STAGE TO SCREEN: "Phantom" Pinches While Jeremy Irons

STAGE TO SCREEN: "Phantom" Pinches While Jeremy Irons Okay, I promised some Jeremy Irons/Tennessee Williams news last time, and here goes: Irons is scheduled to start filming “The Night of the Iguana” late this summer. Kirk Douglas and Thora Birch (“American Beauty”) have been named as possible costars, but Birch’s part is only the third-largest female role in the play. Of far more importance is the role of Hannah Jelkes, Irons’ love interest; Margaret Leighton won a Tony for her portrayal in the 1961 original, and Cherry Jones put her stamp on the role a couple of years ago at the Roundabout. It’s an independent project, with a budget of only $10 million, so I’m guessing the Mexico setting will be recreated in a less expensive locale.

Okay, I promised some Jeremy Irons/Tennessee Williams news last time, and here goes: Irons is scheduled to start filming “The Night of the Iguana” late this summer. Kirk Douglas and Thora Birch (“American Beauty”) have been named as possible costars, but Birch’s part is only the third-largest female role in the play. Of far more importance is the role of Hannah Jelkes, Irons’ love interest; Margaret Leighton won a Tony for her portrayal in the 1961 original, and Cherry Jones put her stamp on the role a couple of years ago at the Roundabout. It’s an independent project, with a budget of only $10 million, so I’m guessing the Mexico setting will be recreated in a less expensive locale.

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People started writing in about this a few weeks ago, but what to make of the news that British comedian Ben Elton will write the script for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” movie? Not much. Nobody seemed to mind the through-sung nature of “Evita,” and Webber is clearly keeping this project near to his heart, so it’s doubtful that Elton will be doing too much radical reconstruction to the current book. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Webber announced this just a few months before his stage collaboration with Elton, a soccer musical named “The Beautiful Game,” opens in London.

More importantly, why has nobody discussed the film’s proposed budget? Warner Bros. supposedly has “Phantom” budgeted at $40 million. (This is the studio that ultimately decided against a “Dreamgirls” movie, despite interest by Lauryn Hill, because the moderately-budgeted “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” failed to attract audiences.) Movies are coming in at double and triple the cost all the time these days, so this is a tactical decision to keep it on the low end. But as the target audience for this project, what are you looking for in a “Phantom” movie? Fabulous interiors of the Paris Opera House and the subterranean world below. A lush orchestral sound. Visual pyrotechnics that can equal the sensation Phantom caused when it opened almost 15 years ago. These things cost money, folks. Antonio Banderas will probably clear $5 million, and director Shekhar Kapur will get a decent cut as well. When you add it up, this doesn’t look like the kind of epic we all envisioned.

So, at the risk of sacrilege, why not rethink the project altogether? A cost-cutting “Phantom” will underwhelm the devotees and fail to draw the fence-sitters. (Remember, Madonna in stylish gowns is a much bigger box-office draw than Banderas with a mask on, and “Evita” did only so-so business.) So why not make everyone happy and put the stage production on film for PBS and video? A lower budget means less pressure to cast a star and a greater chance of recouping costs. I fully agree that a big-screen “Phantom” could be dazzling, but only if Warner Bros. is willing to take a gamble and do it right. *

I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about the project, but the Lars von Trier musical “Dancer in the Dark” wowed the judges at the Cannes Film Festival. The film won the top prize, and Bjork won an award for best actress. Audiences were apparently decidedly mixed; U.S. audiences will get their chance to decide when Fine Line releases it, probably in the fall.

In other Cannes news, Miramax snatched up the rights for “Vatel,” written by Tom Stoppard. (It could be argued that Stoppard’s pedigree vaulted Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” into legitimate Oscar contention.) And Neil LaBute’s next film, “Nurse Betty,” won the award for best screenplay. Unfortunately, it’s the first LaBute film for which he didn’t write the script. It was announced at Cannes that LaBute will adapt and direct the Charles Wolleford novel “The Burnt Orange Heresy” for Shooting Gallery, which has provided a home for such playwrights as Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) and David Marshall Grant (the just-announced “Salt Water”). No word on when/if LaBute will tackle “Angels in America.” *

Look for more on “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which opens June 9, in the next column. The buzz, however, is far from favorable. Both “Hamlet” and “Titus” were terrific, and I was hoping Kenneth Branagh would keep the streak going, but we may not be so lucky. We’ll see if Nathan Lane -- who’s hardly known for keeping his light under a bushel when it comes to upcoming projects -- talks the film up on the Tony Awards.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Ubiquitous British comedian Ray Cooney has signed a deal to bring his hit London comedy, Funny Money, to the screen. Shooting is scheduled for this fall in Canada and New York. ... I know I’ve been writing about “The Bacchae” for more than a year, but it looks like it’s actually on. The sex- and violence-laden retelling will begin filming July 17. Details to come. ... Several new films have stage veterans attached. Jennifer Ehle (“The Real Thing”) stars with her Tony competitor/mother, Rosemary Harris, in “Sunshine” (June 9), which stars Ralph Fiennes as three generations of a Hungarian family. Israel Horovitz wrote the screenplay. Billy Crudup plays the title role in “Jesus’ Son” (June 16), based on the acclaimed book of Denis Johnson short stories, while Hamish Linklater (Love’ Fire, the Public Hamlet) has a lead role in “Groove” (June 9), Hollywood’s latest look at rave culture. (Liev Schreiber, who was Hamlet to Linklater’s Laertes at the Public, is now playing Laertes to Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet in the new movie.) And if you’re looking for a weird double dose of Philip Bosco, catch the June 16 performance of Copenhagen and then see a late showing of the “Shaft” remake. It also stars Jeffrey Wright (who is heard but not seen as the Gravedigger in “Hamlet”), Toni Collette, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Vanessa L. Williams. Incidentally, Wright replaced John Leguizamo in “Shaft.” Leguizamo’s voice is featured (along with that of Nathan Lane) in the animated “Titan A.E.,” which also opens June 16. Got all that?

Your Thoughts: Is a $40 million “Phantom” better than no “Phantom”? Any thoughts on the Tony Awards? Whom would you like to see play Hannah in “The Night of the Iguana”? My Favorite Thought: I got quite a few letters in support of “Center Stage,” although almost everyone seemed vaguely apologetic about liking it.

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