PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Walter Bobbie

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22 Mar 2004

<I>Twentieth Century</I> director Walter Bobbie
Twentieth Century director Walter Bobbie
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

After an over four-year absence from the boards, Walter Bobbie rides back into town on the Twentieth Century.

In the conductor car of the new Ken Ludwig-revised script of the classic Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy, Bobbie talks to Playbill On-Line about reviving a work over 50 years-old, working with stars like Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche aboard the Roundabout-produced train, and anticipating Christina Applegate for the upcoming revival of Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon's Sweet Charity.

Playbill On-Line: How did you get onboard the revival of Twentieth Century?
Walter Bobbie: [Playwright] Ken Ludwig, who I've known forever, sent me the play and I loved it and I said can I take this to Todd [Haimes, Roundabout artistic director] and he said "Go." I took it to Todd and I called Alec [Baldwin]. Alec and I have known each other for a long time too. I've always wanted to do a comedy with him. We did a reading [for Roundabout]. It went so swimmingly that Todd made the decision that day, right after the reading.

PBOL: This Twentieth Century is more streamlined and producer-friendly.
WB: I think what Ken has done is an incredible compression of the show. The original cast I think is 28, maybe slightly larger and that's only because they could do that back then. I don't think you can do this with many plays. I mean, I don't think you can take the Kaufman and Hart [plays], you can't necessarily reduce those plays very successfully. And I'm not a fan of having people disguise themselves — it's one thing if it's conceptual — [having] the actors play many roles. But I hate pretending to be 25 people.

When we first read the play, I thought "I don't feel like anything's missing." There were no essential characters that he eliminated and the characters that remain became more full-bodied, more focused. I feel the play, in fact, in some ways, has been improved with this production. And the other thing I think, though I'm a fan of the original play and film, I think there's a reason it hadn't been revived in 50 years. Though it's a beloved chestnut, it's not quite as easily produceable as one might think. And I think Ken has done a fine job in honoring Hecht and MacArthur at the same time giving the play new life.



PBOL: One notable change is the switching of Oliver Webb to Ida Webb.
WB: At the reading, initially there were just two women in the play and I thought that the play in this production seemed underpopulated by women. So, I asked Ken if we can read both men and women for [Oscar Jaffe's assistants] Webb and O'Malley. Finally, I brought in just a few women to read for Webb and Julie Halston just nailed it. Ken got it, called the estate that day and they approved it. The interesting thing about the Ida Webb idea is not a word has been changed [other than] her name and pronouns. We didn't have to rewrite it.

PBOL: You mentioned Baldwin being attached from the start, how did casting Anne Heche for the starlet come about?
WB: I wanted people who had a very contemporary sensibility to go into this period material because I didn't want it to be a dusty, creeky posturing. And I think what we're fortunate with in Anne and Alec is that they have lived their private lives to public scrutiny. So, they are not unaware of the responsibility and the difficulty of having a very public personal life just like the characters. I don't think you can act being a star, I think you have to be a star. I think I have the good fortune of that in Anne and Alec.

PBOL: Just as in the show, having a star signed onto a project is somewhat of a necessary evil. Is it a crutch or a blessing?
WB: I love working with stars. They bring a kind of excitement to the stage before they even come out. And they walk on and create an excitement. And what that is I don't know how you quantify it. I think when you're doing a play like this when someone comes out and says "I just won an Academy Award," you really want a personality known. A star brings a persona to a role. You can't direct that into actors. Both Alec and Anne have that. The thing that I don't know if people realize, if you haven't seen Alec on "Saturday Night Live," you may not know the comic actor he is. Alec is a handsome leading man with the soul of a character actor. And Anne is gorgeous but not afraid to be Lucille Ball. I remember seeing "Six Days Seven Nights" and she came out of that airplane and fell on the ground in a prat fall and I thought "I need that woman." She's gorgeous, a fantastic actress and she is a fearless physical comic, which I don't think people know.

PBOL: Speaking of star actresses, you are also set to work with Christina Applegate on the upcoming Broadway revival of Sweet Charity.
WB: Now, I don't think you can do Sweet Charity without a star. There's no way you can do a major revival of that piece where the entire performance is on that person's back without creating a significant reason to revive it. Whenever you revive Gypsy or Hello, Dolly! or Mame, you gotta know who Mame is. Christina came in and she made me laugh and she broke my heart at the same time. People can sometimes read Neil Simon and if you play the jokes in Neil's shows, you'll die. You have to play the scenes and then it's funny. If you try to be funny, you will fail. And Christina was right and totally believable and lovable. You also have to love Charity, you have to really care about her. The other thing is Christina has been dancing all her life, which I had no idea. She really is very accomplished and I think she brings a freshness to the show. She'll bring a younger audience to the show. I mean, I called my 17-year-old nephew and I said "What do you think, Christina Applegate?" He said "Oh, yeah!" [Laughs.] So that's when I said "Let's cast her!"

PBOL: Trying to tap into a whole new demographic...
WB: Well, it's true. The thing is when you revive something and you want to introduce a whole new generation of people to a piece of material you believe in, you should make it friendly to that audience. And we continue to that, I know when we brought [Backstreet Boy band member] Kevin Richardson [to Chicago], suddenly there were all these girls screaming. But at the same time, they got to see this show and realized that they loved it. You know, Kevin Richardson may have brought them into the theatre, but then they saw a musical comedy and thought "Oh, this is cool."

PBOL: What can audiences expect from the musical revival?
WB: The design team is coming together and I think the show needs a new production. Sometimes when you're in the middle of a period, you don't know what it looks like. Now, I think we can reference the palette of it with a whole contemporary resonance to look of the show.

I feel the show is very fable-like in the way that I keep saying to the design team, "You know how there's no bloodshed in Guys and Dolls? Well, there's no venereal disease in Sweet Charity." In Guys and Dolls people are running around with tommy guns and they're really unscrupulous, but the thing is they are just adorable and there's no blood. It is in some ways an adult fable. And you cannot go back and do a dark version of Sweet Charity. That score tells you where the show lives: the struggle to find love, the longing to find the right partner is the eternal theme.

PBOL: I understand there are some revisions or additions to this show too?
WB: [Librettist] Neil [Simon] has done some rewriting to the book. He's done, I think, something quite surprising with the end of the show. Also, [composer] Cy [Coleman] has put in another song that he wrote. I think there will be some real surprises, but they've all been done not to trip up the show, but to re-examine it and I think to strengthen the story that's being told.

PBOL: What's the new song? Where does it fit in?
WB: It falls into when she leaves the club in the end. Right around "I Love to Cry at Weddings". The title now is "If There Were More People Like You." And basically, it's a girl saying goodbye.

PBOL: You directed Footloose which opened in 1998 and other than an acting gig in David Ives' Polish Joke, you've been gone from the New York scene. Why the long absence?
WB: I had actually worked on two adaptations in the interim, developing The Road to Hollywood and A Face in the Crowd. Those two projects took up a good portion of a couple years. And there were several things that I was working on, I went through a period where so many things that I started, fell apart. A lot of things that came my way, which is what happens when you have a particular kind of success — as I did with Chicago — were just revivals and I'm not interested in much of that material. Or people wanted to figure out how to do a show with 10 people in no clothes. [Laughs.] Some of the things that came along, didn't engage me. But several things I did work on I believed in and one of them that never came into town was [Jeffrey Hatcher's] Compleat Female Stage Beauty — which is now being turned into a film. So, I had been quite busy with a bunch of projects that quickly fell apart. And then Sweet Charity, which I was with, went into the desert for a year and a half for me. That's just the way it goes. That's why when Polish Joke came up, I thought "Oh, I'm just gonna go act." [Laughs.]