PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Wedding Singer: Adam & Eighties

By Harry Haun
April 28, 2006

Like Life, it started with Adam—in this [lower] case, with Adam Sandler. “It was Adam’s idea to make the guy a wedding singer, but my idea was The Eighties,” recalled Tim Herlihy, explaining the division of labor which, once married for better or for worse, produced two cute sleepers both named The Wedding Singer—one an $80-million movie-grosser in 1998, and now a musical at the Al Hirschfeld.



Herlihy hitched up with Sandler when the latter left “Saturday Night Live” for movies. They scripted the first two title roles that pretty much set $andler up in Hollywood—"Billy Madison" in 1995 and "Happy Gilmore" in 1996—prompting the budding box-office star to form Happy Madison Productions and produce "The Wedding Singer," which, true to its money-earning stock, made almost twice the combined gross of those two previous films.

Money talks, and Broadway producer Margo Lion was only too happy to listen when the movie company that sold her "Hairspray"—New Line Cinema—came calling again with this project. Sans a Sandler to sell, Lion opted for The Eighties, and it was full steam ahead.

“What’s so thrilling is that this is a generation that really hasn’t had a show for themselves,” she trumpeted in one of the quieter alcoves of Crobar while the opening-night party was going full blast. “An upbeat comedy, like Hairspray is for The Sixties. This is for The Eighties.

“Also, I wanted to work with writers for whom The Eighties actually meant something.” This led her to a thirtysomething set of tunesmiths—lyricist Chad Beguelin, who helped the theatrically green Herlihy turn his screenplay into a musical book, and composer Matthew Sklar. “There’s nothing I like better than introducing new people to Broadway.

“When I decided to do the show, I said to the authors, ‘I’ll do it on one condition’—that you’ll have a song about the greed of The Eighties—what I remember most is the market and Reagan—so they wrote this great opening for Act II [“All About the Green”].

“It has been a real journey,” admitted Lion, still fresh from the finish line. “We started off in Seattle, went out of town for a reason—to see what worked and what needed work. We found that out, and this team really went to work, making all of the changes they needed to after Seattle. I think now the show is everything we imagined it could be—and more.”

Her Hairspray support system was well in place, both at the theatre and at the party. Among the well-wishers from that show: Tony-winning book-writers Thomas Meehan, back at work with Mel Brooks on their Young Frankenstein musical, and Mark O’Donnell, escorting a favorite star from one of his Eighties plays, Alice Playten.

“It opened at Playwrights Horizons as That’s All, Folks,” recalled O’Donnell, “then Warner Bros. issued a cease-and-desist or something, and it became That’s It, Folks. It took place on the last day on earth, hence That’s All, Folks.” The playful Playten chimed in in her chirpy fashion. “It was directed by Doug Hughes, and, word for word, to this day, it still remains the funniest play I ever read or saw. On the opening page, it said, ‘First Scene: The last day on earth.’ ‘Second Scene: Later that same day.’”

Writer-director John Waters, who got to market first with the film "Hairspray," was also present, pencil-thin mustache and all. Allan S. Gordon of Rent and Adam Epstein of The Crucible are among the Hairspray-Wedding Singer producers who are going to go for a second level of musical Waters—his 1990 Johnny Depp opus, "Cry-Baby." It’s on the Seattle-in-February/Broadway-in-spring swing, and casting is going on now. Baldwin, the title character’s chief nemesis, will be Christopher J. Hanke from the late Into My Life.

Hairspray’s original nemesis, Laura Bell Bundy, done with her "Dreamgirls" shooting, was with Hairspray choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who’s turning into a hyphenate these days, directing and choreographing a musical version of Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde. Bundy, being blonde, is involved in that. “We’re not doing a workshop,” qualified Mitchell. “We’re doing an invited dress rehearsal. I’m inviting producers and the people who are giving money to come watch me rehearse some of the show.”

The most unexpected arrival was Hairspray’s original Tracy Turnblad, Marissa Jaret Winokur—“in from California, just for the night,” she said. “I got in at 4, and I leave tomorrow at 6 AM. I’m on a TV show called `Stacked,' and I just shot two new pilots so, hopefully, if that doesn’t go, I’ve got a backup. I’d go anywhere for Margo so here I am, in my little prom dress, to support her.” Winokur, a total unknown at the time of Hairspray, owes her Tony for Best Actress to Lion who entrusted her with the lead.

For The Wedding Singer, the fearless Lion turned over the title role to another Broadway novice (albeit, one with singing and Comedy Central chops), Stephen Lynch. How did he find his official first night on Broadway? “It’s so terrifying and exciting and exhilarating—and it’s making me really tired,” he confessed in one of those cement cubbyholes on the second-floor landing, surrounded on all sides by friends and family.

“It has been a real learning process for me,” he wearily allowed, “but everybody—the cast, the crew, the creative team—have been so welcoming to me, and that made it so easy. It hasn’t been like going to work. It has been like having fun every day with your friends.”

The primer-simple plot doesn’t go much beyond Jersey boy meets Jersey girl, which we’ve already seen (times four) this season. Lynch plays Robbie Hart, a Ridgefield, NJ, youth who sings at weddings and gets dumped at his own. Indeed, he literally winds up in a Dumpster when he attempts to come back to work too soon and gets too cynically real in front of a couple of newlyweds. The girl who helps him out (of the aforementioned Dumpster) and on the road to romantic recovery is a waitress who works the same wedding parties as he, Julia Sullivan (Laura Benanti), herself mismatched and well on her way to becoming Julia Guglia.

Glen Guglia (Richard H. Blake) is another way of saying Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko ("Wall Street"’s Oscar-winning Michael Douglas). Other icons of the times can be read into pal parts of the two leads—a Boy George-esque bandsman named George (Kevin Cahoon) and a brazen bimbo of the Madonna mold (Amy Spanger). Our hero also contends with a recurring nightmare of a fickle fiancee (Felicia Finley) and an XXX-mouthed grandma (Rita Gardner, the original Girl from The Fantasticks).

Laura Benanti, a serene beauty late-blooming into Everygirl, mouses up rather nicely in the role Drew Barrymore tenderized in the movie. A wig with bangs helps, but Benanti displays some real growth as an actress. “That’s what I was hoping to accomplish,” she admitted. “The boys worked really, really hard on my character. It took a while to find her voice, but they really did, and it’s fantastic. I’m real proud of them—and grateful to them.

“It has been a very difficult process. It was not a character that was on the page when I started, and people can be very mean—outside voices can be very cruel—but the guys kept their noses to the grindstone, and they worked really hard, and we found her voice. What I’ve really learned on the project is that you gotta keep going. You gotta put one foot in front of the other, no matter what anybody says about you. And I feel like it paid off.”

It also takes some guts to play a plain (as possible) jane when your true love is constantly being bombarded by a couple of insistent blonde bombshells like Spanger and Finley.

Considering the Hart heartbreak she causes, Finley manages nevertheless to be a real crowd-pleaser. “I think a lot of people went to high school with this girl"— `and I know her ' is the way she explains her audience acceptance. “It’s not just tonight. People are diggin’ it every night.”

The Hirschfeld, back when it was the Martin Beck, was a good luck theatre for both Benanti (Maria in The Sound of Music) and Spanger (Bianca/Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate) so they’re not expecting a change of name to bring them a change of luck. Spanger is her old splashy, flashy stage-self and loves the role. “I like the fact that she’s kinda like the big sister/fairy godmother to her cousin Julia—and she can’t quite figure it out for herself.

"And, also, she’s a Madonna wannabe, which is a lot of fun to do in terms of the fashion.”

At the end of Act I, Spanger gets very splashy indeed, pulling a chord that sends a torrent of water cascading over her. “I spend the entire intermission soaking wet,” she said, with no discernible annoyance. “My hairdresser is blowdrying my hair. He takes my entire hair-prep out and blows it dry. Then I do my makeup completely over so I don’t really have a chance to rest at all. But it’s just so much fun to roll in on that platform and hear the gasp, like ‘Is she actually going to do this?’, then do it, and hear the response—it’s fantastic. It really is worth it. It’s kinda one of the best Act I closers I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”

If they gave awards for Gamut of the Season, the winner this year would surely be Cahoon, who has gone from the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang “Child-catcher” (eerily approximating Max Schreck during the making of "Nosferatu") to Boy George. “The important thing is just to keep working,” he said, shrugging off the range he covered.

Standing by for Benanti is Tina Madigan, who comes to the assignment with plenty of bridal experience: she was the original bride in Mamma Mia!. “I can’t get away from the wedding theme,” she cheerfully lamented. “I love it! I only do shows with white veils.”

And does she sense any distant echoes of Mamma Mia!? “You know what? I think any time I get to stand on stage in a white dress, I will always remember Mamma Mia!

Their Wedding Singer Broadway debut draws a pretty heavy before-after line for songwriters Beguelin and Sklar. Previous attempts to get to NYC got as far as Musical Theatre Works (Oedipus, Private Eye) and Arlington, VA’s Signature Theatre (The Rhythm Club, their retelling of The Harmonists of Nazi Germany). Now, he said, “We’re working on a musical version of `Get Shorty,' the Elmore Leonard novel which was made into a John Travolta movie. It’s completely different from The Wedding Singer. It has a kind of Rat Pack score, very Dean Martin sorta swingy. It’s about a mobster who wants to be a movie producer, so the show is about yearning to be something that you’re not.

“We’re also working on a musical version of `Elf.' It’s about a Christmas elf in the real world. They actually came to us with that one. That’s another New Line newbie, and they said, ‘Listen, we think you’re great for this,’ and we loved the movie. It’s another instance of a property where everyone has a very specific point of view. All the characters have a very specific history and have a very specific point of view, which makes it easy to write.

The Wedding Singer is not a deep show. It’s not a Sweeney Todd. The goal of the show is to make everybody feel good. With this show, you can really enjoy life and also get involved in a love story. Hopefully, when you watch two people who are meant tobe together fall in love, it sorta translates to your own life, and you think, ‘That is the way love is meant to be. There is hope for all of us.”

A couple of Tony-winning denizens of Urinetown (Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis) showed up in support of director John Rando, a fellow Urinetown Tony alum. The latter two, while Hollmann is composing a musicalized My Man Godfrey with Claudia Shear, will reunite on Roundabout’s Pig Farm June 27. Kotis’ new comedy stars John Ellison Conlee, Logan Marshall-Green and Tony winners Katie Finneran and Denis O’Hare.

Other opening-night celebs included Howie Mandel; Annie-Birdie composer Charles Strouse, who will be saluted Sunday at the National Arts Club by Encompas New Opera Theatre; Melissa Joan Hart, formerly of TV’s “Sabrina”; Brian Dennehy; skater Apolo Anton Ohno; directors-choreographers Wayne Cilento and Kathleen Marshall; New Line head Michael Lynne; Joe Pantoliano; All Shook Up’s Cheyenne Jackson; Good VibrationsKate Reinders; still-idling “American Idol” Constantine Maroulis; Hayden Panettiere ; Nathan Phillips; Jeff Blumencrantz; newly minted Drama Desk nominee for Fanny Hill Nancy Anderson ; and Adam Duritz.