Paul Newman Helps Make Our Town a Boom Town; $2 Million Advance

News   Paul Newman Helps Make Our Town a Boom Town; $2 Million Advance Paul Newman's return to Broadway after 40 years is prompting the box office for Our Town to boom, with the advance sale at $2 million as of Oct. 17.

Paul Newman's return to Broadway after 40 years is prompting the box office for Our Town to boom, with the advance sale at $2 million as of Oct. 17.

Broadway performances of the Westport Country Playhouse staging — a limited run of nine weeks — begin at the intimate Booth Theatre Nov. 22 toward an opening of Dec. 4. Director James Naughton recreates his Westport, CT, staging seen earlier this year, with Newman, Jane Curtin, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frank Converse, Stephen Spinella and others returning to the characters they developed. Newman's wife, actress Joanne Woodward, is artistic director of the historic WCP.

The production of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Thornton Wilder classic has a limited run of nine weeks, to Jan. 26, 2003, though there is speculation that if Newman cares to continue, the run could extend deeper into the new year.

"We're absolutely thrilled," Westport's executive director, Alison Harris told Playbill On-Line Oct. 17. 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." The Broadway cast largely mirrors Westport's, where Newman played the folksy Stage Manager, Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin were Mr. and Mrs. Webb, Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson were Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, Stephen Spinella played Simon Stimpson, Maggie Lacey was Emily Gibbs, Ben Fox was George Gibbs, Mia Dillon played Mrs. Soames, Jake Robards was Howie Newsome, and John Braden was Professor Willard.

Initially the company signed on for three weeks, 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.

As to the idea of Newman and Co. extending beyond nine weeks on Broadway, Harris said "anything is possible," but cautioned that she comes from the world of subscription non-profit theatre where runs are limited because the next show is coming in. She expects a nine week run, ending Jan. 26 on what happens to be Paul Newman's birthday. Budget-wise, "the numbers worked" for a nine-week run (technically, it's 9 1/2 weeks, she said). Rehearsals begin the week of Nov. 4.

This will be Curtin's second Broadway credit of the year, after her short stint in Noises Off. DeMunn was last seen on Broadway in The Price, also directed by Naughton, while Atkinson appeared in The Rainmaker. Lacey is currently Off-Broadway in the Keen Company's Three-Cornered Moon.

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.

Our Town closed as scheduled on June 22 at the Playhouse.

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.

Equity permitted Westport to do a simple archival video taping of the final dress. There is hope Lincoln Center may also document the show for its archives.

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.