STAGE TO SCREENS: Harris, Hickey and Sieber Chat About New ABC Sitcom

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Harris, Hickey and Sieber Chat About New ABC Sitcom Three actors and four executive producers discuss their new fall situation comedy on ABC.
"It's All Relative" co-stars (top to bottom) Harriet Harris, John Benjamin Hickey and Christopher Sieber
"It's All Relative" co-stars (top to bottom) Harriet Harris, John Benjamin Hickey and Christopher Sieber (Photo by ABC/Bob D'Amico)

This month we check out a new ABC sitcom starting in the fall (Wednesdays, 8:30 PM ET), and chat with three cast members who have theatre backgrounds—Harriet Sansom Harris, John Benjamin Hickey, and Christopher Sieber—and the series' four executive producers: Storyline Entertainment's Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and the team who also supply entertaining storylines, Anne Flett-Giordano and Chuck Ranberg.

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"We think it's quite a challenge to do something that's laugh-out-loud funny," says Craig Zadan, referring to the sitcom. How did it come about? Neil Meron replies, "Actually, it was an idea that Lloyd Braun had. He's chairman of ABC. He wanted to do a show featuring two gay dads. Then, [the concept] was refined by Susan Lyne, president of ABC, in terms of bringing in another family. So we have these two kids from disparate sets of parents that kind of represent everybody. The show developed its own style once we hired our writers, Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano."

Notes Zadan, "We were very fortunate. We interviewed writers for two years because we were very concerned about the depiction of the gay characters. Some people wanted to do it like [the movie] 'Birdcage,' and make it flamboyant. We didn't want to do that. When we met with Chuck and Anne, we loved them. Their five years of 'Frasier' meant they write very sharp, sophisticated, smart comedy. We asked, 'How would you depict the gay characters?' They said, 'Imagine if Frasier and Niles declared, "We're not brothers, we're lovers!"' That brought them into the mix."

*** Set in Boston, the series concerns a young couple, Liz and Bobby (Maggie Lawson, Reid Scott), and their families. She's a Harvard student; he tends bar in the family tavern.

Liz was raised by two gay dads: Philip (John Benjamin Hickey), an art-gallery owner, and Simon (Christopher Sieber), who teaches third grade. Bobby's the son of Mace and Audrey O'Neill (Lenny Clarke, Harriet Sansom Harris). Both sets of parents are shocked by Liz and Bobby's engagement.

Philip is stunned that Liz has fallen for "an Irish-Catholic Republican bartender," while Bobby's mom asks him, "Whatever happened to that nice black girl you were datin'?" Liz is puzzled by her dads' reactions: "Didn't you always tell me not to judge people?" Simon replies, "No, we said not to judge a musical by the road company."

***

This is the latest sitcom for Harriet Sansom Harris, a 2002 Tony winner as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. "I have to use the middle name for movies and TV—for SAG," she explains, "but I use Harriet Harris when I'm doing an Equity show, onstage." A regular on "The Five Mrs. Buchanans" (which starred Eileen Heckart) and "Union Square," Harris had recurring roles on "Stark Raving Mad" and "Frasier" (as his agent).

What attracted Harris to the series? "The built-in conflict. It's hard to find something funny if people aren't at opposite ends of wanting something, or thinking they're right. I understand that concept better than family dynamics like, 'This person needs the car on this night.' There are people who are good at doing that; I don't think I am."

Upon reading the script for the pilot, Harris was "as pleased as I ever am when I first see something. I was particularly pleased by Chris and John's parts. That's like relationships I know from friends of mine. It's a type of relationship not over-represented yet [on TV]. Neil and Craig are wonderful producers; Anne and Chuck are really good writers. I know them from 'Frasier,' though I've never done one of their scripts."

Harris worked with Chris Sieber when he temporarily took over for Marc Kudisch in Millie. "I'm very fond of Chris; he's a terrific guy and a very talented actor. I know Mr. Hickey socially, through friends. I didn't know Lenny [Clarke] previously, but I was crazy about him instantly. They couldn't have cast the part [of Mace] better."

As we speak in early June, the actress isn't sure when she's leaving Millie. "I have to get a letter from ABC saying we're picked up. I have to have a start date; I can't legally leave until I have a new job. It's such a fun part. They're not going to have a hard time finding somebody [as a replacement]. I love Millie, and want to stay as long as I can." (I've since learned that Harris' last performance is Aug. 3; she starts work on the series Aug. 6.)

Prior to the Tony-winning musical, she played Nathan Lane's secretary in The Man Who Came to Dinner. "Working with Nathan was incredible fun; everybody in that cast was excellent. It's fun to do different things—a Broadway play, a musical, TV, movies. You use the tools you have, and apply them differently. Certain jobs give you more money, but in terms of satisfaction, I think they're all high-ranking. It's fun to be an actor," observes Harriet Harris, "if you're working. [Laughs]"

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The pilot for the show was entitled "Anything Goes." When ABC announced its fall schedule, the series was called "It's All Relative." Insists Zadan, "That will never be the title. We picked that because we needed some title for the upfronts [announcements of new series].

"We only wanted to make a commitment for something that's not been on TV before, something that will be remembered, God willing, like 'All in the Family,' or 'Roseanne'—something special, not some cookie-cutter show. As you know from our past work, we go to theatre to cast." Interjects Meron, "The best people are in the theatre. There's nothing like a New York theatre-trained actor. When you want the best, you go to the theatre."

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"I love the notion of a very stable, long-term gay relationship portrayed on television," states John Benjamin Hickey. "I love the fact that [Philip and Simon] are loving and committed parents. I think one of the potentials of the series is to see which is the more conservative of the two families. I originally auditioned for the role that Christopher plays. They said, 'We'd like you to come in and audition for Philip.' I think the characters are all appealing. That's a really good starting point. Harriet is a friend. I've never worked with her; we're both Juilliard graduates, but at different times. I was acquainted with Christopher, and, of course, knew and admired his work.

"Working for Neil and Craig is a joy! I've worked with them before [playing Roger Edens in "The Life of Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows"]. They're a rare breed; they respect and cherish theatre people in a way that I don't think a lot of people in Hollywood do."

Among Hickey's Broadway credits are revivals of The Crucible and Cabaret (to date, his only musical), in which he played Clifford Bradshaw, opposite Natasha Richardson's Sally Bowles. A colleague in Love! Valour! Compassion! was Nathan Lane, whom Hickey considers "probably the greatest actor I've worked with, when it comes to comedy. His precision and dedication and being alive in the moment onstage is thrilling! He's the funniest man in show business." Hickey just made his directorial debut with Bad Dates, at Playwrights Horizons.

Is doing a TV series the dream of every actor? "Not at all. It's a wonderful thing financially, and has a wonderful schedule. You have three weeks on and one week off. You don't have those 18-hour days that you do when you're shooting an hour-long show." (Hickey has appeared on all three "Law & Order" series.)

He believes the sitcom to be "somewhat akin to the theatre in that you're doing it in front of a live audience. But the theatre is very much its own creature. Acting is acting, but [the media] are all very different. Financially, a [hit] series is a dream come true. But the dream of any stage actor is to be in a great play, or musical, on Broadway."

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Anne Flett-Giordano admits that she and partner Chuck Ranberg regard the new series as "Frasier and Niles meet 'All in the Family.' We want to keep both families silly and funny. We want to show that everyone has bigotries and prejudices, and that if you actually spend time with people you can get past [differences]. People need to be who they are, and you need to find ways to like them.

"One thing we both hated about 'Birdcage'—which was a really funny movie—was that the son was so cold about asking his parents to be something they weren't, and even cutting the Nathan [Lane] character out. It was so unkind. We have an episode where Mace's mother and sister appear, and Mace wants the guys to lie about being gay, and wants Liz to go along with that. We don't want the gay parents to be perfect and the other parents to be bad.

"Another episode has Philip and Simon embarrassed about what the O'Neills do, and they lie about Bobby's family to an influential decorator that does a lot of work with Philip's gallery."

The writers met in college and have worked together "almost 30 years." Their sitcom history, relates Ranberg, "started on 'Frasier.' We did the first five seasons. We were involved in 'Encore! Encore!' [Nathan Lane's first starring series], but that's another interview. [Laughs]"

"That wasn't Nathan's fault," declares Anne. "He was great, a totally wonderful guy! It was just a bad concept, a really stupid idea." Chuck adds, "However, I like to think that if 'Encore! Encore!' had been a success, Nathan would not have been available for The Producers." "So, in a way," claims Anne, "we gave him a Tony."

As two of the exec producers, might the pair be willing to pay the cast on a scale with Ray Romano? Responds Anne Flett-Giordano, "We hope the show's that big a success, and we have to give them those big salaries." ***

Christopher Sieber was slated for another new ABC sitcom, "Back to Kansas," when "Neil and Craig snapped me up. They got me a pilot deal before the other one. All of a sudden, I'm Simon. I thought: Oh, well, this one's good, too." Sieber, whose Broadway credits include Beauty and the Beast, Triumph of Love, and Into the Woods, thinks "it's so wild that three theatre actors were cast. And Lenny Clarke used to do stand-up."

In his first TV series, "Two of a Kind" (ABC, 1998-99), Sieber was also cast as a father, a widowed professor with two daughters (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). "It was produced by Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, who had done 'Happy Days,' 'Laverne and Shirley,' 'Mork and Mindy.' They were the most generous guys, and Neil and Craig are just like them. They don't seem like producers; they're like good friends. More than anything, they want to make sure that you're okay."

His earlier sitcom experience taught Sieber that "nothing is certain. For whatever reasons, the series could just stop. The last time, I thought: 'This is going to run forever; I'm going to make a million dollars. It got canceled after one season.'

"The last time, I bought a car and rented this huge house in the Hollywood Hills, and furnished it. This time, I'm not going do that. I'm going to treat this like a national tour. I'll get a nice monthly suite and rent a car. I'm going to take my time, enjoy the show and come back to New York on my weeks off. Very rarely in television do you get a second chance—as far as sitcoms go."

When you rehearse a sitcom, says Sieber, "The jokes aren't as funny the second time you hear them. As the week progresses, the jokes just aren't funny. You start wondering: 'Oh, God, do I suck?' Then you get in front of an audience who are hearing the jokes for the first time—and you feel alive again!"

He concurs with Hickey: "As far as financial security, a sitcom pays a whole lot better than theatre, but theatre is my first love; you can't compare it to anything else!"

While he and Hickey haven't worked together previously, they're "fans of each other's work. I think he's one of the great actors, and just the nicest man. It's so nice that we're playing gay parents. We play off each other so well. It's just a thrill!"

***

Upcoming TV projects for Storyline, Meron tells me, include two musicals. "We're planning 'Hunchback of Notre Dame,' which will be a live-action version of the animated film and the Berlin [stage] production, and '1776.'" For "Hunchback," Zadan points out, "Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken are writing additional songs. We're also looking at remounting [the postponed] 'Fiddler on the Roof' [which was slated to star Victor Garber as Tevye]."

There's also a second sitcom coming, a show for Harvey Fierstein. Zadan continues, "We've known Harvey for years, and adore him. After Hairspray opened, he was offered a lot of [TV] shows. He was interested in doing one, but nothing appealed to him as being unique. We told him, 'We want you to do "Roseanne"—with you as Roseanne.'

"Not literally, but a blue-collar family, struggling to get by, with Harvey as a mother who has a husband and two kids. We're not talking about the Hairspray character; it's not Harvey in a fat suit or a flamboyant outfit or a wig. Much more like 'Mrs. Doubtfire.' It's Harvey as an actor playing a mother."

"There won't be any wink-wink to the camera," comments Meron. "When Linda Hunt played Billy Kwan in 'Year of Living Dangerously,' she was believable as a man. [Might Hunt play Harvey's spouse?] Harvey leaves Hairspray in August. The series will shoot in New York. It's for midseason [early 2004]. We're looking at writers now."

If things work out with their first two sitcoms, maybe Zadan and Meron can find a premise that works for Nathan Lane. Meanwhile, they should sign Lane to play Applegate in their big-screen remake of "Damn Yankees." (Can't you picture his devilish glee performing "Those Were the Good Old Days"?)

Craig Zadan acknowledges that Storyline Entertainment has wanted to produce sitcoms "for years and years and years." Concludes Neil Meron, "We wanted the first one to be something with an original voice—and with [the new sitcom], I think we've got what we wanted."

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END QUIZ: Which of the following two-time Tony winners appeared with Harriet Harris in "The Five Mrs. Buchanans": a) Swoosie Kurtz; b) Judith Ivey; c) Christine Baranski? (Answer: Next column, August 3)

The June 4 question was: Who were co-hosts of the second national Tony telecast (NBC, 1968): a) Angela Lansbury and Peter Ustinov; b) Diahann Carroll and Alan King; c) Julie Andrews and Walter Matthau? The answer is a).

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.

Harriet Harris, Lenny Clarke, Reid Scott, Maggie Lawson, John Benjamin Hickey, Christopher Sieber in "It's All Relative"
Harriet Harris, Lenny Clarke, Reid Scott, Maggie Lawson, John Benjamin Hickey, Christopher Sieber in "It's All Relative" (Photo by ABC/Craig Mathew)