PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Private Lives Keeping Up with the Chases

By Harry Haun
18 Nov 2011

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"I thought it went great," said Paul Gross of his first official night on Broadway. "It was a lot of fun to do. I don't ever really get nervous, and I wasn't tonight either. There's certainly a lot of hoopla around it, but it's like Freemasonry, the theatre. Once we get into that beautiful place in the Music Box, we could be anywhere in the world. I know I'm on Broadway, but, when you're in a theatre . . ."

As the Elyot of the evening, the Canadian charmer of "Due South" and "Slings and Arrows" breezed through the performance like an old practiced hand at Coward.

"I don't know if there's a style as much as there's a tune and a tempo. You have to discover that. Once you feel Coward's tune and tempo and get in on top of it, it can become effortless. It carries you along. I've found whenever I've gone off it or slowed down or tried to make a meal out of things, it sorta collapses and is hard to get back up again so if you just listen to the writer, you're in fairly good shape."

As if a Broadway debut wasn't worry enough, Gross had to contend with the last Broadway Elyot directly across the street, Alan Rickman, who got a Tony nomination for it playing opposite the Tony-winning Amanda of Lindsay Duncan.

"Well, I would believe this is so different, I can't imagine what he would think," Gross confessed. "I haven't actually met him, but there was a note to everyone from their company to wish us all luck for tonight." Note-comparing will come later.

"Ah, but it's funny with these parts that lots and lots of people have played. I remember doing Hamlet, and, if you actually started to worry about all the people who have done Hamlet, you wouldn't walk out for the first speech at the beginning.

"I think it's very similar with Elyot in this play, and, of course, in the end, Alan Rickman does what he does and I do what I do and Richard Burton did what he did. You can't do that. You can only do whatever it is you're about."

As it happened, the night Private Lives opened was the first night Rickman ever missed a performance in his life (a respiratory problem). His Seminar, at the John Golden Theatre, is the next play to lift off on Broadway — on Nov. 20.

Tammy Grimes and Kim Cattrall
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

A potentially intimidating presence did attend the Private Lives opening — the Tony-winning Amanda of 1970, Tammy Grimes. Cattrall, mercifully, wasn't told she was in the audience but rushed up to her at the party, thrilled that she was there, and was warmly embraced for her performance.

Grimes also won a Tony for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but it was Amanda she named her daughter (by Christopher Plummer) after, and her on-stage fencing with Brian Bedford's Elyot is a cherished memory.

"It was a wonderful experience tonight," Grimes said. "I couldn't help but think of Brian. I kept hearing his lines, but the man doing them — Paul Gross — was marvelous."

Gross, quite the gentleman, hovered attentively over her booth at the party. "She and Paul talked back and forth about the musicality of the language," reported Grimes' cabaret director, Joel Vig, "how you find the rhythm as it's written because it's been honed down to almost like musical scoring. There were no 'wells' and 'buts' with Noel — any of those kinds of things that actors do as a way of adding their own kind of emphasis. Those were always stricken by him. She told Paul that Noel liked to have the lines done exactly as written, and that was how he did them."

Having done a Present Laughter years before, Cattrall was aware of the precision Coward required, but initially he wasn't an option. "When I was put together with Richard Eyre by [producer] Sonia Friedman, we were to do a very dark Ibsen play called Ghosts — but, at the last minute, there was another production so we decided to do something completely different — this comedy by Noel Coward.

"I felt very well prepared to do this because of my years in 'Sex and the City,' which, in its own way, is about relationships and crazy excessiveness and loving or hating somebody — all those things that Coward was writing about so brilliantly. Tammy was saying, and I agree with her, 'This is a perfect play — perfectly pitched, if you do it right.' And I loved that Richard didn't have preconceived ideas of what it was, other than he wanted them to be heterosexual — not a gay man and a straight woman. And it kinda happened through the people that he cast and the atmosphere that he allowed us to have in the rehearsal room — very relaxed, very open. All ideas were welcomed. And slowly but surely we constructed our own version of this, which does homage to other productions but also, in its own way, is fresh."

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