STAGE TO SCREEN: Letters, We Get Letters...

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Letters, We Get Letters... Wow, you folks have lots to say about Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Except for the occasional quibble about a particular title or casting decision, the producing pair seems to have quite a few fans out there. My last column got more responses than anything I’ve written in at least a year. So I’ve included some of the news near the end, but I mostly wanted to feature a few dozen of you guys. In addition to plenty of good casting suggestions, I got a lot of great questions and comments. Most of you confined your comments to the Zadan/Meron properties, but several people also voiced their interest in a “Dreamgirls” movie. (I included a few dissenting votes as well, but like I said, the overall tone was pretty positive.) So this week’s column is essentially yours. Enjoy.

Wow, you folks have lots to say about Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Except for the occasional quibble about a particular title or casting decision, the producing pair seems to have quite a few fans out there. My last column got more responses than anything I’ve written in at least a year. So I’ve included some of the news near the end, but I mostly wanted to feature a few dozen of you guys. In addition to plenty of good casting suggestions, I got a lot of great questions and comments. Most of you confined your comments to the Zadan/Meron properties, but several people also voiced their interest in a “Dreamgirls” movie. (I included a few dissenting votes as well, but like I said, the overall tone was pretty positive.) So this week’s column is essentially yours. Enjoy.

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George came up with two entirely plausible ideas for family shows, one of which may already be on the way:

“A show that I think would make a great project for TV would be Big. Even young kids love the Tom Hanks movie when they see it on TV. I really enjoyed the musical, but I guess I was in the minority, because the Tony people couldn't even see fit to give it a nomination for Best Musical in a weak year. I really believe it might have found an audience if it had gotten a nomination and got to perform on the show. It was one of the few shows that you could take kids to, and the kids who saw it seemed to love it. I was around Shubert Alley several times as the show let out, and the kids just swarmed out of the theater dancing and singing as if they loved it. Maybe it needed some work, but that could be done.

“And if that pair of producers likes fairy tales, there was a great little musical in London a few years ago that might interest them. It was called Honk!, and it beat out The Lion King for Best New Musical over there.” At least one of George’s ideas appears to be on the way: Alva Entertainment has purchased the movie rights to “Honk!” The idea is to combine live-action footage with stop-motion animation. I haven’t heard anything about “Big,” but I do know the touring production used extensive rewrites that were supposedly much for the better. So who knows?

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A lot of you wrote in just a list of casting ideas, primarily for “Chicago” and “Mame.” One anonymous reader suggested either Johnnie Cochran or Donald Trump for Billy Flynn, and the suggestions for Ito in “Mame” involved a few reaches (B.D. Wong? Jackie Chan?!), but many of the suggestions were a bit more mainstream. Matthew’s suggestion of Lea DeLaria as Mama Morton in “Chicago” is perfect, as was Stephen’s suggestion of Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) as Amos. And several of you mentioned Megan Mullally as Gooch; I don’t watch “Will and Grace,” but this seems like the closest thing I saw (along with Bebe Neuwirth repeating her role as Velma) to a consensus vote. Dana’s suggestion of RuPaul as Vera, however, appears to be a dissenting vote.

Acclaimed cabaret star Steven Brinberg would be forgiven for having strong feelings about “Mame.” After all, he’s built much of his career on what I’m told is an uncanny impersonation of the film’s executive producer, Barbra Streisand. But his comments seem relatively unclouded by Babs’ involvement:

Mame:

Beauregard: James Brolin

Vera: Patti LuPone

Gooch: Joan Cusack

Patrick: John Barrowman

Young Patrick: Jamie Bell [Note: He’s the kid from “Billy Elliot”]

The Upsons: Debbie Reynolds and Burt Reynolds

Sally Cato: Lesley Ann Warren

Gloria Upson: Kristin Chenoweth

Chicago:

Roxie: Catherine Zeta-Jones

Velma: Vanessa Williams

Billy: Kevin Spacey

Mama Morton: Liza Minnelli

“And Matthew and Sarah should forget ‘The Music Man’ and do ‘Promises, Promises’ instead!”

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Regular respondent Philip, meanwhile, can always be counted on a few off-kilter suggestions. He didn’t disappoint this time:

“For the casting of ‘Chicago,’ I'd like to see Anne Heche as Roxie, Halle Berry as Velma, Kurt Russell as Billy, Rick Moranis as Amos and Whoopi Goldberg as Mama.

For ‘Mame,’ to work with Cher as Mame, I'd like to see ‘Ab Fab's’ Joanna Lumley as Vera, Faith Prince as Gooch and Haley Joel Osment as Patrick.”

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Peter wasn’t the only person to lobby against casting Sarah Jessica Parker in “The Music Man.” He did, however, have a few good ideas about the other projects, and like many of you, he bristles at the knee-jerk casting of stars in the leading roles:

An industry insider recently told me that both Helen Hunt and Gwyneth Paltrow were vying for the lead roles in ‘Chicago.’ They're both wonderful actresses, but just because you have an Academy Award does not mean you have the right to be in whatever you want. I believe the part of Roxie Hart should be played by Nicole Kidman and that Velma Kelly should be Catherine Zeta-Jones. After seeing ‘Moulin Rouge,’ it is evident that Ms. Kidman can sing and dance but can be quite funny at times. And Ms. Zeta-Jones has already proved herself adept in musicals across the Atlantic in her native United Kingdom, so why not let American audiences in on her little secret? Kidman and Zeta-Jones are both wonderful actresses and not too shabby to look at. They are both beautiful, but in different ways. They would match each other perfectly. Now in the case of Billy Flynn, I believe Alec Baldwin would do a wonderful job in the role. He has the finesse, yet one could also imagine him being very underhanded and greedy. He would be perfect. However, his singing abilities are undetermined! And for Amos, none other than Nathan Lane. I don't know why he's never been considered. This probably wouldn't get under way for a while, so Lane could be used after his Producers run, which I'm sure will be a healthy one. Mama Morton could easily be essayed by Florence Henderson. No one would ever think of Mrs. Brady in such a brazen part. She's the right age, she can sing and she can be funny! Why not? Everyone says either Rosie O'Donnell or Whoopi Goldberg … why not Carol Brady?

The same insider told me that there was talk of Broderick's real-life love, Sarah Jessica Parker, taking the role of Marian Paroo in “The Music Man.” AWFUL CHOICE!!!!!!!!! She is a hilarious comedic actress, but her voice is in no way prepared for the role of Marian. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to catch a performance of Lea Thompson in Cabaret. Why not her? She has a fantastic voice that no one knows about, but she's also cute as a button! They would look perfect together! Throw in David Alan Grier as Marcellus, Henry Winkler as Mayor Shinn and Valerie Perrine as Mrs. Shinn, and that's a winning cast.

As for ‘Mame,’ how about the wonderful Christine Baranski as Vera Charles, Jonathan Lipnicki as Young Patrick, Neil Patrick Harris as Older Patrick, Jackie Chan as Ito, Katie Holmes as Gloria and Kristen Chenoweth as Agnes Gooch.”

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“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” apparently has a real following out there, even among those who can’t understand the lyrics, as evidenced by Steven:

“The TV movie musical that I found the most exciting is the live-action ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ I loved the animated version and have been hoping that the stage version would come to London since it opened in Berlin. I bought the German cast album and, as I don't speak any German, can't wait to hear what the lyrics of the new songs are. I think the recording of ‘Someday’ has to be one of the best reworkings of any song I have heard. The harmonies are just beautiful.”

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Many of you took issue with the idea of new versions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Music Man.” The logic appears to be: Why fix something that isn’t broken? By the same token, the idea of a new “Mame” held a lot of interest because so many people were disappointed by the Lucille Ball film. Adam even had a problem with one of Meron and Zadan’s other properties.

“I'd be interested in hearing just what these producers thought was wrong with the original movie version of ‘The Wiz.’ It has always been one of my favorites, and one of my favorite parts is the constant social commentary—a part I fear may be the first thing to go in a cleaned-up, made-for-TV version. And certainly they can't expect to get better performances!”

Don, on the other hand, is happy to see a new “Wiz,” but he’s not so sure about some of the other properties:

“My feeling about all of these musicals is that they are welcome when they are seeking to improve on weak versions from the past (e.g., ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Annie’). Certainly ‘Mame’ and ‘The Wiz’ are in need of new and improved treatments, but I take issue with ‘The Music Man.’ The original movie is near perfection, with classic performances from Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. What do the producers think they can add or improve upon? Matthew Broderick, for all his talents, doesn't seem likely to join Robert Preston as a definitive Harold Hill. I say leave a classic alone.

“‘Fiddler on the Roof’ seems another dubious choice for a remake. The theatrical movie may be imperfect, but it's certainly no embarrassment. Why bother?

“As for the TV version of ‘Mame,’ I look forward to seeing what becomes of it. Cher wouldn't be my choice for the leading role (Bette Midler seems obvious), but just about anyone will be better than Lucille Ball. As for the other roles, how about Megan Mullally or Christine Ebersole for Vera? Veanne Cox or even Kristen Chenoweth for Gooch?”

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And Bob raised a very good question, one to which I’m not sure I have the answer:

“In your column, you make a distinction between producing and executive producing. Can you clarify the differences and nuances of these positions? I am uncertain what responsibilities accompany each position.”

As far as I can tell—and this delineation seems far more important in the film world than in theater—executive producers are often more involved in the preproduction end. Big names like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme will occasionally get an executive producer credit on some obscure project they want to get behind, but I don’t think they have much input during the actual filming of the movie. In the case of “Chicago,” however, “executive producer” seems to connote a more creative role. I suspect Miramax is looking to draw on Meron and Zadan’s contacts and past experience, but I think these descriptions vary wildly from project to project. Does anyone out there have a more concrete description?

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OK, it’s my turn again. In other news … Anthony LaPaglia’s apparently not done with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. He has teamed up with producer Richard Gladstein and secured permission from Miller to develop a film adaptation. Miller has approved Andrew Bovell to write a new script, at which point a director would presumably be secured. Don’t be surprised if this ultimately finds its way to a premium cable like Showtime, which did so well with Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

As you’ve probably read, Spike Lee is “in discussions” with Miramax about directing the “Rent” movie. I had forgotten this, but one condition of Miramax’s 1996 deal was that a film version couldn’t be released before the fall of 2001. Needless to say, that won’t be a problem now. Is Miramax gutsy enough to put two major musicals into production at once, or will they wait to see if “Chicago” happens, how much it costs and (most important) and how much it makes? A director of Lee’s caliber always has a half-dozen projects in the hopper at any given point, so don’t be surprised if this sits on the back burner until the “Chicago” situation clears up.

Also, the strike threats appear to be over. Hollywood needs to regroup now, so the good news is that a lot of talent is currently unemployed for the next few months. Watch for enterprising theater groups and indie producers to snatch up semi-names who might ordinarily be out of their reach. This summer’s starry Seagull in Central Park could be the tip of the iceberg.

A pair of Canadian stage veterans will be seen (or at least heard) in movies opening July 13. Look for Victor Garber in the comedy “Legally Blonde,” and listen for Donald Sutherland (who apparently will not be seen in a Broadway transfer of Ten Unknowns) in the computer-animated “Final Fantasy.” And “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is set to debut on July 20. By the time you read this, I will have seen it and talked to at least some of the people involved. So I’m taking the column back from y’all next time. See you then.

Your Thoughts: You have your work cut out for you if you hope to match the volume of e-mail from the last time. Open floor: Write about whatever you want to write about. Do you like the idea of Spike directing “Rent”? Who should direct “A View From the Bridge”? Are you excited for “Hedwig”? And who can shed some light on the whole producer/executive producer thing?

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