STAGE TO SCREENS: Fierstein on A Catered Affair, Fuller and Dale of TV's "Pushing Daisies"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Fierstein on A Catered Affair, Fuller and Dale of TV's "Pushing Daisies"
 
This month we talk with actor-writer Harvey Fierstein about his new musical, A Catered Affair, and to creator Bryan Fuller and narrator Jim Dale of ABC's new darkly comic drama, "Pushing Daisies."
Harvey Fierstein, Bryan Fuller and Jim Dale
Harvey Fierstein, Bryan Fuller and Jim Dale

***

Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for A Catered Affair, in which he plays Uncle Winston. It's a musical version of Paddy Chayefsky's final teleplay (seen May 22, 1955), adapted by Gore Vidal for the 1956 film.

"I've always been a Paddy Chayefsky fan," Fierstein tells me, "and I saw the movie many, many years ago. I've always loved it, though it doesn't really work — which is actually good. You don't want to take something that's perfect and try to adapt it. I'm forever being approached to write a musical version of Stage Door or The Women. 'Cookie, you can't improve on those. If you can't make something better, don't f— with it.'"

Brooklyn-born, Fierstein's earned Tony Awards each time he's been nominated — and in four categories: Best Play and Best Actor (Torch Song Trilogy, 1983), Best Book (La Cage aux Folles, 1984) and Best Actor in a Musical (Hairspray, 2003).

Winston (Fierstein) is the brother of Aggie Hurley (Faith Prince), who lives in the 1950s Bronx and wants her daughter, Jane (Leslie Kritzer), to have a big wedding when she marries Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh); however, Tom, the cab-driver father (Tom Wopat), would rather use the money required for a fancy reception for a different reason. Among the featured cast are Heather MacRae and Philip Hoffman. The score's by John Bucchino (his Broadway debut as a composer-lyricist) and John Doyle directs. Performances begin Sept. 20 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, prior to a Broadway opening at the Walter Kerr, April 17, 2008.

"As the show starts," continues Fierstein, "the Hurleys are returning from a Memorial Day service in Washington, DC. Their son was killed in Korea. The father wants to use a government check to buy a cab; the mother wants to give the daughter a big wedding." (I interject, "Which the daughter doesn't want.")

Notes Fierstein, "In the show, it's a bit different. She doesn't want it, because she's always been 'the second child,' living in her dead brother's shadow. It's sort of beautiful to watch her fall in love with the wedding plans. She has a lovely song called 'One White Dress.'

"Vidal's screenplay is beautifully directed [by Richard Brooks], and beautifully acted [Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald]. But there are things that don't quite go together, or have the emotional impact I thought it could.

"Then came the research, and I contacted Dan Chayefsky, Paddy's son. The original teleplay was not published, because a full script doesn't exist [nor does a kinescope of the TV drama, starring Thelma Ritter, Pat Henning, Kathleen Maguire, and J. Pat O'Malley].

"Dan gave me some early drafts. The characters were named 'husband, wife, bride, and groom.' Halfway through a scene, I'd turn a page and realize that I was reading a different script. 'What the hell happened?' Gore Vidal is no shirker, but I really wanted to get to the heart of the piece. I thought: 'Could I bring this to a different level?' And I saw a way that I could.

"So my brother [Ron] bought the rights. Together, my brother and I are 'Harvey Entertainment,' and we're one of the producers. My goal was to write the kind of show that does not 'talk' to the audience. I wanted to write the type of show where you sit there, the curtain goes up, and you think: 'Oh, my God, I know these people. These are the people I grew up with.' Theatre really works when you're watching somebody else's story, but you're capturing so much of yourself.

"I love Broadway! I did not grow up with any money, but my mother would take my brother and me to Broadway shows. They meant a lot to me. I can still walk into a Broadway theatre and show you what seat I had when I saw Oliver!, where I sat for Sound of Music, my seat for Black Lies/White Comedy, or Black Comedy/White Lies — whatever the hell that's called.

"What I really love is a big, fat Broadway musical that also touches your heart. My mind went to the writers who really do that to you, writers I grew up with: Gene Roddenberry, Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky.

"A 'Star Trek' musical would probably make a lot of money, but people would come in costumes and probably watch each other more than they'd watch the show. You can't do 'The Twilight Zone.' Everybody would tell the ending. That left Chayefsky.

"Obviously, the next part was finding a collaborator. My friend, crazy Julie Halston, said, 'Harvey, John Bucchino writes emotions. There's no pretense about them. Get his album, 'Grateful,' where all these cabaret artists sing his songs.'"

Following Halston's advice, Fierstein bought the CD. "His songs last just as long as they need to; there aren't 35 choruses. I wanted to do a show where the music is integrated with the text, and the audience doesn't know where the songs start and stop.

"John didn't want anything to do with the show. He doesn't like the theatre. But he watched the movie, and said, 'Count me in.' We wrote Catered Affair during the time I was in Fiddler on the Roof. We got together a group of friends and did a cold reading. About 15 minutes into the show, I noticed heads bobbing up and down; people were crying. When we ended, Dan Chayefsky was over the moon.

"We did another reading, just before we went into rehearsals, and Dan said, 'I don't know how you did it, but you totally honored my father's spirit, and yet made it your own. I love it.' Dan's a writer, and from one writer to another, that's a lovely compliment.

"Catered Affair is not sad, but it's so human, so connected. You can identify with it so much that it touches you. It was a gift that [Chayefsky] had. It eventually became a place he didn't want to go to again. He started writing [the movies] 'The Hospital' and 'Network.'

"But you can still see it in 'Network.' Everyone remembers the scene where Peter Finch yells, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!' To me, the best scene is between Bill Holden and Bea Straight, as his wife — when he tells her he's leaving and she has this speech where she says, 'I put up with you...I f—ed you when I didn't even want you to touch me, and you're going to walk out on me now?'"

In the "Catered Affair" movie, Dorothy Stickney played Mrs. Rafferty, a character that was added as the lady friend of Uncle Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Fierstein considered the addition "a little 'Hollywood.' I thought: 'What if the uncle is in a gay relationship that even he doesn't know is a relationship. This was the '50s. After 17 years, he ends the 'friendship,' and explains, 'I walked out, because he threatened me with the f-word: fidelity.'

"It's a great cast. We all get along great. There are only ten of us. Faith Prince and I did a benefit concert in Seattle and have been close ever since. Tom Wopat and I did a 9/11 benefit. I've known Heather MacRae forever. Leslie Kritzer was in Hairspray. Matt Cavenaugh was dating one of the girls in Fiddler, so that's how I know him. Lori Wilner played Golde for a short time after Andrea Martin left and Rosie O'Donnell took over. Philip Hoffman was in Fiddler." Completing the cast are Katie Klaus and Kristine Zbornik.

"John Doyle's great — he's the most organic director I've ever worked with. He's directing it in a very cinematic style, and is just a joy to work with.

"Long, long ago, I was thinking of A Catered Affair as a vehicle for my darling friend, Chita Rivera. Then I dropped that idea." He's surprised when I tell him that, for a very brief time, Rivera's stage name was Chita O'Hara. "I have to tease her about that," says Fierstein.

***

Starting Oct. 3, on ABC (Wednesdays, 8 PM ET), "Pushing Daisies" revolves around Ned (Lee Pace), who has the power to bring the deceased back to life. Once he does, however, he can never touch them again or it will prove permanently fatal. When his childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel), is killed, Ned restores her to life — but thereafter can never have any physical contact with her.

An unusually good cast includes Kristin Chenoweth as Olive Snook, who will compete with Chuck for Ned's attentions. Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene play Chuck's eccentric aunts, formerly 'mermaids' in their own swimming act. (In the pilot, Kurtz has a wonderful line about being able to hold her breath for a long time.) Chi McBride is PI Emerson Cod, and the superb Jim Dale narrates.

Early, extremely favorable reviews of "Pushing Daisies" concur with TV Guide's Matt Roush rave: "There's nothing on TV or elsewhere...that remotely looks, sounds or magically enthralls the way 'Pushing Daisies' does."

Mentioning to Bryan Fuller, the creator (head writer-executive producer) of "Pushing Daisies," that I also interviewed Harvey Fierstein for this column, Fuller says, "Somebody told me that he was a big fan of 'Dead Like Me.' I'm a big fan of his. It would be great to get him on 'Pushing Daisies.'" Paging Harvey!

Fuller's past creations include "Dead Like Me" (2003) and "Wonderfalls" (2004). Originally, the new series "was going to be a spin-off of 'Dead Like Me.' Then I left, halfway through the first season, to do 'Wonderfalls,' which only lasted four episodes." However, that series starred the "Daisies" male lead, Lee Pace, for whom Fuller wrote the part of Ned. "His agents declined, but his manager went around them, and told [Pace] that he should really read the [pilot] script."

Adam Brody ("The O.C.") was next offered the part of Ned. "He was not looking to do another series immediately," relates Fuller, "and he was very gracious. Then Lee's manager got involved — thank God!" Death has fascinated Fuller since childhood, when he attended a number of wakes for relatives in his home state of Washington. "I'm the youngest of five, and nobody in my family talked about movies or television. I would go to wakes and talk to cousins who were much more enthusiastic about popular culture. I didn't understand the implications of death. From my perception, it was just a celebration."

His other fascination was "Star Trek." During a time when the series had an open-script policy, Fuller submitted a spec script. That led to selling two stories, and getting a script assignment. In turn, he became a staff writer (for "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager") and worked his way up to producer.

Feeling lucky to get Jim Dale to narrate "Pushing Daisies," Fuller says, "One of the things we would like to do in the future — if this show is a success — is to actually see Jim Dale on the show, and reveal who's telling the story."

Plans also include a musical episode "for the back nine [episodes]. There's a song in the first episode after the pilot. It's very much in the tone of the show. A character's feeling sad and sings. It's heightened reality."

One scene in the pilot has 4-foot-11-inch Kristin Chenoweth standing on a coffee table to be on eye level with 6-foot-4-inch Lee Pace. Though not seen much in the pilot, Chenoweth's character quickly becomes more involved in the stories.

Paul Reubens has joined the series as a recurring cast member: "He plays Alfredo Aldarisio, a customer at the Pie Hole [Ned's dessert shop] who's a traveling salesman of anti-depressants."

Currently, Fuller oversees all the writing. As the characters and stories take shape, writers will work more on their own. Fuller calls Pete Ocho and Rina Mimoun, his "right and left hands." Other writers ("It's too much for one person; we have a great team") include Jack Monaco, Kath Lingenfelter, [husband and wife] Chad and Dera Creasey, Abby Gewanter, Lisa Joy, and Scott Nimerfro.

Barry Sonnenfeld directed the pilot and following episode. "We're working on a way we can get him back. He was a creative partner on the look and attitude of the series. I want to direct and he took me under his wing, like a mentor. It's a great experience to work with a director of that caliber."

Shooting the pilot took 16 days. The production schedule is now 11 days, but that's scheduled to be reduced to eight, "which is difficult," he says. "'Pushing Daisies' is very controlled, with very deliberate camera movements and framing. We were on the set yesterday from 1 PM to 4 AM."

Ned's special power is never explained, just noted in a sentence. "Whenever you explain things too much, we take a lot of the awe away."

States Bryan Fuller, "The response from the critical community has been fantastic. It helps to have the support. I tend to think ahead. I've already got the emotional arc for the first two seasons, and a kicker for the third season. Of course, all that goes away if you're not around to do it. Hopefully, this show will go on and allow me to execute some of those plans."

Let's hope that, for "Daisies," everything's coming up roses.

***

Colorful and enthusiastic, the "Pushing Daisies" narration by multi-talented Jim Dale, a five-time Tony nominee who took home the prize for Barnum in 1980, gives the show an immediate appeal. The narration, incorporating refreshing, above-average wording, is complemented by the vibrant tones of the "Harry Potter" books-on-tape voice.

Explains Dale, "It came about very simply, with an inquiry as to my availability, from ABC to my agent. We didn't know what it was then, but as soon as I read the script, I realized it was very special and immediately said yes.

"Barry Sonnenfeld directed. Notice the number of times he gets people sitting, facing the camera and talking 'out front.'" Does Dale's narration require direction? "I've only worked once with Barry. That was for a promo, and he was very helpful.

"They tell me, 'We only have three seconds to do this' — and I hadn't been aware of that — or 'This can be stretched, so take your time with it.' First of all, they ask me to read it through. They may say, 'Can you push that a little more in the second line?' or ‘Can you pull back a bit on the fourth line?' Three or four people in Los Angeles listen to it, and then we play with it until they agree.

"My experience is why they hired me. They wanted somebody who was an actor-narrator, which is different than an ordinary narrator. He puts himself into the narration; he knows a little more about the story than you do. The audience doesn't know what's going to happen, but the narrator certainly does. He explains it as it goes along, prepares you for surprises, gets you ready for a laugh."

Pleased with the series, Dale praises "the dialogue and color, the set design and computerized imagery — which are fantastic! The people are brilliant! Lee Pace is a young Cary Grant. I didn't realize that Anna Friel, the leading lady, was British until I heard her being interviewed.

"Swoosie Kurtz and Kristin Chenoweth are the only ones I've met. [Chenoweth] was in The Apple Tree [last season on Broadway]. In [the "Passionella" sequence], she proved to be one of the finest clowns I've ever seen. Utterly, utterly brilliant! You're born with a comedic talent like hers." Adds Dale, "It must have been a lovely birth."

Born in Rothwell, Northants, England, Dale's the father of four (including singer Toby Dale and aerial cameraman Adam Dale) by his first marriage.

Since 1980, he's been wed to the former Julie Schafler. "She sells the most wonderful things in art-to-wear. She's run the 'Julie Artisans' Gallery' on Madison Avenue and 65th Street for 36 years. I went in one day, looked around for the most wonderful thing — and came out with the owner."

During a career that spans more than 50 years, Dale's been a Music Hall comic (at 17), a pop singer, a member of the National Theatre (at Laurence Olivier's invitation), a movie actor (whose many credits include nine films in the popular "Carry On" series), and a 1966 Oscar nominee (for writing the lyrics to the title song of "Georgy Girl").

Additionally, he's a nine-time recipient of the Audie Award for his books-on-tape recordings ("There's still life in the old voice"), a four-time Grammy nominee, a six-time Drama Desk nominee (winning four times), and a four-time Outer Critics Circle winner (each time he's been nominated). Dale's been cited twice in the Guinness Book of World Records, and has received a M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

Having recorded hundreds of voices for the seven "Harry Potter" books, Dale's "thrilled to bits that, at my age, there are millions of kids who have lived with my voice for years. I go out to do a reading and it's like a bloody rock concert. [Laughs] Not just kids, but grown-ups as well."

Upcoming for Dale is a Broadway musical, Busker Alley, in which he did a one-night benefit performance in late 2006. It's based on the 1938 film, "St. Martin's Lane," co-starring Charles Laughton and Vivien Leigh. The Sherman brothers wrote the score, and the book is by AJ Carothers (1933-2007).

Tommy Tune starred in a 1994 tour, which did not reach Broadway due to Tune injuring his foot. "We're editing and changing it," claims Dale. "Tony Walton will be directing again. It's not the actors, producers, or anyone connected to a show [who cause delays]. It's the bloody lawyers. They're the ones who stretch things out, because they get paid by the hour."

Dale claims the "Daisies" premise "is strange and very funny — how two people not allowed to touch get to know each other, by [in future episodes] kissing through cling wrap and dancing in beekeepers' outfits."

Admits Jim Dale, "The great thing about being narrator of a hopefully successful television series is not having to go to Los Angeles and work my butt off all day long four weeks in a trot. I just sit at home until an episode is shot and edited. They send me the script, and I record it in half-a-day here in New York City. That's absolutely wonderful!"

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