Make room for "Nanny."
Marlo Thomas was once set to play outrageous author Jacqueline Susann in the Broadway bow of Paper Doll, the new play by Barbara Zitwer and Mark Hampton, but Variety reports Fran Drescher is now the star who'll shine in the play come fall.
Drescher, of TV's "The Nanny," and author of the current memoir, "Cancer Schmancer," about her successful fight with uterine cancer, will be making her Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre. Her co-star is F. Murray Abraham, as Irving Mansfield, Susann's husband-manager. Abraham originated the role opposite Thomas when the play had its world premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater in late 2001. In February and March, the slightly revised play had a run in North Carolina. The play was to be fast-tracked to Broadway for spring 2002, but producer Randall Wreghitt and his partners decided to bide their time.
Variety indicates an October opening at the Cort.
The run in North Carolina — the Reynolds Theatre at Duke University in Durham — was a test of some changes in the script and production (a single cast replacement) since the comedy's world premiere by Pittsburgh Public Theater in November 2001. The play was an audience hit in Pitt. Leonard Foglia (Master Class) directs.
In North Carolina, the cast included Thomas and Abraham, with Joanne Genelle in multiple roles and Adrian Rieder as Susann protégé Jésus. (Armando Rodriguez originated the role in Pittsburgh.) A black poodle is part of the play, too.
Wreghitt is partnering with MARS Theatricals (Amy Danis and Mark Johannes), in association with Montauk Highway and others on the commercial run. A clutch of New York producers made the trip to Pittsburgh to see the production, and more traveled south to North Carolina.
"I thought it was a damn funny script, and who doesn't wanna read about Jacqueline Susann?" Wreghitt previously told Playbill On-Line. "It's about fame and the cost of fame and it's very entertaining and smart and funny."
In Pittsburgh, wildly divided reviews met the punchy play by Zitwer and Hampton, with Variety predicting a boffo commercial future and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette grumbling that the material was "flimsy" and "meanders" through monologues and flashbacks. Audiences reportedly ate up the naughty jokes and references made by Susann and Mansfield, who both promoted Susann's trashy fiction ("Valley of the Dolls") to the best seller lists.
"I think part of why people love the play and are responding to it, is that Mark and I and Leonard Foglia and the cast have been able to bring Jackie and Irving to life...we created a Golem and brought Jackie and Irving back to life." She said Thomas and Abraham were "overtaken by the spirit" of Susann and Mansfield, partners in business and life.
Zitwer has long been fascinated by the late Susann, and commissioned Hampton (Full Gallop) to write a play. Zitwer and Hampton got along so well and were on the same page so much that they decided to collaborate.
"We were instantly attracted to writing together," Zitwer said.
What interests her about Susann?
"There are themes about her life that are universal," Zitwer said. "Themes about being an outsider, mortality, love, marriage, fame, ambition, and the craving for fame and what drives famous people. These were interesting ideas about life that Mark and I felt we could explore through the character of Jackie and Irving."
The play includes direct-address and monologues, as well as more conventional narrative scenes; the work has been described as somewhat nonlinear.
"We were interested in breaking a lot of conventions..." Zitwer said. She added that two new characters were developed in rehearsals.
The flamboyant, troubled Susann died of cancer in 1974. Susann prefigured the celebrity trash lit authors of today. The recent film, "Isn't She Great" also focused on Susann, with Bette Midler as the sassy, outlandish, rags-to-riches author. Part of the new play is set in Pittsburgh in 1971. F. Murray Abraham won the Academy Award for "Amadeus."
Co-author Hampton memorably co-wrote Full Gallop, the Diana Vreeland solo play, with actress-writer Mary Louise Wilson. With longtime friend Stuart Ross, creator of Forever Plaid, he recently co-authored a musical based on the life of the '30s singing trio, the Boswell Sisters, which recently had its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Co-author Zitwer is the founder and owner of an international literary agency based in New York City, Barbara J. Zitwer Agency. She is also a film and television producer and her feature films include the cult classic, "Vampire's Kiss," starring Nicholas Cage. Zitwer is the author of the "Magic of the Ocean" series published by Warner Books. Paper Doll is her first play.
Designers attached are Michael McGarty (set), Martin Pakledinaz (costume), Brian Nason (lighting) and Zach Moore (sound).
— By Kenneth Jones