STAGE TO SCREEN: Playhouse '99 for Delany Sisters, Love Letters

STAGE TO SCREEN: Playhouse '99 for Delany Sisters, Love Letters What do Having Our Say, Love Letters and The Last Night of Ballyhoo all have in common, besides being regional theatre mainstays? All three are about to become television movies, with "Love Letters" appearing April 11 at 9 PM on ABC and "Having Our Say" bowing the following Sunday at 9 PM on CBS.

What do Having Our Say, Love Letters and The Last Night of Ballyhoo all have in common, besides being regional theatre mainstays? All three are about to become television movies, with "Love Letters" appearing April 11 at 9 PM on ABC and "Having Our Say" bowing the following Sunday at 9 PM on CBS.

As the pedigree of made-for-TV movies has increased over the last decade or so, the networks are constantly hunting for prestige projects that can be turned around quickly and relatively cheaply. As a result, Broadway has become an increasingly desirable source of material, and -- as opposed to the director-driven world of Hollywood -- television almost automatically brings the original playwright on board to write the screenplay. Emily Mann, A.R. Gurney and Alfred Uhry each worked on their own respective properties.

Another advantage the small screen offers is an added sense of intimacy. TV viewers are less likely to require much in the way of "opening up," or moving the action beyond a single set by creating outdoor scenes and supporting characters. Still, it's rare to see a filmed property remain entirely within its on-stage parameters.

"That's what movies can do," says Mann of "Having Our Say," the chronicle of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two pioneering black sisters who lived a combined 213 years. "Here we can actually go to 1896 and 1911 and the '20s and '30s in Harlem. Sadie can take Booker T. Washington to one of the schools she's supervising." Similarly, Gurney took the "Love Letters" correspondence out of chronological order and away from the two desks used on stage; now Andy (Steven Weber) and a ghostly Melissa (Laura Linney) interact throughout the piece.

Mann, who both wrote and directed Having Our Say on Broadway, here handled just the writing credits. She had a fair amount of work to do fleshing out the flashbacks, which now take up more than a third of the film. The Delanys are seen at various ages, with Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll starring as Bessie and Sadie. Other performers include Audra McDonald, Lonette McKee and, as Washington, blaxploitation icon Richard Roundtree. ("Isn't that wonderful?" Mann says. "Shaft as Booker T. Washington!".) Less is known about "Ballyhoo," but Uhry is adapting it for an ABC film that will be directed by Bruce Beresford. (Beresford directed the film of "Driving Miss Daisy," which won Uhry an Oscar in 1990.) And an earlier work of Mann's is also headed to the small screen: Perhaps spurred by the success of the similarly structured Gross Indecency, her Execution of Justice has been filmed for Showtime. Timothy Daly stars as Dan White, who was accused of assassinating Harvey Milk (Peter Coyote, playing against type), the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in 1978.

By the way, am I the only one reluctant to see a permanent record of Love Letters? My concern is not the expanded setting or the new characters but rather the two leads. Linney and Weber are both extremely talented and charismatic and will probably do a fine job, but part of the show's charm is the revolving door of performers. Multiple viewings yield multiple interpretations, and people quibbled over which pairing was tops. (I really wish I'd seen Elaine Stritch and Jason Robards take a crack at it.) More than most properties, Love Letters might lose as much as it gains by taking on a state of solidity, no matter who appeared in the film.

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Cutting-Room Floor: According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mel Brooks is reportedly in talks with Canal Plus Image, which holds the rights to the 1967 Brooks film "The Producers," about turning it into an actual musical. ... I mentioned a possible film remake of "The Lion in Winter" in my last column. Now Miramax has bought the rights to Mary Chase's 1944 classic Harvey. In an interview with Variety, Miramax copresident Harvey Weinstein said Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks are all being considered for the role of Elwood P. Dowd... Playbill On-Line recently reported that Nicole Kidman might sign on to "Birthday Girl," written and directed by Mojo playwright Jez Butterworth. The film of "Mojo" -- which features Ian Hart and, in a rare screen appearance, Harold Pinter -- disappeared without a trace after showing in the New York Film Festival a few years back, but it's getting a repeat performance. Look for it at New York's Walter Reade Theater from April 23 to 25. ... One of the several articles in the April 4 New York Times about The Iceman Cometh mentions that Kevin Spacey has bought the rights to the play and is considering turning it into a film or television work. ... This isn't a stage property, but it bears mentioning: "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy," a French musical opening April 16 in New York and Los Angeles, features characters singing plot songs. Unless I'm mistaken (and please let me know if I am), this is the first full-fledged musical to be released commercially since "Evita."

Eric Grode is the New York bureau chief for Show Music magazine and a theater critic for Back Stage.