STAGE TO SCREENS: Colin Hanks, Rita Moreno, "Damages" and "The Electric Company"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Colin Hanks, Rita Moreno, "Damages" and "The Electric Company"
 
This month: Colin Hanks of 33 Variations; Rita Moreno on Jerome Robbins; the creators of "Damages"; and Willie Reale of the New "Electric Company."
Colin Hanks
Colin Hanks Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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In 1819, music publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a waltz, and invited composers to create a variation on it. Although he initially dismissed the piece as trivial, Beethoven worked on it for years, writing 33 variations, formally known as "33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli."

Moisés Kaufman has written and directed a new drama, 33 Variations, which previews Feb. 9, and opens March 9, at the Eugene O'Neill, and it not only marks the Broadway debut of Colin Hanks, but also the return, after 46 years, of Jane Fonda, who plays Beethoven scholar Katherine Brandt.

At his audition to play a male nurse, Hanks was "deathly ill. I had a very bad cold, and came in doped-up on all sorts of over-the-counter medications. I don't remember much of it." When the meds started working, so did Hanks, who "did a little better" at his callback, and was cast as Mike Clark, "a very loving guy, sweet and sincere."

Clark's a healthcare provider for Brandt, ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig 's disease), and is also dating her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis). Brandt travels from New York to Bonn, to try to solve the centuries-old mystery as to why Beethoven became fixated on what now is considered the most important work in variation form. Completing the cast are Zach Grenier (as Beethoven), Susan Kellermann (Dr. Ladenburger, a researcher, and Brandt's new friend), Erik Steele (Beethoven's servant-biographer, Anton Schindler), Don Amendolia (Diabelli), and pianist Diane Walsh (who occasionally plays variations discussed).

Son of Tom Hanks, whose awards include back-to-back Best Actor Oscars (for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump"), Colin's working with other second-generation actors.

The star's father, Henry Fonda (1905-82), also received back-to-back Oscars: an honorary award and Best Actor for "On Golden Pond," produced by Jane who (for the only time) played his daughter.

Mathis is actually third-generation: daughter of Bibi Besch (1940-96), and granddaughter of Gusti Huber (1914-93), who played the title character's mother, onstage and screen, in "The Diary of Anne Frank." Of the connections, Hanks says, "We all had a laugh. Then, it was: 'Okay, that's covered. Let's get to work.'"

Hanks' previous stage work includes college productions of Cuckoo's Nest and Noises Off, and a 2002 West End run in Kenneth Lonergan's three-character play, This Is Our Youth, with Kieran Culkin and Alison Lohman.

He tried out for the role of a World War I British soldier in the Broadway revival of Journey's End. "I was the guy who auditioned right after Stark Sands [who was cast]. Stark's a very, very good guy. I met him doing '11:14,' my first foray into the independent [film] world. It was great fun, but never made it to theatres."

Born in California, Hanks was the first of two children (he has a sister, Elizabeth) of actors Tom Hanks (then 22) and Samantha Lewes. Hanks' parents were divorced in 1987; in 2002, Lewes died of bone cancer, age 49. Colin has two half-brothers, Chester and Truman (his father's sons with actress wife Rita Wilson).

Recalls Colin, "I visited all the sets [of his father's films]," but the first time he got paid for being on one "was as a production assistant on 'Apollo 13.'" Colin's first time in front of a camera was for "Sleepless in Seattle," but his scene was deleted.

Written and directed by his father, "That Thing You Do" was his second movie. He had "three or four scenes." However, the elder Hanks "cut me out of all but one [where he's briefly seen, but not heard]. I was a glamorized extra."

Young Hanks fared better on TV: in "Roswell" (44 episodes, 1999-2001), he played Katherine Heigl's love interest, and "Band of Brothers" (2001) cast him in "the audition [role] for every young actor [in the miniseries]. There was a lot of pressure not to mess that one up."

Other Hanks' films include "Orange County" ("My first starring role"), "Rx" ("I co-produced it"), "King Kong" ("Working with amazing people, living ten months in New Zealand — a life-changing experience"), and "W" ("A chance to work with Oliver Stone; it was cathartic, after spending too much of eight years crying about George W. Bush").

For three "Mad Men" episodes, Hanks played Father John Gill, "My first adult role. It's started a new phase of my career." Among his upcoming movies are "Barry Munday," "High School," and "The Great Buck Howard" (in which co-producer Tom Hanks has a few scenes as his dad). "I'm extremely proud of that one. It's coming out in March — the same month as my Broadway debut."

So far, 33 Variations, claims Hanks, "has been a great learning experience — not only as an actor, but also as a human being." (Thanks Hanks!)

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Fans of Jerome Robbins: Draw a box around Feb. 18 on your calendars. That's when "American Masters: Something to Dance About," a two-hour tribute to the choreographer-director (1918-98), airs on PBS-TV (Thirteen/WNET New York, 9 PM ET).

Narrated by Ron Rifkin, the documentary was written by biographer Amanda Vaill ("Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins"), produced and directed by six-time Emmy winner Judy Kinberg.

An acknowledgement of Robbins' contributions to the worlds of Broadway and ballet, the toast also focuses on a perfectionist (frequently cruel) who was insecure about his art and conflicted by his sexuality. Casting director Rose Tobias Shaw remembers a night when Monty Clift returned from Hollywood wanting Robbins to resume their relationship - at the same time that the dancer-choreographer had proposed to her.

Among other contributors: Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins, Sono Osato, Nanette Fabray, Tony Mordente, Jacques d'Amboise, Charlotte d'Amboise, Sondra Lee, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Helen Gallagher, Suzanne Farrell, John Kander, James Mitchell, Patricia McBride, Violette Verdy.

Featured are comments from Robbins (including parts of an Edward R. Murrow "Person to Person"); excerpts of him dancing and of his dances; vintage clips (Imogene Coca, Nancy Walker); rehearsals (West Side Story, Gypsy); scenes from his movies, and TV's "Peter Pan"; and the award winner (being presented a Tony for Jerome Robbins' Broadway by Broadway's Gwen Verdon).

Detailed: Robbins' political past comes to light in the McCarthy era, causing Ed Sullivan to cancel an appearance on his TV show, and also pressure him to testify for the HUAC – by threatening to reveal Robbins' homosexuality in his newspaper column.

According to Arthur Laurents, Robbins wanted to work in movies, and therefore named names. When Robbins later told the librettist that he'd "never know...whether I did the right thing," Laurents informed him: "I can tell you now. You were a shit."

Notes Stephen Sondheim, "Jerry is the only genius I've ever worked with, but he could be a really mean and awful man." Sondheim also substantiates a recollection by Lane Bradbury (the original June in Gypsy) of how she incurred Robbins' wrath after forgetting to move a prop during the first preview, and recounts Robbins' revenge when Bradbury repeated the mistake opening night.

"American Masters: Something to Dance About" (available on DVD, March 31) is a sterling salute that should appeal to everyone who likes Broadway, dance, and talent.

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Rita Moreno
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Jerry was unable to say, 'Print it,'" explains Rita Moreno. "He was such a perfectionist that he kept doing take after take after take. That's why he was fired [midway through "West Side Story"]. They warned him; I know they did. We showed up one morning and were told, 'Jerry's not here anymore.' We were decimated, in absolute shock! "As difficult as he was, as demanding a task-master of the first order as he was — I've never, ever seen dancers work so hard — and as mean as he could be, he was necessary to that film. We were shooting the mambo-in-the-gym, which is the one number that doesn't work. People say, 'It's great!' — and it is. But it needed something. It needed Jerry!"

Moreno performed in both of Robbins' films — as Tuptim in "The King and I" (1956), and as Anita in "West Side Story" (1961), for which she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. She recalls first meeting him on "The King and I" set: "In comes this ferocious person. I'd never seen anything like him in my life. People in Hollywood weren't that way.

"Because I knew that Jerry very much wanted me as Anita, I spent days and days in dance school. I wanted that part so badly that I killed myself." Continues Moreno, "Because of my really high lyric-soprano voice — and those first low notes in 'A Boy Like That' — to my dismay, they had to find a voice for me. It was a woman called Betty Wand. The sad part is she claims that she did all the singing for me."

Broadway legend Chita Rivera originated the role of Anita, and Moreno's aware of a Chita-Rita-Anita confusion. "It's inevitable, and it's for life, but — if I'm going to be compared to anyone, or mistaken for anyone — I'm proud to have it be Chita. She's so talented, and such a wonderful person. We have a great time when we're together.

"Jerry's behavior was bizarre," observes Moreno, "but look at the end results." Pleased to participate in "American Masters: Something to Dance About," she adds, "The term's overused — but Jerry was a genius."

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Now in its second season, "Damages" (Wednesdays, FX, 10 PM ET) deals with several legal eagles and a cunning condor named Patty Hewes, played by series' star Glenn Close who, to date, has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role. Also a first-season Emmy winner, Zeljko Ivanek (as Ray Fiske), is just one of many New York stage actors who, because the drama shoots on the East Coast, comprises the regular and/or guest casts.

"There's a type of New York actor who looks realistic," claims "Damages" co-creator Daniel Zelman, "who has a wider range, and lends the show authenticity." Todd A. Kessler (he and older brother, Glenn Kessler — who was unavailable for an interview — are the show's other co-creators) notes, "We wanted to use the amazing tapestry that is New York City as a character in the show. We wanted to do outdoor scenes, instead of being inside courtrooms — and we considered Los Angeles isolationist."

States Kessler, "We were writing together, and the three of us realized that we wanted to create a show about professional lives and power, about a mentor [Close] and protégé [Ellen Parsons, played by Rose Byrne]." Zelman adds, "We wanted to explore very successful people acting in self-destructive ways."

Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman
photo by Jeff Vespa

"It was a hugely pivotal moment when Zeljko Ivanek's character commits suicide in front of Glenn Close," admits Kessler, "and now he's back [on the show]. We have our ways." Viewers can see Kessler ("as Perry the Doorman, who's now a baggage handler at JFK") and his brother ("Glenn plays FBI Agent Werner, who's partnered with Mario Van Peebles") on the series. At the top of the list of stage actors, Zelman insists, "is Glenn Close, herself, a three-time Tony winner [The Real Thing, Death and the Maiden, Sunset Boulevard]." Other "Damages" actors with stage credits include Tom Aldredge, Clarke Peters, Tom Noonan, Ted Danson, Peter Riegert, Michael Nouri, plus Oscar winners William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, and Tony winners James Naughton, Debra Monk, and Philip Bosco. Bosco, says Kessler, "is such an amazing part of our show. We've done several Q&As with people, and repeatedly he emerges as their favorite character. In a world where people are untrustworthy and manipulative — which is the world of ‘Damages' — his presence, and everything about him, makes you trust him, and like him. He really fulfills a phenomenal role for us on the show."

"I'm supposed to be the uppermost segment of the legal profession," says Philip Bosco, who plays Hollis Nye. "I'm supposed to behave the right way. Patti Hewes [Close] is voracious. She does anything to win."

A Tony winner for Lend Me a Tenor, Bosco's six nominations, thus far, span 44 years — from The Rape of the Belt in 1961 to Twelve Angry Men in 2005. On "Damages" work days, he happily travels to the Steiner Studios, "where the old Brooklyn Navy Yard used to be," from the New Jersey home that he shares with Nancy (his wife of 52 years; they're parents of seven, grandparents of 15). "They're brand new sound stages [built in 2004]."

Bosco points out, "It's a wonderful place to work. The accommodations are top-notch. Beautiful, spacious dressing rooms; TV, a shower, great food. The actors love it. The show's been very good. The first season, I did 11 of 13 [episodes], and the second, five or six.

"I finished the second season [not all episodes of which have been seen] a few weeks ago. I hope that I'm included in the third season." (So do Bosco's many fans.)

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Described as "a multi-media literacy campaign charged with reducing the literacy gap between low and middle income families and advancing the idea that 'reading is cool,'" a new version of the PBS-TV brand "The Electric Company" is seen weekly Friday afternoons on PBS KIDS GO!

The original show was produced from 1971 to '77. Rita Moreno appeared on 780 episodes, and coined what became the show's catchphrase: "Hey, you guys!" Moreno tells me, "When we did it the first time, I'm told public-school halls resounded with that yell. Teachers were going bananas!"

Willie Reale (right, with brother Robert)
photo by Aubrey Reuben

This time around, the catchphrase "is used to good effect," explains head writer and co-executive producer Willie Reale. "It's the call-to-arms for the 'Core Cast.' When something goes wrong, 'Hey, you guys!' is the rallying cry." There are five "Core Cast" members, who are teens and older: Keith (Ricky Smith, who played Young Harpo in Broadway's The Color Purple), Jessica (Priscilla Star Diaz), Hector (Josh Segarra), Lisa (Jenni Barber), and Shock (Chris Sullivan). Playing the "Pranksters" ("the bad guys," says Reale) are Will Harper (as Danny), Dominic Colon (Manny), Sandie Rosa (Annie) and Ashley Morris (Francine).

The new production features songs, animations, and sketches that teach phonics and other literacy goals in the same way that the old series did. This time around, the 35 half-hour episodes "have mini-musicals inside them," says Reale.

He's a 2003 two-time Tony nominee (book and lyrics of A Year with Frog and Toad, with brother Robert Reale, a nominee for music) and a 2006 Oscar nominee (the lyrics of "Patience," music by Henry Krieger) for "Dreamgirls."

For the new "Dreamgirls" tour, Reale's collaborated with Krieger on some songs. He and brother Robert have written a new musical about a baseball team, and Reale has "a strong suspicion that Red Sox Nation will be produced regionally, next season, but I can't talk about it."

One of Reale's WGA nominations was for "Damages," and his credits include the "Homicide: Life on the Street" series. How do these qualify him for "Electric Company"? Claims Reale, "Kids are really fascinated by litigation and murder. [Laughs]"

Now showing, the new "Electric Company" was made "during a very, very vigorous time," from May to December 2008. Hopefully, there will be another season, but corporate sponsorship, "which has dried up due to the economy," is necessary. "Literacy is important. As a writer, don't you agree? [Laughs] Every year, there's new degradation to the language." Someone with funds needs to see the light.

Among this season's guests are Whoopi Goldberg, Jack McBrayer ("30 Rock"), Tiki Barber, kid comedian Kyle Massey, and rapper Common. From Broadway: Mary Testa, Mark Linn-Baker, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nancy Opel, Megan Lawrence, and Nancy Giles. ("There's such an embarrassment of riches in this town," says Reale.)

Original songs are by Ne-Yo, Mario, and Jimmy Fallon, and there are also music videos featuring Wyclef Jean and Sean Kingston.

Moreno's characters in the original included Carmela ("the straight character"); Millie, the Helper; Otto, the Film Director ("named after Otto Preminger — an inside joke"); and Pandora, the Little Girl ("a brat with curls").

She's sort of pleased that "Hey, you guys!" is something "that really stuck. It was never meant to be yelled out in that manner. When I read the script, I thought about Lou Costello [of the Abbott and Costello comedy team], and the way he used to yell: 'Hey, Abbott-t-t-t!' So I did that with 'Hey, you guys!' The kids loved it."

Married to producer Jenny Gersten (whose latest credit is Hair), Reale tells me, "She's the daughter of Bernie Gersten [executive producer, Lincoln Center Theater]." The Reales have two sons: Gus (10) and Leo (6). Says their proud dad, "They're my private focus group for 'Electric Company' rough cuts."

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Various and Sundry

First-time director Bill Condon and first-time producer Laurence Mark ("Dreamgirls" collaborators) plan a dream show for the Oscars (ABC, Feb. 22, 8 PM ET). They intend to introduce a party atmosphere with first-time Oscar host Hugh Jackman.

Like so many who start on the East Coast and go to the West Coast, Broadway's Boy From Oz is a seasoned (that's the 2003-04-05 seasons) Tony Awards host, who even won a 2004 Emmy in that capacity. Jackman's enlisted director Baz Luhrmann (La Bohème, "Moulin Rouge") and Tony-winning choreographer (Thoroughly Modern Millie) Rob Ashford to create a production number for him.

Jerry Lewis will be a first-time Humanitarian Award recipient. In 1959, Lewis hosted and had the misfortune of having the ceremony end early — 20 minutes early. After Mitzi Gaynor had sung the closing number, "There's No Business Like Show Business" — backed by the evening's participants, including Elizabeth Taylor, Irene Dunne, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Sophia Loren, Angela Lansbury — Lewis tried to fill the time. He ad-libbed, conducted the orchestra, and had started to play a trumpet (poorly), when NBC ended the telecast.

Condon and Mark promise that this year's ceremony won't exceed three hours. That way, no matter in what direction Brad Pitt ages, he'll get to bed on time.

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Meryl Streep seemed the most delighted SAG Award winner (for "Doubt"). Dressed in a black top and slacks, she exclaimed: "I didn't even buy a dress!" She downplayed her stature, saying, "There's no such thing as 'best actress'...[or] 'greatest living actress.'" She also lauded her "Doubt" colleague: "the gigantically gifted Viola Davis. My God, somebody give her a movie!"

Streep seemed almost as surprised (as at the SAG ceremony) during an Oprah Winfrey interview, when the talk-show icon told Streep that she wanted to play Viola Davis' role, but John Patrick Shanley refused to see her. (Don't look for the writer-director on the "O" cover.)

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May I recommend a must-read for anyone who loves theatre and movies? "In Spite of Myself", the well written, extremely funny memoir of Tony winner (Cyrano, Barrymore) Christopher Plummer.

Tales include live-TV days (with Plummer desperately trying to find his way, in the dark, onto the set during a telecast), backstage stories involving Jack Palance, behind-the-scenes with "The Sound of Music", with numerous takes required to film the "Something Good" scene, because Julie Andrews and he became repeatedly "dissolved in raucous laughter," and how, in the movie's last scene, the von Trapps climb a hill, over which "supposedly lies sanctuary," but which actually led to "all that remained of Hermann Göring's home."

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None of the Ricardo Montalban obits I read mentioned that the actor (who died Jan. 12) introduced the Frank Loesser Academy Award-winning Best Song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," in a 1949 "Neptune's Daughter" duet with Esther Williams.

A 1958 Tony nominee, as leading man to Lena Horne, in Jamaica, Montalban played a splendid Vittorio Vidal, the movie star who inspires Shirley MacLaine (as "Sweet Charity") to sing "If My Friends Could See Me Now."

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Not only is two-time Tony nominee (Jerome Robbins' Broadway, A Chorus Line) Charlotte d'Amboise back playing Roxie in Chicago, but also the talented Mrs. Terrence Mann is now in the cast of "One Life to Live" (Weekdays, NBC, 2 PM ET), playing Vice-Principal Dickinson. One of the students, Markko Rivera, is portrayed by Jason Tam, who was Paul in the recent revival of Chorus Line, staring d'Amboise as Cassie.

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Two-time Tony winner (Passion, The King and I) Donna Murphy joins the Eric McCormack-Tom Cavanagh "Trust Me" series (TNT, Mondays, 10 PM ET). Murphy was a regular on "Murder One" and "Hack", too.

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"24" has two Tony winners: Cherry Jones (The Heiress, Doubt) is the President; Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam), a prime minister's wife.

Bob Gunton, a Tony nominee/Drama Desk winner for Evita (he was Juan Peron), is great as Jones' Chief of Staff, Ethan Kanin. No stranger to the Oval Office, Gunton played Richard Nixon in the 1997 TV-movie "Elvis Meets Nixon".

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Starting Feb. 17, Stephanie March returns for six "Law & Order: SVU" episodes, playing her former character (2000-05) ADA Alexandra Cabot. March, who has an upcoming radio series with husband, chef Bobby Flay, has been on Broadway: Death of a Salesman, Talk Radio, and Off-Broadway: Boys' Life). She's also in "Confessions of a Shopaholic".

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Upcoming "Law & Order: SVU" guests stars: Feb. 10, Lea DeLaria (On the Town), Wendy Makkena (Side Man), Alex Kingston ("ER"). "Law & Order": Feb. 11, Tony winner ( Hollywood Arms) Michele Pawk, Christian Camargo (who plays Hamlet, March 15-April 19, in the Theatre for a New Audience production), Mackenzie Mauzy ("The Bold and the Beautiful"), Jennifer Cody (Mrs. Hunter Foster, who plays three roles in Shrek, starring sister-in-law Sutton Foster).

And Feb. 18, Veanne Cox, a 1996 Tony nominee as Amy ("Getting Married Today") in Company, and Donnie Kesharwarz, who played Andrew Vida on nine episodes of "Damages".

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The Spike Lee "Passing Strange" film scored a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Lee shot the last three Broadway performances (and one without an audience) of the musical, which was developed at the Sundance Institute Theater lab, and edited them for the end result. It stars Stew (born Mark Stewart), who won a Tony (Book) and Drama Desk (Music and Lyrics), and Theatre World winner Daniel Breaker (Shrek): Stew, as a Youth.

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.

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