PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Shatner's World: We Just Live in It — Pretty Enterprising for 80

Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of William Shatner's solo show Shatner's World: We Just Live in It.

William Shatner
William Shatner (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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Scotty, wherever he is, beamed William Shatner back to Broadway Feb. 16 for a fast twirl at the Music Box in something titled Shatner's World: We Just Live in It.

The poster-boy octogenarian blustered and blathered forth very much like a hard- (if slow-) charging rhino, reminiscent of Jack Palance collecting his Oscar with push-ups. Shatner's aerobic take is a 100-minute monologue on the life that late he led.

He arrived to Alexander Courage's soaring "Theme from 'Star Trek,'" against a background of a dark blue curtain covered in star-sprinkled lights with a massive moon/world occupying most of stage right. Visual aids are periodically slapped on the round white spot, handily illustrating whatever point Shatner is making. The scenic design that Edward Pierce provides this occasion recalls the one that Neil Peter Jampolis supplied Jackie Mason's The World According to Me!

It's apt. Standup is standup, and that's essentially what Shatner is dispensing here. His roles and his magisterial voice rarely gave him much leeway for levity, until lately when Captain James Kirk receded to Emmy-winning Denny Crane of "The Practice"/"Boston Legal" and the Priceline pitch-person. Turning 81 next month and touring as well, he's very much the lion in winter in long-overdue comic roar. He salutes Dick Shawn for leaving 'em laughing, dying on stage after a pratfall, and hints that he would be happy to go out the same way.

[flipbook] The last time he was on Broadway — in a 1961 French farce called A Shot in the Dark — an actor actually did die during the New Haven previews: Donald Cook, 60. Walter Matthau opened in the role on Broadway 16 days later and won a Tony for it. When the play was filmed, Shatner's role became Peter Sellers' Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and it was quite a different story — indeed, unrecognizable.

The Broadway adventure that preceded that one was The World of Suzie Wong, panned he said at every theatrical out-of-town stop and by all seven dailies. Making matters worse was a feud between the producer, David Merrick, and the title-player, France Nuyen. Whenever Merrick and Nuyen would argue, it would affect her performance, Shatner claims, making her scenes with Shatner pretty uphill. He says his didactic, italic style of style of acting resulted from the experience and that it kept the show running for two years. Methinks Mr. Merrick might have had something to do with it.

Incredibly, Shatner and Nuyen won Theatre World Awards that season. Other New Faces of 1958: Tammy Grimes, Ben Piazza, Larry Hagman, Ina Balin, Dolores Hart (now a Mother Superior and on camera in an Oscar-contending documentary feature on her life called "God Is the Bigger Elvis"), Rip Torn, Susan Olivier and Pat Suzuki.

Knowing his big-screen/little-screen market (mostly little), Shatner is skimpy on the theatre talk in the show. Of course, he has only been on Broadway four times, and this is the first time in 50 years — but, he made a big point of underlining after the show, "I've been on stage continuously all these years in front of crowds of people and talking, sometimes extemporaneously, so I'm tuned to the audience and their reaction and entertaining them. I just haven't done a straight play in all that time."

Did, one has to ask, the notion of doing a play come up in that massive interim? "Well, it did. I entertained the idea, but having to get up and out of Los Angeles and relocate here with my large, extensive family and the many loves that I have there — horses, dogs and family — it just became too much, and I had given up on that idea. I thought, 'Well, that's the end of that phase,' and all of a sudden this falls into my lap."

There was one dark cloud over the opening — but, hell, heroes know how to overcome these little obstacles that pop up: "I had food poisoning day before yesterday, and I didn't get out of bed today. I got out of bed rapidly several times, but I went just as rapidly back to bed. Then I got up about six o'clock and came here. So that took a little bit of energy, but not much. I think the adrenaline kicked in in time."

Were he not co-producing the show with Adam Troy Epstein through March 4 prior to a big national tour, Larry Thompson could qualify to be on book backstage and cue Shatner when he needs it. "I've been Bill's manager for 31 years, and I've heard all these stories at dinner over the years," he said. "We knew there were a lot of pearls. It was, 'How do we string these pearls together as a necklace into a show where you tell your story?' Over time, this show sorta evolved. He would go on tour, he would do one-nighters, he would do the 'Star Trek' conventions — and we just cobbled them together and went to Australia, New Zealand and Canada with them, and that's when a show started to take shape."

When Epstein entered the picture with Seth Keyes in Canada, Shatner felt, with a little more work, the evening would be ready for Broadway and beyond.

"We were involved in the very beginning of the U.S. tour," Epstein stated. "We put Bill together with a great team of creative advisers: Scott Faris (director), Ken Billington (lighting design) and Peter Fitzgerald (sound design) — some really fantastic people who could turn a moderated lecture into a one-man show where Bill became the entertainer, the focus on stage. The important thing is that Bill is having — and giving — fun up there, and that means a lot to us."

William Shatner and Scott Faris
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Probably Shatner decreed that the after-party be held at "that place where they always have it" — Sardi's — which they did a half-century ago when he was last on Broadway, but Shubert prexy Robert Wankel heartily approved the choice.

"I was just telling Max [ Max Klimavicius, who runs Sardi's] today this is such a very important restaurant," Wankel relayed. "It's really where everybody wants to be. After all, at one time, every opening night party was right here — every one. That's when opening night parties had 300 people and you could actually fit in Sardi's. But you know, it's funny, it's people like Angela Lansbury — this is the only place she wants to have her opening night parties."

Rather than take up the first floor, the party spread out on the scenic second, which in recent years has been opened to the bright lights and street action of West 44th. The main room had low-voltage, octogenarian lighting where you had to be right up in somebody's face to see if they were a star. There were a few twinking and shining.

Joe Franklin led the parade of first-nighters who included The Best Man frontrunner Eric McCormack, New York 1's Roma Torre, Steel Burkhardt who made the last Hair cut, actress-producer Tamara Tunie, conductor Rob Fisher and "Smash" choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

A Little Night Music's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka remembered he grew up watching "Star Trek" with his grandfather, thinking the old guy was daft to watch it — only to discover later in college when he re-ran 30-odd episodes how smart his grandfather really was. Before he takes his Feinstein's act — I Happen To Like New York — on the road to San Francisco's Rrazz Room and the Austin (TX) Cabaret Theatre, he and Godspell's Lindsay Mendez will do a private industry reading/workshop of a new show called The Profit of Creation. Priscilla Lopez, A Chorus Line's Morales, was feeling something after the show — perhaps, Viva Shatner! — and relaying news about her latest play which just tried out in San Diego. It's called Somewhere, and it's by her nephew, Matthew Lopez, based on some family history — the last days of the old neighborhood on West 66th, off of Amsterdam and Broadway, which was razed to make way for Lincoln Center. Its last stand was the 1960 location lensing of "West Side Story," Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' Oscar-winning film.

"The main part of the story," she said, "is that Matthew's father — my brother — and I were extras in the movie. You can't see me, but you can see him very clearly in the prologue when they're in the playground and the police come in to break up a fight. You see my brother's face coming right into camera. I'm so jealous. Originally, he went there just to accompany me, and they wound up picking him for the film, too."