By Robert Simonson
14 Apr 2002
Billy Crudup is John Merrick, Kate Burton lends a sympathetic ear as Mrs. Kendal and Rupert Graves as Dr. Treves in the new Sean Mathias revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, which opens on April 14, after previews from March 26.
Burton ended her well-received stint as Hedda Gabler in January, while Rupert Graves was last seen on Broadway in Patrick Marber's Closer. Crudup starred in last summer's Central Park rendering of Measure for Measure.
Mathias directed Broadway's starry revival of Dance of Death earlier this season.
After Mathias was offered The Elephant Man, he immediately thought of approaching Crudup about the challenging central role of Merrick, a hideously-deformed circus attraction abused by his keepers and rescued by a scientist, who treats him civilly but makes him something of a faddish curiosity among the intelligentsia of Victorian England. "We'd met a couple of times socially, and as soon as I was given it I thought, well, that's a great part for Billy. We started talking about it about a year ago."
"There were two things that I found really inspiring about it," said Crudup. "One, the character of Merrick was such an optimistic character, he was full of life and vitality....More than that was the ability the play has to become something completely fresh and new. The way that it's structured and fragmented—it's not you typical Act One, Act Two, Act Three, with two or three scenes in each—it's almost as though it's a photo album of this specific journey of Treves and Merrick coming together and then moving apart. "
The production was originally scheduled for a London debut, but, as with many another plan, that all changed after Sept. 11. "It was going to be London," said Mathias. "And then after Sept. 11, the London producers got very nervous and Billy said, `Well, let's do it in New York.' So I went back to the producers that owned the rights and said, `Why don't we do it in New York.' They went to Anita Waxman and Elizabeth Williams, the American counterparts, and they said, `Well, that's very excited—that is, if you can put it together.' And we put to together literally between Nov. 1 and Dec. 23."
Designers for the production include Santo Loquasto (set and costumes), James Ingalls (lighting) and David Shapiro (sound). Famed serialist composer Philip Glass (The Photographer, Einstein on the Beach) will create original music for the intermissionless staging, which is produced by David Aukin for Act Productions, Waxman/Williams Entertainment, Bob Boyett, Steve Martin & Joan Stein, and Manhattan Theatre Club.
After a successful Off-Broadway run, The Elephant Man transferred to Broadway April 19, 1979 at the Booth Theatre. Jack Hofsiss directed the drama, which starred Kevin Conway as Dr. Treves, Philip Anglim as John Merrick, and Carole Shelley as Mrs. Kendal. The play, Hofsiss and Shelley all won Tony Awards, with the drama also picking up a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Among actors who took over the lead were pop star David Bowie and "Star Wars" star Mark Hamill.
David Lynch, post-"Eraserhead" but pre-"Twin Peaks," directed the 1980 movie version of "The Elephant Man," with Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Hurt starring. Since then, the show has been subject to parody, including The Elephant Man: The Musical, which has made numerous Off-Off-Broadway appearances; and a segment in the Mel Smith movie comedy "The Tall Guy," in which Jeff Goldblum plays an actor who appears in a musical based on "The Elephant Man," complete with a row of tap dancers wearing elephant heads. Beyond that, the dialogue line, "I am not an animal, I am a human being" has become something of an oft paraphrased comic punchline.