The first Broadway revival in 14 years of Thornton Wilder's American classic, Our Town, begins a nine-week limited run Nov. 22 at the Booth Theatre.
The show is doubly an occasion due to the identity of the actor playing the Stage Manager — Paul Newman, who here returns to the Broadway stage after a 38-year break, during which time he solidified his status a Hollywood legend in such films as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Verdict," "Absence of Malice," "The Color of Money" and more.
The Broadway cast largely mirrors that of the Westport Country Playhouse, where the production originated last summer. Newman's wife, actress Joanne Woodward, is artistic director of the historic WCP, which is the sole producer of the limited Broadway run. Among the residents of the fictional town of Grover's Corners are Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, Stephen Spinella as Simon Stimpson, Maggie Lacey as Emily Gibbs, Ben Fox as George Gibbs, Mia Dillon as Mrs. Soames, Jake Robards as Howie Newsome, and John Braden as Professor Willard. James Naughton—a Westport favorite, Tony winning actor (Chicago, City of Angels) and experienced Broadway director (The Price)—pilots the effort.
Paul Newman's return to Broadway is prompting the box office for Our Town to boom, with the advance sale at more than $3 million (meaning WCP has recouped its $1 million capitalization). A show spokesman said the play was 91 percent sold out, as of Nov. 19.
The Broadway opening at the intimate Booth Theatre is Dec. 4. The production of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilder staple has a limited run to Jan. 26, 2003, though there is speculation that if Newman cares to continue, the run could extend deeper into the new year. Jan. 26 is Newman's 78th birthday.
"We're absolutely thrilled," Westport's executive director, Alison Harris previously told Playbill On-Line. The revival, she said, was not created as a Broadway-bound project, and was expensive to mount even in Connecticut last summer. The play was programmed into the summer season because, after 9/11, artistic director Joanne Woodward thought it was the right time to return to what the play had to say about people.
"She felt it spoke to the mood of the time," Harris said. "It has a wonderful history here in Westport. Thornton Wilder appeared on stage at the Playhouse, he got his Equity card here. As [Woodward and James Naughton] began to put the production together, and more and more people signed on from the Fairfield County area, and Connecticut, it became Our Town in our town and it had a really special feeling to it."
Initially the company signed on for three weeks in Connecticut, but enthusiastic reviews and board support swelled toward talk of a move to Broadway. "One thing led to another," Harris said, and "it came down to Paul Newman agreeing to do it, and he agreed to do it on the condition that Westport was the sole producer of it" so the artistic control could be maintained.
Capitalization is about $1 million, with the break even coming in at a little less than 90 percent capacity. All seats are $75 with $25 student tickets available same day of performance.
Imperative to the Broadway run, Harris said, was finding a theatre that could replicate the ambiance of Westport's 700-seat venue, an intimate theatre with a surround balcony. The tiny Booth on Broadway was available. It was also important to the Westport team that the principals return to the show, and they have.
Our Town will be the first Westport production to transfer to Broadway in nearly 15 years, since the musical Mail. In days gone by, such Westport-to Manhattan transfers were common, and 1930 founder and artistic director Lawrence Langner saw the rural theatre as more than just a summer venue, but as having "one foot in Westport and one on Broadway," according to the Westport website's historical notes. Famous examples of transfers were Come Back Little Sheba and Butterflies Are Free. The theatre's fortunes have improved since Woodward took over the company a few seasons ago.
The play is performed on a bare stage and narrated by a stage manager, who introduces characters and actors and sets the scenes. The action focuses on the mundanities of every day life in Grover's Corner's, NH, 1901-13, in the three acts: "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage" and "Death." Like other Wilder plays, it embraces the idea of living richly and fully, and recognizing the tiniest moments — and the interconnectedness — of human existence. A staple in high school English classes and educational, stock and amateur theatres, the play is considered by some to be corny, but was revolutionary in its day (and continues to be). Even in amateur stagings, its cradle-to grave view of human foibles and frailties tends to pack an emotional wallop.
"It's one of these shows we all did in high school and have seen occasionally, but it was a remarkable production," Harris said. "It's not just a star turn for Mr. Newman, though it is huge role. But it's not just a chance to see Mr. Newman on stage for the first time in 40 years, but also the fact that it was such a strong company — the depth of the company." How good was the show last summer? Harris said the photographers at the photo call during the final dress rehearsal were crying.
The original Our Town bowed at Henry Miller's Theatre on Feb. 4, 1938, with the legendary Jed Harris producing and directing. The show starred Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, Martha Scott as Emily Webb and John Craven as George Gibbs. The play's legendarily spare staging asks for the actors to move certain pieces of furniture. In a famous story told by Harris in his memoir "Watchman, What Light?," the stagehands union got wind of this bit of stage business and warned Harris that only stagehands could move stage props and furniture. The Showman, furious and proclaiming artistic integrity, threatened to close down the show and take the story to the papers. The union backed down.
A 1969 Broadway revival starred Henry Fonda as the Stage Manager, as well as Ed Begley, Margaret Hamilton, Mildred Natwick and John Randolph. The 1989 Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Gregory Mosher, featured Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, Penelope Ann Miller as Emily, Eric Stoltz as George, Frances Conroy as Mrs. Gibbs, Peter Maloney as Mr. Gibbs, Roberta Maxwell as Mrs. Gibbs, James Rebhorn as Dr. Gibbs, and William H. Macy as Howie Newsome.
Gray's performance was not generally well received. In typical fashion, the monologuist got the last laugh, talking about his reviews—particularly the Frank Rich notice in the New York Times—in his solo piece Monster in a Box.
Performance schedule for the show is 7 PM Tuesday, 8 PM Wednesday Saturday, 2 PM Wednesday and Saturday, 3 PM Sunday. All tickets are $75, with $25 student tickets available. The Booth Theatre is at 222 W. 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200.
For more information about Westport Country Playhouse, visit www.westportplayhouse.org.