STAGE TO SCREENS: Menken & Schwartz Are "Enchanted"; Plus Bosco, Chenoweth, "Hairspray"

By Michael Buckley
November 18, 2007

This month, a chat with Stephen Schwartz & Alan Menken about "Enchanted"; Philip Bosco on his new pic, "The Savages"; Zadan, Meron and Blonsky of "Hairspray." Plus, Chenoweth and Chita.

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"Enchanted," which opens Nov. 21, is the third Disney animated feature collaboration for Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, following "Pocahontas" (1995), for which they won Oscars for Score and Song ("Colors of the Wind") and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996), for which their score was nominated.

Observes Schwartz, "I wouldn't characterize 'Enchanted' as a musical. It's a romantic comedy. The first eight or 10 minutes are animated. It's old-time animation, like 'Snow White' and 'Cinderella.' There are five [new] songs. The first, 'True Love's Kiss,' is basically a send-up of, and an homage to, the style of those Disney animated features."

"True Love's Kiss" is sung by Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) and Prince Edward (James Marsden, who played Corny Collins in the "Hairspray" film). They fall in love at first sight and plan to marry the next day. However, Ed's mom, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), uses evil powers to transport her prospective daughter-in-law from the animated to the real world — to a place where, Narissa insists, true love is non-existent: contemporary Manhattan. There, Giselle meets an attorney (Patrick Dempsey) who's a single dad. Will she choose Prince Charming or her charming prince?

Continues Schwartz (whose favorite lyricist is Lorenz Hart), "The rest of the songs occur in our world. 'The Happy Working Song' takes place at the apartment shared by Patrick Dempsey's character and his daughter. Giselle decides to clean up and summons her animated friends. What happens is, I think, one of the funniest sequences of the film. The song's a spoof of 'Whistle While You Work' and songs in 'Cinderella,' where the little mice start doing things."

Next comes "That's How You Know," sung by Amy Adams and a chorus. "It's a send-up of the production numbers that came in when Alan and [the late] Howard Ashman began doing Disney musicals," Schwartz says. "It's a salute to numbers like 'Under the Sea' and 'Be Our Guest' [both of which won Best Song Oscars]."

He explains, "A more contemporary, adult ballad is 'So Close,' though there are aspects of 'Beauty and the Beast,' when Belle and the Beast dance to the title song. It's sung at a ball by pop singer Jon McLaughlin, who appears as a band vocalist. Patrick Dempsey sings a tiny, teeny bit of it. The final song is a grown-up, contemporary pop number, 'Ever, Ever After,' sung by Carrie Underwood as a voiceover, while action's on the screen." Julie Andrews narrates "Enchanted."

Notes Schwartz, "From the first song that Alan and I wrote together, 'Colors of the Wind,' we just clicked. We like each other very much as friends, we socialize together, and live near each other. We fell into a working pattern very quickly. We discuss the assignment, clarify where songs should happen, and what each one's trying to do. Sometimes we do more than one version of a song, or a song for the same spot in the movie. When we came into 'Enchanted,' the writer, Bill Kelly, and director Kevin Lima had been working on it quite awhile. Our assignments were pretty clear."

As a composer-lyricist, Schwartz's successes include Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked. Foreign productions of Wicked are still happening. "I just got back from Germany, and there are more productions next year." Next summer, a new Broadway production of Godspell arrives on Broadway, "and there's something for January 2009 that I can't talk about right now. In terms of a new show, I don't think I'll be doing Broadway any time real soon."

Meanwhile, he's pleased with "Enchanted": "I'm always happy whenever I get to work with Alan. It's been an extremely felicitous working relationship."

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His working relationship with Schwartz, relates eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, starts "with knowing exactly where a song moment should be. What's the precedent? What song is it like? Stephen's dramaturgically oriented. He always works from that concept."

Were any of the "Enchanted" songs a challenge? "Probably the pivotal assignment was 'True Love's Kiss,' because there were so many preconceptions with that number. We wanted to put it back in the era of 'Snow White' and 'Cinderella,' and write something that was reflective of that. It was a matter of finding the piece of music, as a form, that would satisfy Kevin [Lima, the director], Stephen, and me."

Also challenging, states Menken, "was 'That's How You Know.' It was complicated in terms of production, because it takes place in Central Park. It was really not a matter of selling the song as it was working it into the production." I mention that Schwartz terms the song a salute to production numbers written by him and Howard Ashman. "It is. There's a little bit of Belle in there. To Stephen's ear, [the song] winks at 'Under the Sea,' but this song is more salsa-driven than calypso, and has reggae elements as well."

"So Close," says Menken, "is a heartfelt, emotional moment." He agrees with Schwartz that "The Happy Working Song" was inspired by "Whistle While You Work." The last number, "Ever, Ever After," came "quite a bit after the other songs. We had written another song for that moment, but we needed to move the story along. So it trumped Idina [Menzel, who plays Nancy] singing that song, which was a shame. But it all worked out artistically."

Which composers influenced Menken? "There are so many. I love Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter — they're obviously gods. I consider myself a bit of a chameleon. I love writing in many styles and many musical voices at the same time. But Alan Menken comes across in the center of that. I'm able to keep a stamp of originality while writing explicitly in a form. That's one of the keys of my success."

Menken's "very proud" of daughters Nora ("she's 19 and studying musical theatre at the University of Michigan") and Anna ("who's 22 and quite a talented singer-songwriter").

Depending on the current stagehands' strike, "The Little Mermaid" is still scheduled to open on Broadway in December. Menken tells me, "There are 10 new songs, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, a wonderful lyricist." Menken's also working with Slater on stage-musical versions of two 1992 films, "Sister Act" and "Leap of Faith."

Other upcoming Menken projects include "working with Tim Rice on King David, a stage musical of 'Newsies' [also 1992], and a couple of new movie musicals with Stephen Schwartz. There's a whole agenda of what I want to do."

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, and Philip Bosco star in "The Savages," a Fox Searchlight Nov. 28 release, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins.

Hoffman and Linney play siblings, Jon and Wendy Savage, and Bosco's their estranged, obstreperous father, Lenny Savage, who's afflicted with dementia. Admits Bosco, "This is the first time I enjoyed watching myself in a movie. In the early days, I hated the way I looked. The worst thing is you can't change it. Once in awhile, Nancy [Mrs. Bosco for the past 50 years] will drag me to an opening. At least, we get a good meal. I was going to do an interview [for "The Savages"] and Nancy insisted that I see the movie before discussing it. Fox arranged a screening. I've never before been without criticism [of one of his performances]."

"The Savages" screenplay was sent to Bosco's agent, Alan Willig, who read and recommended it to Bosco. Initially not interested in making an independent feature, he agreed to read the script after being told that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney were committed to the movie. "Nancy and I found it interesting. We had a reading in Tamara's apartment in the East Village, and were off and running."

He'd previously met Linney, but had not worked with her ("she gives a wonderful performance") or with Hoffman. "He had just won the Oscar for 'Capote.' He's a very busy, intelligent, likeable guy — and a hell of a good actor. I was very impressed with Tamara [Jenkins]. … I was a little skeptical, but [Jenkins] couldn't have been nicer. I think she did an excellent job."

Aging is not a topic frequently used as a theme for movies, notable exceptions being "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937), a beautifully done film (that Bosco loves), directed by Leo McCarey, and starring Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, and "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970), with Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas. Robert Anderson adapted it from his 1968 Broadway play (starring Hal Holbrook and Alan Webb).

Jon Savage (Hoffman) teaches a course on theatre at a Buffalo college and Wendy (Linney) is a playwright who resides in the East Village. Neither is close to their father. Placing him in a nursing home, Jon comments, "We're taking better care of him than he ever did of us."

Whether staring blankly or raving belligerently in a nursing home, Bosco displays perfect pitch. "Reviews have been very good at all the film festivals," he says. "A big plus is that [the story and characters] are so honest and unvarnished. It's not a Hollywood-type treatment; it's like a play — down and dirty.

"Tamara said, 'I'm not going to make [the father] a goody two-shoes.' She had the right idea. He's a crusty old bastard, a pain in the ass. I like playing pains in the ass; they're much more fun. [Laughs]"

Anyone who thinks that the proud father of seven might be frail or confused in real life needs only to have seen him as stalwart, dapper attorney Hollis Nye in the FX series "Damages," which was just renewed for two years. Will he return to play opposite Glenn Close? "I'd make a decision if they gave me something to decide," claims Bosco. "I'd love to go back, as a regular [instead of with a guest contract]. I hope the writers' strike won't kill the series."

Briefly seen as Bosco's significant other in "The Savages" is Rosemary Murphy. Says Bosco, "I've always been a fan of hers; she's wonderful." Other stage actors in the movie include Bosco's Twelve Angry Men co-star, Peter Friedman ("who does a great job") as Linney's lover, and Debra Monk as Murphy's daughter.

Among the consummate actor's Broadway credits are 50 productions, between 1960 and 2006. To date, he's earned six Tony nominations (1961-2005), winning as 1989's Best Actor for Lend Me a Tenor. There's buzz that his "Savages" performance could lead to Bosco's first Oscar nomination.

He used his father "as a template [for the character], and my mother, who was quite into dementia before she died. I lived with that for about five years. It's unfortunate for those afflicted, and not a pleasant experience for their loved ones." According to Phil Bosco, "There's not a moment in ["The Savages"] that isn't true."

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"Hairspray," the 2007 movie musical starring John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Queen Latifah, is being released Nov. 20 as a New Line double-disc DVD, accompanied by a two-CD collectors' edition soundtrack. Exclaim the film's co-producers — Storyline Productions partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — "Fans are really in for a treat!"

Zadan: There's a lot of new material, including a two-hour documentary that covers the original John Waters film [1988], the Broadway show [which won eight Tonys, including Best Musical of 2003], and the making of the movie. Everyone involved was interviewed.

We have "Hair-extensions": the rehearsals, Adam [Shankman] choreographing and directing, videos, recording sessions, and several musical numbers seen simultaneously from different angles. There's a number shot for the movie that was cut — sort of like "Class" in "Chicago" [the Zadan and Meron musical that received six Oscars, including Best Picture of 2002]. That didn't end up in the movie, but it's on the DVD.

Meron: That [cut] song is "I Can Wait," sung by Tracy [Nikki Blonsky]. She's on the lam and goes to Penny's [Amanda Bynes] house, where Prudy [Penny's mother, played by Allison Janney] puts Tracy in the bomb-shelter basement, telling her, "You're going to be waiting a long time, Missy." Tracy sings "I Can Wait," a gorgeous ballad that unfortunately stopped the movie from progressing.

Zadan: One disc of the CD set is the released soundtrack. The second is all extras: Nikki singing "I Can Wait"; an instrumental, "Mr. Pinky's Theme"; outtakes; alternate recordings; and two songs written as potential replacements for "Miss Baltimore Crabs." While putting together the [original] score, [songwriters] Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] asked friends to do demos, which no one's ever heard. For instance, there's a terrific version of "Timeless to Me," sung by Nathan Lane, and Christine Ebersole does one of Velma's songs that was cut. There are karaoke-instrumental versions of five songs. For fans of Marc and Scott, the second CD's a treasure chest.

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Nikki Blonsky, the Long Island teen who, somewhat surreally (without any screen experience), landed the part of Tracy Turnblad in the movie of "Hairspray," expresses excitement about the musical's DVD release. "People will get to see [and hear] 'I Can Wait,' which is a hidden gem. I had so much fun doing it. I think it stands on its own."

Does she have a favorite scene in the film? "Yes, when I'm doing 'Welcome to the '60s' with John [Travolta, as mom Edna] — the biggest musical star of our time. I was in awe that I was playing his daughter. I thought: Oh, my God, I really got the part." At 14, she'd auditioned for the Broadway show: "I got a callback, but I didn't get the part, because I was too young."

Blonsky's second movie, "Harold," is "a comedy, with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ally Sheedy, and Spencer Breslin," and she's just finishing "Queen Sized," a fact-based TV drama.

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ABC's innovative "Pushing Daisies" (Wednesdays, 8 PM ET) features Kristin Chenoweth as Olive Snook. What attracted her to the role? "I knew she was going to be fun and interesting. Bryan Fuller [the series' creator] is a genius, and I wanted to be a part of [the series]."

Chenoweth chose "Daisies" over Young Frankenstein, for which she'd done the workshop. "Not doing [the musical] was very hard for me. I love the people involved, and I really loved the part [now played by Megan Mullally]. Every actor makes tough decisions; that was the toughest."

In 1999, she had to choose between two Broadway revivals: a featured part in Annie Get Your Gun (for which Bernadette Peters earned her second Best Actress Tony in the title role) and the role of Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. "I had a gut feeling to choose Sally," which won her the '99 Best Featured Actress Tony, "and that led to a sitcom" — 2001's unsuccessful "Kristin."

From 2004 to 2006, Chenoweth played Annabeth Schott on 27 episodes of NBC's "The West Wing." She notes, "That was awesome! It was a total blast to act with every single person on that show — Stockard [Channing], Allison [Janney], Brad [Whitford], Richard [Schiff], and of course Martin [Sheen] and my beloved John Spencer. He and I got real tight. Losing him [due to a 2005 heart attack] was devastating, but I'm so thankful for having known him."

Turning down the title role in 2002's Thoroughly Modern Millie was "another tough decision. Again, I loved the people involved. But it always works out for the better. Millie made Sutton [Foster] a star [and a Tony winner], while I got to experience movies and TV."

Andrew Lippa, who wrote her big Charlie Brown song, "My New Philosophy," conducted Chenoweth's (January) debut at the Metropolitan Opera. "That was the most nervous I've ever been," recalls Chenoweth. "My love for an audience freaks me out. There's no place I'm happier than onstage. That's my comfort zone. I miss New York."

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

The feature film "Atonement", for which Tony Award winner Christopher Hampton (lyricist and librettist of Sunset Blvd., and author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses) wrote the screenplay, opens in select cities Dec. 7 and wider on Dec. 14…There was a Nov. 14 private reading (directed by Kenny Leon) of the forthcoming (fall 2008) Broadway version of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", the 1967 film that starred Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, whose roles (for the reading) were played by Larry Bryggman, Blythe Danner, and David Oyelowo (who's in Leon's ABC-TV version of "A Raisin in the Sun," airing in February). Other participants included Tony winners James Naughton and Leslie Uggams...The Farnsworth Invention by "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin features music by Andrew Lippa (jon & jen, the MTC's Wild Party) who is hoping his A Little Princess will make a bow on Broadway…Jeremy Sisto (Broadway's Festen) plays the new "Law & Order" partner of Jesse L. Martin. Appearing on upcoming "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" episodes are Ben Vereen, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Debra Monk.

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MEMORABLE STAGE PERFORMANCES

I've been asking actors to recall the three most memorable stage performances that they've seen. Chita Rivera, the Broadway legend currently appearing (through Nov. 24) at Feinstein's in a sensational new act. Part of the show celebrates West Side Story, and Rivera recollects her audition for Leonard Bernstein: "That was 50 years ago. I was 4."

In both of Rivera's movies — "Sweet Charity" (1969) and the "Chicago" (2002) cameo — she played characters named Nickie. She just taped a segment of the Disney Channel's "Johnny and Sprites," which stars John Tartaglia, and for which Stephen Schwartz composes music. Come April, Rivera begins "rehearsals for The Visit," the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Terrence McNally musical (originally set to co-star Angela Lansbury and Philip Bosco) that is scheduled for the Washington, DC-area's Signature Theatre.

Chita's Choices: I remember clearly Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. His performance [which won a Best Actor Tony] and the play [1962's Tony winner] blew me away. I'll remember it forever! When I saw Gwen [Verdon] in Sweet Charity, it was a revelation. Gwen's [turn] was absolutely pure! I cried, I laughed, I loved it! My third is [Mikhail] Baryshnikov in concert. I'd never before seen a performance like that!"

(Michael Buckley, a longtime theatre journalist, has written this column since 2002. Write him at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)