Curtain Up! The Royal Family, with Roberts, Opens on Broadway Oct. 8

By Kenneth Jones
08 Oct 2009

The Royal Family stars Jan Maxwell and Kelli Barrett
The Royal Family stars Jan Maxwell and Kelli Barrett
Photo by Joan Marcus

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family, the 1927 comedy about an American acting family committed to the idea of "going on," opens on Broadway Oct. 8 in a production by Manhattan Theatre Club.

The Cavendishes of The Royal Family are a theatrical clan patterned after the Barrymores, with Tony Award winner Rosemary Harris (The Lion in Winter) center stage as aging matriarch Fanny Cavendish, whose career began before the age of electric lights. The greatest lights in her dimming life now are her children and granddaughter actors all. Performances began Sept. 15 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

(Tony Roberts, who was sidelined from the show since Oct. 4 due to illness that is being treated with medication, will rejoin the show on opening night. He had a minor seizure during the Oct. 4 matinee, and the performance was canceled. Since that time, understudy Anthony Newfield has been playing the role of Oscar Wolfe.)

In the play, "going on" is as much about continuing a bloodline and its traditions as it is about getting up on the boards and doing a turn. The stakes are high: Fanny's daughter, leading lady Julie (Tony nominee Jan Maxwell) might be wooed away from the stage by a former lover (played by Larry Pine), ingenue grandaughter Gwen (played by Kelli Barrett) is quitting acting for a man, and wastrel son Tony (played by Tony nominee Reg Rogers) is mired in scandal, and fleeing Hollywood.

The production is directed by Doubt Tony winner Doug Hughes (himself the scion of a theatrical family he's the son of actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg). Hughes is also directing David Mamet's Oleanna on Broadway this fall.

This new Royal Family in the second Broadway revival of the Jazz Age play, unless you're counting a 1951 run at City Center also features Ana Gasteyer (as Kitty Dean), Tony winner John Glover (as Herbert Dean, Fanny's brother, a faded star), Tony Award nominee Tony Roberts (as the family's longtime manager Oscar Wolfe) and Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk Award nominee Reg Rogers (as dashing leading man Tony Cavendish Fanny's son ), with Freddy Arsenault (as Gwen's beau, Perry Stewart), Caroline Stefanie Clay (as Della), Rufus Collins (as McDermott, Gunga), David Greenspan (as Jo), Anthony Newfield (as Chauffer), Henny Russell (as Miss Peake), Cat Walleck (as Hallboy) and John Wernke (as Hallboy).


According to MTC, "Follow a famous family of stage stars as they go about the drama of the day: choosing scripts, dashing off to performances, stealing kisses from handsome beaus. But what's this business about the youngest diva wanting to quit the stage for domestic bliss? Never, darling!"

Ethel Barrymore was not happy that her legendary family was the subject of a play. The Barrymore were giants of stage and screen 70-80 years ago. Today, not so much.

"Drew Barrymore, of course, people know her," Harris told in a recent Brief Encounter interview. "The talent pool obviously went down to her. But I don't think it matters at all. Even in 1975, people didn't really think a lot about the Barrymores. I think it meant a lot in 1927, from what I've read. Actors didn't want to be in it, because they didn't want to upset the Barrymore family. A season or two before the play, all three of them were playing on Broadway simultaneously, the sister and two brothers."

The creative team includes John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Darron L. West (sound design), Tom Watson (hair and wig design) and Rick Sordelet (fight director).

Original music for this non-musical is by Tony Award winner Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic).

Yeston told, "It was a joy fulfilling the assignment for incidental music to The Royal Family particularly because the job is threefold: 1.) there are three acts that require musical introductions, and perhaps closings as well, 2.) Ferber and Kaufman specifically call for characters in the play to sit at the piano and play original music...and this of course means one must create music that reflects the 1927 era in which the play takes place, and 3.) the material may also function as a musical underscore and musical commentary that makes us understand this to be a contemporary take on a wonderful play written 80 years ago. I have had a ball working with this brilliant director and wonderful cast."

The Friedman is at 261 W. 47th Street. For visit or call (212) 239-6200. For MTC subscription information, call (212) 399-3050 or visit


Rosemary Harris who won her Best Actress Tony in 1966 for The Lion in Winter was nominated for a Best Actress Tony in 1975-76 for playing Julie Cavendish (opposite Eva La Gallienne as Fanny) in The Royal Family, directed by Ellis Rabb. It also was revived in 1951 in a production by at City Center, which (as a venue today) is not considered a Broadway venue.

A musical version of The Royal Family was written by Tony Award winner William Finn (Falsettos), but it has never had a full production.