STAGE TO SCREENS: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Richard Maltby, Jr.

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Richard Maltby, Jr. This month we chat with two Tony winners: Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kiss Me, Kate) and director Richard Maltby, Jr. (Ain’t Misbehavin’). Mitchell discusses Thirteeen/WNET’s “Great Performances” presentation (April 26, PBS, 9 PM ET) of “‘South Pacific’ in Concert at Carnegie Hall,” in which he’s superb as Emile de Becque (opposite a very appealing Reba McEntire, playing naïve Nellie Forbush), while Maltby talks about Broadway’s Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash musical, and the upcoming movie, “Miss Potter” (in which Renee Zellweger plays “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” author Beatrix Potter), for which he wrote the screenplay.
From Top: Brian Stokes Mitchell in South Pacific at Carnegie Hall; Richard Maltby, Jr.
From Top: Brian Stokes Mitchell in South Pacific at Carnegie Hall; Richard Maltby, Jr. Photo by Joe Sinnott - Thirteen/WNET (top)

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Prior to the June 2005 benefit concert of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Brian Stokes Mitchell had “never seen the play, or read the script. I’d seen parts of the film. I’d read and absorbed almost every musical ever made, but a few had slipped through my fingers—and South Pacific was one of them. As a result, I’d constructed a plot that was totally wrong. Who’s this? [He wondered], and who’s she going to wash out of her hair? And who’s this old fart, the French guy? Well, here I am playing the old fart.”

According to Mitchell, the experience was both “surprising and interesting. I had such a great time working with Reba McEntire.” Does he approach a concert differently than a regular musical? He laughs. “You prepare less.” Having the safety net of a script in hand, he claims, “gives you a false sense of security. The problem with a concert is that nobody wants to see you do it with your head buried in a script. That means you have to have most of it memorized. People, in general, are a lot more prepared than they appear.”

He’s appeared in three Encores! concerts (Do Re Mi, Carnival, Kismet). “They’re very similar,” admits Mitchell, “but they’re fully staged and choreographed. They’re really full productions [and have five performances]. Compared to Encores!, [South Pacific] was a walk in the park.”

Did he have a favorite moment as Emile? “‘This Nearly Was Mine’ definitely was it. That was the surprise in the show. Everyone thinks of ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ which is almost synonymous with South Pacific. It seems people involved with musical theatre know eighty percent of the score, but ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ kind of escaped my radar—although I’d heard Barbara Cook sing it at a concert she and I did together. But I hadn’t heard it in context. “For me, that’s the money song in the show. I love that song. Everything in the show leads up to that moment. [The song] is incredibly beautiful. It’s a heartbreaking, romantic, sad, optimistic, gracious number; it’s full of complexity, and done in an absolutely simple manner. That’s a great song at its best!”

There have been rumors that Mitchell may star in the forthcoming Broadway revival of the show. “Nobody’s asked me,” he declares, “and I’m not sure that I would say yes. More people will end up seeing the concert on television than [would see] a full Broadway production, no matter how long it runs. Here, I have the best of both worlds. I didn’t have to work quite so hard; I didn’t have to do eight performances a week. And I get a huge orchestra in an incredible theatre, working with an incredible cast. That would be hard to beat.

“And, honestly, I don’t know how well the show would fare outside of a concert setting. It’s a problematic and difficult show. If I remember right, it’s the only major [Rodgers and Hammerstein] musical that’s never been revived [on Broadway]. It’s very much a show of its time, not only because of the racial issues involved, but also because of the sex issues. Women were in a very different place in society at that time. [The production premiered on Broadway in 1949.] The only way to be able to do this show is as a true revival. That’s what I would do, if I were directing it: ‘Here is a period piece. We’re not changing it; we’re showing it to you as it was.’ I don’t think it’s something you can update, and if you did try to update it, it wouldn’t be South Pacific. It’s of its era, of a particular time and sensibility. People forgive a concert in a way that they wouldn’t forgive a Broadway play.”

Since 1994, Mitchell’s been married to actress-dancer Allyson Tucker. Upcoming projects include his first solo CD (on the new Playbill label) to be released June 6. “I produced it, and arranged a bulk of it, and orchestrated about half of it. I sing a lot of different styles and arrangements. It’s an album that expresses who I am. Al Schmidt, who’s the best mixer in the world, mixed it. John Williams wrote my liner notes. It’s been a fantastic journey; I’m real happy with it.”

When I interviewed Mitchell during the run of Ragtime, he mentioned that he prefers the name Stokes to Brian, and that he might drop the first name. Reminding him of that, he replies, “That would have been too big a pain in the butt, so I decided to keep it.” Mitchell’s Broadway debut occurred in the 1988 musical Mail, for which he received a Theatre World Award. Since then, he’s appeared in Oh, Kay!; as a replacement in Jelly’s Last Jam and The Kiss of the Spider Woman; Ragtime (his first Tony nomination); the 1999 production of Kiss Me, Kate (for which he won the Tony); King Hedley II (his dramatic debut, and third Tony nomination); and the 2002 revival of Man of LaMancha (making him a four-time Tony nominee).

Which role has given him the most satisfaction? “That would be hard to say. It would be between Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime and Don Quixote. If I had to choose one, it would be Coalhouse.” I remark that I thought he deserved to win the Tony for Ragtime. Says Mitchell, “Kiss Me, Kate was my Ragtime Tony.”

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Featured in the concert are Jason Danieley (very good as Lieutenant Cable), Lillias White (a commanding Bloody Mary), and Alec Baldwin (a dese-dem-and-dose Luther Billis). Paul Gemignani conducts the orchestra, and Walter Bobbie directed.

Based on James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the idea of dramatizing the collection of stories started with Kenneth MacKenna, head of MGM’s story department. After the studio rejected the project, MacKenna suggested it to director Joshua Logan as a stage vehicle. Logan, in turn, consulted producer Leland Hayward, and the duo then approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein about turning it into a musical. The four joined forces as co-producers, with Logan also directing and collaborating with Hammerstein on the book.

For the plot, they used two of the Michener tales: “Our Heroine,” which told of Navy nurse Nellie Forbush’s World War II romance with French planter Emile de Becque, and “Fo’ Dollah,” the ill-fated love story of Lieutenant Joe Cable and Liat, the daughter of Bloody Mary. Logan and Hammerstein combined the stories by having de Becque and Cable undertake a dangerous mission together.

Mary Martin, who had just toured in Annie Get Your Gun, a Rodgers and Hammerstein production, was assigned the role of the “immature and incurably green” Nellie. To play Emile, they chose Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza, who was interested in making a Broadway debut. The cast included Myron McCormick (Luther Billis), Juanita Hall (Bloody Mary), William Tabbert (Cable), and Betta St. John (Liat). (One of the nurses in Nellie’s group had the name Lisa Minelli, that’s Lisa with an ‘s’ and Minelli with one ‘n’). Martin was succeeded during its run (of 1925 performances) by Martha Wright and later Cloris Leachman; Pinza’s replacements were Ray Middleton and George Britton. Near the end of the run, Shirley Jones joined the cast as one of the nurses.

South Pacific was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (following 1931’s Of Thee I Sing as the second musical to earn the honor). Jo Mielziner won a 1949 Tony Award for Scenic Design, and the show received nine 1950 Tonys: Best Musical, Director, Score, Book, Producer (at that time a separate award), and the Best Actress (Martin), Actor (Pinza), Featured Actress (Hall), and Featured Actor (McCormick) in a Musical. It’s the only time, thus far, that the four acting categories in a musical were won by performers in the same show.

There were two New York revivals of the musical: in 1965, at City Center, with Betsy Palmer and Ray Middleton; in 1967, at Lincoln Center, co-starring Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi. Richard Kiley starred in a 1985 revival that closed (prior to Broadway) on the West Coast.

Joshua Logan directed the 1958 movie version, which starred Mitzi Gaynor (Nellie), Rossano Brazzi (Emile), Ray Walston (Luther), Juanita Hall (Bloody Mary), John Kerr (Cable), and France Nuyen (Liat). Giorgio Tozzi supplied Brazzi’s singing voice, Bill Lee dubbed Kerr’s vocals, and (curiously) Muriel Smith sang for Juanita Hall. Doris Day would have been a better choice for Nellie, and Logan’s frequent use of color filters greatly diminished the film. A 2001 TV-movie starred a miscast Glenn Close as Nellie, with Harry Connick, Jr., playing Cable.

Among the songs in the classic score are “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bloody Mary Is the Girl I Love,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Happy Talk,” “Honey Bun,” “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” and “This Nearly was Mine.”

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Before directing the new Broadway musical Ring of Fire, was Richard Maltby, Jr., interested in Johnny Cash’s music? “Not particularly,” he tells me, “anymore than I was interested in Thirties jazz when I did Ain’t Misbehavin’ [the 1978 Tony-winning Best Musical, for which he received a Tony as Best Director]. That’s sort of famous for being the first show to put jazz, effectively, on the stage. It was an equal cliché that country music couldn’t work on Broadway. But we send out very, very happy audiences.”

The show, insists Maltby, “was all about authenticity, about being true to the country world. It’s about a simplicity that Johnny Cash felt deeply, about a kind of life that he lived, that he wrote about. It’s not about the life he described in his autobiography, which is largely what the movie is [referring to “Walk the Line”]. A lot of people were surprised and, I think, some people were discouraged when [the musical] first opened—because it was not the movie. We got a lot of that. I think we’ll get less and less of it, as [the film] goes further away.”

It’s possible to view the musical as a companion piece to the movie. Notes Maltby, “It’s been called a mirror image. The Johnny Cash family thinks that this show shows more of the real Johnny and the real June [Carter Cash] than the movie did. That was a very early part of his life. They lived together for thirty years after [the film ends], and they both had a tremendous sense of fun. They really held onto their roots, to where they came from. That’s what we attempted to put on the stage.”

Maltby has high praise for the cast. “They’re having a great time. They own this show. They’re really into it. We’re getting wonderful audiences. A lot of people come out in tears, very moved. If you get on the train [with the show], you have a terrific time.”

Among Maltby’s credits are Starting Here, Starting Now (as director/lyricist); Closer Than Ever (director/lyricist); Baby (director/lyricist); Song & Dance (director/ co-lyricist); Miss Saigon (co-lyricist); Big (lyricist); and Fosse (for which he was a Tony nominee as director). Does he have a favorite? “Well, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a perfect piece of craft, and I’m very proud of that. But in terms of emotional centrality, Baby is my heart and soul.” Is there a chance that the 1983 show, for which frequent collaborator David Shire composed the music, might be revived? “There’s always talk about that. We [recently] did a reading with Victoria Clark and Anika Noni Rose, and it looked liked the Roundabout was going to do it, but it didn’t work out.”

Working out is a project that he started “about thirteen years ago”: the movie “Miss Potter,” starring Renee Zellweger. “I had young children, and they had a collection of Beatrix Potter stories,” explains Maltby. “I read a small biography of her on the back of a book. She was a spinster in her thirties, writing little stories. She fell in love for the first time with her publisher’s son. Wonderful things happened; tragic things happened. After her marriage, she didn’t publish any more stories. I wondered why.” Originally, he envisioned it as a movie musical. “Of course, in those days, if you wrote a new musical, you were kicked out of the office before you even opened the door. So I took out the songs. It’s a very adult love story, even though it’s about someone who wrote stories for children. Along the way, [the project] attracted some interesting directors [including Bruce Beresford], and different producers [among them, David Brown] and stars [such as Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet], but the package never came together. Everyone loved the screenplay, but nobody made [the movie]. I thought: Love it a little less and make it.

“Finally, it got to Renee Zellweger, and I was sure that she was the one to play the part. Renee’s also executive producer. Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson are in it. Chris Noonan, who did ‘Babe,’ directed. We have a top-of-the-line production crew: Anthony Powell, costumes; Martin Childs, sets; a fantastic director of photography, Andrew Dunn, of the ‘Harry Potter’ movies. If ten percent of the people who go to ‘Harry Potter’ movies come to ours—thinking it’s another ‘Harry Potter’—we’ll have a tremendous box office. [Laughs] It was originally set for release at Easter, but it’s been bought by the Weinstein Company, and has been moved up to Christmastime for Oscar consideration.”

Currently, Maltby’s working on “a musical version of Mask [the 1985 film], and The 60’s Project, which my wife Janet wrote [with Ken Levine]. We’re doing that at Goodspeed this summer [at the Norma Terris Theatre, August 10-September 3, with Maltby directing].” Mrs. Maltby is writer Janet Brenner, and he has five children: “Nicholas and David are in their thirties; Jordan’s seventeen, Emily is fifteen, and Charlotte’s twelve.”

Maltby’s many talents include creating “English cryptic puzzles for Harpers Magazine. Open an issue; I’m on the last page. It’s therapy for me. I do it for the relaxation part of it. It takes up an enormous amount of time—considering that I don’t have that amount of time. I think Sondheim introduced the cryptic puzzle to America in the Sixties. When he left, I took over.”

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.

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