After 23 years, the (imagined and not literal) 1948 Oldsmobile of Driving Miss Daisy made its first Broadway stop Oct. 25 — at the Golden Theatre. Unseen, but purring, it glittered like a solid gold Cadillac, with James Earl Jones in the driver's seat, Vanessa Redgrave as the self-designated driver in the back seat and Boyd Gaines as her son and occasional referee. Road travel doesn't get any better.
This character-driven vehicle, which logs up a near quarter-century (Nov. 10, 1948-Nov. 23, 1972) in 90 minutes flat, comes largely from the sentimentally remembered Atlanta childhood of Alfred Uhry, its author. In its travels, the play has accumulated the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize, both in 1988, and two years later struck Oscar gold for Best Picture, screenwriter Uhry and the driven Miss Daisy of Jessica Tandy (at 81, Oscar's oldest winner). The inestimable Morgan Freeman chauffeured both of these runs: the original one Off-Broadway with Dana Ivey, and the film one with Tandy.
Clearly, at this late date, the old Olds could stand a little Tony silver around the chrome, and that's why God created the Tony's Best Revival category — or so figures Jed Bernstein and the 16 producing partners it took to bring this Tony-laden trio (seven Tonys in all) to Broadway. Uhry just named his dream cast and got it!
"It felt exciting," Uhry conceded after the show, dazed and dazzled and smiling goofily, "to see those actors do my play. I don't think playwrights get that very often. "They found things I've never heard before. I can't really tell you what, but they found depths to the play that were never there — different, I mean. Comparing them to Morgan and Dana is useless, because that's one family and this is another family."
Director David Esbjornson joined Uhry and the three stars on stage for the play's final standing ovation. To be sure, there were daisy bouquets for everybody.
No, Esbjornson did not have to use a whip and a chair to bring his cast in line. "Just speak very softly to them" was the secret of his very conspicuous success. "They were wonderful to direct. They're very serious people, very serious actors who have so much to bring to the table. It was a pleasure to be in the room with them, to be making choices together and to be selecting from their wonderful choices."
Gaines, the four-time Tony winner amongst 'em, seconded that, having seen close-up these two acting legends in intimate work and play. "I don't know how they do it," he admitted in total admiration. "They're so incredibly polite with each other, really sweet, kind of old-school — the good old-school, the way they defer to each other. They'd always say, 'Would that be okay with you?' and 'I had a thought we would perhaps do this.' They're genuinely affectionate with each other. Comrades!"
For such a class one-act, impeccably played by all, only The Plaza would do for the wind-down, so first-nighters dutifully taxied in their tuxes over to Central Park from the theatre. In keeping with the picturesque time-frame of the story, Jones and Uhry pulled up to The Plaza in a 1953 Packard, Gaines arrived in a 1949 Plymouth — and Redgrave skipped the publicity altogether and came in her private car.
She lingered a spell smilingly for a protracted paparazzi-popping at the front of the hotel, then moved unhurriedly inside with the pride and self-containment of a peacock oblivious to the rows of TV reporters alternately dropping their jaws and grinding their teeth at their dismissal.
However, if you wait inside the lobby and approach her as a fan, she can be incredibly gracious and downright chatty, guys. "Why is that English actresses have such wonderful success with Southern accents?" you just happen to wonder aloud.
Redgrave dispensed with the historical wrapping and cut straight to the answer: "Well, I had a wonderful coach, a darling coach. I put in a lot of hours. You can't fake it. She's called Deb Hecht. She has always been mine, and a lot of other people's, too."
This is not her first portrayal of a Jew, either. She was doing that 30 years ago, and winning Emmys for it, as Fania Fanelon who used her skills as a singer-pianist to survive Auschwitz in the 1980 TV-movie, "Playing for Time." She, Jane Alexander (a Tony-winning partner for Jones in The Great White Hope) and adapter Arthur Miller all received Emmys, and on Nov. 21 both actresses will attend an anniversary screening and discussion of the work at the Paley Center.
One of the underlying themes that connects and strengthens the bond between Mrs. Daisy Werthan, an elderly retired schoolteacher, and Hoke Coleburn, her attentive and illiterate chauffeur, is that she as a Jew and he as a black are both strangers in a strange land called Dixie after World War II, ripe for Civil Rights upheavals.
Jones admitted he was frankly awed at Redgrave's ability to find new things to mine in her character. "She is constantly finding something new to do, and she will continue to grow through this whole run. Boyd and I will be her wranglers as we go along."
He wasn't overly pleased with the way the evening had gone, performance-wise, he said. "What's great about all nights — except opening night — is that the play is ours. Tonight was not ours. It was the audience's. We have to honor the producers for gathering their friends who helped them to get the play on. It's a great celebration, but it's not my favorite kind of night. Tomorrow and the rest of the run will be ours."
An honored guest of the evening was Morocco Coleman, grandson of Will Coleman, who was the actual Hoke Coleburn in Uhry's life — and, yes, Jones did make his acquaintance. "He said the real Hoke had a lot of 'mother wit.' No matter how inarticulate or how illiterate he might seem, he had a lot of wisdom from just natural wisdom. I love the way he talks. Ya ever see 'Sling Blade'? There's a little boy who says, 'I like the way you talk.' That's the way I feel about Hoke. I like the way he talks."
He is considerably less impressed with the wisdom of Wikipedia, which would have you know he comes to the chauffeur calling naturally since his father, boxer-turned-actor Robert Earl Jones, had been one. "News to me," Jones fils shot back. "Not only was my father never a chauffeur, he was a very unusual driver. You took your life in your hands if you took a drive with him. Wikipedia also says I have a daughter I never heard of named Shaquonique S. Jones. If I did have a daughter, I would certainly never name her something like that."
By the time Jones had done a handful of interviews outside The Plaza and made his way under the red-carpeted stairs into the lobby, Redgrave and entourage were on their way out, having apparently turned on her heel at the happy chaos in the Grand Ballroom where the dining tables were decorated with daisy centerpieces.
They crossed paths awkwardly in the foyer, kiss-kissed affectionately and presented each other with their first-born sons (his Flynn Earl Jones by a former Desdemona, Cecilia Hart, and her Carlo Nero, a ringer for Father Franco). Only a solitary paparazzo got the money-shot of the two titans at The Plaza.
Author Uhry remained blissfully smiling-silly at his table all night. "It's unbelievable that Morocco Coleman would be here participating in all this," he mused. "He was a little bitty boy and I was a big boy when we knew each other as we were growing up. It kinda completes a cycle of sorts for us, going through this evening together."
As it happens to turn out, Coleman has written a book called that — "Coming Full Circle" — now in its fourth printing, about his experiences in, and after, Vietnam.
His wife, Paula Coleman, with no provocation at all, would show you a picture from the book of the real Hoke Coleburn. "I asked James Earl Jones how he knew his hand was stiff, and he said he read it somewhere," she said, "but he was able to reproduce that exactly! The way he did his hands was amazing. It's so beautiful to see an actor understand a character and completely inhabit him."
James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines discuss Driving Miss Daisy:
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Covering the arrivals at the theatre, The Post's Cindy Adams assumed her regular command position next to the entranceway for the first time this season, daring not to be noticed. It was if she was a sandwich board that said: "Stop here. Curtsy. Chat. Kiss the ring. Be gone." All did. She got, fittingly, the queen-mother treatment from all comers-and-goers, happy to see her back in action after a five-month illness.
"Naw," Hugh Jackman muled back at her when she asked him if he'd seen the Off-Broadway Daisy. "I'm an ignoramus from outback!" He did explain his date for the evening, Pat Schoenfeld: "She asked me!" And he did say he was turning up the Broadway flame again: "I'm looking at a few things. I want to do a musical about Houdini. We're working on that. We gotta write it first."
Brian Dennehy, a Tony-winning James Tyrone to Redgrave's Tony-winning Mary Tyrone, said he doubts he'll ever get to Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, as he had hoped after his Chicago raves. "I don't know what the hell's going on with it. It's very complicated now, unnecessarily complicated now."
So he'll travel: "I'm going to Ireland to do a play, The Field by John B. Keane. Richard Harris did the movie. Joe Dowling's directing. Also, I'd like to have some fun in Ireland. But it's got a lot of lines. It's not so easy to learn lines anymore."
Pregnant but perpetually premiering while her husband, Darren Goldstein, sweats nightly over Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is Promises, Promises's Tony winner, Katie Finneran: "Darren and I are trying to order baby cribs and furniture while he's doing the show. He comes home with eyeliner and tattoos on his head. It's very funny, but we're having a great time." Character actress Patricia Conolly, who last worked with director Esbjornson in an Atlantic Theater Company production of Gabriel, is bracing for another Atlantic crossing — "a play called The New York Idea, Mark Brokaw directing. That's all I know so far. We start rehearsals Dec. 6."
Easily the best table to be at for buzz at the party was producer Michael Filerman's. He's excited about a second reading of his and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell's Broadway-bound revival of Ballroom, which will occur Nov. 18 with Tyne Daly, Gregory Jbara and Andrea Martin. Only Tony winners need apply, apparently.
There were plenty of Tony winners glittering up the first night: Joel Grey, Ralph Fiennes, B.D. Wong, Glenn Close with daughter Annie Maude Starke and Bebe Neuwirth, enjoying "Morticia's Night Out" with her hubby of a year and a half, Chris Calkins.
The range of titled dignitaries ran from Condesa von Schonburg, whom producer Dasha Epstein was shepherding through her first Broadway opening to Countess LuAnn de Lesseps with Jacques Azoulay of "The Real Housewives of New York City." Or vice versa, perhaps . . .
Attending with vested interests were Stark Sands, an American Idiot from a block over who served in the British trenches with Gaines in Journey's End; and Joan Didion, who got a Tony-nominated impersonation from Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking.
Also Patricia Harris; columnist Liz Smith with Iris Love; producers Randall Wreghitt and Jamie de Roy, Mario Cantone; Brian d'Arcy James; John Benjamin Hickey; Tovah Feldshuh; Sarah Paulson; Jamie-Lynn Sigler; director Mark Lamos; Brooke Shields, who took a quick leap of coast after the Sunday closing of her Leap of Faith at L.A.'s Ahmanson; Isabella Rossellini; Channel 2's Dana Tyler; Steve Guttenberg, who's just finished writing, producing and starring in an indie called "A Novel Affair"; and Tony Roberts, with his Barefoot in the Park stage wife of 50 years, Penny Fuller.
Redgrave had much of her family dynasty present and accounted for at the opening. In addition to her son, there was her daughter by Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson, Joely Richardson, and two grandsons, Michael and Daniel Neeson by her daughter, Natasha, and Liam Neeson.
The first sentence of her Playbill biography advances a uniquely poignant note: "Vanessa Redgrave's latest appearance on Broadway was a benefit performance for the Roundabout Theatre Company of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music as Madame Armfeldt, her daughter Natasha Richardson playing Desiree Armfeldt, with a magnificent cast on January 12, 2009."
For those lucky enough to see it, it's a night that clings in memory. So will this one.