PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Baby It's You! and The Normal Heart — The Vinyl and the Virus

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28 Apr 2011

Beth Leavel; guests Valerie Harper, Chester Gregory and Jane Fonda
Beth Leavel; guests Valerie Harper, Chester Gregory and Jane Fonda
Photo by Peter James Zielinski

Meet the first-nighters of the April 27 Broadway openings of the new musical Baby It's You! and the revival of The Normal Heart.


It rarely happens, but it does happen — two years ago it was on the last night of the season, this year it's on the next-to-the-last night of the season: Two sets of producers dig in their heels and decide to open their shows on the same night, and the august theatre groups refereeing such things are powerless to prevent the collision.

Oddly, Jane Fonda surfaced in both tug-of-wars. In 2009, she shunned Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and instead showed up at the premiere of Dolly Parton's 9 to 5, having produced the movie it was based on. This year she skipped The Normal Heart in favor of Baby It's You! because, she said, "My boyfriend [Richard Parry] is supervising producer and working on the cast album. When I first started going with him, he was working on this play when it was on Santa Monica Boulevard, and now it's on Broadway."

Mercifully, the starting time for both shows were staggered, not unlike the press covering them, and they were centrally located on West 44th and West 45th Streets where, adding to the confusion, "Glee" was wrapping a three-day location shoot!

Baby It's You!, co-directed by Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps, came out of the chute first, at the Broadhurst, at around 6:30 and concluded close to 9, when selected first-nighters marched across the street to Bowlmor Lanes for some loud, raucous reveling in the Stadium Grill. The Normal Heart, co-directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, observed a traditional 8 o'clock opening at the Golden and was out before 11 PM, sending its first-nighters a block north to the Edison Ballroom to celebrate.

Both shows are fact-based. The first tells the unlikely but true tale of Florence Greenberg (1913-1995), the New Jersey housefrau who discovered The Shirelles and founded Scepter Records. The second recalls the early days of AIDS when gay activist Ned Weeks (read: author Larry Kramer) was rushing around like Chicken Little yelling "The sky is falling" when the sky actually was falling. Whereas the first show is content to give The Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love" a few platter spins, the second expresses its dedication with a heartbreaking lighting effect — endless rows of names of fallen loved ones crawling up the walls.

First to arrive at the Broadhurst — a good hour before the crunch-time of parading celebs — was a three-generational Greenberg contingent from New Jersey: her grown children Stan Greenberg and Mary Jane Greenberg Goff (who are depicted as teenagers in the play — The Shirelles' were their high school classmates), Mary Jane's son David and David's daughter Farrah — all geared for their first look-see.

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Record mogul Clive Davis, who knows one when he sees one, showed up to see Greenberg's golden-oldies get the jukebox salute. Chester Gregory dropped by the press line on his way to work (in Sister Act) because "I just came here to show some love and support for Baby It's You!, now I'm heading off." Max Von Essen popped up before Death Takes a Holiday sets in. And Valerie Harper, in town to present Manhattan Theatre Club's Lynne Meadow a Lortel Award on April 30, said she went way back with Mutrux. "I've known Floyd since he was 19 at Second City," she said. "I did a movie of his once — 'Freebie and the Bean' — as Alan Arkin's wife."

Also in that opening-night crowd were Eve Plumb, directors Richard Donner and Casey Nicholaw and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

Somehow, director Sam Mendes made the photo-tip sheets for both openings, eventually opting for The Normal Heart and then dodging the press line in order to make his theatre entrance with Mike Nichols.

The floodgates opened, and the A-list streamed into the Golden, glittering as they went: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Countess Luann de Lesseps, Jerusalem author Jez Butterworth (in the Bobby Cannavale hat), Lily Rabe, The Divine Sister director Carl Andress, Lisa Kron, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, Jack Noseworthy, Mary Rodgers, Mario Cantone and Jerry Dixon, Melissa Etheridge and producer Linda Wallem, Kelly Ripa and hubby Mark Consuelos, Juliana Margulies and hubby Keith Lieberthal, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Kevin Kilner and wife Jordan Baker (Ellen Barkin's understudy), Gabrielle Byrne (Barkin's ex), Cheyenne Jackson, Richard Chamberlain, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Jessica Lange, Andy Cohen, Rosie Perez, designer Kenneth Cole, Robin de Jesus, Gideon Glick late of Spider-Man, Julie White and Tovah Feldshuh with daughters in tow, Laura Benanti, Taye Digs, Michael Chernus, Ryan O'Connor, Patricia Clarkson, Ron Rifkin and Janet McTeer.

About the time all of the above was feeling the no-exit panic of being in the presence of a growing plague — Kramer's play was written as it was happening in the early '80s— the doors of the Broadhurst opened, and out spilled a jubilant set of first-nighters who made a beeline for the Bowlmor Lanes and more merriment.


Last to arrive and looking worth-the-wait gorgeous was Beth Leavel, the erstwhile and Tony-winning Drowsy Chaperone who plays Florence Greenberg without a trace of drowsiness and indeed proves to be the prime mover.

"Isn't it great to be able to do something so completely on the other end of the spectrum of The Drowsy Chaperone?" she asked gleefully and rhetorically.

"It has been a while since I played a person who actually existed so I wanted to respect that and make that journey. There are so many things I liked about her. She was a woman in the late '60s who had to find her passion — what would make her happy. She knew she wasn't talented musically, but she knew she had such a gift for discovering talent. How do you know that? She just knew, and she followed it. Florence could tell if it was going to be a flop or it was going to a No. 1 with a bullet."

Thomas Meehan was there for Leavel and for Warner Bros. — respectively, his Elf leading lady and producer — and he went along with the gag that he secretly helped Mutrux and Colin Escott with the book. "I did the costumes as well," Meehan cheerfully admitted. "This is my breakthrough in costumes."

His real breakthrough: "We just finished a workshop of Rocky, and Sylvester Stallone was there, along with our producers from Germany. If it's a go, we'll go — 'out of town' — to Hamburg, Germany before next year. Then, it's supposed to come to Broadway in 2013. Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty did the music. In our workshop, we had a guy named Andy Karl. Stallone loved him. He had never seen anybody else play Rocky."

At the moment, Mutrux and Escott are enjoying the rarified feeling of having two shows playing on Broadway simultaneous. Not only that, Mutrux noted, "Million Dollar Quartet just opened in London and is a big hit there. And it goes on the road in Cleveland in October."

His brand-new entry has an interesting history: "I was going to do this [as a film] in about 1990 at Paramount, with Bette Midler as Florence, Eddie Murphy as Luther Dixon and Arsenio Hall as Jacko. Then somebody got fired, and somebody else came in, and everything collapsed as it always does at the studios.

"Ten years later, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller asked me to do 'Jailhouse Rock' as their bio, and that wasn't what I wanted to do, but when I went with them to Las Vegas to see Smokey Joe's Café I thought, 'Well, Memory Lane is probably a good idea.' Guys at my age — what else could we write about?"

Eventually, he went with the Flo and wrote how she went from housewife to record executive. "Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were interested in it as a movie, but I said I wanted to do it as a play first. I don't know if we're a Broadway critic's type of show, but we're a popular show. It's a show for the people."


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