranski, Chris Sarandon, Remak Ramsay, Faith Prince, Michael Lombard, Debra Monk, Josie de Guzman, Kip Niven, Jeff Brooks, and Thom Sesma.

And let’s not forget Riley, the spirited wire-haired terrier rescued from a Los Angeles pound and trained to play the fondly remembered Asta.

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Riley Nathaniel Kramer

Apart from the demands of coming up with the many elements that define a good musical, chemistry between the stars is particularly vital for Nick & Nora to click. Laurents believes his stars have it: “The minute you see them, you know they are a marvelous combination. Both have enormous intelligence. Joanna has such wit. Also there’s something she has that you can’t act. Joanna Gleason is one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. So is Nora Charles. Barry is slightly removed in his own work. That’s also Nick.”

The co-stars do make an elegant looking team, essential for the ballroom dancing that glides through the show. Gleason with auburn hair and green eyes is 5’8” and weighs 118 pounds. “I call it my fighting weight because I’m so grouchy and so hungry,” she says. “I figure it’ll be a long time before I have Sara Lee cheesecake, which I adore, and I don’t know when the next hot fudge sundae will be.” Being tall, she needs a tall partner. No problem there. Bostwick stands 6’4”.

“Nick and Nora are perfect partners—drinking partners, dancing partners,” says Bostwick, who has blue eyes and a handsome shock of hair that turned gray when he was in his 30s. “They love to dance, and they’re darned good at it. They know each other’s moves so well. It’s Arthur’s idea to use that as a framework for the acting scenes. We’re trying to dance, talk, sing, and solve a mystery at the same time, which I think makes it very romantic. Joanna and I are trying to develop our relationship so the audience will see just how much fun we have together.”

For Gleason Nick & Nora represents the opportunity for full-fledged stardom. The much-lauded actress has been waiting for that special part. Her greatest accolades to date have come from her outstanding performance as The Baker’s Wife in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which won her a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, But it is her overall experience that has laid the groundwork.

“I decided to be an actress when I was nine years old,” remembers Gleason, whose father is Monty Hall of television’s Let’s Make a Deal fame. “I had a very rich fantasy life. As early as I can remember, I read plays and then read them aloud with friends. I was endlessly putting on plays and directing them and endlessly going Saturdays to any park or recreation place that would have theatre groups. But the time I was in my early teens I was in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t part of the golden crowd there. I knew that theatre was my haven, and I used to pray to get back to New York somehow. I became like St. Joan and her voices.”

When she finally did get back to New York it was in 1977 to audition for the musical I Love My Wife, thanks to a recommendation by Boland Wilson, who worked for Universal Studios. She was not only cast but her Broadway debut turned into a 14-month run. She next appeared in The Real Thing, won Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Joe Egg, a Drama Desk Award for Social Security, and another Drama Desk Award for It’s Only a Play. She’s especially proud of her work in Eleemosynary, performed at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Her movies include Hannah and her Sisters, Heartburn, and FX2, and she will be seen with Jack Lemmon in the forthcoming HBO television series Getting There. She makes a point of not seeing any of her completed films but admits, “They sabotage me on television sometimes when I’m making the bed.” Gleason, who says she is separated from her current husband, lives in a duplex in an East Side townhouse with Aaron, her 12-year-old son from a former marriage. She considers herself a “terrific cook” and likes to paint.

Bostwick also has a special opportunity for stardom in Nick & Nora, which marks his return to the Broadway stage after a 13-year absence. In the meantime he has been busy and successful in a long list of television shows, highlighted by such assignments as playing Lieutenant “Lady” Aster in War and Remembrance and America’s first president in George Washington and George Washington: The Forging of a Nation. His Broadway debut came with the APA–Phoenix Repertory Company in Sean O’Casey’s Cock-a-Doodle Dandy. He earned his first Tony nomination as Danny Zuko in Grease and a Tony Award for his last Broadway appearance in The Robber Bridegroom. Midnight movie audiences know him well as the middle-American Brad Majors in the cult favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he excelled playing two roles in Movie, Movie, which affectionately parodied movies of the 1930s.

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Christine Baranski, Joanna Gleason, and Barry Bostwick Nathaniel Kramer

“I’ve been looking for a Broadway show for years,” Bostwick says. “I’ve been hidden away in my house in Beverly Hills doing miniseries and television movies. There was starting to be a sameness. This show was something I wanted to come back to Broadway with. Nick is an adult part, a real mensch, somebody my age. In Grease I was 29 playing 17. Finally I’m 46 playing 46.” He is also enthusiastic about working with Laurents, whom he views as a mentor who can “teach me what I have to know to get on with the next step in my career.”

Bostwick, who is divorced, grew up in San Mateo, CA, where his father, Harry Bostwick Jr., founded the San Mateo County Development Association, a non-profit organization for developing industry in the area. The actor learned to dance at California Western University and studied with the San Diego Ballet Company.

Gleason became involved with the show before Bostwick. Three years ago Laurents asked her whether she was interested. But it took the interim to iron out problems in raising all of the necessary money, to find the right theatre at the right time, and to hone the book. Despite the delays, she stayed with it, reasoning: “A piece like this doesn’t come along often—once in 25 years.” She finds the show’s book “as solid as a rock,” emphasizing that “there’s no smoke and mirrors to get around a weak book.”

Gleason and Bostwick met for the first time at the Tavern on the Green party for Tyne Daly’s opening in Gypsy in 1989. The actress recalls Bostwick saying, “Gee, I’d love to work with you and I hear you are doing Nick & Nora.” She adds: “I told Arthur that’s what Barry had said. I don’t know if that started things or if it was always in the works.” Bostwick recalls the chemistry he felt talking to Gleason that night and thinking, “this feels good; this feels right,” then from that moment starting to pursue the part of Nick.

Not a movie buff, he can’t recall ever having seen the Thin Man films in the past. He made a point of seeing one before auditioning and saw the other five before starting rehearsal. Gleason, who remembers seeing her first Thin Man as a teenager, also looked at all six films in preparation for the show. The stars don’t seem concerned that audiences may compare them with Powell and Loy. “It’s like apples and oranges—two different people and two different decades,” says Bostwick. (There was also a Thin Man television series teaming Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.)

Gleason says that Loy doesn’t cross her mind “except to remind myself that total commitment to style and honesty are paramount because she had that and was always real.” She also notes Loy’s “inner rhythm, her inner pulse,” and her “very sturdy idea of who Nora Charles was.” She hopes Loy will come to see the show. (Powell died in 1984 at the age of 91.)

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Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason Nathaniel Kramer

What Gleason and Bostwick are especially concerned about is capturing the requisite sophistication and style. Gleason believes the Thin Man movies, especially the first two, “gave us a sense of high comedy done with a good deal of honesty and style that we are going for.” She stresses that Nick & Nora is not a “skim the surface, frothy, mock Fred and Ginger or Powell and Loy piece” settling for “banter, sarcasm, put-downs and stridency,” but a show with “real characters and a story to tell.”

She elaborates: “It’s not a false style. We’re not just making it up with a 1990s sensibility. It’s not contemporary. My hairstyle is from 1937. Our clothes are true to that time. There are no idiomatic 1990s audience-pleasing slips of the tongue.”

She says one challenge is attaining the right physical bearing and carriage. Bostwick makes a similar observation: “You can’t slouch. I’ve been doing these very excruciating upper body exercises to try to keep my shoulders back, my head held high. We’ve been watching many of the old movies. The men were just stick straight—Cary Grant, George Raft. You can’t wear those ’30s tailored clothes and be too relaxed looking.

The stars are also concentrating on a deepening of the marital relationship between Nick and Nora that Laurents has attempted to achieve. “Nick and Nora have to examine why they’re together,” Gleason explains. “They don’t do that in the movies. Nora was completely charming, but she was the accessory and he was the detective. Myrna was not given scripts about how she felt about their whole life together.” The Broadway musical, Gleason reports, goes further.

“No sturm und drang. But they’ve been together for five years of drinking [martinis, of course], dancing, having a lot of money and solving a crime or two, and maybe, maybe there’s more.”
Bostwick quotes Laurents as describing Nick as “a man who learns to fall in love with is own wife.” Regarding that as the key to portraying him, Bostwick says it can be found in the original source material: “I have to be a man of the streets, a wise sort of guy who grew up in a totally opposite world from Nora. Nick, who’s the son of a Greek immigrant, grew up in a wild, boisterous family-oriented household and on the streets of New York. He’s comfortable with every type of human being. He has been intimate with every level of society.

“When you pick him up in this musical, you can see how he misses the old life. He has given up all that for Nora, that sense of danger, the eye of the tiger. He loves Nora and loves her money, which is making his life comfortable. He’s managing her money. He’s like somebody’s business manager as opposed to somebody who used to be on the streets tracking down clues. He’s retired from the detective world and drinking a lot. Lots of martinis.”

In developing Nora’s character Gleason sees her harking back to the strong women in 1930s and ’40s movies. It’s Nora who takes the case. Mostly, mum’s the word about details, but Gleason does divulge: “This mystery is about a friend of Nora’s who comes to town. There’s been this murder. She says, ‘My director is in jail and you have to help get him out. I absolutely know he’s innocent. Please help me.’ And Nora says yes.

“Nora wants Nick to solve this case. And you know Nick. He always says he’s retired. He’s just going to live off Nora’s money. Nora is a very wealthy girl from Nob Hill, San Francisco.” But with Nora taking the active role, Nick can’t very well stand aside, and they become increasingly competitive. “There are wonderful songs between Nick and Nora that sort of give you the lay of the land about that relationship,” Gleason adds. “They dance a lot together while speaking and while in the middle of scenes, and there’s a lot of physicality to their parts… Once they get cooking there’s a song called ‘May the Best Man Win,’ and it’s a big number.”

The stars promise plenty of suspects, with clues for the audience to follow along with the super sleuths. And with all the martini mixing onstage (“In those days they shook them,” notes Laurents), there just may be an added question to resolve:

Will Nick & Nora make the martini fashionable again?

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