Pepa, one of the Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown who stormed the Belasco Nov. 4, makes a pretty mean gazpacho. How mean? Well, by play's end, her posh pad in Madrid is littered with bodies lulled into slumber.
Thus, it seemed entirely apt that gazpacho, in shot-glass size, would be the drink du jour at the party that followed the musical's opening. Guests, enjoying a good joke, guzzled it right down as soon as they filed into the designated second-floor party space at the Millennium Broadway Hotel half a block down from the Belasco.
The gazpacho bash preceding this — the one on stage at the theatre — hardly qualifies as a party. It's more like a romantic train-wreck and pile-up with comedic overtones.
Sherie Rene Scott, the aforementioned Pepa, gets the kiss-off via voice mail in the opening moments of the show from Ivan, a married roue who has moved on to other things (namely, his wife's lawyer) and left poor Pepa pregnant and at loose ends. She spends the next two hours-and-some-change skittering in much disarray from one of his ex-lovers to another, like a pinball, finding little solace along the way.
Her emotional road map has been drawn by book writer Jeffrey Lane — actually, traced since he follows fairly faithfully the dizzy route originally taken by Pedro Almodovar in the 1988 frenetic film farce of the same name.
New to the mix, and making it a musical, are 15 songs by David Yazbek. "After David and I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, we were looking for another project," recalled Lane. "We wanted to find something that scared us a little — that wasn't like anything we'd done — so we started thinking about foreign films. Our first thought went to Pedro Almodovar, so we re-watched all his films — every one of them — and eventually landed on 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.'"
A distant second, Lane add, was "Law of Desire," the Almodovar film that immediately preceded "Women," but it "just has great passion and not the humor and the twists. There's so much emotion in 'Women,' and that's where we found the songs — in the deep emotions of the characters and their dilemmas."
Scott, who brought a heart-aching luster to their Scoundrels score, is the plot's prime mover-and-shaker, and — thanks to the generous producing skills of Lincoln Center Theater's Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten in association with Bob Boyett — she has been surrounded by some rather statuesque, Tony-winning supporting players: Brian Stokes Mitchell as the elusive Ivan; Patti LuPone as his pistol-packin' ever-lovin' wife, the quite-mad Lucia; and Laura Benanti as Pepa's pal, Candela, who has taken refuge in her apartment from authorities when she realizes she is sleeping with a terrorist (that belt of hand grenades was a dead giveaway).
Beefing up these parts to befit stars meant departing from The Gospel According to Almodovar — and that was totally fine with Lane. "We had to expand them, but we wanted to delve deeper into those characters," he pointed out. "We just wrote those parts, and it was kinda 'If you build it, they will come.'" And indeed they did come.
All three get special consideration (i.e., numbers) from Yazbek, whose score stays true to his own sound. "It's my music, but I've always been a lover of Spanish classical music — flamenco and gypsy music as well as a lot of Middle-Eastern types of music, which filtered up into Spain with the Moors, so I let that flavor the music."
Early in the pre-production, Catherine Zeta-Jones had her hand up for Pepa but at the last minute canceled an audition where she was going to try on Yazbek's score, and that was that. "I wouldn't consider anyone over Sherie at this point," he said. "She's a great musician, and she knows how to sing these songs instinctively."
Director Bartlett Sher not only keeps all these plates spinning dizzily in the air, he adds a few more — like the triangle formed by Ivan's son, Carlos (Justin Guarini). The apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree, it develops: he arrives with a girlfriend, Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), but rapidly applies to be Candela's protector as soon as Marisa konks out from the spiked gazpacho.
What seemed like chaos on stage, the director insisted, was not necessarily chaos off stage. "No, it was fun. It wasn't chaotic. It was just the normal thing. It's a new musical, and new musicals are filled with transition and change. You're searching. It's part of what we do. It's what we love about it. For people on the outside, it seems chaotic, but it's not. It's a deeply analytical, deeply thought-out way of working."
PHOTO RECAP: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Starring Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, Opens on Broadway
But wouldn't trying out the show out of town have eased tension a lot? Again, no. "I think we did the right thing. It's a myth that in the old days they had time out of town. They had two weeks in New Haven, two weeks in Boston. They didn't have that much more time. For me, with Pedro's writing — if I'd been in San Diego, they wouldn't have helped me as an audience any more than I might have been helped in New York. It was a big burden and a big labor, but this was the place to start."
The Brothers Almodovar both showed up for the opening — a study in contrast, the two of them: outgoing Pedro with his signature mop-top (now silver-shocked) and the quieter, chrome-domed Agustin, his younger bro and exec producer.
The Spanish director informed the Lincoln Center publicists he would only work the red carpet and have no further comment on the show, but it was obvious from his ear-to-ear grin when he joined the cast and the creatives on stage and later at the Millennium Hotel to party and pose for pictures that he approved of the results.
In his problematic English, he seconded director Sher's motion that chaos is not always what it seems to be. "You cannot direct hysterically," Almodovar pointed out. "It's a lot of time working, but this was a script that I wrote in less time than any of my others. I finished it in three months when I usually take at least eight months. This one just came to me completely. Perhaps it had been maturing inside me."
Did it surprise him that somebody had set songs to his story? "I am, of course, surprised because this is the first time that this happened to a Spanish movie — this musical is completely historical — but I was not surprised in the sense that I think that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has something that belongs to the states so I think that it is quite natural."
Are there more musicals where this one came from? No for now, but there was a straight-play version of his "All About My Mother" in Europe last year, which quickly raises the question of where does Almodovar leave off and the adapter begin.
"My work is finished when the other person has given me the first draft and I talk to him, explaining my point of view and answering all his questions. After I give advice, I try to give him complete freedom because this is the way that I like to work."
Truth to tell, Almodovar bent that rule a bit for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, attending all the workshops, giving notes to the cast about their characters and serving quietly as the production's godfather and cheerleader.
He was especially effusive to Scott on opening night. "I don't understand Spanish very well, but I think he used the word 'perfect,'" she said. That turned her head a bit and made her cry, but it didn't alter her own definition of the word: Carmen Maura, Almodovar's Pepa, "is perfection. That's why it was a challenge to take it on, recreate it for the stage and rebirth it in a new way. It was out of respect for her.
"It's always hard when people say, 'Have fun tonight.' And I'm thinking, 'You mean between all that angst and suffering?' But, honest, I do. I do have fun because of the cast and the crew and because of David's music and Jeffrey's book and Pedro's screenplay — they've really helped a lot. I've had to be with the inside of it, and it's been a challenge for me not to step outside of it, but I've really been fighting for Pepa.
"I love being a part of an ensemble. It's my dream, and the only F-up part of the dream is that I never have the time to be with anybody. You get into this business to hang out with these amazing people. It's been a kind of fast-and-furious process, and I've been on stage a lot, so I'm really looking forward tonight to hanging out with them."
Highlights from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown:
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Mitchell, in his first Broadway outing in seven years, exudes charm and gravitas all over the stage — enough to convince you he is the show's leading man, when, in truth, he's playing a part that was little more than a walk-on and walk-off in the film. It's the old Phantom of the Opera ruse, he admitted. "That is one of the things that actually attracted me to the role. I'm not in the show a whole lot, but all the characters are constantly talking about him. It gives him a sense of more of a presence than he actually has. That's one of the things that allows me to play with my son, scream, yell, have a good time and not worry about 'Omigod, I've got to do eight shows a week. How am I ever gonna survive this?' I took a sabbatical from Broadway and went into the concert world so I could raise my son and spend some time with him. Then, this script came along, and I said, 'I gotta do this play.'"
In the last of his three numbers, "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today" (read: wife, mistress and new mistress), he scores points with a little audience participation. "I scope out the first row and play with someone in the audience, but you never know how they're going to react. Sometimes they've very shy, sometimes they don't want to look, sometimes they're totally embarrassed, sometimes they're terribly outgoing, as they were tonight. It's always different. That's one of the fun parts of the show."
His favorite thing about the show is just watching a classy ensemble in action. "I listen over the monitors or sometimes just stand in the wings and watch people work. This is a cast of masters. And to watch them tweaking their roles and being incredibly creative and constantly evolving throughout the process is amazing."
As the outrageously coiffured and costumed (by Charles LaPointe and Catherine Zuber, respectively) homicidal maniac on the premises, LuPone curbs her diva instincts, with star power to spare, and hilariously delivers the goods.
"It's interesting," she mused. "I was a comedienne before I went and did Evita, then after Evita nobody knew I was funny anymore. It's my font to do comedies again because I know that I'm a natural comedienne. "Cathy Zuber has brought ten years back on my career. Her costumes are incredible. I'm playing a woman still stuck in the Franco era. And the hair's shocking to people."
Her daughter and fellow Tony winner from Gypsy, Benanti likewise works in a land over the top as the convulsively funny Candela, arguably the most scattered of the frenzied lot on stage. "She's a wonderful character, and it's so nice to be able to not have to carry the show. The past few roles I've done have been the straight pan and the heartbeat of the show. It was my job to keep the show on track. Here, I don't have any of that obligation. I get to come on stage and serve my character."
She brought her own tics and tricks to the role. "I came in with her physicality, and Bart really helped me. He's an incredible blend of being able to guide you and still let you be totally free — and then he'll pick and choose the takes that he wants, almost in a filmic sort of way. He's just an incredible director. I'm thrilled to work with him."
Mary Beth Peil, like Benanti, hails from another nearly-all-girl-revue: Nine. Yul Brynner's last Anna here plays Pepa's religious-nut concierge. "She's kind of a complicated, too-good person," Peil tactfully conceded before admitting she wouldn't be having the character over for coffee anytime soon.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
As the take-charge lawyer and latest in Ivan's long line of ladies, de'Adre Aziza enjoys top (alphabetical) billing among the principals (Scott comes in last, furthering disguising her leading-lady status), but Aziza's Paulina is a power to behold. "I love that she's strong and has a very modern take on feminism," Aziza admitted. "She feels anything a man can do a woman can do. It's not your typical, traditional feminist so she's tons of fun to play. We fleshed her out more for the musical. In the movie, she was a lot more on the verge of that nervous breakdown just about every time we saw her, but we wanted to add a little more dimension to this Paulina in connection with the other characters . She's more interrelated."
Guarini and Lanzarone are both making their Broadway debuts playing the subplot's young couple. He, a runner-up the first season of "American Idol," feels this Square One is especially circuitous: "It was nine years ago I auditioned for 'American Idol' — right here, in the Millennium Hotel — and, as soon as I got the show, The Lion King calls me up and says, 'We have a part for you.' I actually had to end up turning down what would have been my Broadway debut in The Lion King for 'American Idol.' Fortunately, 'Idol' worked out for me, to say the least. Now here I am, full circle nine years later, making my Broadway bow with this great cast."
Lanzarone has a lighter resume. In fact, she cracked self-deprecatingly, "It feel sometimes like I'm the only one on stage I never heard of — but in the best way possible. It's a lesson to come to work every day and learn from these people."
Almodovar was particularly helpful for her. "Pedro came to all the workshops that we've done of the show, and he's been so supportive and accepting and had wonderful, wonderful things to say. He's just the sweetest, sweetest man."
Danny Burstein, who plays the taxi driver who weaves in and out of the fast-Lane action, is another who profited from Pedro Pointers: "He told me that this guy was the Angel of the City and that, whenever anybody came into the cab, it was my job to take care of them and make them feel better. I loved that, and I sorta took that as a starting point for my character, and it grew and grew from there."
All that, and a gargantuan blond wig. "I love wearing a wig. It's so much fun. I haven't done it since Aldolpho." (That was the unintelligible actor in The Drowsy Chaperone whose ridiculously steep black pompadour passed for a turban.)
First-nighters included Rebecca Luker (Mrs. Burstein), Joy Behar of "The View," John Turturro and actress-wife Katherine Borowitz (fresh from a screening of his new flick, "The Nutcracker in 3D"), Steven Pasquale (Benanti's actor-hubby), Dana Ivey, playwrights A. R. Gurney (whose Black Tie plays Primary Stages in early 2011), Paul Rudnick, Sh-K-Boom Records czar Kurt Deutsch (Scott's husband, with her Everyday Rapture co-author, Dick Scanlan), composer Mary Rodgers, dancing landmark Tommy Tune (who just wowed 'em at Liz Smith's New York Living Landmark event), Wendy Keyes from The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Stephen Bienskie, Women's choreographer Christopher Gattelli, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and two Tony-winning voices from the Broadway's new "It Gets Better" video, Terrence McNally andLin-Manuel Miranda.