Even the play's author, Elaine May—a woman of exquisite timing—was a bit thrown by the prematurity of it all. "This is like a mid preview opening—isn't that kinda weird?" the dismayed Miss May said on May 19, scanning the crowd tumbling into the Copacabana's main room. "I've no idea how that works. This is the only time I've worked totally with Manhattan Theatre Club. They have procedures. I've just worked with Julian before."
Julian is Julian Schlossberg, her friend and most frequent producer, a co-producer with MTC of this play and her Power Plays. He also came up with the title, plucked from a lyric in "You and the Night and the Music," an evergreen that Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz originally planted in their big Broadway revue of 1934, Revenge with Music.
"Julian thinks of all the titles of my plays," May admitted. "He put some real thought into this one. He gave the piece a read, and he said, `It should be this,' so I named it that."
Framed posters of Revenge with Music were given out to the various creative personnel, much to the delight of May's longtime main-squeeze, Stanley Donen, the famed filmmaker (Singin' in the Rain, Two for the Road, Funny Face). "I knew those guys, Dietz and Schwartz—they were workers with me," he exclaimed happily. Grudgingly, he conceded that that show was a little before his time—"but not much." He was ten then, but six years later he'd find Broadway and his future collaborator, Gene Kelly, in Pal Joey.
The dance history of Donen and the Copa was quite apt for After the Night and the Music since its curtain raiser—called "Curtain Raiser"—is a boy-meets-girl-on-a-dancefloor set-up and nicely stacked with more Dietz and-Schwartz like "Dancing in the Dark." For comic effect, May envisions a scary pairing out of Jules Feiffer—a chip-on-her-shoulder siren with glacial glances that stop men cold (J. Smith-Cameron) and a puppydog persistent nebbish oblivious to the obvious danger signs (Eddie Korbich). A dance of wills ensues. "You know why I like this play?" asked Korbich. "It's a play. I love musicals. That's my bread and butter"—he was Tobias in Sweeney Todd and Mr. Snow in Carousel, among many others—"but, after 20 years of musicals, it's wonderful to do a play. It's fantastic.
"When I found out I'd be working with J. Smith-Cameron, whom I've admired for years, I was kinda scared—you know, the musical boy going in playing with the big people—then I realized she was just as afraid to dance, so we were scared together, and it was great."
Smith-Cameron was quick to return the compliment. "I didn't know I could dance," she confessed, "and it's really fun. That Eddie Korbich! I call him Eddie the Brick. In our first couple of previews when we were really nervous, doing new dances steps every night, trying different things, he would just look at me on stage and wink, and it'd relax me."
After this Night and the Music, she returns to her usual nonmusical groove. Next is a movie written and directed by her husband, playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who hired her for his Oscar-nominated debut picture, You Can Count on Me. It's called Margaret (although there is not a character named that in the film). "Then, in the spring, I'll do David Marshall Grant's play, Pen, at Playwrights Horizons. Will Fears will direct."
Lonergan, sitting next to her, leaned forward. "Did you tell him about your role in my 'disappointing second feature'?" he asided, cynically anticipating the cliched critical reaction. "Yes, I did," Mrs. Lonergan dutifully replied. He added some asterisks to this news: "We'll supposedly start filming, here in the city, in September, but don't hold me to that. I haven't got a cast yet. Matthew Broderick will be in it. He has a small featured role, and, if he does well in that part, I may consider him for something bigger later."
Randy Skinner, who set a fleet of dancing feet to tapping in 42nd Street, confined his choreographic skills to these four feet for the ballroom segment—"a month in the country" for someone with his epic workload: "Right now, I'm in the middle of casting three companies of White Christmas. We're going to do San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston at the same time—roughly from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve." (It's a seasonal thing, you see—based on Irving Berlin's 1954 songfest flick.) Offers have gone out to the quartet who did the show last year—Brian d'Arcy James, Jeffry Denman, Anastasia Barzee and Meredith Patterson in parts originally played by Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen—"but I don't know who's coming back."
Coming back to the immediate business at hand, Skinner had high praise for May's dance knowledge. "Elaine is a great lady. I had a ball with her, and she really knows what she's talking about. When I read the script, I could see the images. She had all the terminology down correct. It made it wonderfully easy. I said, 'You have everything perfect, Elaine.'"
Guilty as charged: "I do know dancing," May admitted. "I taught it when I first got here."
After the Night and the Music is identified on the cover page under the title as "Three New Plays in Two Acts" (translation: three one-acts, punctuated with an intermission). "Curtain Raiser" gives rise to "Giving Up Smoking," about four lost and lonely New York souls trying to make it through the night with the help of cellphones and videos of The Wizard of Oz. Act II is titled, entendre intended, "Swing Time"—some foursome foreplay that might be described as this millenium's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, with extra angst.
The chameleon-like Smith-Cameron is finally recognizable in the third opus. So shrewdly has Paul Huntley camouflaged her with his transforming wigs in Act I that you keep consulting your Playbill to see when she's coming on—only to discover she's already on!
Similarly, the generically good-looking Brian Kerwin slips by utterly unnoticed in "Curtain Raiser" behind an ill-fitting toupee and a very sad mustache—Kerwin's idea, he'll tell you. "After a few days of tech, I said, 'I look the same in all three plays. What are the chances that this guy is wearing a truly bad toupee?'" Excellent, as it apparently turns out.
Jere Burns and May's daughter, Jeannie Berlin, join Kerwin and Smith-Cameron for the two four-handers. Joanna Glushak and the Broadway-bowing Deirde Madigan, who have bits in the first play, understudy the ladies, and the guys are covered a couple of Grade-A known quantities, Joel Blum and Peter Marx (nee Peter Slutsker); Marx followed Blum's Tony-nominated turn in Broadway's last Show Boat—Frank Schultz (of Frank and Ellie/"Life Upon the Wicked Stage" fame)—and Korbich toured in that part.
An energetic live-wire hoofer, Blum stands ready to make the musical moves when Korbich can't. He was last seen in New York in Golf: The Musical. "I did a Bob Hope turn in that, and they want me to do a one-man show on him so I'm writing that," he said. "I actually did a version of it in Peoria, IL. It went very well, but it needs more work. My dad, Al Blum, was a vaudevillian who knew Hope so you could say it's an early calling."
Marx also has some impressive dance credits—as recently as 42nd Street, working with Skinner ("When Michael Arnold went to choreograph Bounce, I finally got to do my dream part: Andy Lee, the dance captain.")—but he didn't get the dancing role here. "They thought I was too attractive for that part," he quipped, giving his slick dome a narcissistic swipe. "I'm understudying the two leading men [Kerwin and Burns], thank you very much. I've never understudied before in my life, but it was [director] Daniel Sullivan."
It was also a chance to cozy up to the co-director of Singin' in the Rain. "I told Donen I was the original Cosmo Brown on Broadway, and he said, 'You mean that Twarp thing?' I said, 'Yeah,' and I told him all the things Donald O'Connor told me during previews at the Gershwin. We talked for hours. He told me it took two weeks to shoot 'Make 'Em Laugh,' and, after the first two weeks, he had to go into the hospital he was so beat up. He said, 'I'm lying there, and Kelly came in, and he said, "Don, we didn't get it all." And so we went back and shot some more." Donen looked at me and said, 'It never happened.'
"O'Connor's the one who said, 'You can't do "Make 'Em Laugh" live.' I said, 'Believe me, I'm learning that quickly.' He was right, too. I sprained both of my ankles trying."
The chronically employed Sullivan is becoming Manhattan Theatre Club's favorite Broadway season-starter. He lifted off last season its Sight Unseen, returned after the start of the year with its Brooklyn Boy and went on to helm Denzel Washington's Julius Caesar, finally returning to MTC's Square One slot for After the Night and the Music. "It was particularly lovely to work on that first piece," he said. "It sorta gave me the feeling that I'd like to work with Elaine on something else that's a little larger than that."
But first—Third, the new Wendy Wasserstein play set for Lincoln Center in the fall. "Dianne Wiest is starring," he said. "Right now, we're recasting the role of her father. Tom Aldredge's not doing it. He's doing Arthur Laurents' play over at George Street Playhouse. We will start rehearsing Third in August, and we will open in October." Two of Aldredge's fellow jurors from Twelve Angry Men—Kevin Geer and Byron Jennings—were among the celebs attending the unopening-night performance and party.
Geer noted the jury had just been dismissed after protracted deliberation at the American Airlines Theatre. "Now, we'll do our voting at Radio City Music Hall," he cracked (meaning he expects the show to cop the Best Revival of a Drama Tony on Sunday).
Jennings, who rated a Tony nomination this season for Sight Unseen, was as usual with his wife, Carolyn McCormick, who had likewise just finished a theatrical run—in Paul Weitz's Privilege at Second Stage—but she was still singing the praises of her younger son in that play, 12-year-old Conor Donovan, who won a Theatre World Award for his adult-level acting. "Never mind child actor—he's a terrific actor, period," trilled "Mom."
Also in attendance were some of MTC's pet playwrights from the past (and, hopefully, the future)—the pre-Tony John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), the Tony-winning Richard Maltby Jr. (Ain't Misbehavin') and Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!) and the yet-to-be-Tonyed David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo) who'll try again next season at MTC with the Daniel Sullivan-directed Rabbit Hole.
McNally and May go back to his second play, Next, which she directed. His next is at Primary Stages (Aug. 18-Sept. 18): Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams with Marian Seldes.
Berlin may well be her Mom's best mouthpiece, articulating the off-center humor with an inherited inflection that's practically pitch perfect. "It was even more pronounced in Power Plays, when they were on stage together," McNally observed. "It's astonishing."
May's own take on the night's merriment was scientific. "It's odd about laughs," she said. "Laughs just mean that people understand the story. In a comedy, that's all it means."