"Be Italian," one of the lustier numbers in Maury Yeston's Tony-winning score for Nine, may be the mantra director David Leveaux tried on the talented, if terribly unItalian, cast he assembled to bring the show back to Broadway this month at the Eugene O'Neill.
Starting at the top with Guido Contini himself, the Italian filmmaker who, experiencing coitus interruptus in his career (read: director's block), walks his libido around the roof of his mind, leading a parade of what Julio Iglesias has labeled "all the girls I've loved before" (mother, wife, mistress, girl-of-the-moment, producer, even the super-sized gypsy who introduced him to the wonderful whirl of women at age nine by imploring him to "Be Italian"). In the original Tony-winning production of 1982, Tommy Tune arranged the ladies like lush, exotic plants around a white-tiled spa; in this revival, Leveaux has placed them around an elongated dining table — only, being women, nobody stays seated as sat.
Best-known here for nonmusicals(!) - The Real Thing, Betrayal, Electra and Anna Christie — Leveaux never did a musical till he took Nine on seven years ago at London's Donmar Warehouse. When it was proposed he repeat the honors for Broadway, he told Yeston and book writer Arthur Kopit, "We have to start with a man at the center, and it should be the right man: Antonio Banderas."
It was a simple, logical leap. Being Italian was ultimately not as important as being "European hottie" — and that spelled Antonio Banderas.
"You're looking not only for European qualities in the part, you're looking for sexual charisma and magnetism. And this has to be combined with an innocence, and that's a very unusual combination. This is not a story about infidelity. It's a story about loving too much, if anything — or loving too much but not specifically. You need to go home from Nine thinking 'Love is worth it.' To do that, there has to be something that's intrinsically celebratory, not cynical — and Antonio has that quality, that spirit I call innocence." The next thing Leveaux will be telling you is that the first Hispanic-American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor is the logical choice to play Liliane La Fleur, the Folies Bergeres fugitive who produces Contini's pictures. And darned if he doesn't!
Tune had tailored that part to the specifications of just such a former Folies girl, Liliane Montevecchi, who rode the role to the Tony podium and steadfastly refused (three times) to do the revival. Short of cloning Montevecchi, Leveaux's other choice was to pin the part on another timeless icon: the entirely apt if ethnically eschewed Chita Rivera.
"Chita Rivera playing Liliane La Fleur is the point," he says. "You know you're looking at Chita Rivera. Liliane La Fleur has a history at the Folies Bergeres, and you look at Chita Rivera and you think, 'Part of the wit of that is that this is, in many ways, what Chita Rivera actually is.' I'm not trying to fool an audience into thinking she's this person's nationality, just open them up to the suggestion. What happens if Chita Rivera suggests this French woman? You end up with someone more French than a French woman."
The ever-game Rivera will romp exuberantly through the role, regardless of its national boundaries. "I loved Liliane in it, but she is French and I'm just playing at it," she says. "There are no major changes, except in the 'Folies Bergeres' number. I don't know if it's longer or bigger or what. It's different. There's no red boa. To be on Antonio's trip is exciting for me. I've painted this picture in my mind of him being this magnificent leader, and there's this long stream of light. I'm hanging on to the back of it, on a terrific ride!"
And the man riding this comet to Broadway realizes it's a hot seat: "I know standards are high on Broadway. I should be scared, but I'm not. I have a positive feeling about what we're putting together. All I have in my heart is feelings of sharing with audiences this wonderful piece of theatre. And I say theatre in big letters."
It was a musical that brought him to Broadway in the first place — as a spectator — at a little Spanish operetta film that played the now-gone Guild on West 50th Street. The first break he got from ballyhooing it, he made a beeline to B'way and saw one of the 69 performances of Bob Fosse's Big Deal. "It was little success, but I loved it."
The next day, he remembers, he saw Bernadette Peters in a little song and dance called Song & Dance by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who subsequently threw him his only other musical work — Mandy Patinkin's Tony-winning role of Che in Madonna's movie "Evita." Now that he can count to Nine, who knows what musical riches lay ahead of him?