"People ask me how many Tonys have I won, and I say, 'Well, I haven't won any, but my stars have,'” relayed playwright William Luce, mustering some modesty while comfortably basking in the reflected glory of having supplied the winning words for Julie Harris' The Belle of Amherst and Christopher Plummer's [John] Barrymore.
Both shows are one-person workouts. Harris' portrayal of the private Amherst poetess, Emily Dickinson, got her a then-unprecedented fifth Tony — plus a Grammy to grow on. No one has gone near the part in all these years — until last month when Joely Richardson, summoning up all of her considerable Redgrave strength, took it on at the Westside Theatre. The run ends Nov. 23.
Don Gregory, one of the three original producers, is producing it again — alone, as solo as the show itself, looking quite naked these days up there above the title by himself. "It's like getting married to the girl you loved 38 years later,” he insisted. As far as following Harris at her most formidable, he sighed, "Somebody's got to do it.”
His son, David Gregory (late of NBC), first saw the show when he was six, and "I remember how warm Julie was to me and my sister.” Being offspring of a big Broadway producer had definite perks. "I saw more Broadway openings before I was 13 than most people see in a lifetime. Every time I come to the theatre now, I have such appreciation for it, but I long for the kind of frequency I had as a kid." According to director Steve Cosson, "Joely was one of the first people to come to mind when Don and I started thinking about great actors who have the depth, chops and emotional landscape to pull off this show. I watched some of her movies, including one she did when she was very young called 'Sister, My Sister,' which essentially was based on that horrific crime case that inspired The Maids.”
Following Harris is pretty heavy-lifting, Richardson admitted. "lt takes everything. I feel like an athlete when I go out there every night. What I've tried most to do is connect with the audience — that's what Emily was trying to do — and I've gotten very lucky. There have been some bravos, and last night a man in the audience was shouting, 'Thank you, thank you,' which profoundly touched me. This experience has been the first time I've received bravos. My mum said, 'Oh. You've got your role.'”
Her special opening-night treat: The 85-year-old playwright flew in from Portland. They had talked over the phone a few times, but she had never met him. He missed the performance but made the applause, which was much as he remembered it.