PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The History Boys: Boys Will Be Noise

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The History Boys: Boys Will Be Noise
 
Some of the old school ties had been undone, and a few of the collars loosened April 23, when The History Boys (and their teachers) emerged tentatively from the shadowy wings of the Broadhurst for one last, fast, emphatic and utterly unscheduled opening-night bow.
From Top: Alan Bennett and Frances de la Tour; Richard Griffiths; Russell Tovey and Dominic Cooper; Samuel Barnett; Sacha Dhawan and James Corden; Stephen Campbell Moore; Cameron Mackintosh and Nicholas Hytner; Bob Boyett; Clive Merrison; Cherry Jones.
From Top: Alan Bennett and Frances de la Tour; Richard Griffiths; Russell Tovey and Dominic Cooper; Samuel Barnett; Sacha Dhawan and James Corden; Stephen Campbell Moore; Cameron Mackintosh and Nicholas Hytner; Bob Boyett; Clive Merrison; Cherry Jones. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Pulled by the persisting applause, this bedraggled band of brothers—including one conspicuous sister—stumbled timidly into their regular curtain-call reformation and bowed deeply to the demands of the euphoric mob, an unbroken line of ear-to-ear grins.

“At first, I thought the people were trying too hard to be nice,” admitted Richard Griffiths, who lords majestically over the boys (and Alan Bennett’s beautiful play) as their mentor, Hector. “But I listened harder to see what was going on. I listen, really sharply, all the time to the audience. The audience controls what happens in the show.

“The applause—it was really extraordinary so I said to them, ‘Do you want to go back?’ It was all a bit of an amateur shambles because we hadn’t prepared anything. We just wandered back on. I think the audience could see it wasn’t a trick to hold them around. We went back out because they wouldn’t stop applauding. It was as simple as that.”

Hit-hungry Broadway knows one when it sees one, and a smart, spiffy opening-night audience seemed a little relieved that this London import, which director Nicholas Hytner pulled together in his own back yard at the National Theatre where he is the artistic director, is up to the raves and the awards it has been winning since it bowed in the spring of 2004.

Griffiths, with his XXL talent and waistline, has already picked off the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards over there and is the odds-on favorite for all the Best Actor prizes over here (save for the Outer Critics Circle which, oddly, nominated him for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play). And, looking beyond the stage, it’s entirely possible that he could to win, for the same performance, the Tony and the Oscar, since Hytner assembled the original cast for a cinematic runthrough which will be reaching theatre scenes in England in the fall and here before year’s end. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case is that The History Boys at last brings to the fore a first-class, singularly unique character actor who has been loitering too long in the background of films and English plays. This is his first Broadway outing, as it is with every manjack in the cast, and he has already picked out his second: Heroes, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Gerald Sibleyras’ French play, which he did to Olivier Award-nominated effect opposite John Hurt and Ken Scott. “I’m keen on doing it here.”

It’s a face full of jowl, joy and comic inquisitiveness, and it’s finally coming into focus for the masses who only know him as movie uncles—the kinky Uncle Monty of "Withnail and I" and the cranky Uncle Vernon in the "Harry Potter" films. Only "Volpone" approaches the pleasure he got on stage from Hector—but “that was 20 years ago. Hector I’ll have spent three years with by the time the run finishes. I think that’ll be enough for me and Hector.”

Inevitably, Hector sends off reverberations in the audience of teachers, long gone, who mattered and made a difference. He strikes such a chord with Bill Rosenfield, the original cast album producer now based in London, who came over for the American opening. “It’s my seventh time seeing this,” he admitted, “and the first time I haven’t had to pay—so you know I like it. They’ve trimmed it down about 20 minutes, but, if you hadn’t seen the show before, you’d never know it. It’s traveled beautifully. The first time I saw it, when it was over, my partner turned to me and said, ‘If we sit here long enough, will they come out and do more?’ That’s what it is. It’s a wonderful play, impeccably performed. In fact, easily, it is the best evening in the theatre you could have this season.”

Bennett, who hit Broadway in ‘60 as one-fourth of Beyond the Fringe (along with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller), looks, at 71, like the English dons he writes about—prim, precise and professorial. “I know,” he instantly acquiesces, with a faint smile.

At the heart of The History Boys is an academic argument, personified by the push-pull battle between the old-guard Hector who expounds a free-wheeling curriculum that prescribes “life lessons” for his charges (“sixth-formers,” or, in this country, high-school seniors) and a young newcomer named Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) who trains them in the glib tricks of the trade that’ll get them through the entrance tests ahead and into the privileged schools of Oxford and Cambridge. The hard-nosed headmaster (Clive Merrison) finds Hector’s “general studies” a little general for his tastes and recruits Irwin to get results by focusing the boys on the straight and narrow. The conflict comes down to Unstructured Enlightenment vs. Empty Noise that signifies nothing but gets the job done, and truth be damned.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to be resolved,” Bennett confessed about the raging war for young minds that goes on in the play. “I think we’ll always debate whether education is something for life or whether it’s for college qualifications. Everybody wants their children to have well-rounded educations, but they also want them to get through exams.”

You might think there is a Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips in Bennett’s past that would have inspired him to write this play, but he says not. “I think that’s probably why I wrote the play—because I didn’t have a teacher like that.”

Incredibly, if not criminally, this is Bennett’s first time back on Broadway since Habeas Corpus, which—with a glittering cast like Donald Sinden, Rachel Roberts, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Richard Gere, Paxton Whitehead and Kristoffer Tabori —could limp through only 95 performances in 1975.

He still harbors hopes Broadway will find a spot for his The Lady in the Van, which he based on his real-life brush with a vagrant parked in front of his home; two actors played him, and Maggie Smith mopped up the floor with both of them, according to reliable reviews. “Maggie said she’d do it on Broadway if I’d do it, but I don’t think I could do that.” All is not lost, he added brightly: “Joan Rivers says she wants to do it.”

Bennett plays have made it over here, however—albeit to BAM and Off-Broadway. Minetta Lane housed his Talking Heads, a two-evening event with three monologues each—and somehow it won an Outstanding Ensemble Award from the aforementioned Outer Critics Circle (despite the slight fact no two performers appeared on the stage at the same time).

The Madness of George III , which rated a Broadway run as the last great hurrah for Nigel Hawthorne, got only as far as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but director Hytner put together a film version (retitled, so no one got lost, "The Madness of King George") that won Oscar nominations for Bennett, Hawthorne and Helen Mirren and the prize for sets.

The day before The History Boys opened, the New York Public Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium filled to overflowing to hear Bennett read from "Untold Stories," his memoirs just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The day after the play opened, he returned to the auditorium to introduce excerpts from his plays— Forty Years On, Kafka’s Dick, Single Spies, The Lady in the Van and The Madness of George III —directed by Jack O’Brien and performed by Eileen Atkins, Philip Bosco, Richard Easton, Christine Ebersole and Robert Sean Leonard. TV cameras had to be set up for the overflow.

Hytner, who helmed The Lady in the Van as well as Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s "The Wind in the Willows," had the unmistakable look of jubilation as he roamed the post-premiere party at Tavern on the Green. The firefly lighting became him.

“The four plays I’ve done with Alan are the best things I’ve ever done,” he declared with no small measure of joy, "and he is the best thing to happen in my professional life.”

Frances de la Tour , who plays Hector’s sympathetic co-worker, received the symbolic bouquet of roses at the curtain call, being the lone woman in the cast. She is also the only person in the cast who has been to Broadway before (as Helena in Peter Brook ’s historic A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1971). It wasn’t her intention to be a continental recluse. “I was going to come here three other times,” she said, “but something happened.”

In this all-male environ, her character provides some pretty pungent gender-balancing all by herself, but feminism isn’t what the actress saw in the role. It was, in a word, “soul.” Hisses, figurative and sometimes literal, roll right off Clive Merrison. He doesn’t see the headmaster as a heavy. “A lot of people think the headmaster has a very good point,” he pointed out. “In America, as in England, parents want results. I hope I speak his case well.”

He’s happy to make his Broadway beachhead with the Boys. “Frances and I did not do Sydney or Hong Kong because the tour would be too long for us. We’re 60 years old, and we’ve got children and dogs.” When it is noted Griffiths turns 59 in two months, Merrison said, “But he’s a great bear of an actor. There’s a very thin man in him trying to get out.

“These days, the exchange between American and English Equity is so much better. People say, ‘There’s an awful lot of Brits on Broadway.’ Well. there’s an awful lot of Americans on the West End. And that’s how it should be—although I have to say I think the theatre community is much friendlier than it is in England. American actors say, ‘What happened?’ Here the theatre community holds out the hand of friendship.”

Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Anderson, Dominic Cooper, Andrew Knott, Samuel Barnett, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker and James Corden constitute The History Boys.

Cooper, who has the sexual immediacy of the very young Tony Curtis, seems the most conspicuous bet for surefire stardom, playing the main lothario-on-the-loose. There’s a scene late in the second act where he turns his ladykilling allure on one of his male teachers, and gays in the audiences break out into a cold sweat. “I’m glad to hear that,” Cooper cheerfully responds. The scene always appealed to me because it’s difficult to play without being arrogant. At the beginning, when we first starting rehearsing it, I found it quite difficult to get away from being manipulative and uncaring, but that’s not it at all. What he’s doing at the end is trying to get the guy to express himself as a person, as a human being, and it’s a more heartfelt thing. He’s the kind of kid in school you envied because he had everything. It was a challenge to play him without being showy or arrogant.”

Barnett, who plays a budding gay who is smitten with Cooper’s character, is a kingsize heartbreak as well—and gets to sing, full out, in an untrained voice several evergreens, including Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” He wasn’t receiving any compliments on his singing, however. “All I can tell you is that the singing has gotten better,” he admitted.

Disney Theatrical chief Thomas Schumacher arrived with his Tarzan in tow (Josh Strickland), that show’s music man, Phil Collins, and its designer-director, the fabulous Bob Crowley, who did the classroom sets for The History Boys. The entire cast of Faith Healer (Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid) made an united front, as were two-thirds of the Bermuda Avenue Triangle (Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna), who are planning to complete that Triangle with Lainie Kazan for a gig at the Brentwood in L.A.

Anne Kaufman Schneider was escorted by her dad’s “script doctor” (David Ives, who’s adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winner her father wrote with The Gershwins and Morrie Ryskind, Of Thee I Sing, for an Encores! encore May 11-15 at City Center). Lawrence Pressman, one of the Show People currently in residence at Second Stage, was fielding compliments and giving the author (Paul Weitz) full credit: “A friend of mine knows this writer’s work and said she thought he loves his characters. He can make fun of them because it’s all done out of affection.” Lee Wilkof, holding pat with his poker hand for another six weeks of The Odd Couple, said he has been working with a friend on a screenplay he hopes to direct: “It’s about the Equity Lounge in the Equity building. Actors do auditions there, hang out there at the beginning of their careers and at the end.”

A number of Brits about Broadway showed up as chauvinistic support (Awake and Sing!’s Zoe Wanamaker, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, who has inherited Jones’ Tony-winning role in Doubt). Other countrymen heard from: Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry, The Drowsy Chaperone’s Edward Hibbert (trilling/shilling for The History Boys with “New York is richer for this!”) and a slimmed-down Cameron Mackintosh (“Love of musical theatre keeps the pounds off.”).

The Brother Cerveris, Todd and Tony-winning Michael—the latter in flashy facsimile of prep-school attire—palled around the party. Mike Nichols didn’t enter the Tavern but gave a limolift to David Prete and Joe Roland, who co-starred in the Nichols-produced On the Line, which closed its short run at the Cherry Lane with the April 23 matinee. Kate Burton arrived with her skyscraper son, Morgan Ritchie, and said she was looking forward to starting rehearsals Tuesday on a new play—“a rarity for me” (Theresa Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge with Mamie Gummer and Tony Goldwyn at Second Stage June 14).

Also in attendance: Brian Dennehy, Candice Bergen, Spamalot’s Christopher Sieber (who’s doing the Kevin Kline role in the musical Soapdish that director Jason Moore and writer Robert Harling—both of the recent Steel Magnolias—are workshopping), Christine Andreas, Malcolm Gets, Rufus Wainwright, Cicely Tyson, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’s Tim Daly, designers Kate and Andy Spade, directors Doug Hughes and George C. Wolfe, playwrights Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and John Guare

The cast is starting to splinter right away. Titanic’s titanically talented Bill Buell takes over on Tuesday for Colin Haigh, who plays the smallish role of the TV director at the top of Act II, and doubles as understudy for Hector and the headmaster. Haigh came to open the show with as much original cast as possible.

Sarah Paulson, back from The Cherry Orchard in Los Angeles with Annette Bening, and Jane Krakowski, back from Guys and Dolls in London with Ewan McGregor, both snared TV pilots. Paulson co-starred with Matthew Perry in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” for NBC; Krawkowski co-starred with James Van Der Beek in “Sex, Power, Love and Politics” for CBS. But both long for the stage. “If I could only do theatre and pay my rent,” said Krakowski, “I would be so happy. I love the theatre world so much I don’t want to do anything else but.”

Barbara Walters, prowling the Tavern with a distinguished-looking escort like a stately flamingo, flicked off her findings of the evening with commendable directness:. “I thought it simply wonderful. It’s the biggest hit of the season.” Hard to argue with that.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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