Fifteen minutes into All About Me, which bowed March 18 at Henry Miller's Theatre, Dame Edna Everage made her entrance, arms outstretched to her adoring "possums," responding to some kind of theatrical call of the wild which is actually Michael Feinstein's full-lunged finish to "The Lady Is a Tramp."
He wonders what she is doing there. She wonders what he is still doing there, after that nice little warm-up. The subsequent 75 minutes or so is a mud-wrestle over the title role, both with their own ideas about who the stage is for.
They go round and round like "Rose's Turn" — For me! For me! For me! For me!" — until Dame Edna summons her security squad, a pair of bruisers named Bruno ( Gregory Butler) and Benito ( Jon-Paul Mateo), to have the baggage removed and dumped in a closet backstage.
When Feinstein attempts to retake center stage, a bossy stage manager ( Jodi Capeless) is brought in to make peace in the valley. She divides the stage with yellow tape (the type usually found at crime scenes, appropriately enough) so each has a sandbox to play in; then she makes a list of subjects they can agree on and, hopefully, harmonize on. The category labeled Dramatic Song had Feinstein socking over a couple of Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner songs from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Dame Edna, reneging on her promise of a " Sondheim-free zone," wobbling valiantly if wearily through a three-martini "The Ladies Who Lunch."
Further peace progress is made with a stool duel where they bat choruses back and forth. Eventually, the show gets up to a Plays-Well-With-the-Other-Children level and concludes with the ceremonial flinging of the "gladdies." The first three rows were heavily pelted with gladiolas — Judge Judy [ Sheindlin] got two and was glad of it — but the "paupers" far in the balcony were remembered as well. Brasserie 8½, a swank, cavernous basement space on West 57th, made its Broadway debut as an opening-night party site, providing ample room to cruise and cavort and serving up fine vittles as well. Interviews were conducted in adjacent anterooms.
[flipbook] The mauve-haired dame from Down Under was nowhere to be seen at the party, so her author and alter ego, Barry Humphries, did the talking for her.
No, he had no idea that Elaine Stritch was in the audience to see her signature song, "The Ladies Who Lunch," run through Dame Edna's mix-master — only four days after the Philharmonic's Sondheim salute where Patti LuPone did a dynamic rendering of the song that had even Stritchie standing and cheering. Dame Edna was something else. "I've never seen 'The Ladies Who Lunch' done, except once in the early '70s by Elaine in London, and it was the definitive performance, of course," Humphries admitted, "but I thought it would be a good one for Edna to try her acting skills. She brought some other element to it."
A non-solo show is, he admitted, a rude jolt to Dame Edna's system. "It's something I've never done. I'm always there as a solo performer. I mean, I've acted in plays and things because that's what I am — just a character actor. But sharing the stage with Michael was sort of a challenge. A lot of my friends said, 'Well, you're both good independently, but together isn't it a bit of a mismatch?' I began to feel perhaps it was — until we got working together — and then I found it was a delight."
The proof was in the playing, and quite a bit of pruning was done to get to opening night. "We had a nice long preview period, and so we just experimented like mad, aided and abetted by our wonderful director, Casey Nicholaw. He kept us disciplined, slowly trying to shape a show which had no shape. It's kind of a variety show, a vaudeville, but it takes a conflict between two performers to make it into something. If it moves at a sufficient pace, I think it provides entertainment for the audience, which at present is rather unique. There's not that kind of show around."
Feinstein concedes there was tension getting it all together, but it was easier than he imagined. "One knows all the stories about putting together any kind of Broadway show, and working with Barry Humphries is something that I've wanted to do for a long time — we both have wanted to do it — but our schedules made it impossible for us to physically start rehearsing together until January. We had one week about a year and a half ago together, rehearsing, coming up with stuff. Then we spent part of August and early September, meeting again in London, but we knew that we wouldn't see each other again until January, and we knew that it wasn't until we both were in the same room — and until we got in front of an audience — that we'd really know what worked, what didn't work, of all these crazy ideas we had. "Basically," the pianist added, "we put the show together in front of the audience — from the first preview to the last. There wasn't that much tension, either — and that was something that was shocking to me, shocking to Barry because he hadn't done a book show in so long that we were both flabbergasted at how relatively easy it was."
Feinstein, who struck up the band with Gershwin's "Strike Up Band," has an authentic affection for George and Ira. In point of fact, he is doing a movie about George as he was creating Porgy and Bess, scripted by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright. "It's an absolute go," Feinstein declared, "and I'm co-producing it with Marc Platt. They have been talking to Zachary Quinto about playing George." Quinto played Spock in the 2009 "Star Trek."
In addition to directing, Nicholaw got the boys dancing. "Not their strong suit," he admitted, "but they had a lot of fun doing it. Both said right off the bat, 'I don't dance,' so I said, 'Okay, we'll be patient. We'll see how it goes.' It was adorable."
His big function as a director, he said, was as an editor. "Our first preview was two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission, and now it's 90- ish with no intermission. There were things that needed to go. Dame Edna is used to having the audience as a scene partner, and Michael is, too, so we really didn't know how that was going to work. It was very clear what worked, and what didn't, after the invited dress. Very clear. We did it really quickly, and, in four days, we cut half an hour."
Next up for Nicholaw — like, next week — is rehearsals for Anyone Can Whistle at Encores! with Donna Murphy, Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster. "Then Robin and the Seven Hoods at the Old Globe in San Diego. We just put offers out this week. Elf will hopefully be this fall, and we're working our butts off on Minsky's, too. Whole different take. We've been working on it, and I think by the time we get it to where it's going to be, it will be about 80 percent different than it was in L.A. And I don't think that it's taking a step backward. It really feels like we're moving in the right direction. We needed time to figure it out. It's tough to do regional and have a few afternoons to fix a show." Christopher Durang, who shares credit with Humphries for the script, gives full credit to his ad-libbing skills. "He did it all the time in rehearsal," he recalled. "Eventually, they got me a script assistant, which was great, so she and I together would say, 'Now, what did Barry say?' We didn't want the script to keep getting longer so sometimes we'd say, 'Well, should we put it in the script, or should we see if he says it again and, if he doesn't, then we'll let go of it?'"
For a seasoned playwright, Durang took the eventual script-vetting well. "I'm more sensitive about cutting if it's a play I've written, but this reminded me of the times I've written cabaret or been in nightclub stuff so I wasn't as attached to it — and plus, of course, it was written with Michael and with Barry so some of the material was mine and some of it was theirs and some of it merged so you couldn't tell."
He will be happy to return to some really serious solo writing. "I have a commission from the McCarter Theatre, and I think what I'm going to write is something I've started, called — I call it in my head Chekhov in Pennsylvania, which is where I live, but it's presently called Manya and Sonya and Masha and Spike — and it's set now, more or less. I've started it, but, once I started All About Me, it got put way on the back burner, but now I look forward to going back to it."
A lovely line of Old Hollywood was evident at the party: Arlene Dahl and Marc Rosen, Jane Powell and Dick Moore, Celeste Holm and Frank Basile. Just before the overture (a fractured-funnies version of dovetailing show tunes), Liza Minnelli swooped to her aisle seat at the theatre — to a smattering of applause, but she didn't escape a Dame Edna insult: "Burns the candle at both ends, doesn't she? And sometime swallows it."
Christine Baranski attended All About Me's last critics' preview because she had to attend the premiere of Julianna Margulies's new movie, "City Island," the night of the opening (they're co-stars on TV's "The Good Wife").
"In real life, I'm also a good wife — 26 years, to be exact," Baranski chirped when she arrived at the party. Theatre is not in her game plan. "I'm on an hour-long drama, and that locks me up pretty much, but I did nine months on Boeing-Boeing."
Feinstein's at the Regency manager ( Jessica Poli) and cigarette-girl ( Felicity Blum) joined the festivities late, after their respective shifts.
"Well, my next production is due in July," quipped director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, pointing to her prominent belly. "We've got twins on the way, a boy and a girl. Mack and Mabel — is that inappropriate? Nick and Nora will be the next set. There's all kinds of — Fred and Adele, is that too much pressure?"
Work couldn't be farther from her mind. "I'm doing a couple of readings in May, but I probably won't be in rehearsal in production for something again until the fall."
Other first-nighters included Elvis Costello with Diana Krall; Jonathan Tisch; composer-singer Jimmy Webb; Penny Fuller (who's playing The Metropolitan Room March 22 and 27); lyricist-director Richard Maltby Jr.; director Michael Wilson, whose Orphans' Home Cycle is "virtually sold out" at Signature and bracing for Broadway in the fall; Michele Lee; Cause Celebre's Susan Charlotte with Joan Copeland; pianist David Lewis; TCM host Robert Osborne; Joel Grey; Loni Ackerman; Broadway Boswell/filmmaker Rick McKay; composer Charles Strouse; Judith Light; Atlantic Theatre's Neil Pepe and Mary McCann; Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson; Ann Kaufman Schneider; Karen Ziemba, preparing a Michigan concert with her Curtains stage husband, Jason Danieley, while his real wife, Marin Mazzie, toils without a song in Enron; Billy Stritch, gearing up for a Fred & Ginger salute this weekend at the 92nd Street Y with La Ziemba, James Naughton and Debby Boone; Barbara Walters arm-in-arm with Cindy Adams; Tony-winning funny lady Andrea Martin; composer-singer Neil Sedaka and wife Leba; Countess LuAnn [ Delesseps] from "The Real Housewives of New Jersey"; Jim Dale; and saxophonist Dave Koz.