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 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.
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.
With two brand names aboard The Best Man, others scampered into place. To borrow a line from a James Earl Jones movie: If you build it, they will come.
"My manager started listing off the people in the cast, and I said, 'Stop! You had me at Earl,'" cracked Eric McCormack, once of Will & Grace and now the Cantwell in question. "After I heard the cast list, I said, 'I'm in — what's the play?'"
John Larroquette, smoothly sailing from How To Succeed's J.B. Biggley to The Best Man's Russell, averred that he was there for vocal relief. "For once, I wanted not to be the deepest voice on stage," he quipped, bowing to his basso co-star: "Mr. Jones' voice is internationally, universally the best in the world.
"As some of you know, I've been in New York for a while now working, and the idea of coming back, doing something like this, is just impossible to pass up."
Lest that be taken for modesty, the lady next to him — Candice Bergen, Larroquette's helpmate in the play — piped up with an air-clearing, "He won a Tony last year." He nodded and added: "Behind every man is a woman, and behind her is his wife." It's their second marriage. They previously wed on the final episode of Boston Legal. The Best Man is their where-love-has-gone postscript; they're just hanging together for show — a matter of concern to busybody committee woman Lansbury.
"Mrs. Gamadge is a far cry from some of the more vitriolic ladies I've played in the past," Lansbury said. "She's a great character, and the chance to work with Jimmy and Candy and these wonderful actors! Can you imagine, at my age, to have this opportunity again? So I'm a very happy camper."
The Best Man marks Jones' second presidency; his first was, simply, The Man, a 1972 film about a black Senate president pro tempore abruptly elevated to the Oval Office. In the 40 years since, Jones has lost none of his booming authority. In fact, quietly rumbled The Voice of CNN, "When I first started doing voice work, it was just a blessing to be able to talk, because I started out as a stuttering child."
Age, he added, aids his illusion of authority: "I like being the elder of a company."
Lansbury, who has half a decade on the early octogenarian, cheerfully cackled a correction. "You're not the eldest of the company," she begged to differ, prompting him to restate his case: "Every chance I get to get with some young kids, that's nice."
Silverhaired "kid" Larroquette took exception: "Don't look at me when you say that."
"The nice thing about this group," noted McCormack, jumping in and capping this riff on the absence of age barriers, "is that I'm pushing 50, and I'm the ingénue."
The true ingénue of the company, Kerry Butler, plays McCormack's wife, and she was completely awed by The A-Team, she says: "It's a master class, sitting there watching all of these actors." She pointed an accusatory finger at Michael McKean, who plays Larroquette's campaign manager. "He's off-book already."
McKean shrugged lightly. "Oh, I'm just trying to impress Kerry."
Producer Richards was plainly pleased at what he and director Michael Wilson had wrought: "I think it's the best cast assembled on Broadway. If you go by our theatre, you will see above the stage door: The Best Cast Enters Here."