Because he publicized Broadway shows before he produced them, Jeffrey Richards knows about promotable commodities. He took delicious delight in unwrapping his latest star-sprinkled Whitman's Sampler for the theatrical media.
The occasion took the form of a funny faux press conference for his second revival this millennium of Gore Vidal's entertaining red-white-and-blue rat race, The Best Man. Monitoring it was Donna Hanover, a Pinnacle Award–winning newscaster and one of the only performers in Gore Vidal's The Best Man (as it's now clumsily called) to never have been nominated for a Tony or Emmy.
As he did in 2000 — when he talked his pal Elizabeth Ashley into playing Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a bright and powerful bauble on the political sidelines — Richards started thinking big with that smallish part and called five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury. Since his Blithe Spirit allowed her to become a record-breaking Tony winner, he had her ear.
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Would she consider coming back to Broadway in such a role? It was not really an untoward question for Lansbury, an Oscar-nominated character actress before she became a Tony-winning star, and she responded in two words: "Yes, if..."
Like Ashley, Richards recalled, "She said, 'You've got to get a really first-rate cast to come back with me. So, I immediately thought of James Earl Jones for the ex-president, Arthur Hockstader." Jones gave the script a fast read and a fast yes.
Hockstader is the buried gem of the play — a surefire show-stealer. The part gave the late Lee Tracy a last hurrah that closed his career with Tony and Oscar nominations.
A crusty old politico, Hockstader is asked — before he dies of cancer — to endorse one of two flawed front-runners for president: William Russell, a straight-arrow contender almost too principled to be president, and Joseph Cantwell, a young Turk not above dirty tricks. Unhappily, scandal falls on Cantwell's camp, and the question for Hockstader is whether Russell will take "this very dirty stick" and use it to win.
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