Judy Hollidays don't come in bunches like bananas so, when one does come along, it's not completely unreasonable to want to give her a test-run around the Broadway block in Holliday's arrival vehicle, Born Yesterday — hence, its return April 24 to the Cort, starring (and the word is used advisedly) Nina Arianda.
Arianda surfaced Off-Broadway last year, seven months out of NYU graduate school, an actress at an audition wanting to play an actress at an audition in Venus in Fur for Classic Stage Company. It took one reading and five hours for director Walter Bobbie and David Ives to decide this was The Girl. Critics concurred quicker. The raves and awards that greeted her debut paved the way for another Dawn on Broadway.
Billie Dawn, who this year is eligible for Social Security, is still the definitive (if ultimately defiant) dumb-blonde, a cuddlesome little airhead with a kewpie-doll voice and a penchant for speaking her mind, however empty that might be. Even her junkman-tycoon boyfriend of nine years, Harry Brock, is mortified by her stupidity — so much so he hires bright, bespectacled political reporter Paul Verrall to put Billie wise to the ways of the world (and, while they stay there, Washington).
A little knowledge (which was the original title of the play) proves to be Brock's undoing and Billie's liberation. The play's author and director, Garson Kanin, merely polished up the old Pygmalion premise and plopped it down in the political hotbed of the nation's capital right after World War II. It ran almost three years.
Born Yesterday is not just celebrating the birth of an intellect in a dim-bulb blonde. On the other side of the footlights, a star was born. The original, designated star, Jean Arthur, made it through the New Haven launch but worried herself into a nervous breakdown in Philadelphia, forcing Kanin to draft Judy Holliday, who learned the part in four days flat and never looked back after that.
The play was the first to go to the movies for a million dollars, and Columbia's Harry Cohn who paid it was adamant that Marie "The Body" McDonald do the movie. Eventually, Holliday got the part — then, stunningly, the Oscar that went with it, winning over Bette Davis' Margo Channing and Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond.
Those are pretty steep high-heels to fill, and even a seasoned comedienne like Madeline Kahn had a wobbly time of it, opposite Edward Asner, in the previous 1989 Broadway revival. Now, they are worn by a 25-year-old unknown, making her Broadway debut in an iconic role, but it plays into the understudy-turns-star myth.
Arianda, who made a true Star's deeply tardy entrance at the play's after-party at the Edison Ballroom, was deliberately oblivious to what all the fuss was about, having never seen the 1950 filmed record of Holliday's performance. "I'll see it when we close," she promised. "I understand how people might see her in me, but I can't think about that. It wouldn't help me at all because to think of something as being an iconic thing is crippling. I think it's iconic because of the writing — that's what made Judy Holliday, Madeline Kahn and anyone else who's done it have such fun with it. I'm so grateful to have had a chance to play her that I'm over the moon right now.
"I love every single thing about Billie. There's nothing stupid about her at all. To be that honest and intuitive takes a lot of courage, and I think that makes her a genius."
Frankie J. Grande is one of the twentysomethings who are gambling $3.2 million to give Arianda her Broadway shot. "Philip Morgaman and I have been extremely passionate about doing this show at this time," he said. "We've been talking about doing this show together for three years and trying to cast it for three years. When we found Nina, this was like, 'This is it. We do it now. This is the time.'"
They and the five other names listed as producers over the title are newbie's at this. "Most of the other theatrical producers this season were so overwhelmed with their own projects that none of them came on board. So we actually went elsewhere to raise the money. We're all virgins, so this is our make-or-break-in moment."
When Jim Belushi heard a Born Yesterday was in the pipeline, he contacted Grande and Morgaman about playing Harry Brock. "We were, like, 'That's brilliant,'" Grande said of this out-of-the-blue turn of events. "I think the way Jim plays it there is more heart than any actor as ever brought to the character."
Belushi has been on Broadway twice before (Conversations With My Father and The Pirates of Penzance). "This role is a role that has been in me since I was 19 years old — I did it in college," he said. "I like and understand Harry Brock. He's honest. He is who he is. He doesn't know any better. He's doing the best he can. He thinks he's doing the right thing. There's an innocence about him because he really does love her, and he doesn't know what to do. He's confused when she changes his opinion on things. There's a sadness and a sweetness to him. The toughest thing is to get sympathy for him."
Robert Sean Leonard, fresh from seven seasons of "House," completes the central triangle as the reporter who brings a little love and enlightenment to Billie.
"It's a role I enjoy playing," he admitted. "It's the kind of guy I like. I love those William Holden guys, those Joel McCrea guys, the guys who have Zippos and say, 'You betcha.' I've always loved those guys; Campbell Scott and I have the market cornered on them, I think. I love the '30s and the '40s — that period in New York. I love the playwriting of that period, and I think Kanin hit a home run with this.
"Working with Nina is the easiest thing on earth. I just watch her every night, amazed. I took a big leap of faith in this because, when they brought this up, I said, 'You know what? I think Jim Belushi's great, I know I'm good, but a lot of guys could play those roles. Billie Dawn is special. Who is this girl?' And my agent said, 'She's got it. She can do it.' I said, 'Well, if she can't, we're in big trouble.' Boy, we hit gold!"
Once a Patsy, always a Patsy: Spamalot's Tony-nominated servant, Michael McGrath, is back bowing and scraping as Brock's henchman-handyman. "I call him Harry Brock Mini-Me. With everybody else, he's Harry Brock — but with Harry Brock, he's low man on the totem pole. I just love playing that sort of thing — the difference between the two characters in his own self."
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