Pee-wee Herman pitched his playhouse on Broadway 11/11 — in, of all sophisticated settings, a theatre newly designated the Stephen Sondheim — which just might be the only way those two names will ever surface in the same sentence.
Actually, both artists play to a primal place in audiences. Pee-wee's aim just happens to be at a little lower, more elementary-school level. Collectively, our inner child is our last bastion of relative innocence. Something mysterious and naughty is out there, but for now we just play and play and play in our sandbox. The only reality to intrude on our recess is the occasional stern warning about personal hygiene. As Eliza Doolittle was wont to say, "I washed my face and hands before I come, I did."
After the obligatory "Hello, boys and girls" from our congenial, nerdy host in the tiny red bowtie and tight gray glen plaid suit, The Pee-wee Herman Show begins with The Pledge of Allegiance. At his biding, all rise and recite the words (by a rote that still works, thank God). Then, we all settle back into our seats and revisit our childhood. The curtain lifts on Pee-wee's Playhouse, and we're already his prisoners.
It was not till three hours later that the grades were posted. He had already run that dizzying gauntlet of paparazzi shots and TV interviews at the Bryant Park Grill and was just beginning his last sound bite when a handler rushed up, exclaiming, "Breaking news! We're getting thumbs up from every single newspaper — The New York Times, Backstage, Variety — they're all positive, across the board." At that moment, Pee-wee Herman turned into Paul Reubens, his true actor-self. He turned away from the press and toward his small entourage, head bowed while they whispered sweet journalistic somethings in his ear. When the somethings stopped, he took a moment and then returned to the question-in-progress, his eyes moist with feeling. "I can't even talk I'm so emotional," was his answer to whatever it was.
For questions two and four, he responded in child-like character: "That's for me to know and you to find out. Top secret, I'll say that!" He had some heartfelt praise for Basil Twist and a corps of a dozen puppeteers who kept every nook and cranny of his playhouse alive with all manner of animated inanimate objects. Then, he signed off with: "You're asking all the right questions. I want you to know that."
This was the cherry-on-the-sundae moment that Reubens had longed for since 1991 after he was arrested on a morals charge in Florida. The negative press that followed pretty much kicked Pee-wee to the curb. In 1980, he had created this eccentric, tightly wound man-child with The Groundlings — an L.A. improv group that included the late Phil Hartman, a writing partner of his — and perpetuated the role in a TV series from 1986 to 1990 as well as a couple of moneymaking features ("Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Big Top Pee-wee"). Tim Burton, who directed the "Adventure," threw some post-scandal work his way, and Reubens executed it under his real name.
Otherwise, it was R.I.Pee-wee — until last year when Reubens plotted a Playhouse reprise in Hollywood, in hopes of stirring up interest in a feature film. It unexpectedly turned into a hit that filled Club Nokia LA Live from Jan. 12 to Feb. 7 and then inspired the previously unthinkable notion: a run, at and on, Broadway.
Even the movie now appears to be on the front burner, with the currently high-flying Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up," "Superbad," et al) in charge.
"I'm just getting ready to start writing that now," said Pee-wee. "I haven't had any time to work on the script because we've been rewriting this show every day [with Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon] — up until yesterday, actually."
Like Lynne Marie Stewart's Miss Yvonne and John Moody's Mailman Mike, Paragon's Jambi (a genie, whose head is kept in a box on stage) is a carryover from the late '80s television show. "I never thought I would experience this," Paragon confessed. "I'm not really familiar with Broadway. My medium has been TV, pretty much, and film. And the scale of the production in Los Angeles was a lot more homemade than it is here. Nobody thought we'd get a crowd until there was a line around the block to get into our 99-seat theatre at midnight. And it became a hit.
"I remember looking through the crack of my box, seeing Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese sitting next to one another. If you watch 'The King of Comedy' that they did, Robert De Niro is wearing Pee-wee's plaid suit and a red bowtie, which was absolutely appropriated from the original TV show years ago.
"It's interesting that we would influence filmmakers when we were influenced by John Waters, who I just met a minute ago. It was amazing seeing him."
Paragon made himself easy to spot at the opening night party in Los Angeles by keeping on his blue-green makeup. "It's a crazy, brand-new makeup that comes from China. We have absolutely no idea what its toxic level might be." Oh, well.
Stewart gave Paragon points for helping her perfect her mad makeup scene, applying more and more rouge as her jealousy gradually builds and builds: "The character is kinda me, except she's much more pulled together. She's much more concerned about her looks. There's a lot of me in the character. The character is not hard to do because it's just all about love and friendship and having a good time.
"When we did it at Nokia in L.A., the response was so fantastic that I had a feeling we would go some place. It was kinda up to Paul — where he wants to go, what he wants to do — and then he gave me that call and said, 'We're going to Broadway.' It was thrilling and exciting, and I'm so happy to be here. It's everybody's dream, I guess.
"I went to L.A. City College with Cindy Williams. She did The Drowsy Chaperone a couple of years ago, and I got to come out and see her, and it was so incredibly exciting. Now, I get to be here. It was just thrilling. The audience is, like, from Central Casting. They couldn't be more loving. They couldn't be more supportive. You really feel that communication with the audience. I know I'm on Broadway, and yet it feels like small-town love. It's really a feeling of reciprocated love from the audience."
It's Broadway debuts all around for the whole cast of 19, including Reubens, whom producer Roy Miller tried to lure to Broadway to replace Bob Martin as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone. Now, Miller is finally getting him here by boarding Scott Sanders' bandwagon of producers.
Drew Powell, who makes his bow in a bear suit, got all warm and fuzzy about this mass debut. "It's really neat to share that together," he contended.
"I've been in L.A., doing a lot of television and film. I just did a film called 'Straw Dogs,' a remake of the old Peckinpah film, with Alexander Skarsgard, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden and James Woods. I'm a bad guy — but not the bad guy, if you've seen the picture and know what I mean. So I've been having a lot of fun with that, but this is so unique, being able to live in New York and working on Broadway — that has always been a dream of mine."
The official director, both in Los Angeles, and here, is Alex Timbers, who's young enough and brave enough to admit he watched "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on TV religiously. Directing his childhood characters, he conceded, "could have been intimidating, but everyone was very open to my suggestions and inviting into that world. My job was to figure out how to theatricalize and re-conceive certain elements. "We were able to add more dimension to some of the characters — like Mailman Mike. In the original HBO special, he was really just a mailman, but now, in our show, he has a whole sort of tension because he's in anger-management classes to learn how to control himself. I think there's more dimension for all the characters."
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There's an adult sensibility weaving its way in and out the proceedings, just over the heads of the small-fry. One bit of personal tabloid mocking is a letter delivered to Pee-wee by Mailman Mike. It begins "Hi, Pee-wee. It's Luke, from prison."
"I think it's fun to ride that line," opted the director. "The directive for this has really been to make it kiddie-friendly. We've never tried to stay so close to a line that it's too provocative. We're very mindful of getting an audience as wide as possible.
"Pee-wee was a great collaborator," Timbers continued. "He's really a gifted comedian, a gifted actor. You'd think after doing a role for 30 years you'd have preconceived notions about how to do it, but he was open to my suggestions and new ideas. He's smart. You know, the smartest artists are the most collaborative."
The Pledge of Allegiance opener was Paul's idea, for example, "but there was a question of whether we were going to have something before the curtain. I was always pushing that we do something because the more theatrical we could make it — not just reveal the set suddenly but actually get to meet Pee-wee outside of the playhouse — the more it would help make it theatrical and give him layers."
The Pee-wee Herman Show is the second show that director Timbers has delivered to Broadway in less than a month — the other was the also-youth-oriented Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — so, of course, he has caught the eye of Disney. He and Roger Rees will co-direct Peter and the Starcatchers, Rick Elice's adaptation of a series of best-sellers about how Peter Pan became Peter Pan. "It's Disney's first play, and it's their first show without scenery. What makes it interesting — beyond that it's a play and has no scenery — is the 12 young actors involved in it. I was describing it the other day as 'Disney Meets Steppenwolf.' It's going to feel very different from their other stuff. It's a full show. We did it out in La Jolla, and now we're going to do it for real here. We are planning to start rehearsals in January, and it will be going up in February and March." David Korins, who elaborately tricked out the place for Pee-wee to play on the Broadway stage, didn't duplicate the set he grew up with on television. "When Alex and I got hired," he said, "Paul encouraged us to completely re-imagine the playhouse. We realized when we really started studying the script that there's Chairry and Conky and Clocky and Pterri and all the old friends, and we felt a responsibility to actually set them in a place that we knew that we would recognize — the playhouse. But the trick of it is the playhouse was originally a 360-degree, much-more-vast experience on TV. I tried to think of the greatest hits of the visual vocabulary and then match them together and give you a sense of 'Oh, that's what I remember.' Actually, it was a very, very difficult task, trying to make a thing that will work in live theatre when in television you just cut away to something else that would work and then cut back to a different puppet or a different set.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
"We were given total carte blanche to just do what we do, but a lot of the tricks are in the writing," Korins noted. "It's all in the script so it's just about how we interpret that. It was great to feel so free but to have visual constructs to work with it."
"Pee-wee's Playhouse" was also definitely part of the boyhood of Josh Meyers, who comes on as a new character — the strapping Firefighter Phineas — and provides the voices for some old ones (Conky, Clock, Fish and Randy).
Jesse Garcia has all he can handle with one character, Sergio, who is in perpetual dance motion throughout the play. "I'm Latin, brother — I just move like that" was his explanation. But the audience doesn't get to see him really move.
During the second-act blackout scene that was added for Broadway, "I have to run from the back of the theatre to the front of the theatre to the back of the theatre to the balcony. I literally have about ten seconds to get back downstairs and on stage."
The other two actors who play characters (as opposed to a chair, a window, a robot and a magic screen) are Phil LaMarr as Cowboy Curtis and Lance Roberts as King of Cartoons. "Mine is a cowboy-by-way-of-TV," LaMarr pointed out. "This is more 'Gunsmoke' than any real place. I love that about the role. I love the iconic elements of it. It's just like, 'I'm a cowboy. I do things a cowboy does. I'm a rootin'-tootin' cowboy.' There's no 'Buffalo Soldier' here. He's not rooted in history. It's what French people think when they think of America. I brought a lot from Laurence Fishburne, who created the character for the television show — but other than that, for me, it's more the quintessential cowboy idea."
Roberts is rather euphoric about working with Reubens. "Who else gets a chance to be a part of something so vivid and vivacious? And I get to be on stage, just me and Pee-wee. It's like an old vaudeville team. You're working with a brilliant clown slash comedian. I imagine it's like when people got to work with Lucille Ball or Red Skelton — this is the same feeling I have on stage. I'm very comfortable because I grew up watching great TV comics so to be on the stage with Pee-wee is amazing."
Both Tony-winning Cabaret emcees were in attendance. The most recent, Alan Cumming, sported a nifty sequins-studded bowtie that made him look alarmingly like a ringer for Pee-wee. The original, Joel Grey, was scoping out the Sondheim where he'll soon reside in Anything Goes; his co-star, Sutton Foster, was doing the same — escorted by Bobby Cannavale.
Hairspray's Tony-winning songwriters (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and co-author (Thomas Meehan) were present, checking out their Tony competition this year. Meehan's opus, Elf, opens immediately (Nov. 14, at the Al Hirschfeld), but the tunesmiths' Catch Me If You Can offering won't reach the Broadway Theatre until April.
Wendy Williams arrived with her tall, ten-year-old son, Kevin, still reeling for Pee-wee's surprise appearance on her TV earlier in the day. "I love him and the abstinence ring that he wears now and all the characters from the series. My son doesn't know those characters, but what he does know — back and forth, dialogue chapter and verse, are the Pee-wee movies."
Rosie O'Donnell was there — but without her kids. "I brought Natasha Lyonne, who just came from Tigers Be Still, where she got rave reviews. And there are reasons to rave. When I said I was going to see Pee-wee, I said, 'How 'bout I slip by and pick you up and then go the party?' And here we are.
"I loved the show. I thought it was fantastic. He deserves all the credit that he's getting right now — standing ovations and people screaming every time the character shows up on the stage. Listen, the guy's a genius. There's no doubt about it. I'm glad he's here, doing what he's doing. It's about time."
While Tigers Be Still creeps its way to conclusion at Roundabout Underground at night, Lyonne is by day rehearsing Blood From a Stone, a new New Group play — "two things at the same time, very confusing," she said.
O'Donnell and deep-seated loyalty brought her to the party. "That's where I got my start, on 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' when I was a little girl. I was 'Opal' when I was six."
Other first-nighters included Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame, Susan Sarandon, a "Law and Order" contingent (S. Epatha Merkerson, Richard Brooks and Richard Belzer), writer Fran Lebowitz, a bearded, behatted and thus unrecognizable Anthony Edwards, Lypsinka (a.k.a John Epperson) with Boys in the Band author Mart Crowley, 9 to 5 blonde Megan Hilty, Martha Plimpton (on a short hiatus from TV's "Raising Hope"), Paul Sparks, TV actor Malachi Weir and Parker Posey (at work on an indie called "Price Check").