Con artistry and stage craft crisscrossed April 10 at the Neil Simon Theatre to create a brand-new can-do musical called Catch Me If You Can. Yes, best catch it. It's a thrice-told tale by now — first by Frank Abagnale, Jr. in the ultimate how-to book: how, as a teenager scammer, he ran up an impressive international tab of $2.8 million in rubber checks while disguised as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer.
This intrigued Steven Spielberg enough to make a hit flick about it in 2002, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as his FBI Javert, Carl Hanratty. Now, here come songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and book-writer Terrence McNally to musicalize the above.
Director Jack O'Brien, the man very much in the driver's seat of this Rolls-Royce reprise, stepped to the center of the stage at the curtain call on opening night and announced, "The one thing that thrills me the most about this show is that it actually happened. From this side of footlights, how often do you get to say that? Not very often. How many times do you actually get up and say, after a night of love and exhilaration like this, 'Ladies and gentlemen, here she is . . . Mary Poppins?"
The audience O'Brien led wickedly down this garden path exploded with laughter. Then, when that sufficiently subsided, he brought on the real Abagnale for real. An ordinary-looking Everyman with a thinning thatch of gray hair walked to the mike with the off-the-cuff confidence of a motivational speaker. "Needless to say, I am extremely humbled that I had a great movie made about my life and now this incredible musical made about my life," he declared. "I've had an amazing life, and I know that people are fascinated about what I did between 16 and 21. In a couple of weeks, I'll be 63, and I look back on my life, and I think about what was really amazing — that I was able to make a mistake in my life and serve my time and get up and brush myself off. Last year, I celebrated 35 years with the FBI. I've been married 34 years to a wonderful woman, who changed my life. She gave three beautiful sons, and they're here with their wives tonight — and one of my sons is an FBI agent."
Abagnale also brought us up to date on Agent Carl Hanratty, his persistent nemesis-turned-mentor who engineered the youth's wholly unexpected U-turn into law enforcement. "His real name is Joseph Shea," he noted. "He and I remained friends for 30 years. He was a wonderful man. The last book that I have written, 'Stealing Your Life,' I dedicated to him. He died just a few years ago at the age of 88. He did get to be on the set when they were making the movie. It was a big thrill for him."
The beating heart of the show lies in the faux father-and-son relationship that forms between pursuer and pursued — a positive alternative to the larcenous lessons exchanged between Abagnales Sr. and Jr. — and this is a source of some sentiment.
The usually glib and cheery Shaiman began to dedicate the evening's performance, then broke into a halting silence, finally recovering enough to get out six words: "to everyone's father and one man's sister" — an allusion to Norbert Leo Butz's sister, Teresa Ann, who was murdered in Seattle in July of 2009 when the show was trying out there. Butz, brushing back tears, gave Shaiman a big hug, as did Wittman.
That was the emotional capper for an evening almost electric with good vibes.
Hugh Jackman spent Act I comfortably without a coat, side-swaying and head-bopping, obviously grooving to Shaiman's ersatz '60s sounds, beside wife Deborra-Lee Furness and their children, Oscar and Ava.
The "30 Rock" Maternity Ward was well represented by Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski, and there were some New York Philharmonic refugees from Company on much-needed R&R for getting the show up and at 'em and excitingly camera-ready after lukewarm newspaper notices: Patti LuPone, director Lonny Price and Aaron Lazar all looked very relieved. "I am insanely proud of it, and I don't know how it happened, but I'm very happy that it did," said Price. Another recovering from blue-blazes emoting in The Other Place was Laurie Metcalf, on the arm of her November producer, Jeffrey Richards. Their President in November and the first workshop Hanratty — Nathan Lane — pretty much kept to himself.
Also in attendance were Laura Bell Bundy, Christine Ebersole, Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi, Tony Roberts, Joy Behar of "The View," Lainie Kazan, Sister Act's Caesar Samayoa, Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (social-networking), Marsha Mason at home at the Neil Simon as director O'Brien's date, Deana Martin, Norman Lear, Lonette McKee and Andy Cohen.
Shirley MacLaine, rarely sighted on The Great White Way, arrived in a constellation of other stars — Martin Short with his ex-sister-in-law and eternal pal, Andrea Martin, and, uncaged for the evening, Robin Williams. Before the show, MacLaine chit-chatted on the aisle with columnist Cindy Adams and, at intermission, swooped up to choreographer Jerry Mitchell with precisely the words he wanted to hear: "It's really wonderful!"
There was more of that happy buzz at the after-party held at Cipriani on 42nd Street.
Abagnale himself was still reeling from his first viewing of the play. "It was incredible, way beyond my expectations," he admitted. "It kinda reminded me of when I watched the movie, which I watched by myself — no one else in the theatre. It was kinda surreal, and so was the play, especially when you get into my family life."
William Ivey Long, whose date for the evening was the redoubtable Willa Kim, didn't hesitate a sec about his favorite costumes for the show: "Oh, my goodness, are you kidding? The showgirls!" Ten — count 'em, ten — luscious, leggy young things prance about in his skimpy duds as stewardesses and nurses, primarily because Abagnale would pick his professions to meet girls. "And you should see the swings!" Long said, with the slight lilt of possible lust.
"Finally," sighed film director John Waters, "a musical that straight men can love." Which wouldn't include the two musicals made of his films — Cry-Baby and Shaiman and Wittman's Hairspray; if there's a third, "I'd vote for 'Serial Mom'," which has Kathleen Turner upholding family virtues via murder.
Choreographer Mitchell is the man to thank for casting such gorgeous showgirls. "I said we needed ten girls because he ran away to be with girls, and the girls become collectively a character in the show and individually a character in the show — each of them," he explained.
The conceit of the musical is that Abagnale's life unravels in the format of a television variety show so prevalent in the '60s when his story was actually happening. Mitchell certainly put in his homework, growing up in front of the TV set. "I watched plenty," he admitted. "Michael Bennett and Ron Field choreographed a lot of them — and were in them as well. I didn't do TV variety shows until the '80s — a little later, but I still danced with some of the same choreographers." David Rockwell's set, with its symmetrical staircases and assorted platforms, is dead-on for the period and could have been dictated by Mitchell. "I said, 'Just gimme a blank floor, and gimme some stairs,'" the choreographer insisted. "David and I like architecture, and we like the stage so we worked well together."
The choreographic moment he's proudest of stops the first act and allows Butz, in a middle-aged pot-bellied fat suit, to take off. "The audience seems to really respond to 'Don't Break the Rules,'" admitted Mitchell. "I think that they are really surprised when that character finally gets to express himself in a production number."
He said that he also collaborated with Butz on the stodgy, flat-footed walk that the actor affects. "We talked about it. He's wearing a little bit of extra weight. There's padding under there. He thought he was channeling a little Jimmy Cagney in there."
Butz has a different story about his aged and eccentric stride: "Hanratty just reminded me of a lot of guys that I grew up admiring, like my father," he remarked. "I'm just doing a thing about my dad. That, basically, is all that I'm doing."
The con turf is familiar for Butz, who received his Tony Award for fleecing the Riviera rich in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but such training doesn't help much in tracking this slippery young customer who constantly keeps eluding his long arm.
The boy Abagnale amounts to a hefty star-turn for Aaron Tveit, who was a different sort of grieved-over son in Next to Normal last season. Like Butz, Tveit arrived on Broadway in Rent, but their paths didn't cross by a country mile. "I'm 14 years older than Aaron," Butz pointed out. "I was at the beginning of Rent, and he was at the end." Both, interestingly, played the role of Roger.
Tveit has met his real-life counterpart and sized him up like this: "The coolest thing about Frank is that he is so open about his life and the things he did wrong. He says his life is a true American story because he got to change his life and have another chance. He's just a fascinating person, so supportive of us and the show and myself."
He credited his manager and the casting director, Bernie Telsey, with getting him the role. "I've had the part of Frank for almost three and a half years. They really pushed me and pushed me. They wouldn't take no for an answer so they're the reasons I'm here. None of this role is easy, but it's the joy of my life right now. It's everything that I've ever wanted to do, and now I'm getting to do it."
Kerry Butler, a Clarence Derwent Award winner for Hairspray, has the thankless role of the reforming female in Abagnale's life, and it has taken some time for the writers to chisel out a spine for the character. "They changed the character a lot," Butler revealed. "They wanted to find it, and I think a few weeks ago they finally found it. I went through, like, four different versions during previews. At first, I was the version from the movie where I was crying in every scene. Then I was more quirky. It ended up just being stronger, that she's really good at her job. She's not as wounded now, and I love the fact that she calls Frank out on everything."
A more fleeting type of female in his life — the slutty Cheryl Ann — is represented by Rachelle Rak, who races out of the ensemble to do it and then races back in. "It comes after this monster of a number," she said, "and you think, 'Is anyone going to hear it?' But the way they've set it up — me stepping out of that elevator in a fur coat — there's nothing like it. You get what you get, and you make the most of it."
Tom Wopat has the role of the senior Abagnale — a scammer and a bummer of a dad and an Oscar-nominated bit for Christopher Walken in the movie version. "I like playing the character in the sense that he's a catalyst for a lot of things that happen to the young man," Wopat admitted, "but he's definitely flawed."
Song-wise, Wopat had to share: "I wish I had song that wasn't a duet, but they all turn out to be duets" — "Butter Outta Cream" with Tveit and "Little Boy, Be a Man" with Butz, two of the loveliest numbers in the score. The one solo he had, "Fifty Checks," was cut, but he loved it enough to record it for his "Consider It Swung" album. "Now, they're telling me it might be on a bonus track for the cast recording."
Marilyn Maye, escorted by her lawyer, Mark Sendroff, has "Butter Outta Cream" pegged to be the breakout hit of the show. It may even be in her act when Maye comes in season May 24 through June 4 at Feinstein's at Loews Recency.
Being French and being unfaithful practically puts Rachel de Benedet in another musical as the first Mrs. Abagnale, but she relishes the isolation. "I love the idea of playing someone who has been living for 20 years as an outsider," she said.
"It gives you a different perspective on life. When I was a child, I lived in Germany for a while and went to German public school, and I was an outsider, so I understand that feeling of being not quite part of the culture. It's your culture, but you're not really a part of it. That's an interesting character trait that's been fun to play with."
Six-foot-five Wyman strikes an intimidating figure as a prospective father-in-law. "I get to be scary and funny," he explained. "I have a wonderful time doing this. It's concentrated. It's power-packed. I don't have a whole lot to say on stage, but, when I'm on stage, I'm there and I drive the scene. It's a wonderful little scene."
Hart confessed her heart was at the Sondheim four days ago when the new revival of Anything Goes opened. In the previous revival, she belted out "Buddie, Beware" and won a Theatre World Award for it. "It was my first Broadway show. I really wanted to be there, but I couldn't. I had a preview, and there were a couple of reviewers in the audience that night, but I plan to go. I adore Sutton Foster.
"You know the story about 'Buddie, Beware'? It was written for Ethel Merman, and it was her seventh solo of the night, and she said, 'I can't do it. I can't sing any more songs.' And they gave it to nobody. The song was cut. Jerry Zaks dug it up and brought it back in the 1987 version at Lincoln Center, and he gave it to me."
Lyricist Wittman reported a smooth landing for Catch Me If You Can. "In this past week, the show had made a turn because we had stopped making changes and cuts so the actors were now playing it with such confidence. It wasn't ours anymore, so it felt freeing. I watched them happen. It was a long process. It took seven years. We've been engaged for seven years, and tonight is like a $13 million wedding."
As far as Shaiman's best part of the show, he liked it when the story kicked in with the audience. "You could feel it halfway through the first act. People stop feeling it as 'Okay, here's this one number,' and they actually become engaged in the story."
"You don't get that very often," director O'Brien noted about the story takeover. "You think, 'Oh, it's this kind of show.' Then, later, you think, 'No, it's not. It's something else.' I'm very proud of that. It hasn't been easy. I tell people it's like delivering a hippo by C-section. We've been at it and at it and at it, and yet it's gotten better and better and more refined, more condensed. We know each other so well, and we trust each other so much. It's been a difficult piece because there's so much story. Even if you look at the movie, there's so much story. The boys wrote this extraordinary score, and we wanted every note of it, but we found we had to condense it and pull it together, so it's compact now. It's a real grown-up evening."
Now, what's next? Will he be going to Disney World tomorrow? "No, I'm not," the director shot back with a big laugh. "I am Disney World, honey."
Watch a musical preview of the show: