STAGE TO SCREEN: “The Guys” and More Movie Musicals

STAGE TO SCREEN: “The Guys” and More Movie Musicals Some people may have no interest in seeing a work of fiction that addresses the events of September 11 any time soon, and I can’t say I blame them.
Anthony LaPaglia in a scene from
Anthony LaPaglia in a scene from "The Guys."

When Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber were starring in The Mercy Seat, Neil LaBute’s scorching look at two New Yorkers regrouping the day after the tragedy, Weaver told a New York Times reporter that the play was decidedly not for everyone.

But a few more months have passed since then, and now might be the right time for "The Guys," which begins a gradual release on April 4. As agonizing as the premise may be—a New York journalist is enlisted to help a grieving fire captain eulogize eight of his men—playwright and co screenwriter Anne Nelson says audiences have described the film to her as "gentle," "calming" and "humanizing." And she’s right: By telling the stories of these eight men truthfully and with open eyes, "The Guys" reminds us to look around us for the stories we might otherwise miss.

Most of you have probably heard Nelson’s story by now. The longtime journalist found herself sitting next to Flea Theater founder Jim Simpson at a benefit, where she told him about some of her own experiences writing eulogies. Simpson was looking for a September 11-themed play for the Flea; a week later, Nelson had written her first play. The list of people to appear in the semistaged The Guys included Weaver (Simpson’s wife), Bill Murray, Anthony LaPaglia, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and many others. When it came to casting the low-budget film version, which was shot in just nine days, Simpson decided to go with Weaver and LaPaglia. (In addition to adapting the script with Nelson, Simpson also cast his and Weaver’s daughter, Charlotte, as the daughter of Weaver’s character.)

To any New Yorker, "The Guys" is likely to elicit a flood of memories of the days immediately following September 11—the fliers on every pole, the flowers and candles in front of the firehouses, the awkward and essential gestures of kindness toward strangers. "It is such a document of what it was like to be there ten days later," Weaver says of the film. "Jim wanted to show that New York was a city of families."

Nelson, who drills home the concept "First do no harm" to her journalism students at Columbia, says she made a conscious decision to steer clear of the shots of carnage that flooded television screens; the closest "The Guys" comes to any sort of graphic depiction is a grainy video of a fire truck pulling out of its station on its way to the fire. "The film has the advantage of evoking some of the qualities of the city immediately after the attack," she says, "not in a CNN-tape-loop kind of way but in a way that shows the solidarity." She concedes that the use of marquee names can be distancing at first but says securing performers like Weaver and LaPaglia was essential for funding: "We live in the culture we live in, and if we had done it with unknowns, it might have closed after two weeks." In typical Hollywood fashion, the studios at first pushed for more sexual chemistry between Nick and Joan, a suggestion that Simpson and Nelson quickly disregarded. (In fact, the very idea is mocked in a way I won’t divulge here.)

Nelson very consciously avoided what she calls "some fabricated notion of nobility" in describing the dead firefighters. The title is evocative: Before these guys were heroes or martyrs, they were guys. Guys with families and weight benches and senses of humor. Weaver says she was nervous to depict this side of their lives, but the firemen in the Flea audiences convinced her otherwise. "It was a little frightening at first, but afterward they would always say, ‘More irreverence! More humor!’

"We celebrate these men so that, by the time you leave the theatre, these men belong to you."

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Before beginning its run, "The Guys" will make its New York premiere at the New Directors/New Films festival on April 2. Just two days later, a less publicized film at the festival may also be of interest to "Stage to Screen" readers. Make way for "Camp," a comedy about a summer camp for wannabe Broadway stars. Todd Graff, an actor who made the switch to screenwriting about a decade ago ("Angie," "The Vanishing"), has directed this story of a Broadway composer/lyricist with a string of flops who makes his way to Camp Ovation (a pretty clear takeoff on upstate New York’s Stage Door Camp). "Camp" got some good notices at Sundance this year, and the cast of young talents includes one ringer—Anna Kendrick, who got a Tony nomination for High Society and recently appeared in the New York City Opera Little Night Music. It’s not opening in theaters until July 25, but it will screen April 4 and 6 at the festival.

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Although nobody really seemed sure how to balance Hollywood’s typical orgy of self-love with the gravitas demanded by world events, the Oscars acquitted themselves fairly well this year and offered plenty for theatre buffs to savor beyond the six trophies for "Chicago."

The Sam Mendes–Conrad L. Hall winning streak continued with the posthumous victory for Hall’s "Road to Perdition" cinematography. Ronald Harwood’s award for his "Pianist" screenplay was one of the evening’s biggest surprises. Elliot Goldenthal won for his "Frida" score, making him the first person to win an Oscar after being interviewed for this column. (Finally!) And while "The Hours" underperformed somewhat, Nicole Kidman’s win should further burnish Stephen Daldry’s reputation as an actor’s director. The big news, of course, was the terrific showing for "Chicago." It was nice to see that shrinking violet Harvey Weinstein yield the podium to Marty Richards, but it would have been great to see Craig Zadan and Neil Meron up there as well.

So what does this mean for more musicals, seeing as "Chicago" will certainly gross more than $150 million now? Zadan and Meron appear to have their energies behind “Guys and Dolls" and "Into the Woods," in that order, and Richards has apparently been emboldened to move ahead on films of "Sweeney Todd" (it’s about time) and "The Life" (not such a great idea—try Cy Coleman’s "City of Angels" or even "Little Me" instead). The Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd is supposed to start filming soon, and don’t forget "Bye Bye Birdie" and maybe even "Urinetown." Maybe Rob Marshall will take a crack at "Rent," the film that he was in discussions for before "Chicago" sprouted up. And "Phantom of the Opera" is still scheduled to go before cameras this fall; still no word on the leading man. Hey, maybe Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski could turn his 1967 cult hit "The Fearless Vampire Killers" into a musical! Oh, wait…

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If you can’t wait for the starry Salome to open on April 30, you can catch three of its stars on the big screen this month. Marisa Tomei appears in "Anger Management" on April 11, and David Strathairn stars in "Blue Car" (April 25), the Sundance darling of 2002. Of particular interest, however, is the latest Al Pacino offering, April 23’s "People I Know." This look at a press flack, which actually finished shooting two years ago (not a good sign) and has apparently aired on some airlines (even worse), features a script by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who has laid low since Ten Unknowns opened in early 2001. Part of the film’s delay may have stemmed from the fact that Pacino’s character had his office in the World Trade Center.

Also, watch for Bernadette Peters in "It Runs in the Family" (April 25), Keith Nobbs of Dublin Carol in the long-delayed sniper thriller "Phone Booth" (April 4) and Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins in "What a Girl Wants" (April 4). And worthy of special note is "The Young Unknowns" (April 18), a low-budget modernization of the 1968 play Magic Afternoon by Wolfgang Bauer. I didn’t know much about Bauer, but he appears to have been a fairly prominent enfant terrible in Austria in the 1960’s, kind of like a Viennese Edward Bond. Anyway, the film may be worth watching for—if it makes its way to your town.

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Your Thoughts: Is America ready to see a film about September 11? Are you? And I’m curious to hear what people thought about the Oscars. If you could pick only three of those movie musicals, which would they be?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver in a scene from "The Guys."
Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver in a scene from "The Guys."