When the beloved play, On Golden Pond, gets a live CBS television presentation with "The Sound of Music" alums Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer April 29, executive producer Craig Anderson promises the senior couple of the story will not be frail old folks.
Widely known for its Academy Award-winning film version starring spunky and weathered Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, the play by Ernest Thompson will, in the new TV production, show marrieds Ethel and Norman Thayer as active seniors of the 21st century.
"We're playing it a little differently than we did before," Anderson, who directed the original Off-Off-Broadway and Broadway stagings, told Playbill On-Line. "When we did this piece in the late 1970s, it was always a piece about older people."
Anderson and playwright Ernest Thompson were in their late twenties when the play premiered, and their vision of older folks was different than it is today.
Anderson said, "Here we are — both Ernest and I are in our fifties and no longer are those people old, they are people that I can relate to." In the 22 years since the 1979 Broadway opening, seniors are now viewed differently and are more active than ever, Anderson said. "They are working out, jogging, lifting weights," he explained. "Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda played it very old. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are young and vital, yet they are almost the age of the characters. [They are] sexier in a wonderful kind of way. Yes, [Norman's] memory may be retreating a little bit..."
For the record, Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge played the Thayers in the original Broadway staging.
Playwright Thompson (who won the Best Screenplay Adaptation Oscar for "On Golden Pond") directs the live presentation, 9-11 PM (ET) April 29. In CBS' Television City in Los Angeles, there will be 8-10 cameras operating on Stage 46, into which designer Eugene Lee (Sweeney Todd, Ragtime) has created a summer lakehouse and dock. The original musical score will be played live in a separate studio, and piped into the broadcast.
The broadcast marks the first of a planned annual "State Farm Showcase" on CBS.
The family drama concerns a visit to Norman and Ethel's Maine lakehouse by divorced daughter Chelsea (played by Glenne Headly), her boyfriend, William (played by Sam Robards), and his rebellious son, Billy (played by Will Rothhaar). Brett Cullen plays the mailman. There are no understudies.
On Golden Pond was sent to Anderson in the late 1970s when he was founding artistic director of the Hudson Guild Theatre in New York. The now-defunct troupe was devoted to new works. Hudson Guild Theater premiered the work Off-Off-Broadway in 1978.
What struck him about it?
"Its humor and warmth," Anderson explained. "The great thing about it always has been that no matter who watches it, people identify with Norman, Ethel and Chelsea as if they were their own parents, as if they were the grandparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles."
The conflicts are smartly written, too, Anderson said. "They bicker and they fight and there's humor and there's a lot of dysfunctional conversation, where they're avoiding what the truth is," he observed.
The play opened Off-Off-Broadway, moved to Broadway, toured and then played an Off-Broadway engagement before getting the 1981 film treatment. Fonda and Hepburn won Academy Awards for their work; it was Fonda's last picture. There is also a musical version of the play, and Anderson recalls seeing a poster in New York City for a porn ripoff of the title, for a picture called "On Golden Showers." Only in New York.
Is the "live" aspect of the new TV staging nervous-making?
"Live is gonna be thrilling, we're gonna have 25 million people watching," Anderson enthused. "We hired stage actors who know how to create performances, who know how to tell a good story. I think we're all desperately trying, in our creative lives, to find new ways to do things."
Andrews, of course, is the actress who created legendary roles in Broadway's My Fair Lady, The Boyfriend and Camelot before becoming an international star in the films, "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music." She played opposite Plummer in "Sound of Music" in 1965; this is their first acting assignment together since. He has a long, prestigious career in film and theatre — classical and contemporary works around the world — and won Tony Awards for Barrymore and Cyrano. Glenne Headly is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater ensemble and has appeared in Chicago, Off-Broadway in such films as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Dick Tracy" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."
Martin Pasetta Jr. (TV's "Fail Safe") serves as live director. Anthony Marinelli composed the musical score.
— By Kenneth Jones