STAGE TO SCREEN: From Tevye to Gidget to Hedwig

STAGE TO SCREEN: From Tevye to Gidget to Hedwig Things are currently a bit slow on the cinematic front in terms of stage adaptations, but the small screen is humming along nicely. You’ve probably heard by now that the pay-per-view Broadway Television Network (BTN) will make its debut Sept. 10 with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” This rock songbook clearly has its fans -- it’s the longest-running revue in Broadway history -- and I’m guessing it will do OK in terms of broad appeal. But most of my theater buff pals are going to wait for BTN’s next project, “Putting It Together.” (And these are people who don’t even like the show.)

Things are currently a bit slow on the cinematic front in terms of stage adaptations, but the small screen is humming along nicely. You’ve probably heard by now that the pay-per-view Broadway Television Network (BTN) will make its debut Sept. 10 with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” This rock songbook clearly has its fans -- it’s the longest-running revue in Broadway history -- and I’m guessing it will do OK in terms of broad appeal. But most of my theater buff pals are going to wait for BTN’s next project, “Putting It Together.” (And these are people who don’t even like the show.)

Before that, though, Showtime will air Neil LaBute’s chilling “bash” on Aug. 28. This bare-bones rendition of the three one-acts, filmed during the show’s Los Angeles run, features the New York cast: Calista Flockhart, Paul Rudd and Ron Eldard. This is the exact kind of project that cable television should be running with -- the kind of risky, literate theatrical fare that all too often gets sugarcoated for network television or filigreed for the big screen. And viewers who only know the actors from their genial Hollywood vehicles (“Ally McBeal,” “ER” and “Clueless,” respectively) will be shocked at what these three have to offer.

Speaking of edgy cable fare, HBO followed up the news of its “Wit” adaptation by announcing a film of the show that replaced Wit at the Union Square Theater, The Laramie Project. I am a huge fan of both of these shows, and I applaud HBO for tackling two thorny projects. And while “Wit” is getting gussied up a bit for the cameras -- Emma Thompson is slated to star for director Mike Nichols, a far starrier combo than Kathleen Chalfant and the late Derek Anson Jones -- it looks like Moises Kaufman’s docudrama will take a much more faithful trip to the small screen. The eight actors who play all the characters in the play (and who traveled numerous times to Laramie, Wyo., to conduct the interviews that make up the play) will repeat their roles for the film, possibly augmented by additional performers, and Kaufman is expected to direct.

And no discussion of TV adaptations would be complete without discussing Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose Storyline production house is largely responsible for generating Hollywood’s interest in these properties. Their series of hit family musicals (“Annie,” “Cinderella,” “Gypsy”) promises to continue with no fewer than three upcoming adaptations for ABC. Before “The Music Man” and the much-anticipated/much-feared Barbra Streisand “Mame,” though, will come a three-hour “Fiddler on the Roof” for ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” The project is currently without a director, and Tevye has yet to be cast, but the hope is to have “Fiddler” finished in time for one of 2001’s two sweeps periods. (May has been bandied about as a possible air date, but I’m guessing the fall is more realistic.)

As always, the mind races at the sound of the words “yet to be cast.” Speculation appears to be settling on Jason Alexander, who has the name recognition and the musical theater chops (and, let’s be frank, the ethnicity and the girth) for the part. However, one of the few recent TV musicals to flop was the inert “Bye Bye Birdie,” which Alexander starred in opposite Vanessa Williams (for a different set of producers), and he might not want to draw from that well again. A handful of stage veterans spring to mind, notably Nicholas Kepros and Jack Willis, but they can’t carry an ABC sweeps special. They could go dramatic and cast Sam Waterston, Dennis Franz or Jerry Orbach; it sure would be great to see Orbach in another musical, especially one with the suitable amount of gravity. But what about Billy Crystal, who was long rumored to star in the “Into the Woods” movie? As long as he didn’t follow in the footsteps of original star Zero Mostel and cut up too much, I think he has the perfect blend of humor, marquee appeal and acting chops. What do you think? *

Meanwhile, two actor-driven stage projects that debuted in now-defunct theatres are on the way to the big screen. First up is “Once in the Life,” starring Laurence Fishburne, who also wrote the script and directed the film. The name may not ring a bell, but its stage antecedent, Riff Raff, is perhaps best remembered as the last hurrah for Circle Rep before the seminal off-Broadway theater shut down. Lions Gate plans to release the film, which also stars Annabella Sciorra and Gregory Hines, in October.

And Fox Searchlight has picked up the distribution rights for “Chinese Coffee,” which Al Pacino has been filming piecemeal for the last three years. (He likes to work in dribs and drabs: That’s how his first film, the superb “Looking for Richard,” got put together.) He and Jerry Orbach star in the two-character Ira Lewis drama, which Pacino had originally performed at Circle in the Square. “Chinese Coffee” is scheduled to come out sometime in 2001.

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Filming has begun on the “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” movie in Toronto. It looks like all three principals (John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor and Stephen Trask) the entire original cast is appearing in the film, and several characters that Hedwig alluded to on stage are now being enacted by real performers. Cheater, the on-stage band led by Trask in the show, does not appear in the film but will be heard on the soundtrack. Andrea Martin was the only name that jumps to mind -- she plays Hedwig’s agent, Phyllis Stein -- and Tommy Gnosis is now being played by a regular on “Dawson’s Creek” named Michael Pitt. The most comprehensive information on the film can probably be found at http://ahedwiginabox.tripod.com, an enjoyable and frequently updated fan site.

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A handful of mainstream releases might be of interest to stage fans. Tops on my list is the reissue of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic “Ran” (Aug. 18), which draws frequently from King Lear. Aug. 18 will also see Dylan Baker in “The Cell” and Anna Friel (Closer) in the long-delayed “Sunset Strip,” while the Irish dance film “Mad About Mambo” (Aug. 25) stars a Who’s Who of Irish theatre. Among the performers are Brian Cox and Jim Norton, who between the two of them have starred in virtually every Conor McPherson play, along with Gabriel Byrne and Rosaleen Linehan (Dancing at Lughnasa).

My Favorite Thought: Michael casts a lone dissenting vote about Charles Busch bumping himself out of the female lead in “Psycho Beach Party”.

“I saw the show back when it was on Avenue C and called ‘Gidget Goes Psychotic,’ and I admit it's kinda disappointing that A) Charles Busch won't be playing Chicklet and B) that a woman will be playing the role. It seems like something that was smart and funky has to now be made realistic for a mass audience that can't accept a bit of fantasy. What the heck's wrong with older people playing teenagers? How old was Stockard Channing when she did ‘Grease’???”

Your Thoughts: Which dramatic project are you more excited about: “bash,” “The Laramie Project” or “Wit”? And who do you think should play Tevye?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@cmp.com.