PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Born Yesterday — Nina Takes a Holliday
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Born Yesterday starring Jim Belushi, Robert Sean Leonard and Nina Arianda.
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."
Terry Beaver brings some filibuster wheeze to Senator Norval Hedges, a shifty lawmaker doing Brock's bidding. "I actually do like the role. I didn't know if I would or not, but I sorta found a way to make it my own, which is not always so easy to do. What I liked about the play — aside from the fact that it's beautifully structured and it's very funny — it's still relevant. It's still going on. Senators are still being bought."
Patricia Hodges is Mrs. Hedges, a knowing politician's wife who also knows how to silently order a stouter drink when chaos starts to set in. "I don't have that many lines," the actress smiled, but I have my own little backstory going." All that, and costumer Catherine Zuber has given her some funny period frocks.
"This is my corrupt lawyer phase," conceded Tony winner (for Side Man) Frank Wood, who left eight months of Roy Cohn to a marginally higher calling as Brock's shady attorney. "This guy's not a sociopath. He's just corrupt.
"He's written as someone who's aware his career is not what it's meant to be. Roy Cohn celebrates who he is. He may be in hell right now, but he celebrated it while he was alive. This guy is not celebrating. The poor guy just can't help himself.
"His final toast was written by Thornton Wilder, who was mentor to Garson Kanin. Apparently, Kanin came to Thornton and said, 'I don't know how to finish this.' And Thornton Wilder wrote those lines. That's what Doug Hughes told us."
Director Hughes arrived at the after-party late, explaining himself with a quiet confession: "I never see opening nights. I had a quiet evening elsewhere."
But he did enjoy the work he put into this piece. "It has been a lot of fun to direct this play. Nina has been immense fun to work with. She is the genuine article, and I think she's going to be around for a very long time. She is great casting for this. The whole company is just sublime. I don't know if we could have a better Harry Brock than Jim Belushi. I saw Nina in Venus in Fur over a year ago at the second preview when we were going through our Scarlett O'Hara search for Billie Dawn, and I thought we'd be very lucky if that could work out. And, thank God, it did.
"Nina has made the part her own. She was uninhibited by the great legacy of Judy Holliday. I think she has come up with a re-invention of that great American character — by, I think, a great American actress who's only 25 years old."
Hughes likes to vary the menu with old and new works. "I like to do a lot of different kind of plays," he admitted. What I like to do is visit many lands. I loved doing The Whipping Man. It was a rather different play from this. One of the pleasures of my racket is I get to change the channel pretty often. I'm not a specialist."
On the immediate horizon: "I'm going away for about five days' vacation, and then I'm going to start rehearsals on May 3 with a great cast — Julian Ovenden, Jill Paice, Rebecca Luker, Matt Cavenaugh, Simon Jones and Michael Siberry — for the Maury Yeston-Thomas Meehan musical, Death Takes a Holiday, for the Roundabout. I think that this is a truly soaring romantic story, with a lot of wit in it."
Robert Emmet Lunney, who understudies Wood — plus "bootblack, barber and bellhops" (Mr. Brock requires a lot of attention) — had his wife, Jan Maxwell, make it over the wall and back home for the opening. She'll star as Phyllis in Kennedy Center's super-Follies, now in rehearsals for a May 7 first preview and an opening on May 23. "I've got to go back tomorrow at 4 o'clock," she sighed. "I have to be there Tuesday morning. We're tapping for two hours every morning. It's a great leveler. We all come in, and we all have the sweats, and we all have to tap, and we all have to learn it. We're screaming with laughter."
The flow of celebs into the Cort included opera singer Marilyn Horne and Callas-to-be Tyne Daly, who made a lovely silver-haired duo. The latter has been crashing the former's master class at Juilliard for research. "She's a longtime friend," said Horne, "and I'm going to be crashing her Master Class," which commences July 7 at the Friedman.
Daly has a personal connection to Born Yesterday: "My dad [James Daly] was hired to understudy Gary Merrill as the reporter in the original cast when I was born. One guess what my birth announcement said. One guess. My mother and I were in Wisconsin at the time, but a month later we moved to New York because Daddy had a job here. This is the first time that I have ever seen the play on the stage."
Some second-generation star power fused into a rather glamorous New Two: Liza Minnelli and Roc Brynner. "We were both friends of Garson Kanin," he explained. WOR's Joan Hamburg brought along the "Little Focker" she's always talking about, her son John, who makes those movies.
Ariana Grande, sister of you-know-which producer, arrived glammed-to-the-gills and looking light years older than she was in Broadway's 13 (but it's just four years). She's now on Nickelodeon's "Victorious" and doing an album.
While waiting to make a Leap of Faith into originating a Broadway role, long-stemmed Brooke Shields said she's reverting to replacement mode — something she does quite well (remember Wonderful Town?) — although, as she hastily added, nobody can replace Bebe, but I am going into The Addams Family for a few months."
Dropping by after their matinees: Donna McKechnie, who'd just closed in Love, Loss, and What I Wore ("five weeks — move 'em in, move 'em out"), How To Succeed's John Larroquette, Lombardi's Judith Light (raving about the acting in House of Blue Leaves) and Good People's Estelle Parsons ("We're running till May 29, y'know").
The Merchant of Venice's Matthew Rauch and Lily Rabe, both of whom picked up Equity awards for their work in the classic this year, showed up, she on the arm of actor-director Pedro Pascal, who's wearing both hats — planning to direct again at Rattlestick in the winter and just finishing acting a role in a "Wonder Woman" pilot which might go to series in the fall.
Others attending: Norman Reedus of "The Walking Dead" with producer Cindy Cowan, songwriter Desmond Child, designer Malan Breton, Mamma Mia!'s Judy McLane, pint-sized character comedienne Alice Playten ("I'm writing a piece right now, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing this tonight. I love this movie so much"), Kate Jennings Grant and Manhattan Theatre Club's Lynne Meadow.
Kanin's widow, Marian Seldes, beautifully coiffed and with cane, came late and took her time entering the theatre, drinking in the theatre posters with Kanin's name writ large. She'd already seen this production and called the cast "delicious."
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