STAGE TO SCREEN: From Sugar Town to Mow-Town

STAGE TO SCREEN: From Sugar Town to Mow-Town Hollywood has seen a rash of nearly identical movies threatening to hit theatres simultaneously -- asteroids heading to Earth, Robin Hood, track star Steve Prefontaine. And dueling musicalizations of The Wild Party, both of which are scheduled to open in New York within a three month period, have received their share of attention. But it's only recently that Hollywood and Broadway have begun dipping from the same trough as well. The Titanic is one thing, but how do you explain a film ("The Harmonists") and a Broadway musical (Band in Berlin), both about a group of Weimar Swingle Singers, opening within five days of each other?

Hollywood has seen a rash of nearly identical movies threatening to hit theatres simultaneously -- asteroids heading to Earth, Robin Hood, track star Steve Prefontaine. And dueling musicalizations of The Wild Party, both of which are scheduled to open in New York within a three month period, have received their share of attention. But it's only recently that Hollywood and Broadway have begun dipping from the same trough as well. The Titanic is one thing, but how do you explain a film ("The Harmonists") and a Broadway musical (Band in Berlin), both about a group of Weimar Swingle Singers, opening within five days of each other?

The weirdest synergy promises to take place this fall, though. Listen to this source material: An elderly man drives a riding mower all the way across Iowa to visit his ailing brother in 1994. That's it. That's the story. If you're curious to hear more about this, don't worry: You'll be able to take your pick between the David Lynch movie, "The Straight Story," or the musical, The Shoulder. Actually, the latter piece, written by Dan Moses Schreier and Dan Hurlin, can be found only at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, starting Oct. 13. But Wit and Al Pacino's Hughie both came from the Long Wharf, so who knows? "The Straight Story," starring Richard Farnsworth, will also open two days later.

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I had hoped to have tons of fascinating material for you all about "American Beauty." This is the mega-dark suburbia comedy that has been generating louder and louder Oscar whispers with each passing day for the last month. It's also the film debut for director Sam Mendes (Cabaret, The Blue Room), and it stars all sorts of theatre folk, including Kevin Spacey, Allison Janney and Scott Bakula. (Janney appears to have become the reigning queen of roiling suburban sexuality: She was the "key party" hostess in "The Ice Storm" a few years back.)

Unfortunately, the press department at Dreamworks had other ideas. After more than a week of daily attempts, I never once managed to speak to a person over there. I usually don't trouble you folks with my travails at trying to get quotes or even release dates from the studios, but this was particularly frustrating. From what I understand, Dreamworks has been extremely cautious about not hitting the press too aggressively just yet, it still being four months before the end of the year and therefore a little early for an Oscar push. (The industry scuttlebutt is that too much hype too early backfired last year for "The Truman Show" and especially Dreamworks' "Saving Private Ryan".) But still... I next wandered over to the Internet, but the studio has yet to post a Web site. Dreamworks appears to have contracted its "American Beauty" info out to, of all places, Amazon.com. (What doesn't that company do?) Anyway, the site has a lot of interesting information, including a glimpse of the shooting script. Mendes talks a bit about the differences between directing for film and theatre. He also says he hopes to do another film as soon as he wraps up the workshop -- and, everyone assumes, the subsequent production -- of Wise Guys. "American Beauty" is scheduled to open in selected cities Sept. 15 before going national on Oct. 1.

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When I heard the plot synopsis and saw the cast list for "Sugar Town," the new Allison Anders film, I thought I had stumbled onto a major coup. See, "Sugar Town," which has been described as an indie-rock version of "Nashville," follows a group of mid- to low-level rockers in Hollywood. And one of the name actresses is ... Ally Sheedy, who's about to take over as one of the lowest-level rockers alive, Hedwig, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Could that sweet little thing from "War Games" possibly be playing not one but two drugged-out rock wannabes in the space of a month?

One or two phone calls quickly put my theory to rest. The movie may be largely about the rock world, but Sheedy plays a frustrated Hollywood production designer whose miserable love life is a steady source of comic relief throughout the film. Well, that last part sounds a little like Hedwig.

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Cutting-Room Floor: News continues to trickle in about "Topsy-Turvy," the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic from notoriously secretive director Mike Leigh. After debuting at a handful of festivals, the film isn't due to open until December. As befits a prestige end-of-year title, it's long -- 160 minutes, at last count. Jim Broadbent (he was Buckingham to Sir Ian McKellen's Richard III and played the club owner in "Little Voice") plays Gilbert, and Allan Corduner plays Sullivan. ... Michael Caine told reporters at the Venice Film Festival that his next major role will be as an English gangster in a modern-day King Lear retelling called "King Swanny." ... A ton of theatre folk will be seen in non-genre films opening Sept. 24. Look for Jasmine Guy, Sandra Oh (Stop Kiss) and Carrie Preston (the Patrick Stewart Tempest) in the Sundance favorite "Guinevere"; Alan Arkin, Liev Schreiber and Grand Hotel Tony-winner Michael Jeter in "Jakob the Liar"; and Dana Ivey, Hope Davis, Martin Short and Jane Adams, among others, in "Mumford." ... Although these don't qualify as movie musicals in the traditional sense, the week of Sept. 17 will see the rerelease of two completely groundbreaking film -- the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense." Both are essential. ... Speaking of reissues, here's one premiere that Sir John Gielgud and Helen Mirren probably won't be attending. "Caligula," the infamous 1980 melding of hardcore porn and Roman history codirected by Penthouse impresario Bob Guccione, also hits theatres Sept. 17.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.