In olden days, it was no big deal (or expense) for a show to move from theatre to theatre to finish its run — the champ in this category is Once Upon a Mattress, which spread 244 performances across five theatres — but prohibitive costs have made that practice largely extinct, save for the occasional behemoth like Mamma Mia!
It's Only a Play revived that tradition Jan. 23 when it shifted operations from the Schoenfeld Theatre next door to the Jacobs Theatre — a move of 200 feet that cost producers Tom Kirdahy, Roy Furman and Ken Davenport "a few $100,000."
That makes cents: Although It's Only a Play is only a play, it plays like catnip to the theatre crowd and did such terrific business it seemed a shame to shutter it just because its star, Nathan Lane, was taking the high road to Chicago to rehearse The Iceman Cometh. So, Martin Short, who's hardly the short-end money, was recruited for the lead, the supporting ranks were spruced up with Katie Finneran and Maulik Pancholy, and we're all off to the races again, running till at least March 19.
Forcing the move was a royal edict that decreed only the Schoenfeld was fit for a queen (i.e. Dame Helen Mirren, who will hold The Audience there March 8-June 28 as Queen Elizabeth II, a role that has already won her the Olivier and the Oscar). The mere players, left to strut and fret on another stage, formed a Friday night photo-op and followed the red carpet to their new home, with cameras clicking.
"Y'know, I did a play with her," F. Murray Abraham crowed en route, throwing a thumb back at a Schoenfeld poster of his regal evictor. It was A Month in the Country 20 years ago when Mirren was still a commoner and making her Broadway debut.
His "Amadeus" Oscar peered imperiously over the top of his tote bag. Seems it's his good luck charm: "I'm taking him to the new stage. He's appeared on every stage I've been on since I won it." Even in Turgenev's A Month in the Country? "I was a doctor, and I put him in the doctor's bag. He only makes a few appearances, then I take him home." Abraham's next honor: induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame Jan. 26.
Director Jack O'Brien brought the bound script. Stockard Channing, in a stylish, full-brimmed fedora, led her regular dressing-roommate — a pit mix dog named Fionuala ("it's Irish — it means 'bare shoulders'") — to their new backstage quarters. The play's author, Terrence McNally, remembered to bring the toilet paper.
Pancholy, a "30 Rock" regular, is not only new to this cast, he's 100 percent new to Broadway. "It's very exciting to be in this company, and, of course, a little scary — but not terrifying," he said. He plays the hot-shot over-the-top British director, but he brings it down a notch or two from Rupert Grint's previous fireball performance.
Micah Stock carried a note from McNally that he cherishes enough to have framed. He was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that, in his Broadway bow, he got to have the play's first ten minutes on stage alone with Nathan Lane, and now with Martin Short. "It's unreal," he said. "People spend a lifetime before they get to work with the people I've gotten to work with in this cast. It really astounds me, but it's nice to have this influx of new energy. That extra burst of energy keeps us fresh."
Finneran, brandishing a "Lost Our Lease" sign, came glamorously gowned and fully furred for Moving Day, looking ready-to-go as the rich-ditz lady producer in the play — but, no, she perished the thought, "This is my usual Friday night outfit." She's replacing Megan Mullally in this production, but the role was originated Off-Broadway by Christine Baranski, for whom Finneran has a special affinity. She won one of her Tonys playing the barfly pickup in Promises, Promises, and that role had previously been done by Baranski in an Encores! edition — opposite Short.
"I'm thrilled," gushed Finneran. "It's so exciting to do this kind of love letter to the theatre, and yet Terrence has made the show so accessible to audience members who don't know anything about the theatre that they have embraced the show, too."
Matthew Broderick carted cardboard boxes full of miscellaneous odds and ends. "Marty's an old friend, and it's wonderful to watch him take off with this," he said, "and Katie, too. She's great in the show. I'm very, very happy to work with her."
By the time the cast was securely settled in their dressing rooms and "Half-hour!" had been called, celebs were streaming down the red carpet to the show's new place of business: Diane Sawyer, escorted by Steve Martin, Tovah Feldshuh, Tonya Pinkins, Andrea Burns, Peter Flynn and the supportive spouses of Broderick and Finneran, Sarah Jessica Parker and Darren Goldstein.
Goldstein, who finished "The Affair" on Showtime and "Odyssey," which debuts Easter Sunday on NBC, is returning to the stage in Joel Drake Johnson's racial drama, Rasheeda Speaking, which The New Group premieres Feb. 11 at the Signature Center. (Cynthia Nixon is making her directorial bow with that one.)
Finnerans's co-star in the Netflix series, "Blood Lines" — the twice-Tonyed Norbert Leo Butz — made a point of telling Broderick how well he scored, delivering the best line in the show ("New York, without theatre, is Newark"). The uproarious reaction always surprises Broderick: "I never thought that line would get such a long laugh." Several of Short's nearest and dearest were in attendance — notably, Delia Ephron, whose late sister, Nora, was such a good friend of Short's she insisted he speak first at her memorial. Delia is continuing the family business, she said. Her memoir, "Sister Mother Husband Dog," is selling well, and she is working on a pilot and finishing a novel. (Husband, by the way, is Jerome Kass, Tony-nominated for Ballroom's book.)
Also on the Short list were two of the three amigos with whom he has his yearly colonoscopy — Steve Martin and Walter Parkes. (The third, Tom Hanks, was with his wife, Rita Wilson, at The Public, joining in the standing ovation for Hamilton.)
Larry David, who wrote Short skits for "Saturday Night Live" and has written his own ticket to Broadway (Fish in the Dark, which starts splashing about at the Cort Feb. 2), made a speedy beeline into the theatre but was coaxed into a U-turn for a cursory smile-by for the paparazzi. He looked uncomfortably new to the situation.
This re-opening was a kind of training film for him for what awaits around the corner. The same goes for colonoscopy-pal Martin, who said that he expects to be "coming to Broadway within the year" with a show he and Edie Brickell wrote the songs and book for. "It's called Bright Star, and it's directed by Walter Bobbie. We have a wonderful star for it, too — Carmen Cusack, who did Wicked in London."
In her usual huskiness, Kathleen Turner confessed she's in rest mode now. "I've done three-in-a-row — Mother Courage in Washington, Bakersfield Mist in London, and my Molly Ivins story in Berkeley — so now I'm taking a break from theatre."
Not Tyne Daly. She spent a quarter of last year next to the Jacobs at the Golden doing a Tony-nominated job of McNally's Mothers and Sons. Come spring, she's back on Broadway in It Shoulda Been You. "This time, I'm mother of the bride," she said. With this and the transfer of It's Only a Play, McNally will have played three out of the four theatres on the south side of 45th Street. Sadly, he has nothing for the Booth.
"I wish I did," the playwright admitted. "I'm just grateful to have all this work being done." And he's not completely done this season, either: His 14-years-in-the-coming Kander-and-Ebb musical, The Visit, finally pays Broadway a visit April 23 at the Lyceum, with the most agile octogenarian in the biz, the very patient Chita Rivera.
That's the show that has all of his focus these days, but he has other irons in the fire: his memoir, a new musical version of Anastasia based on the animated film and utilizing its Lynn Aherns-Stephen Flaherty score, and the original libretto of an opera called Great Scott, which is set to have its world premiere Oct. 30 in Dallas.
Most of the audience at It's Only a Play readily recognized the play's set-up. It begins shortly after the curtain has emphatically fallen on something called The Golden Egg. The action is confined to the bedroom of that show's producer. While the after-party rages downstairs, every known theatrical type takes refuge here to await the reviews — actress (Channing), playwright (Broderick), producer (Finneran), director (Pancholy) and even critic (Abraham). Only two are uninvolved in the critical outcome: an overworked coat-checker (Stock) and a guilty bystander (Short), the playwright's best friend who turned down the lead role but came east for the wake.
The re-opening night party took place in the deluxe townhouse — nay, the posh bedroom — of budding producer Julia Budder, exactly as it does in the play. That is to say it, it took place on the stage of the Jacobs — on Scott Pask's high-flown fantasy facsimile of where the rich and famous sleep. The "do" was an intimate affair for the cast, the author, the producers, their celebrity guests, a couple of calm press agents, a small platoon of unobtrusive photographers and an inquiring (print) reporter.
All clinked champagne glasses after McNally's husband and producer, Kirdahy, proposed a toast: "Terrence and I are huge Martin Short fans, and the idea of bringing him back to Broadway is something that filled our household with love and excitement," he said. "The Queen was not interested in accommodating us, but we knew we had our own royalty in Matthew, Marty and this extraordinary cast, so the minute that The Shuberts finally said, 'OK, you can go next door,' we decided, 'Let's do this with these actors... It's their gain and our gain.' I think tonight told us we made a good decision, so I want to say to this company of actors — our veterans and new folks, Katie, Maulik and Marty — 'Thank you for taking a leap of faith with us.'"
Short gallantly returned the serve: "To quote Nathan a few weeks ago, it all starts with the words — Terrence McNally." The playwright smiled warmly in appreciation. Simple, sweet, sincere. I don't know when I've enjoyed an opening-night party more.