Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for A Catered Affair, in which he plays Uncle Winston. It's a musical version of Paddy Chayefsky's final teleplay (seen May 22, 1955), adapted by Gore Vidal for the 1956 film.
"I've always been a Paddy Chayefsky fan," Fierstein tells me, "and I saw the movie many, many years ago. I've always loved it, though it doesn't really work — which is actually good. You don't want to take something that's perfect and try to adapt it. I'm forever being approached to write a musical version of Stage Door or The Women. 'Cookie, you can't improve on those. If you can't make something better, don't f— with it.'"
Brooklyn-born, Fierstein's earned Tony Awards each time he's been nominated — and in four categories: Best Play and Best Actor (Torch Song Trilogy, 1983), Best Book (La Cage aux Folles, 1984) and Best Actor in a Musical (Hairspray, 2003).
Winston (Fierstein) is the brother of Aggie Hurley (Faith Prince), who lives in the 1950s Bronx and wants her daughter, Jane (Leslie Kritzer), to have a big wedding when she marries Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh); however, Tom, the cab-driver father (Tom Wopat), would rather use the money required for a fancy reception for a different reason.
Among the featured cast are Heather MacRae and Philip Hoffman. The score's by John Bucchino (his Broadway debut as a composer-lyricist) and John Doyle directs. Performances begin Sept. 20 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, prior to a Broadway opening at the Walter Kerr, April 17, 2008.
"As the show starts," continues Fierstein, "the Hurleys are returning from a Memorial Day service in Washington, DC. Their son was killed in Korea. The father wants to use a government check to buy a cab; the mother wants to give the daughter a big wedding." (I interject, "Which the daughter doesn't want.")
Notes Fierstein, "In the show, it's a bit different. She doesn't want it, because she's always been 'the second child,' living in her dead brother's shadow. It's sort of beautiful to watch her fall in love with the wedding plans. She has a lovely song called 'One White Dress.'
"Vidal's screenplay is beautifully directed [by Richard Brooks], and beautifully acted [Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald]. But there are things that don't quite go together, or have the emotional impact I thought it could.
"Then came the research, and I contacted Dan Chayefsky, Paddy's son. The original teleplay was not published, because a full script doesn't exist [nor does a kinescope of the TV drama, starring Thelma Ritter, Pat Henning, Kathleen Maguire, and J. Pat O'Malley].
"Dan gave me some early drafts. The characters were named 'husband, wife, bride, and groom.' Halfway through a scene, I'd turn a page and realize that I was reading a different script. 'What the hell happened?' Gore Vidal is no shirker, but I really wanted to get to the heart of the piece. I thought: 'Could I bring this to a different level?' And I saw a way that I could.
"So my brother [Ron] bought the rights. Together, my brother and I are 'Harvey Entertainment,' and we're one of the producers. My goal was to write the kind of show that does not 'talk' to the audience. I wanted to write the type of show where you sit there, the curtain goes up, and you think: 'Oh, my God, I know these people. These are the people I grew up with.' Theatre really works when you're watching somebody else's story, but you're capturing so much of yourself.
"I love Broadway! I did not grow up with any money, but my mother would take my brother and me to Broadway shows. They meant a lot to me. I can still walk into a Broadway theatre and show you what seat I had when I saw Oliver!, where I sat for Sound of Music, my seat for Black Lies/White Comedy, or Black Comedy/White Lies — whatever the hell that's called.
"What I really love is a big, fat Broadway musical that also touches your heart. My mind went to the writers who really do that to you, writers I grew up with: Gene Roddenberry, Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky.
"A 'Star Trek' musical would probably make a lot of money, but people would come in costumes and probably watch each other more than they'd watch the show. You can't do 'The Twilight Zone.' Everybody would tell the ending. That left Chayefsky.
"Obviously, the next part was finding a collaborator. My friend, crazy Julie Halston, said, 'Harvey, John Bucchino writes emotions. There's no pretense about them. Get his album, 'Grateful,' where all these cabaret artists sing his songs.'"
Following Halston's advice, Fierstein bought the CD. "His songs last just as long as they need to; there aren't 35 choruses. I wanted to do a show where the music is integrated with the text, and the audience doesn't know where the songs start and stop.
"John didn't want anything to do with the show. He doesn't like the theatre. But he watched the movie, and said, 'Count me in.' We wrote Catered Affair during the time I was in Fiddler on the Roof. We got together a group of friends and did a cold reading. About 15 minutes into the show, I noticed heads bobbing up and down; people were crying. When we ended, Dan Chayefsky was over the moon.
"We did another reading, just before we went into rehearsals, and Dan said, 'I don't know how you did it, but you totally honored my father's spirit, and yet made it your own. I love it.' Dan's a writer, and from one writer to another, that's a lovely compliment.
"Catered Affair is not sad, but it's so human, so connected. You can identify with it so much that it touches you. It was a gift that [Chayefsky] had. It eventually became a place he didn't want to go to again. He started writing [the movies] 'The Hospital' and 'Network.'
"But you can still see it in 'Network.' Everyone remembers the scene where Peter Finch yells, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!' To me, the best scene is between Bill Holden and Bea Straight, as his wife — when he tells her he's leaving and she has this speech where she says, 'I put up with you...I f—ed you when I didn't even want you to touch me, and you're going to walk out on me now?'"
In the "Catered Affair" movie, Dorothy Stickney played Mrs. Rafferty, a character that was added as the lady friend of Uncle Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Fierstein considered the addition "a little 'Hollywood.' I thought: 'What if the uncle is in a gay relationship that even he doesn't know is a relationship. This was the '50s. After 17 years, he ends the 'friendship,' and explains, 'I walked out, because he threatened me with the f-word: fidelity.'
"It's a great cast. We all get along great. There are only ten of us. Faith Prince and I did a benefit concert in Seattle and have been close ever since. Tom Wopat and I did a 9/11 benefit. I've known Heather MacRae forever. Leslie Kritzer was in Hairspray. Matt Cavenaugh was dating one of the girls in Fiddler, so that's how I know him. Lori Wilner played Golde for a short time after Andrea Martin left and Rosie O'Donnell took over. Philip Hoffman was in Fiddler." Completing the cast are Katie Klaus and Kristine Zbornik.
"John Doyle's great — he's the most organic director I've ever worked with. He's directing it in a very cinematic style, and is just a joy to work with.
"Long, long ago, I was thinking of A Catered Affair as a vehicle for my darling friend, Chita Rivera. Then I dropped that idea." He's surprised when I tell him that, for a very brief time, Rivera's stage name was Chita O'Hara. "I have to tease her about that," says Fierstein.
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