Despite Injuries and Illness, On the Twentieth Century Is Full Steam Ahead

Opening Night   Despite Injuries and Illness, On the Twentieth Century Is Full Steam Ahead
The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of On the Twentieth Century opened on March 12.
Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth
Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On the Twentieth Century, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's first musical with Cy Coleman, stormed into the American Airlines Theatre March 12, nestling up against On the Town, their first with Leonard Bernstein, next door at the Lyric Theatre.

Whether on the town with saucer-eyed sailors during a World War II shore leave or on the train with a runaway diva and her hambone star-maker during the not-so-Great Depression, their wit, wisdom and sparkling rhymes brightened many worlds.

Theirs was the longest-running collaboration in show business history — numbering almost 20 Broadway shows in 60 years and some change — stretching from January 1941, when they joined Alvin Hammer and Judy Tuvim (later Holliday) performing on stage at the Village Vanguard as The Revuers, to Green's death in October 2002.

CONSIDERING THE SETBACKS and illnesses that plagued the production from the get-go, it's a miracle (man-made by director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle) that the show got here at all, let alone three days ahead of schedule! The producers opted to go ahead with the originally scheduled opening-night party and save the "true" critics' opening for Sunday, March 15.

The leading man, Peter Gallagher, got all the press (and the pressure) for the laryngitis that kept him out of the show a spell.

But — and only now can it be told — the leading lady, Kristin Chenoweth, was hardly having a day at the beach herself, having cracked a rib three weeks ago. When Andy Karl, who plays her beefcake boyfriend, uses her petite torso for weight-lifting and baton-twirling, the smile she manages to put out there is 100% Bethlehem Steel.

Then, when you factor in the enormous comedic and coloratura demands of the role, you have — as you do with the gallant Gallagher — not only a contender for a Tony but for the Congressional Medal of Honor as well. By Golly, the show went on... BY THE TIME THEY hit the press receiving-line in the corridor lobby of the theatre, both were showing the strain of that maximum effort — but also blessed relief.

Chenoweth, a tiny little thing who'd just turned in a Godzilla-size performance, looked understandably drawn and drained and even held her side while talking.

"Are you in pain?" one had to ask. "Yes, sir, little bit," she said in polite Southernese. Then, typically, she jumped to the bright side: "You know what? When you get a role like this, you don't even feel the pain anymore. I'm in heaven with this show."

This role, Oscar-winner-on-the-lam Lily Garland (nee Mildred Plotka), made a star of Carole Lombard and a Tony nominee of Madeline Kahn, and it could easily work comparable wonders for Chenoweth. It's already a perfect fit without her even trying. "I have no trouble relating to this role," she admitted. "It's about a girl who started out with nothing, became a huge star, sold out to Hollywood, and then she came back to her two great loves: the theatre and the man she loves."

A STAR IS BORN right before your eyes in this show. With a simple two-second swirl, plain and dowdy Mildred Plotka turns into a sexy, predatory Lily Garland.

Yes, costume designer William Ivey Long is up to his old instant presto-chango manipulations that drew oohs and aahs with the transformations in Cinderella. (Here, flowing blonde hair from wig wizard Paul Huntley completes the trick.)

It's contagious theatre magic. Only this week, Helen Mirren made a sudden turn in The Audience that shed half a century, thanks to the uncannily clever costume design of Bob Crowley. "Yes," Long purred, "I'm aware Bob has been watching my work.

Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth
Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I was the designer on Kristin's first Broadway show, Steel Pier. She was 'Ensemble' then — but not so 'Ensemble' she didn't win a Theatre World Award. She stuck out."

GALLAGHER WAS PARTICULARLY pleased to be at the finish line after a few wobbly weeks. "I had laryngitis because of sinusitis," he explained. "I thought I had a cold so I was singing, working through the cold, from the end of tech through the first week of previews. Then I went to another doctor who scoped me and, 'No, you have a massive sinus infection, and it's landed on your vocal chords. You gotta stop.'" Oscar Jaffee, the play's over-the-top hyper-theatrical impresario, fits him like a glove (I mean that in the nicest possible way). God knows, he's had practice. This is his third Broadway role-in-a-role where he was a director, following The Country Girl and Noises Off.

"I remember when I was doing Noises Off, I made the fatal mistake of saying, 'I've done over 2,000 performances on Broadway, and I've only missed four of them.' The next week, I was out. With this show, I think I've missed more in the last two weeks than I've missed in the last 38 years. It was a lot of pressure to be sick. It was awful."

Battered but unbowed, both stars seem ideally paired, cast and matched, given the frenetic characters they're playing. "I've always wanted to do a show with Kristin," Gallagher admitted, "and the reality of it has far exceeded my expectations."

THE THIRD SIDE OF the triangle is manned by Karl, arguably the most agile physical comedian to come along since Kevin Kline, who, not so incidentally, won a supporting Tony for playing Lily's narcissistic actor-beau who is getting a free ride on her coattails. Karl is similarly in-Klined to pratfalls and door slams.

"I'm having fun with the guy. He's a complete ego, totally two-dimensional, all about getting his picture taken and posing for the mirror. Yes, it's a reach," Karl conceded. The quicksilver timing and the dazzling physical turns are part of his tool kit, and he hones them with daily workouts — something he started when he was Broadway's Rocky.

Michael McGrath, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl and Mark-Linn Baker
Michael McGrath, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl and Mark-Linn Baker Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

KEEPING THIS THREESOME at full tilt and twirling was an armada of ace comedy actors, starting with Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath as Jaffee's stooges and Mary Louise Wilson in the Imogene Coca role of the little-old-lady loon they mistake for a producer. Andy Taylor, a Titanic survivor, is riding the rails these days as well.

McGrath, as the more consistently soused of the two flunkies, hasn't counted but figures he must have at least six or seven drinks every performance. It's a running, or stumbling, gag and cues Jaffee's grand self-eulogy: "It's typical of my career that, in the great crises of life, I should stand flanked by two incompetent alcoholics."

Linn-Baker appreciated the company he's keeping with this cast. "One of the things I like about working on Broadway, about working with Scott Ellis [who just directed him in You Can't Take It With You] is that you work with the best people. This is where they come together. I love the way the characters are drawn in this play."

THERE'S A TELL-TALE ASTERISK on one of the show's two-dozen songs listed in the Playbill, indicating new lyrics by Green's daughter, Amanda. Specifically, she has made a love song to Lily, "Because of Her," out of "The Legacy," a comic number in which Oscar bequeaths all his worthless worldly goods to his two gofer-cronies (his cape, his fedora, his mustache wax, his ostrich fan from Floradora, and so forth).

Drew King, Rick Faugno, Phillip Attmore and Richard Riaz Yoder
Drew King, Rick Faugno, Phillip Attmore and Richard Riaz Yoder Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Green's widow, Phyllis Newman, who'll be 82 on March 19, was also in the audience. "My mother adored the show beyond measure, and so do I," relayed Amanda.

THE UNDERSTUDY PUT TO the test, James Moye, got good word-of-mouth when he had to go on for Gallagher (normally, he plays Jaffee's producing rival, Max Jacobs, who's angling to get Lily's signature on the dotted line). "It's been a crazy ride through previews for me, but to be able to go on and to do it has been a real blast."

CINDERELLA AND HER Prince Charming — Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana — led the list of guests for the non-opening, along with Bernadette Peters, playwrights David Rabe and Terrence McNally, Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings, Erin Dilly and Stephen Buntrock, Annie Potts, Jane Krakowski, Kathy Najimy, Cabaret author Joe Masteroff, Jim Dale, Brooke Shields and Jessica Hecht.

Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth
Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Rosie O'Donnell, decked out in a black pants suit with blue-jean jacket, spotted a patron in the foyer in a strapless ballgown. "She said, 'Look what you're wearing, and look what I'm wearing.' I said, 'At least you're comfortable,'" the lady relayed.

It seems the lady was from South Carolina, and it was her first Broadway opening — the gift from a friend who had won a pair of tickets in a contest to the opening of On the Twentieth Century.

Joel Grey, sprightly and sprite-like as ever, said he was working on his autobiography. "What do you think I'm calling it?" I guessed Grey Matter. "No, Master of Ceremonies." (That's the name of the role that won him the Tony and the Oscar.)

Among the truth-telling he'll go into with this memoir will be his recent coming-out. "It's all very good," he said. "I'm happy. Nothing's different — except everything."

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