STAGE TO SCREENS: New Mendes Movie, New Coward Movie and Sherman Bros. Documentary

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: New Mendes Movie, New Coward Movie and Sherman Bros. Documentary This month: Sam Mendes' "Away We Go," featuring Allison Janney, plus songwriter Richard Sherman ("The Boys") and "Easy Virtue" writers Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins.
Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes Photo by Fran

*

Sam Mendes' latest film, "Away We Go" (a Focus Features Release, opening June 5) stars John Krasinski (TV's "The Office," Mendes' "Jarhead") and Maya Rudolph (a "Saturday Night Live" alum) as Burt and Verona, an unmarried couple — he wants to tie the knot; it's (k)not for her.

To be near his parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara), Burt and Verona are living in Colorado. When Dad and Mom announce plans to move to Belgium, Dad-and-Mom-to-Be hit the road, in search of the ideal place to raise their unborn child. It could be considered Mendes' new "road movie," following "Revolutionary Road" and "The Road to Perdition." The first-time, offbeat screenplay was written by Dave Eggers and (wife) Vendela Vida.

Stops along the way are Phoenix, Tucson, Madison (WI), Montreal, and Miami. Those encountered include Verona's former colleague (Allison Janney), Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo), Burt's friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Burt's brother (Paul Schneider), and their former college classmates (Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey).

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph with "Away We Go" director Sam Mendes
photo by François Duhamel

British-born Mendes made a swift rise as a London stage director, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, and (at 27) becoming artistic director (1992-2003) of the Donmar Warehouse. On Broadway, he scored with revivals of Cabaret (co-directed with Rob Marshall) and Gypsy (starring Bernadette Peters), and new plays (The Blue Room, The Vertical Hour). Two of producer Mendes' Neal Street Productions are in the running for this year's Tonys: Mary Stuart (Revival), and Shrek (Musical). In Hollywood, he earned an Academy Award for his movie debut, the 1999 Best Picture "American Beauty."

Upcoming Mendes films: "Middlemarch," "Preacher," "Lost in Austen," a "Perdition" sequel, and Sondheim's "Follies" (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin).

*

Allison Janney in "Away We Go"
photo by François Duhamel

"Away We Go" (which musical-theatre fans will recognize as the original title of Oklahoma!) is the second film Allison Janney has made with director Sam Mendes. "I like working with Sam, and want to do more movies with him," she says. Janney shared a SAG ensemble award for "American Beauty," in which she played "the most depressed woman on the face of the Earth." This time around, she's the outspoken, insensitive Lily. Was Lily a more challenging role? "Yes. It's easy to pull in, like Barbara Fitts [in "Beauty"]. It felt more dangerous to play a big character like Lily. I was a bit afraid to do that, but Sam kept saying, 'Go bigger.'" She filmed her part during "five days in Phoenix — in 190-degree heat. I'm exaggerating, but not much. It felt like you were in a sauna. Working conditions were intense."

Better comfort levels exist on Broadway, where the versatile Janney's experiences encompass a Noel Coward comedy, an Arthur Miller drama, and a Dolly Parton musical.

Playing Liz Essendine, opposite Frank Langella, in Present Laughter, she received a Theatre World Award, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations. Ben Brantley's New York Times review stated, "Both the character and the actress...never lose a commanding air of authority leavened with knowing affection and exquisite comic timing."

Beatrice in A View from the Bridge earned Janney a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award. Brantley observed that Janney's performance was "a dazzling shift from the wry sophisticate of...Present Laughter."

After that, she was "whisked off to Hollywood," spending seven seasons (1999-2006) as C.J. Cregg, press secretary to Martin Sheen's President "Jed" Bartlet on TV's "The West Wing."

C.J. earned Janney four Emmys (two as Supporting Actress; two, Best Actress), and four SAG Awards (two ensemble; two individual). "I'm happy to be back onstage. I missed it," she admits. "I love the actor-audience relationship."

Currently, the canny Janney gilds the Lily Tomlin role, Violet Newstead (from 1980'S comedy "Nine to Five"), in the movie's musical adaptation, 9 to 5. Performing in a musical requires "a lot of maintenance, but [co-stars] Megan [Hilty] and Stephanie [J. Block] are wonderful to work with. We have great chemistry. That makes it fun."

Allison Janney with Maya Rudolph in "Away We Go"
photo by François Duhamel

No shrinking Violet, Janney's again a Tony nominee — and a Drama Desk winner. Two days after her win, we speak at the Waldorf Astoria, on the "Away We Go" press day. How does she juggle promoting a film with eight performances a week? "It is a bit much, especially during awards season, but there are worse things," she says with a laugh. Youngest of three, Janney was born in Dayton, OH, daughter of a jazz musician/real-estate developer and an aspiring actress who chose marriage over career. Janney's "childhood fantasy" was to ice-skate in the Olympics.

That dream was shattered by falling through a plate-glass door. The accident occurred at a party, and her injuries, which included a severely cut leg, hospitalized the 16-year-old for eight weeks.

Upon entering Kenyon College, her major was psychology. She switched to drama after Paul Newman (class of '49) returned in 1978, to direct a play "by Michael Cristofer: C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby — a great experience." She became close friends with the actor and (wife) Joanne Woodward, who recommended Janney study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Following that, she trained at London's RADA.

"Then, I was in a theatre company with Joanne, who directed us in a number of Off-Off-Broadway plays." Janney's TV career began on soap-operas: "As the World Turns," and (1993-95) "The Guiding Light." Last year, she made her web-series debut in "Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy" (a spoof of MTV's "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods"). Supposedly in competition with Cheyenne Jackson to hawk Piragua (the Puerto Rican treat made of shaved ice and syrup), Janney was dismissed after (it was said) "attacking [Jackson] with an ice-scraper."

A scrawl spelled out the series' "strict zero tolerance policy in regards to physical altercation between participants," concluding: "We believe in Allison and wish her the best of success in her future." Confesses Janney, "I love doing silly things like that."

Movies include "The Ice Storm," "The Object of My Affection," "Celebrity," "Drop Dead Gorgeous," "Nurse Betty," "The Hours," "Finding Nemo," "Juno," "Hairspray." Will she be in the sequel, "Hairspray 2: White Lipstick"? She says, "I don't know. I better be."

Upcoming, there's "Margaret" (written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan), "A Thousand Words" ("with Eddie Murphy") and "Forgiveness" (filmed as "Life During Wartime"). "It's a sequel to Todd Solondz' 'Happiness' [1998] with different actors playing the roles."

Of her work, to date, Janney's gotten the most satisfaction from C.J. "She was fantastic. I felt pretty great about who she was, and having her be a role model. Crazy ladies also appeal to me," she says with a laugh. "Singing and dancing as Violet on Broadway is very fulfilling, and playing Lily was fun." Requiring "some rest before tonight's show," Janney ends our pleasant conversation — and away we go.

*

Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman
photo by © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

From the Brothers Grimm to the Jonas Brothers, there's been a number of notable siblings: James, Wright, Barrymore, Marx, Mills, Dorsey, Smothers, Osmond, Coen. But only the Shermans gave us "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Most people are more familiar with that song — and others, such as "It's a Small World" — written over the past almost-60 years by the Sherman Brothers than they are with the composer-lyricists themselves: Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Successful? Extremely! Household names? Not really. That's why Gregory V. Sherman (Richard's son) and Jeffrey C. Sherman (Robert's son) made "The Boys," a Disney documentary, described by the New York Times review as "irresistible...comprehensive...fulfilling."

An ebullient Richard Sherman answers the telephone at the Beverly Hills home he shares with his wife, Elizabeth ("We'll be married 52 years in July"), to chat about the biographical film.

"Some find [the documentary] a bit of an eye-opener," confides the octogenarian. "My brother and I had issues, but we agreed [in approaching the documentary], 'Let's not get into the dirty linen.' Yes, we led separate lives, and that kept us going as a team. Ironically, one of the most-recent songs we wrote [for Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] was called 'Teamwork.' We have tremendous respect for each other.

"Our wonderful dad teamed us, the warring siblings. His advice was to: 'Sit down, work on the material, throw everything else out the door. You'll get by.'" The native New Yorkers' father, Al Sherman (1897-1973), was a self-taught pianist who wrote such Tin Pan Alley hits as "You've Gotta Be a Football Hero" and "Potatoes Are Cheaper – Tomatoes Are Cheaper - Now's the Time to Fall in Love."

Richard had wanted to compose classical music; Robert (the elder, who lives in London) had a dream of writing the "great American novel." Together, their collaborations have inspired classic dreams in novel ways.

"Gregg and Jeff deserve kudos for putting everything together. Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Debbie Reynolds, everybody did the documentary for love. We've worked with some of the greatest talents."

Also appearing (among others): Hayley Mills, Lesley Ann Warren, John Davidson, Johnny Whitaker ("Tom Sawyer"), Karen Dotrice (Jane Banks, from "Mary Poppins"), Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, John Williams, and Ben Stiller.

"Bob and I [the only songwriters ever placed under contract by Disney] loved Walt. Sometimes, he'd call us to come to his office. At some point, he'd say, 'Play it' — meaning his favorite song, 'Feed the Birds.'"

Does Richard have a favorite Sherman song? "I like so many. So much of Bob and I are in them. It's got to be the 'Poppins' songs. That put us in the big leagues. Because of Walt, I have an affinity towards 'Feed the Birds.'

Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman with Walt Disney
photo by © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

"It was Walt's idea to cast Jane Darwell (1879-67) as the Bird Lady." Darwell (1940's Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress, as Ma Joad, Henry Fonda's mother, in "The Grapes of Wrath") was living in the actors' home. "They brought her to the studio in a limo. The whole cast — Julie, Dick, everybody — greeted her like a star. She cried, and said, 'I've never had such a reception in all my life.'" Were others up for the "Poppins" leads? "Not for Bert. Walt insisted, 'Dick Van Dyke's the man I want.' For Mary, they considered many people — Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Mary Martin — all great, but not right. One night, 'Ed Sullivan' [on his variety show] had Julie Andrews and Richard Burton singing 'What Do the Simple Folk Do?' [from Camelot]. I thought: She's absolutely perfect!"

"I called my brother. He was watching, too. The next day, we went to see Walt's secretary. She had seen the show. 'Don't tell Walt you saw the perfect person,' she demanded. 'He's going to New York, and I got him tickets for Camelot. Let him make up his own mind.' During intermission, Walt went backstage, and told Julie, 'I have a movie I want you to do.'

"Julie loved the score" with one exception, a song called "The Eyes of Love." He says, "When Julie heard it, she told Walt that she wanted 'something with more snap to it.' So, we wrote 'A Spoonful of Sugar.'" (Several songs were written, but not used, for the film.)

Disney had pursued the "Poppins" rights for more than 20 years before convincing author P.L. Travers to grant them. During filming, Travers proved difficult — objecting to the animated sequence; wanting period songs used, instead of the Shermans' score; insisting that there be no suggestion of a romantic involvement between Mary and Bert.

Recounting Travers' dissatisfaction, the documentary comments that, even while leaving its Hollywood premiere (Aug. 27, 1964), the author expressed a wish for changes. "Pamela," replied Disney, "the ship has sailed."

Who are some of Richard's favorite songwriters? "Cole Porter, Larry Hart, W.S. Gilbert. Let's not forget Irving Berlin. He was deceptively simple: 'With a great big valise full/ Of books to read where it's peaceful/ I'm wasting time/ Being lazy...' You don't write — or think — better than that.

Do the brothers have a writing method? "We collaborate on lyrics, and Bob influences the music a lot. We throw ideas at each other. We wrote scripts as well: 'Tom Sawyer,' 'The Slipper and the Rose' [with Dame Edith Evans], and 'The Magic of Lassie.'"

Both Jimmy Stewart and Alice Faye made their final feature appearances in the '78 Lassie picture. "Jimmy was the nicest guy in the world. The two of them were genuinely lovely. It was a kick that both of them sang in the movie. I'd been a fan of theirs since I was a kid."

In "The Boys," clips are seen of the Shermans accepting 1964 Academy Awards from Debbie Reynolds (Best Score: "Mary Poppins") and Fred Astaire (Best Song: "Chim Chim Cher-ee"). "Can you believe? As a kid, I used to watch Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here, he's handing me an Oscar. The shot shows me rubbing my head. I was thinking: This is not really happening. [Laughs]

"Only a handful of songwriters are legendary: [Cole] Porter, [Irving] Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, [Frank] Loesser.... People don't know the names of average songwriters, who wrote some great, great songs. The songs make them immortal."

Once asked by a journalist how to get the tune of "It's a Small World" out of one's head, Richard responded, "I have been praised and damned [for that song]. The best way is to play another beautiful song. Beatles' songs work best. 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' will get it out of your head." (Maybe, but if you "Picture yourself in a boat on a river..." the boat may suddenly take a turn into "a world of laughter, a world of tears...")

Busker Alley (with a Shermans' score) "is optioned for Broadway," and Pazzazz, which Richard wrote with Milt Larsen, is "slated for a 2010 tour." Also with Larsen (who founded Hollywood's Magic Castle), he conjured up two now out-of-print CDs of parody songs: "Banned Barbershop Ballads" and "Smash Flops."

"They're songs that could have been hits," he explains of the latter disc, "except for rotten timing." He quotes his favorite lines from "We're Depending on You, General Custer": "Ride out to the Little Big Horn/ Surround that Indian band/ And history will record this day/ As Sitting Bull's Last Stand."

He concludes, "I've been blessed. I've worked with some of the nicest people in the world." Seems to me that Richard Sherman fits that description, too. "Chim chim-in-ey...chim cher-oo!"

*

Jessica Biel and Colin Firth in "Easy Virtue"
photo by Giles Keyte © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

At Manhattan's Regency Hotel, on press day for "Easy Virtue," a Sony Classics Pictures Release, starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ben Barnes, I'm with its writer-director Stephan Elliot, best known for 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and (female) co-writer Sheridan Jobbins. Verbal or visual — which does Elliott (whose first name is pronounced STEF-an) consider more important? "They go hand-in-hand. I've seen translations of films I've written, all around the world. The way you word something in one culture will not work in another. But a visual gag works in every culture; the sight gag's a universal language."

His latest film's adapted from a 1925 Noel Coward play (the first to have its premiere on Broadway), starring Jane Cowl, who also played the London engagement. Alfred Hitchcock filmed it, as a silent, in 1928, with Isabel Jeans (Aunt Alicia in "Gigi") in the lead.

"Easy Virtue" originally focused on a 1920s American divorcee, whose artist-friend committed suicide after he was named correspondent in her husband's divorce suit. She then marries the son of an aristocratic British family.

Kimberley Nixon, Kristin Scott Thomas and Charlotte Riley in "Easy Virtue"
photo by Giles Keyte © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Changed to a widow, acquitted of poisoning her older husband, Larita (Biel) marries John Whittaker (Barnes), who brings her to his family's stately home to meet his parents (Firth and Scott Thomas). She and John's mother take an almost instant dislike to each other. Liberties were taken with Coward's work. Slapstick and a different ending (improbable, but pleasing) were added. A contemporary feeling was achieved, according to Elliott, "through special effects, which you don't usually see in a period film — and the music."

Original music by Marius de Vries mixes with modern numbers ("Car Wash," "Sex Bomb"), and period songs: Coward's "Mad About the Boy," "A Room with a View," "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" and "Let's Misbehave."

"My mantra was 'Cabaret,' which had a 'Kit Kat Club Band,'" reveals Elliott. "I created the 'Easy Virtue Orchestra.' Over the end credits, we [verbally] name the musicians. I don't think that's ever been done before in a film."

Peter Barnes, who wrote a first draft of "Easy Virtue," died. Notes Elliott, "His draft was very, very Coward. Ealing [Studio execs] looked at it, and realized it was old-fashioned, and decided to find someone who wouldn't ordinarily do this material. They came to me."

Recalls Elliott, "When they first suggested it, I thought it was a great idea: 'Yeah, not a problem.' But I had come through a terrible accident, and was lying in bed, doped to the eyes with morphine. [Laughs] When the morphine wore off, I realized, 'We can't rewrite Noel Coward.' Sheridan reasoned, 'When else in your life would you ever be given an opportunity like this?'"

Following a 2004 skiing accident in France, rescuers informed Elliott that he had only minutes to live. Days later, he woke up in a hospital with severe injuries to back, legs, and pelvis. Defying the prognosis that he'd never walk again, not only did he succeed (after 18 months), but also he resumed skiing. "I'm mostly titanium [which holds him together]. I'm the bionic man."

Initially, the actors "went into the Coward mode. That becomes — to quote Coward himself: 'Too many dear boys, dear boy.' I'd remind them to 'speak normally,' and steer clear of that clipped [-speech] Coward world.

Third-generation filmmaker Jobbins is a native of Melbourne who's also a journalist, a TV producer-writer-director of short films and music videos, a former actor ("really bad"), and was a research-development director of Latent Image, which co-produced "Priscilla."

Born in Sydney, New South Wales, as a teen Elliott "became one of the forefathers in the wedding-video industry [taping over 900 nuptials]." Assistant director on 30-plus films, "Priscilla" was his second movie as director. He's adapted the film for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical, which features disco songs, and is now playing in London. "And we're headin' to Broadway. We have to mold some things for American audiences."

"Priscilla," for those who may not know, is the name of the battered pink bus used for travel by three entertainers: a transsexual (Bernadette) and two drag queens (Tick/Mitzi, Adam/Felicia). "The bus cost a million pounds," Elliott tells me. "That was the entire budget for the film."

Making brief appearances in his films was Hitchcock's trademark, and the scribes follow suit. "We're a grumpy, arguing couple," says Jobbins. Adds Elliott, "I'm holding the film's only cigarette holder." It's an easy, but virtuous, homage to Sirs Alfred and Noel: Knights Errant extraordinaire!

*

Various and Sundry

Angela Lansbury will be a presenter on the "Tony Awards" (June 7, CBS-TV, 8 PM ET). She's also favored to win for spreading seer magic as the dotty Arcati, that rare medium well done, in Blithe Spirit. Never an Emmy or Oscar winner (despite a total of 21 nominations — two for hosting the Tonys), she's fared better on Broadway: winning four Tonys. Let's hope that Lansbury's crowning glory is celebrated with a fifth!

*

You can see Lansbury Tony eve, too. She's on the Ovation network (June 6, 8 PM ET) documentary about the artist formally known as "Mr. Prince" (informally, as "Hal"), a salute to 21-time Tony-winner Harold Prince. Also appearing: Chita Rivera, Stephen Sondheim, Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, Joel Grey.

*

Wolverine Meets Double-O Seven: You may have heard that the Tony-winning Boy from Oz Hugh Jackman is heading back to Broadway, with Daniel Craig (James Bond) in tow. In A Steady Rain, they'll play best-friend Chicago patrolmen, Joey and Denny, described as "bad cop/worse cop," who (during a rainy weekend) give differing accounts of a case involving a teen and a serial cannibal. (It's not a Disney musical.)

Chicago playwright Keith Huff (who, like Craig, is making his NY stage bow) wrote the 100-minute two-character drama, A Steady Rain, which has had several staged readings and workshops.

*

Nine has come full circle: From Fellini's 1963 Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film "8½" to a Tony-winning 1982 Best Musical to a 2003 Best Revival to a 2009 movie musical, directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago", the 2002 Oscar-winning Best Picture). Former Broadway dancer-choreographer-director Marshall is a six-time Tony nominee. The Weinstein Company release opens Nov. 25.

Heading the cast are six Academy Award winners: Daniel Day-Lewis ("My Left Foot," "There Will Be Blood"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours"), Marion Cotillard ("La vie en rose"), Sophia Loren ("Two Women"), Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love"), Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") — plus an Oscar nominee, Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous").

*

Elaine Stritch, who could earn a second Emmy this year for her "30 Rock" role (as the mother of Alec Baldwin), is doing The Full Monty at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey June 10-July 12.

*

Also June 10-July 12, at Central Park's Delacorte: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night will be a starry night: with (among others) Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza, Julie White.

Hathaway (Viola) plays the White Queen in the upcoming "Alice in Wonderland". Four-time Tony winner McDonald (Olivia) follows her brush with the Bard by returning to "Private Practice". Four-time Tony nominee Esparza (Orsino), up again in 2009 for Speed-the-Plow, is in the film thriller "25/8". Tony winner White (Maria) is in the new film "Breaking Upwards", written by and starring Zoe Lister Jones, with La Chanze, Andrea Martin, Pablo Schreiber, Peter Friedman.

*

"Rabbit Hole," which David Lindsay-Abaire adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, goes before the cameras (in New York) in June, with John Cameron Mitchell directing.

It stars Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart. Also appearing: Jon Tenney ("The Closer"), Marylouise Burke, Elizabeth Marvel.

*

For its eighth season, the locale of "24" switches to NYC (though still shot in L.A.). Anil Kapoor (the "Slumdog Millionaire" game-show host) joins the cast as a foreign leader, target of an assassination plot. Also new to the cast: Freddie Prinze Jr. (as a Counter Terrorist Unit agent), Jennifer Westfeldt (Wonderful Town), John Boyd (Piano Teacher).

Thankfully, two-time Tony winner (The Heiress, Doubt) Cherry Jones remains in the Oval Office for another day. Recently, she told me, "I'll be back [on "24"], even if it's as a hologram."

President Taylor gets a new Chief of Staff (succeeding Bob Gunton): Chris Diamantopoulos (of "The Starter Wife"). His Broadway credits include replacement stints in Les Miserables (as Marius) and The Full Monty, and he's married to Becki Newton (of "Ugly Betty").

*

Storyline producers Craig Zadan/Neil Meron ("Chicago," "Hairspray") have announced the lead for their musical "Footloose" remake, directed by Kenny Ortega ("Dirty Dancing," "High School Musical"): Chace Crawford ("Gossip Girl," "Twelve") will play Ren McCormack (originated, six degrees ago, by Kevin Bacon).

*

Fifty years after it starred Kim Stanley and Horst Buchholz on Broadway, "Cheri", based on the Colette novel, reaches the screen (a June 26 Miramax release). It reunites "Dangerous Liaisons" writer Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears, and stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates, Harriet Walter (Mary Stuart).

*

Taped in London (May 2008): Tony winner Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Josh Groban star in the ABBA-Tim Rice "Chess in Concert" (June 17, PBS, 9 PM ET). Featured: the 50-piece City of London Philharmonic, the 100-voice West End Chorus. A three-disc set (two CDs, a DVD, with a synopsis by Rice, photos, sheet music for two songs, and an MP 3 download) comes out mid-June. (Your move.)

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.

Today’s Most Popular News: