PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Baby It's You! and The Normal Heart — The Vinyl and the Virus
By Harry Haun
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.
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."
Meanwhile, back at the Golden, The Normal Heart was running its sad, somber, heart-wrenching course. There were no sniffles, like during War Horse. These were sobs that broke the deafening silence of a packed house. There was no coughing, mostly absolute stillness throughout the play, save for sporadic laughter and endless exit applause. It was that kind of appreciative house.
After the cast bowed, Grey (fresh from his Anything Goes performance) strolled on stage for a bow, followed by his co-director, Wolfe, and author Kramer.
When they left the stage, the house lights slowly came up, and with them a sea of names of AIDS victims flooded the stage in a projection. The house was still, then people started moving very slowly, almost reluctantly. Vanessa Redgrave stayed in her seat, hand over her heart as if praying for everyone who had died of the disease, and doubtlessly including her first husband, director Sir Tony Richardson.
A single-page note from Kramer was presented to patrons as they filed out of the theatre, providing an update of some characters — including the deaths of three.
Lead producer Daryl Roth took her share of deserved bows for the evening and passed the thanks along. "It was challenging to pull together," she conceded. "There was this time element. There was this pressure of wondering if we'd get a theatre, and finally we did, and, once we did, there were just a few weeks to get it together so that we could open tonight under the Tony deadline. Thanks to this cast, thanks to George Wolfe for stepping in, thanks to the wonderful designers — I mean, everybody had the passion for this piece. I feel very validated tonight. I knew I'd make it happen, but there's something about people's response that fills my heart."
Joe Mantello, a Tony-winning director relapsing into actor for this one role, provides the fighting heart of the play as the constantly combative Ned Weeks. "I love doing this play with this group of actors — they are an astonishing group of powerhouse performers," he said. "I saw the original production when I was just out of drama school. I heard Mr. Kramer's play, and I thought, 'That is a part I would like to play — although I'm 21 right now. It's unlikely it's going to happen.' But it actually, finally happened. It's a dream come true. How many of us can say that?"
The real Ned Weeks, Kramer, was in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood. "I was nervous until I just was told that The Times' review was an over-the-top rave," he said. "I've never been treated well in The Times — ever. They've never reviewed anything of mine with anything less than vitriol, and so I assumed it would happen again, and I don't like going through that experience. But for it to be a rave feels really good."
Grey, who took over the role of Ned Weeks from Brad Davis in the original production of The Normal Heart and directed bi-coastal 25th anniversary revival benefits that led to this production, was afraid his current performance in Anything Goes would keep him out of the Normal Heart lift-off, but storm clouds lifted at the last moment.
"As luck will have it, we began a seven o'clock performance schedule this week so I was able to see the last half hour of the play and be on stage with the company. This was a labor, mainly, of love. It was about 'We have to make this play happen because Larry Kramer deserves it.'"
Late-arriving in the project, Wolfe managed to keep a steady hand on the production getting it to market. "It started out when Joe and Daryl called me up and asked me to do it," he recalled. "I said, 'Let me think about.' Then I thought about it for about a week, and I said 'Yes.' I did it just to help out, but the more I got inside it the more I realized how much I loved it and how important it was to be done now."
In the role of "The Holy Terror in a Wheelchair," the polio-stricken doctor preaching abstinence during the disease's outbreak, Ellen Barkin similarly acknowledged others for her blistering Broadway debut: "George is the most extraordinary director I've ever worked with. Inspired, inspiring — it's like that thing that rock stars do when they know they're going to be caught — a trust fall." And, as for her passionate governmental plea — a monologue that nightly brings the house down: "Larry wrote an extraordinary speech that's full of all the passion and rage that exists, I think, in any intelligent, aware person so I don't think it's me — it's Larry."
Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS brings plenty of snap, crackle and pop to his Broadway debut as the flighty, fun but surprisingly steely Tommy Boatwright, a health-clinic worker given to putting his bosses in their proper places. "There's the obvious fun aspect of him in the whole Southern bitchiness, but honestly much more fun — for me, at least — is: he's so optimistic, and he so feels that good things can be done. And that is the most rewarding thing in the world — to feel like I get to help be that voice in this company of people. This character is that voice going, 'Get your s**t together! You can fight it! You can work together!' Part of it is that I admire that ability so much. I don't do that in real life. It's not that I couldn't be a peacemaker, but I don't get my hands dirty. And the way he comes in and manhandles the situation — in his own manhandling type of way (there's a touch of mothering to it, too) — shows he's just not afraid. Or if he is afraid — I'm sure he is in some ways — he handles it by going in further. There's no retreat."
His feeling for finally being on Broadway is full of "all those hard-to-put-words-to. It's something that hits me again and again. In the day-to-day-of-it, I don't feel about it, but tonight at curtain call when they brought out Joel and George and Larry, I thought, 'My God! I'm going to cry right now.' It's little moments. I shed a tear — I'm being serious — the very first preview. I left the stage in that letter-envelop-stuffing scene, and I cried a little bit. I didn't even think about it. 'Oh, it's your first scene on Broadway.' I'm really touched by it. Just to be a part of it — that's what's hard to sink in."
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