Samuel Beckett, the brainy Irish modernist and dramatist, and Dolly Parton, the busty country-music composer and chantoosie — names that have never come up before in the same sentence — collided April 30, the absolute tail-end of 2008-09 Tony Award eligibility, and gave their greatest hits a spin to see if they could pick up a few prizes. Parton augmented her Oscar-nominated chart-buster of 1980, "Nine to Five," with 16 new numbers to make the musical that just sashayed into the Marriott Marquis, titled by the numbers 9 to 5: The Musical. Beckett is hanging at Studio 54, which has been turned into a stark, spartan rocky mountain pass where outlaws in Republic Pictures might have roamed but where two vagabonds do their Waiting for Godot, for Roundabout Theatre Company.
Both shows feaure characters involved in exercises in human frustration and futility, spinning one's wheels through life in ever-widening circles, ignored and dejected, always hoping for an end to suffering and pushing onward to find it. It gets us through life, but there's no road map to avoid the bumpy terrain for the common man, whether it's the Everyman of Waiting for Godot or the female workforce emerging in offices of the '70s in 9 to 5.
This is believed to be the first time two Broadway shows have butted heads for the same opening night, and it proved a real quandary for those who regularly file first-night reports. The fourth estate, collectively but individually, weighted the variables of both — the metaphysical overtones, the intellectual undercurrents, the symbolic stances, the songs — and opted, as one, to go with the show with the bigger breasts.
Which sent publicists at Boneau/Bryan-Brown scrambling for Plan B — a pre-show press meet with Godot's four-man cast at "54" a couple of hours before "half-hour." The current fruitless wait for Mr. Godot (this production uses the French pronunciation — GOD-oh — not the American) — was instigated by Bill Irwin, who played the ramblingly verbose Lucky in Mike Nichols' Lincoln Center production with Steve Martin, Robin Williams and F. Murray Abraham. Now, one and 20 years later, Irwin decided time has come for a go at Martin's role of Vladimir.
"I only know that this role has always spoken to me," Irwin admitted. "From the first time I read the play, this guy — and the way he looks at the world and the brave, sad but brave, attempt he makes to make it make sense — has always spoken to me."
Consequently, he continued, "I've been a nag around Broadway for years and years, saying, 'You know, this play — with the right people — could work for an American audience, with an American voice in the company on a big Broadway stage,' and people would often say, 'That is so true.' And then I'd never hear from them again."
He eventually turned — transatlantically — to British director Anthony Page, who not only steered Irwin to a Tony for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but also worked with Beckett on the first London revival of Waiting for Godot in 1965. It was the Eureka! heard 'round the world, and there was seismic movement on the project.
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All of Page's first choices responded with an immediate yes: Nathan Lane for Estragon, John Goodman for Pozzo and John Glover for Lucky. (Truth to tell, David Strathairn signed up first for Lucky but bowed out because of an injured ankle.)
"I wanna play all the characters before they put me away," declared Irwin, "except the boy" (Cameron Clifford and Matthew Schechter are double-cast as the youthful messenger from Godot). "But I think it would be very hard to go to the role that Nathan is playing. He and I, fascinatingly enough, have loved this play decades — since we were in high school — unbeknownst to each other for a long time.
"Early on, I had this pretentious thought of doing the play and then switching roles in the middle of the run. Various people have said this, but we realized in the course of this work that it's a bit like saying to Jascha Heifitz, 'Why don't you play piano and Artur Rubenstein will play fiddle?' They are so demanding — in different ways."
For that matter, Irwin can't go back and recall Lucky's epic speech. "It's very, very familiar as John is saying it. But I couldn't pick it up and take it when he used to get lost in the rehearsal room, no no. Maybe he was thinking I'd help him out but I couldn't and didn't. It does have an interior logic. I've heard him talk about that. And, from night to night, I tried to find it when I did it. It's one of the most amazing speeches ever written — not just because it's long and complicated but because, as our great Anthony Page says, 'It's like a broken attempt at rationality.' And it hits the Human Condition in a sort of nutshell in a way. We like to think that we are perfectly rational animals, and I think we carry around the notion that maybe once we were. We adore the Classical Period or the Renaissance Period. That's when Human Reasoning was very strong. But we feel like we're fallen from there — like we're fallen creatures, and that's the speech. And that's John Glover in a nutshell."
Glover, who also gives good spittle ("I call upon Godot, I guess, to help me"), seems to have mastered his torrent of spoken words. "It's three pages of unpunctuated words, and it's very intimidating at first glance," he admitted. "In fact, I tried to run from taking the job. Frightening! But Anthony was wonderful, guiding me through it. We worked very slowly on it. I remember Patti LuPone had told me that she asked Arthur Laurents if she could touch on 'Roses Turn' every day of rehearsal, and so I told Anthony that story and asked if we could do the speech at least for a portion of the day — y'know, a half-hour or an hour — so I'd come in early and we'd work on it just because I was so intimidated by it. It's really a humdinger of a speech."
Despite his sitcom past and his high-profile flicks, Goodman has gravitated toward avant garde in his New York theatre choices — Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in Central Park at the Delacorte, now this — why is that? "Somebody asked me."
At one point the massive Goodman falls down and can't get up, looking to all the world like a beached baby whale. His mental image was "a walrus lookin' for a snack. That was it last night. It might change. It was really hard was what it was. It was different from anything I've ever done before. It's been a long time since I did a play. You can't lay off that long, I don't think, at my age. I rust up pretty quick."
His last stage work was Big Daddy in Los Angeles, but he began in theatre here. "I worked with Nathan 30 years ago on Midsummer Night's Dream at the Equity Library Theatre."
The tragicomedy sheen of Godot was an inevitable point of attraction for Lane. "It was a play I've always loved and felt I would do, at some point. Then, when they said Bill was gonna do it and they wanted me to do it, I said, 'Yes, absolutely.'" Lane, of course, was too young to have seen Bert Lahr's Estragon, but "I certainly have seen that famous Richard Avedon photo, and there's a recording of it they did with the whole original cast — E. G. Marshall, Alvin Epstein and Kurt Kasznar. Every time E. G. says, 'We're waiting for Godot,' there's an echo-chamber effect. I'm sure they thought it was a nifty Rod Serling touch."
In terms of difficulty, Lane said, "This is certainly the hardest thing I've ever done. I know Bill feels the same way. It's really challenging and asks a lot of all of us, but, I mean, that's why you wanna do something like this. It's a play that's elusive. One minute you're poetic, and the next you're doing a Who's-On-First routine. It has these lightning-quick transitions. But, ultimately it's been rewarding because of the reaction we've been getting. People sorta say the play really made sense to them in this production. I think we've found a good balance of the comedy and the tragedy."
Such has not always been the case: "Believe me, I've seen really boring productions. I've seen lotta bad productions of it. And, as Elaine Stritch said to me, 'Oh Nathan, if that play's not funny, it's one long frigging night in the theatre.'"
Nicol Williamson, Paul Curran, Alfrie Rich and Jackie McCarren starred in Page's 44-year-old revival of Waiting for Godot, but working with The Master is the brain-burning memory. "Beckett came and worked with us at the Royal Court, which was a bit intimidating until he arrived, and then it wasn't at all intimidating," the director recalled. "I don't think I would've dared to have done it otherwise, but I had an idea of what he wanted. He wanted the tone of the voice to be real and to be what he intended them to be. He heard it all very clearly. That's what interested him — not a sort of theory about the play. He said he'd written it not knowing what would come next. He'd just heard these voices, and he'd gone on writing. I guess that was true. He was very specific about how the voices were pitched, and how they were relating to each other. He was very interested in the laughs, but he would never watch with an audience. He never came in with the audience. He'd stay till the last rehearsal."
|photo by Aubrey Reuben|
In marked contrast to the calm, considered tete-a-tetes that transpired at the creepily deserted, tomb-like, pre-show Studio 54, the commotion outside the second-floor entrance of the Marriott Marquis was concentrated chaos — a virtually uncoverable circus unless you wielded a TV camera. Cindy Adams, flying the black-and-blue colors of ink-stained wretches everywhere, was the only print person to steamroll her way to a place remotely near the eye of all this promotional commotion.
And what, you must be wondering, was at the epicenter of this turbulence — the cause of all the pushing and shoving and jostling and snapshot-popping?
Why, the original and quite triumphant triumvirate of "Nine to Five" (The Movie) — Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and La Parton — all looking spectacular, like the last three decades hadn't happened. From where I was squashed, it looked like hard work if you could get it, but they were all smiles and animation. At one point, they broke into a spirited rendition of the title tune — "still a movement anthem," in Fonda's opinion. "I saw the show in L.A. just a few months ago, and it had just as powerful or even more powerful reaction, among men as well as women. Men and women workers won't be facing the same discrimination, but it's still very relevant."
Also showing up from the movie cast were Peggy Pope, the original "Atta Girl" office lush, and that wonderfully seasoned scene-stealer, Elizabeth Wilson, who played the office snitch who was smitten with her sexist boss (Dabney Coleman).
Fonda had a show to give four blocks away (33 Variations at the Eugene O'Neill) so she cut out early after the red-carpet action, but Tomlin stayed for the performance and was whisked inside the theatre by Security. Parton, having quite a body to guard, disappeared into a phalanx of bruiser bodyguards who dwarfed her, eventually surfacing backstage to watch the show from that vantage point. After the final curtain, Parton took the stage with the confident stride of a new conqueror in town rather than a Broadway yearling, all spangles and cleavage. In contrast, Patricia Resnick, who wrote the musical book and the movie, came on with her in a strangely lumpy black frock she could have pilfered from Wicked.
Resnick shared with the audience an out-of-body experience she seemed to be having: "This seems like this really weird thing you tell your therapist. 'I had this dream I wrote a Broadway show, and I'm standing on stage with Dolly Parton.'"
She also did a deep bow to the cast on stage. "I have to say these people up here — and, actually, everybody — worked so hard. Forget nine-to-five, the guys worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. Until you do one of these things, you cannot imagine the amount of work. We've got the hardest working ensemble on Broadway."
Parton told a new, minutes-old story on Joe Mantello, the show's director. They were watching the show on backstage monitors when there was a technical glitch during a song, "and Joe was just going to pieces, and I just said, 'Joe. Maaaain-taaain.'"
The opening-night party wasn't a tough commute: three flights up by escalator at the Marriott. Mantello, bobbing from table to table and conversation to conversation, looked very much like a man who had just delivered another major musical to Broadway. (Wicked is his.) But he put a nice face on the work he had put in on this project: "Dolly makes everything joyous. She's the most authentic person I've ever met."
Tomlin was sitting at one of the tables just inside the ballroom entranceway, basking in reflected glory. "The three of us saw it in L.A. with Dabney Coleman — we sat together — and it was so surreal to see, so I was little bit prepared this time, although Dolly wrote some new songs. Everything was so iconic, so familiar."
And what about that wild reception that greeted the trio outside the theatre? "Oh, it was fun — great fun," Tomlin said. "We've been friends ever since the movie, you know. We've done events together and benefits and stuff like that. The most recent thing that we did that was big — we did the 25th anniversary of the movie, the release of the DVD — and tonight is 29 years. I can't believe that. I'm just dumbfounded."
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This season's Fonda, Tomlin and Parton — namely: Stephanie J. Block, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty — take their curtain call collectively, hands clasped in symbolic sisterhood, and it brings the house down. Similarly they arrived at the party as a unit and smoothly leap-frogged over each other doing interviews.
"It has been an amazing journey from start to finish," admitted Janney, who was slightly stunned to be making her musical bow in this show. "I thank Joe Mantello for giving me the opportunity to do this." Singing was a new frontier for her, but "I used to be a dancer — and a figure skater, too — so I didn't come unrehearsed to this."
Her flair for physicality has carried her far in life. A funny fall down some stairs while she was flirting with President John Travolta in "Primary Colors" was "what got me 'The West Wing,'" and that in turn got her four Emmys and four SAG Awards.
Hilty, who plays what looks like the office bimbo, does a dead-on Dolly Parton imitation — much to the delight of the audience and Parton herself. "Oh, she loves it," the actress said. "If I ask her for any advice, she's, like, 'Oh, honey, you're fiiiine. You don't need me. You're fine.' But just having her around influences a lot of what I do.
"My goal is to pay homage to what she did to make that role so iconic but then kinda to bring my own flavor to it too so it doesn't just seem like I'm copying what she's doing. I love playing a woman who celebrates being a woman and doesn't make any apologies for it. I love that. That's Dolly."
Block arrived, still coming down for the high of an enthusiastically received first night. "I think opening nights are always this kinda mixed feeling where you're joyful because you think, 'Ah, the show's all ours. We get to own it and just play it.' But then there is always the expectation of 'Oh, what are people expecting?' And we just hope we delivered. And tonight it was joyous. The audience was there with us, and I think they left happier than when they came in. That was our goal."
Playing the most vulnerable of the three leads — a freshly dumped housewife new to the corporate world — Block embraced the role as a welcome change of pace from the strong passionate women she usually knocks out of the park (Liza Minnelli, Elphaba, The Pirate Queen). "Oh, I loooooove this character of Judy," she cooed contentedly.
"One thing as an actor that I like is that she's brand spankin' new. I've been in New York now for six years, and I keep playing all these women with courage, strength and purpose. Judy is this fragile and tender thing. As an actor, I had to break that trend. I thank Joe Mantello for giving me the opportunity and saying, 'There's more to you than that. Let's show a different color to you, which is this vulnerability and uncertainty.'"
When her ex-husband's affair doesn't work out, he comes back, scratching at her door, and she gives him the gate in a big 11-o'clock sonic blast called "Get Out and Stay Out" (no hidden meaning there). "Judy finds her voice through the course of the play, and I get a fantastic number at the end where she certainly finds her purpose and gets to kick her man out of the house. I love that! By the time I sing that, the audience is cheering me on and hoping for the best for Judy."
Marc Kudisch is the show's whipping boy — the snarky, sexist boss who belittles his "girls" when not making passes at them — and the actor attractively dispatched loathsomeness. "The truth is Dabney Coleman looks a little bit like Burt Reynolds," Kudisch advanced. "Every guy wanted to be Burt Reynolds in 1979. That's what I was shooting for. Dabney was brilliant in that role, and we wouldn't have had that character without him, so I just tried to take what he gave us and elaborate."
He spends most of the second act kidnapped and strapped to a flying harness by the three white-collar musketeers, and he insisted it's not a painful place to be. In fact, "It's surprisingly liberating because, given that I'm truly strapped in and that I truly cannot get out — it gives me the freedom to just go, because I really am caught. I can express myself however I want. The physicality of it, the dancing — it really goes great with the character. It's been a lot of fun. And it's the best weight-loss program ever devised. Dude! I'm losing poundage day by day! Seriously."