STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Moss, Bergstein, and O'Toole; Remembering Edie Adams

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Moss, Bergstein, and O'Toole; Remembering Edie Adams This month we speak to Elisabeth Moss (Speed-the-Plow, "Mad Men"), Eleanor Bergstein (Dirty Dancing) and Annette O'Toole (Kindness), and salute Edie Adams.
Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss

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Speed-the-Plow, a Broadway revival of David Mamet's take on creativity and loyalty in Hollywood, opens Oct. 23, at the Ethel Barrymore. The original 1988 production starred Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver (who won a Tony) as movie producers, with Madonna (in her first and most recent Broadway appearance) as an office temp who tries to persuade Mantegna's character to choose a serious screenplay over a commercial one. The title, Mamet has stated, comes from an adage: "Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow."

Starring in the new production are three-time Emmy winner Jeremy Piven ("Entourage") as Bobby, three-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza as Charlie, and — making her Broadway debut as temp Karen — Elisabeth Moss, whose credits include 1999's "Girl, Interrupted" (as "Torch," who had set herself on fire), "The West Wing" (as First Daughter Zoey Bartlet), and currently the Emmy/Golden Globe-winning "Mad Men" (as Peggy Olson).

Moss has no qualms about following "the Material Girl": "That was 20 years ago. Most audiences won't recall it. Well, I don't really care; it doesn't matter if they do. Of course, you're going to be compared to whoever did it before. If it's someone who's on the scale of a legend — for all her work — well, I never thought that, at any point in my career, I'd be compared to Madonna. [Laughs]

"When people bring up Madonna, I say, 'Actually, Felicity Huffman [long before "Desperate Housewives"] played the part after Madonna. I'm more intimidated by that.' She was here the other night, with her husband [William H. Macy]. They were as sweet as could be, and were really positive about the play. I was very happy that they came." While in previews, director Neil Pepe is still fine-tuning. What attracted Moss to the role? "Honestly? It's a David Mamet play, and a beautiful part. I was asked to audition, had a couple of days off, came to New York, and I got it three days later. To do a David Mamet play on Broadway — well, you don't not do that."

Since she has a background in TV and films, was there any difficulty adjusting to theatre? (In 2002, Moss made her Off-Broadway debut, at Playwrights Horizons, in Richard Nelson's Franny's Way.) "Obviously, stage is bigger. You don't have a camera, two-feet from your face, that can pick up what your character's going through.

"You have a person sitting — I don't know how many feet away — at the back of the house, or in the balcony, and that's the person you have to reach. You have to be louder, bigger, and make sure that the feeling gets across. It's a challenge, but one I enjoy."

Born in Los Angeles, Moss has a brother, "18 months younger." As a child, she started acting in commercials and episodic television. "I had studied ballet, but when I was 16, I decided to go with acting. I'm 26, and I love the same things about it now, as I loved about it then."

One of her assignments was playing Baby Louise in the 1993 TV-version of "Gypsy," which starred Bette Midler. Recalls Moss, "Bette Midler was incredible! She's a legend. It was really cool working with her — and singing and dancing." The musical was the last credit for director Emile Ardolino ("Dirty Dancing") before he died at 50.

Her first substantial part "with really good material" was "Imaginary Crimes" (1994). "I played Harvey Keitel's daughter. [Annette O'Toole, interviewed in this column, was also in the cast.] It snowballed from there. Tony Drazan directed, and coincidentally he also directed my first 'West Wing' episode, seven years later."

"Girl, Interrupted," claims Moss, "was a great experience — working with Angelina [Jolie, who won an Oscar], Winona [Ryder], and all the women. [Director] James Mangold was a sweetheart." Playing a horribly scarred girl was "one of the most difficult things I've ever done. The make-up took three hours every day. When you wear that make-up, even people in the crew look at you differently. That was very helpful, as to what it would have been like."

From 17 to 24, she played Martin Sheen and Stockard Channing's daughter on 25 episodes of Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing." Recalls Moss, "It was a dream working with those guys — all great New York actors, all very professional. To get to appear with them at such a young age, I think, really informed me as an actor."

Five episodes of "Invasion" (2005-06) cast Moss as Christina. "I got to be really mean, and kind of evil — and I never play that. I've played crazy a lot, but to be crazy and mean at the same time was really fun."

To date, however, the role that has given her the most satisfaction is Peggy Olson in "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner's top-notch series about Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. "I love the show so much! It doesn't feel like a job. I love my character, and all the writers." I watch episodes to catch up [on the action not involving her] — and, at the end, I think: How did I get so lucky?"

Are there similarities between her and Peggy? "Oh, for sure. Matt [Weiner] and I — and all the cast — have talked a lot about how much of ourselves to bring to the characters. I think it's no fun if you don't bring something of yourself."

Is Moss able to reveal anything about upcoming episodes? "No." Will Peggy's baby be seen again? "I wouldn't be sure of anything." Will the character of Father Gill (Colin Hanks, Tom's son), who likes Peggy, return? "Colin will be back for another episode." One assumes that if she says too much, Peggy (a onetime secretary rising to the ranks of copy writer) will be exiled to accounting.

Invited to attend a preview, I'm able to report that Mamet's play — and rat-a-tat dialogue — haven't dated in the least, and that Piven, Esparza, and Moss complement each other like a jazz trio riffing.

Thanks to a certain Presidential candidate, the term "maverick" elicits a huge, unintended audience response. Audiences enjoy when a mishap occurs — and, as Esparza is leaving Piven's office, the door handle comes off. He slams it back into place. [Laughter] Ad-libs Esparza, "They don't make studios the way they used to." [Applause] Piven remarks, "Thanks for fixing my office." Responds Esparza, "F--k you!" Off comes the handle again. Enter Moss. She looks at the door: "I'll get that fixed for you."

Yes, Moss is still working with "mad men" — just a slightly different variety. Welcome to Broadway, Ms. M!

"Dirty Dancing," the popular 1987 dance-romance movie, starring Patrick Swayze as Johnny and Jennifer Grey as Baby — "Nobody puts Baby in a corner!" — was made for under $5-million. It has since grossed an estimated 60 times that amount worldwide. Reportedly, the DVD sells a million copies annually. The CD has sold over 40 million copies. Now, it's been adapted for the musical theatre: Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.

Featuring a cast of 39, with 35 songs, Dancing premiered in Australia, in 2004. It has since opened in London, Hamburg, the Netherlands, and Toronto. On Sept. 28, its U.S. debut occurred at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre (playing through Jan. 17, 2009, representing a six week extension). It's then booked into the Boston Opera House (Feb. 7-March 15), with L.A. to follow — and, after that, probably will quick-step onto Broadway.

Eleanor Bergstein

The driving force behind both movie and musical, based on events in her youth, is the septuagenarian screenwriter (and co-producer) Eleanor Bergstein (BERG-steen). For many years, she resisted the idea of adapting the film for the stage. "I had to feel it was necessary." She wanted theatregoers to be able to get something more, to enrich and expand the experience they enjoyed in connecting with the onscreen action. "I had no desire to make our audience pay more money for something that they already had at home [on DVD]." Bergstein refused to betray their "respect and loyalty. I had to believe that there was another connection they could make. Then I had to figure out how to do it.

"I had to find a new way of doing it. That's what took so long. Certainly, it wasn't traditional musical theatre, and it wasn't a straight play. I wanted to explore what you can do in theatre that you can't do in a movie. One thing you have in theatre is the present moment. That makes up for everything.

"We start with the song, 'Magic Moment,' and silhouettes of dancers that remind you of the film. But they turn into three-dimensional, individual dancers in the present moment — not in any kind of unison. "My choreographer, Kate Champion, and I believe in the individual movements of dancers. The effect creates a kind of theatrical excitement — if we're doing it right." Champion, an Australian who heads her own modern-dance company, never previously choreographed for the theatre. However, Bergstein convinced her to become involved. "Her work is beautiful. I picked [a creative team] from different disciplines."

Director James Powell, "wasn't with us in Australia, or Germany, but he came aboard in England, then did Holland, and now Chicago." Bergstein is also presently preparing yet another company "to play Berlin."

According to the writer, "New scenes account for 40 percent of the show; there are 25 new musical numbers, in addition to the ones in the movie [including the Oscar-winning "(I've Had) the Time of My Life"]; there's much more about Johnny and Baby; the parents; and the political time [of the early 1960s]."

Casting Johnny for the first production proved difficult. Relates Bergstein, "I asked Kate, 'Who's the best dancer in Australia?' She said, 'Josef Brown.' I asked, 'What does he look like?' Kate said, 'He's six-five, and gorgeous.' I said, 'Let's call him.'

"But the casting people said, 'We don't poach dance companies.' Kate called Josef, and asked him to meet a friend. He arrived on his motorcycle. I asked if he had ever seen the movie 'Dirty Dancing,' and he said, 'That's the reason I became a dancer.' I thought: Aha! Got him.

"Josef played Australia, and then two packed years in the West End, where it's still doing incredibly well. Martin Harvey, lead dancer with the Royal Ballet, replaced Josef, so he could come to Chicago [to dance opposite Amanda Leigh Cobb as Baby]."

Neither Johnny nor Baby sing in the show. "But there's lots of singing by everyone else," adds Bergstein.

As a child, Brooklyn-born Bergstein, attended Broadway theatre with her parents. Each summer, her doctor-father would take the family to a Catskills resort — which is the setting for "Dirty Dancing." She danced in clubs and taught dancing at an Arthur Murray School. "There's a lot of me in both Baby and Johnny.

"Now I go to the theatre much more, because my husband writes about theatre, and I love it." Bergstein is married to Michael Goldman, Professor of English emeritus, at Princeton. He's written several books of dramatic criticism, and two volumes of poetry.

She's delighted when I tell her that I saw the original release four times. "So you saw it on the big screen. You've made me very happy. So many kids have only seen the DVD, or video, or have watched it on their computers — and that's not what we intended."

Bergstein dismisses talk of the movie/musical's financial success. "I don't think of it in terms of box-office; I think of it in terms of audience. The box-office figures are nice — and I don't mean to sound cavalier about it — but sitting in the audience is the real joy. There's such an incredibly rapt attention — and I'm a Broadway Baby.

"For the first few months [of the show's run], I would hear the same audience comment over and over: 'I'm so relieved.' It took me a while to decode 'relieved,' and realize that it meant, 'I was so afraid that I'd be disappointed — that I'd no longer feel what I felt.' So, now 'relieved' is a joyful word."

Describing Dirty Dancing, an unbiased Bergstein observes, "It's like nothing the audience has seen before. The moment you see the opening number, you understand why you're there." Brava, Ms. B!

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Annette O'Toole in Kindness
photo by Joan Marcus

"It's about everyday survival, about real heroes," says Annette O'Toole, of her role in the Playwrights Horizons production of Kindness, by Adam Rapp (who also directed), at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, through Nov. 2. O'Toole plays Maryanne, a terminally ill Midwestern woman who visits Manhattan with her 17-year-old son (Christopher Denham). The action occurs in the hotel room shared by mother and son. Completing the cast are Katherine Waterston (as a mysterious stranger) and Ray Anthony Thomas (a friendly cabbie). "At every performance, I get a better understanding of the role. You feel you're telling the truth — and that's all you hope to do."

Did she have any qualms about playing a cancer victim? "No. I was thrilled to get the role. I was so excited that they were interested in me. To have something physical to work with almost takes care of the acting for you. In a weird way, it's kind of freeing. I knew I was going to play the role in May, so I gradually lost weight. I lost about 12/15 pounds, in a healthy way. Actually, I feel really good. I walk everywhere."

Houston-born O'Toole (whose birth name was Toole) was trained as a singer and dancer. "My mother and my aunt owned a dancing school, so I grew up around recitals and pageants. My first time in New York, I was 12. I saw Fade Out-Fade In, with Carol Burnett, and Carnival, with Anna Maria Alberghetti and Jerry Orbach. I got to work with him [years later] in 'Law & Order.' It was a dream come true. I also worked with Sam Waterston [Katherine's father] on that. I adore him."

So that young Annette could pursue a show business career, her family relocated to Los Angeles. "My first professional job was dancing with Danny Kaye on his TV show. I was at an awkward age; I was too old to be a child actor. At 18, I studied acting. I only went to the school because an agent told me that I should take classes. I went in with a chip on my shoulder — and walked out having found what I wanted to do until the day I die."

Among O'Toole's credits are "One on One" (opposite Robby Benson), "Stand by Your Man" (as Tammy Wynette), "Superman III" (as Lana Lang, Clark Kent's former girlfriend), "Cross My Heart" (a favorite of hers, co-starring Martin Short), and the mini-series "The Kennedys of Massachusetts" (as Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy).

Regular TV-series roles include "Nash Bridges" (20 episodes, 1996-98, as Lisa Bridges), "The Huntress" (29 episodes, 2000-01, as Dottie Thorson), and "Smallville" (132 episodes, 2001-07, as Martha Kent, adoptive mother to a boy named Clark).

Mother to two daughters from her first marriage, O'Toole has two stepsons. She's married to actor Michael McKean (recent revivals: The Homecoming, The Pajama Game; Lenny on "Laverne and Shirley"). They write songs, one of which, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," from "A Mighty Wind" (2003), was Oscar nominated.

Which role has given O'Toole the most satisfaction? "This one [in Kindness]. It has everything. You run the gamut. I've never loved a character like I love Maryanne. The whole process has been amazing!" Thanks, Ms. O.

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Remembering Edie Adams: The Tony winner (Li'l Abner) died Oct. 15, age 81. Her career encompassed Broadway (earlier, she'd done Wonderful Town), regional theatre (a favorite role was Mame), TV (especially "The Ernie Kovacs Show"; as Julie Andrews' Fairy Godmother in "Cinderella"; "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," on which she sang "That's All" — it was the last appearance of Ball-Arnaz together; the series "Here's Edie"), movies (including Best Picture of 1960, "The Apartment"; "Lover Come Back," 1961; "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Love with the Proper Stranger," both 1963; "The Best Man," 1964), commercials (19 years for Muriel cigars), and nightclubs.

On two occasions, I had the good fortune to interview Adams. "When I was starting," she told me, "if you were a blonde interested in makeup and attire, obviously you had no mind." After her Juilliard training, she once auditioned for Richard Rodgers. "He said that he'd make me an understudy, and that first I'd go out on the road. I told him, 'I'm terribly sorry, but I don't want to be an understudy.'"

A lot of her TV work paired her with her first husband (of three), Ernie Kovacs. "That was flying without a net." The comic genius (1919-62) died in an auto wreck. (Their daughter, Mia, was also killed in a car accident, in 1982.) Kovacs was set to play Adams' spouse in "Mad...World," but, following his death, Sid Caesar was cast. The 1984 TV-movie "Ernie Kovacs: Behind the Laughter," for which she was technical advisor, cast Jeff Goldblum as the comedian and Melody Anderson as Adams.

Her 1953 Broadway debut was as Eileen in Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell (reprising her role from the 1942 movie "My Sister Eileen"). Recalled Adams, "Once, Roz was doing 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' and had wanted to wear white. They said she couldn't [because white didn't photograph well]. I said, 'Sure you can. Ask for [a certain lighting man].'

"Roz was impressed that I knew so much about television." But her knowledge worked against her. "When they did 'Wonderful Town' on television [CBS, Nov. 30, 1958], I was supposed to be in it, but Roz saw to it that I wasn't. She was afraid I knew more than she did about television." Jacqueline McKeever played Eileen. "I was crushed. I never forgave Roz. I didn't speak to her for 10 years. I would've helped her."

Based on Al Capp's comic strip, Li'l Abner starred (then Edith) Adams as Daisy Mae. "'I loves ya, Abner.' That's all Daisy Mae said for two-and-a-half hours, eight times a week. Daisy had the brain of a three year old. At the time, I was studying with Lee Strasberg, and playing Daisy convincingly drove me nuts.

"Playing Mame, you sing, dance, slide down a banister, and blow a trumpet. That show's over in 10 minutes. When you play a not-too-bright character, every show seems like two weeks. Also, Daisy was 17, and I was pushing 30. But I always looked younger!"

Li'l Abner earned Michael Kidd his fourth (of five) Tony Awards for choreography. The dancing was one of Adams's biggest challenges. "He thought that everybody was a ballet-trained dancer. I said, 'Look, I can do anything and end up on the right foot, but I can't turn.' If they had to turn me, they had to lift me."

Adams worked barefoot, which was precarious since there were live animals in the show. "Chorus girls would call out, 'Upstage right...downstage left' [indicating deposits], but I'd be blindly running across the stage." Out of town, Adams lost one of her solo numbers, "I Wish It Could Be Otherwise" — "because it sounded too sophisticated for dear li'l Daisy."

"Great Performances" (December 2004) presented Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," for the first time since its CBS premiere (March 31, 1957). The PBS show marked the last appearance for Adams, one of the cast members who recalled the original telecast. She told me, "Everyone was so talented. Julie Andrews is a sweet lady. Every day [in rehearsals], she would have 'proper tea' brought in during the afternoon. She's amazing! Nothing bothers Julie. She could walk through an earthquake, come out and still have the right dress on — and saying the right words."

Elizabeth Edith Enke was Adams' name at birth (April 16, 1927) in Kingston, PA. Adams was her mother's maiden name. She's survived by Josh Mills (son of her second marriage), and the cause of death, he stated, was pneumonia and cancer. Edie Adams was a multi-talented, lovely lady, and a fun interview.

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Various and Sundry

Could there be any better news than Angela Lansbury is returning to Broadway?

The four-time Tony winner will play the medium, Madame Arcati, in the February revival of Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward, in a production directed by two-time Tony winner Michael Blakemore, and starring two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole and (in his Broadway bow) Rupert Everett.

Over the years, Madame Arcati has been played by a quality quartet: Mildred Natwick (in the 1941 original, with Clifton Webb playing the lead, and again in a 1956 TV version, starring Coward); Margaret Rutherford (the 1945 film); Ruth Gordon (1966, on TV); and Geraldine Page (her final role, in the 1987 Broadway revival).

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Tony-winning Lion Queen Julie Taymor goes behind the camera for "The Tempest", her screenplay changing Shakespeare's Prospero to Prospera (played by Oscar-winning "Queen" Helen Mirren). Taymor then introduces Spider-Man to Broadway — in reportedly the most expensive production ever, $40-million. (In order to recoup, Spidey's going to have to stick around until retirement age — and beyond.)

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Oscar winner Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") will star in and direct "What a Wonderful World", a biopic of Louis Armstrong.

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Tony winners Betty Buckley (Cats) and Donna Murphy (Passion; The King and I) guest star on upcoming episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" — Buckley (Oct. 21), with James Brolin; Murphy (Oct. 28), with Viola Davis.

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Courtney B. Vance will guest star on an upcoming ER, on which Mrs. Vance (Angela Bassett) just joined the cast. The series' last season will welcome back some regulars from the past 15 years, including Noah Wyle (1994-2006), Anthony Edwards (1994-2002), and others TBA — among them, fans hope, George Clooney (1994-2000).

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Early Oscar buzz favors Frank Langella for "Frost/Nixon" (his performance is called "meticulous" by Variety). Incidentally, Mrs. Nixon is played by Patty McCormack, who gained fame as a child in The Bad Seed (on Broadway and in the movie). Langella may also be up for a fourth Tony as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.

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"Breakfast with Scot" is a new release concerning a couple (Ben Shenkman, Tom Cavanagh) who become guardians of an effete 11-year-old orphan. Shenkman's a Tony nominee for Proof and an Emmy/Golden Globe nominee for "Angels in America".

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"Ugly Betty" (Oct. 23) has nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato) auditioning at an open-casting call for Billy Elliot.

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Character actor Richard Jenkins (Nathaniel Fisher on "Six Feet Under") stars in the upcoming release "The Visitor", with New York stage actors Marian Seldes, Michael Cumpsty, and Richard Kind.

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Pal Joey, starring Tony winner Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys), returns to Broadway in December. The role made a star of Gene Kelly in the original (which opened Christmas Day 1940), was played by Harold Lang (understudied by Bob Fosse) in 1952, and by Fosse at City Center in both 1961 (which, curiously, is not listed on IBDB) and '63 (for which he earned a Tony nomination — the only actor, to date, to be nominated as Joey), and by Christopher Chadman (who replaced Edward Villella in previews) in 1976. Peter Gallagher was Joey in the 1995 Encores! version at City Center.

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Storyline partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Chicago," "Hairspray," "A Raisin in the Sun") receive Career Achievement honors from the Casting Society of America, at the 24th annual Artios Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, on the West Coast, Nov. 10.

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Nov. 10, on the East Coast, at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, Annette Bening plays Margo Channing in an Actors Fund benefit-reading ("It's going to a bumpy night") of "All About Eve", screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Also expect Angela Lansbury (Birdie, the Thelma Ritter role), Peter Gallagher (Bill), Brian Bedford (Addison), Cynthia Nixon (Karen) and John Slattery (Lloyd).

Mankiewicz (1909-93) remains the only winner of back-to-back Oscars as director and screenwriter: for both "Eve" (1950), and "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949). He once told me that when M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer assigned him to produce "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), he said that he wanted to be a director. Mayer replied, "You have to crawl before you can walk." Confided Mankiewicz, "That was the best description of a producer that I've ever heard."

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

Edie Adams with <i>Wonderful Town</i> co-star Rosalind Russell
Edie Adams with Wonderful Town co-star Rosalind Russell
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