Lincoln Center Theater's sprawling Vivian Beaumont Theater was last populated by a cast of 37 and two War Horses, each made of cane and manipulated by three puppeteers. On March 7, that stage was filled to capacity by a solitary, pint-sized playwright-actress of five-foot-four, passing for a political legend "probably five-foot-two — with hair."
This is Holland Taylor's Ann — as in Ann Richards, who upended Texas politics in the '90s and became the 45th governor of the Lone Star State from 1991 to 1995, before being put out to pasture by future United States President George W. Bush.
Outfitted in a smart white suit with a matching Dairy Queen 'do (precisely approximated by hair designer Paul Huntley), Taylor charges forth in her Taylor-made role that runs counter to her usual brittle subtleties and sophistication. She seems to have gotten all that out of her system by gargling with bourbon and branch-water. Precise, drily-delivered diction gives way to lazy Texas twangs.
Plain-spoken, abrasive and fast on the drawl, Taylor's Richards shoots from the lip throughout, winning the audience over with words that are often wise ("If you rest, you rust") but usually "risky" ("That guy couldn't organize a circle jerk").
The bio-play evolves into four or five set pieces, commencing with a somewhat salty commencement address. Then, the podium recedes, and a governor's office slides forth. That surrenders to a New York apartment where Richards conspicuously retired from politics (but not from speaking her mind). The final section is in a kind of tentative limbo where she attempts to lick The Big C and attends her own funeral.
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All of the above is a lone star turn, save for the voice of the governor's secretary — boss-battered but unbowed Nancy Kohler. That part was phoned in by Tony-winning Texan Julie White [Austin, TX]. Two other voices (one of them, Greater Tuna's Joe Sears) were silenced in slimming the show down for Broadway. Dorothy Ann Willis Richards lived 73 years and 12 days, but it was a sparky, inspiring life, not without flaws and certainly not without friends. The vast Beaumont lobby was rife with her "peoples" — liberals, feminists and Texans.
Fiery newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who was one of each, is quoted in the play as saying Richards "had Republican hair." At intermission, Kathleen Turner was heard to whisper, "She also said, 'The higher the hair, the closer to Heaven.'"
Turner, who had Taylor as her literary agent in "Romancing the Stone," hopes to bring to New York her one woman show, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass wit of Molly Ivins. In fact, she said, "I'm trying to convince Holland that we should put them together so we each would only have to do four shows a week." She added that her rumored revival The Killing of Sister George is off. "I couldn't get the rewrites that I thought I needed for it, but I will be doing Mother Courage at the Arena Stage down in Washington."
Columnist-for-real Liz Smith [Fort Worth, TX], a friend of both Taylor and Richards, got the two of them together once for lunch at Le Cirque — the only time they ever met — but, after Richards' death, that meeting weighed on Taylor, sending her to the stacks for the four years of research that went into Ann. This may be why Smith feels a particularly personal connection to the piece. So far, she has seen it three times.
"Holland Taylor is always, and was always, sexually outrageous, both personally and professionally — this is why she was so perfect in 'Bosom Buddies,' in 'The Practice' and in 'Two and a Half Men,'" the columnist said. "When I first met Ann, who was about to run for governor, she was past all that. She was outrageous in a conservative Texas for her political activism, her liberal ideology and her 'smarts.' Sex didn't really occur to her anymore, except as something to joke about. But Holland has caught Ann's dedicated persona and, as she is a terrific actress, she is great. Ann, it seems to me, ended her life by giving Holland a new kind of religion." Taylor, more or less, said "Amen!" to that when she arrived at the after-party, which was held — as long as the producers were thinking Texas-size big and got the Beaumont — at the Plaza. Double-decker sight-seeing buses were waiting at the theatre to whisk first-nighters off, through the rain, to the hotel. It may be the first one-person show, on Broadway or Off-, to rate the posh Plaza treatment.
The actress was greeted with wild applause when she made her fashionably late star entrance in the Plaza's main third-floor dining room and tried her darnedest to eat her first meal in a while, despite the rush of well-wishers and the pesky press.
"I just feel like the vessel," she admitted with unforced modesty. "Something magical has happened in my life. I would never just do something like this. Ann was a magical lady. That's why I did the play. I did the play to make an echo of her, of her inspiration. A young man came up who'd never heard of her and said he had never been so inspired. I said. 'That's exactly what I wanted. Thank you. My job is done."
An Emmy winner for "The Practice," she's not counting her Tony before it's hatched. "This is the reward. It's on, playing. It's doing wonderfully. People love it. That's it."
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At 70, Taylor is making her Broadway bow as a playwright (indeed, it's her first play ever); at 32, Benjamin Endsley Klein is making his Broadway bow as a director. His past decade has been spent assisting director Jack O'Brien on a variety of projects. "Jack and Holland are very close friends and have worked together for years," he said. "When she was working on the script, she asked Jack to take a look at it, and he ended up recommending me to her. We've worked together on everything in the entire show. I've done a lot of editing with her because she did four years of working on the script and had so many glorious wonderful stories about Ann, and she wanted to cram 'em all into the play; so I've done a ton of editing, making sure the play was streamlined and we understood the woman without having too much fat there. She would fight me on it, and then she would go, 'You're right, you're right.'
"Can you imagine? At her age, with the career she has had, she created this. She made this happen because she was moved to do it she was so passionate about it."
Bob Boyett, who's lead producer here with Harriet Newman Leve, was beaming about his star's multitasking: "Holland did a fantastic job," he declared with sincere enthusiasm, "and she did everything. She was the writer, the co-producer, the actor, the researcher, everything. All that, and she happens to be a wonderful lady." He was also pleased at snagging the Beaumont for the show's Broadway bow. "Believe it or not, we've played bigger houses than the Beaumont. It kinda works because of the speech to a graduating class — they have gymnasiums and large auditoriums."
The freshly Oscared Anne Hathaway lent genuine glamour to the evening. (Her mom, Kate, is part of the platoon of producers for this one-person show.) Another is one of Taylor's "Two and a Half Men," the not-quite-so-freshly-Emmyed Jon Cryer.
The prettiest of the producing team — Emily Conner [Dayton, TX] — brought some local color to the party: Ann Richards all-white (a white satin cowboy suit, replete with rhinestone-studded purse and Stetson). She counts herself a transplanted Texan — "in New York City for 16 years, producing events. I'm very involved with Bette Midler's restoration project, and I'm an associate producer on this show. "I knew Ann Richards in politics when she was state treasurer of Texas. My father was very close to Mark White, the governor at the time, so we used to campaign with Ann. She was a mentor to me then, and I knew her when she was in New York. In fact, I co-produced events for the launch of her book, 'I'm Not Slowing Down.'"
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When the subject of roots came up, Michael Hartman [Houston, TX], head of The Hartman Group publicizing Ann, mechanically broke into a jokey spiel: "Houston is the largest city in Texas, known for its oil production and importing. It is a hub for oil and an entry point to the United States for oil and oil products . . ." Country-western singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin [Seminole, TX] — decked out in red, white and blue, plus a Texas flag for a knee patch — knew Richards from his years in the Texas capitol: "She was a great broad. I liked her a lot, and I knew her very well. We used to meet each other at the river. The town lake in Austin was my favorite place to run. We used to run about the same time every morning. I'd get up about 7:30, 8 o'clock every morning and go run the river, and the governor — Annie — would be down there. She was bright, strong, well spoken, funny as she could be."
Sharing Gatlin's patriotic color-scheme was Tony Lo Bianco, whose LaGuardia one-man show, The Little Flower, takes root March 22 at the DiCapo Opera Theatre.
Gloria Steinem said Richards was state treasurer when they originally met. "We did many events and benefits together — and I treasure one thing that can't be put in this production: She used to put on a little comedy routine, putting on a pig nose and imitating 'good ole boys.'" Iris Love, the socialite archeologist, remembers that Richards happened to be sporting that pig snout the first time they met.
"My folks were very excited that I was coming to this tonight — they loved Ann," said Hunter Ryan Herdlicka [Dallas, TX], who's debuting his club act March 25 at the swank 54 Below. It's called "You Make Me Feel So Young." He is every bit of 26.
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Judith Light, deep into rehearsals for her third Broadway show in as many years ( Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties, opening April 17 at the Friedman), recalled being with Richards at a numbingly long event for the AIDS memorial quilt: "Ann Richards was the keynote speaker, and she was not introduced until 11:30, and she said, 'I have never had an experience like this before.' She brought the house down because she told the truth. She lifted everybody up. It was just great." "What a great character for theatre!" said Follies' Ron Raines [Nacogoches, TX]. "I wish I'd met her. Everybody wanted to. Liz Smith was always showing her off."
"I met her in '82 when she was county commissioner," said Lily Tomlin. "We had the same birthday: Sept. 1 — and also Liz Carpenter, who was Lady Bird's secretary. Liz and I did fund-raisers with Ann, when she was treasurer and, later, governor."
Jane Wagner, Tomlin's comedy-writing partner, ghost-wrote Richards' famous crack about George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: "Poor George, he can't help it," she sighed. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Actor-director Gabriel Barre said he hopes to have the musical Amazing Grace on Broadway by the end of the year. This is the story of John Newton, who wrote that title hymn. "It takes place on all three points of the slave triangle in the 1700s and deals with his relationships to his father, to his childhood sweetheart and, of course, to God. We have our financing in place. Carolyn Rossi Copeland is shepherding the project."
Other Ann fans: entertainment lawyer Mark Sendroff; Entertainment Weekly Managing Editor Jess Cagle [Abilene, TX], back from Oscar's red carpet; Richard Osterweil; director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and hubby-producer Scott Landis; Tony winners Ben Vereen and Richard Easton, producer Elizabeth Ireland McCann, playwright A.R. Gurney, whose 1991 play, The Old Boy, is getting a Keen resurrection along Theatre Row; Dan Jinks, Oscar-winning co-producer of "American Beauty"; publisher Joe Armstrong [Abilene, TX]; Jamie de Roy; MSNBC's Thomas Roberts and Susan Powell. Linda Lavin met Richards the first day The Clintons took office. (The governor and the President converse a couple of times during Ann. "I was one of the performers who performed at the Clintons' First Day Dinner," recalled Lavin. "It was a dinner for the governors of the states and territories — in the White House, in the East Room. A lot of Broadway stars went down — Barbara Cook, Carol Channing. I met Jim Caruso, who now runs Birdland, and I sang, 'Why, Oh Way, Oh Why, Oh.' I also got to do 'Big D,' and that was the night of the Dallas Super Bowl. Ann Richards had watched the Super Bowl with the new President Clinton in his private television suite, and I got to sing that song to her and hear her whoop and holler. That's as much as I knew her, but I tell you that woman made a great difference for all of us. It was a great year, that year, and it was a great time. Ann Richards was a formidable force of nature and a powerful, brilliant woman. She said a lot of wonderful, funny things."
(Longtime Playbill staff writer Harry Haun is a native of Greenville, TX.)