An Amusement Column
by Harry Haun
MICHAEL IN THE LOO: One can’t help but wonder how bathroom showstoppers will go down with the priggish Brits. Come 2020, we should see clearly. Be More Chill starts chilling ‘em Feb. 12 at The Other Palace in London, and the highlight of Joe Iconis’ Tony-nominated score is an exuberant ditty called “Michael in the Bathroom.” . . . Michael is one of the teen geeks populating this Young Adult musical. Our young adults–seeing a mirror reflection, or heeding a tweet alert–turned out for it in droves. Off-Broadway the show sold out and got extended, but, at Broadway prices, not so much (30 previews, 177 regular performances). So, now, youth must be served in Britain. . . . Another stateside secret about to be spilled in England is The Secret Life of Bees. When the Lynn Nottage–Susan Birkenhead–Duncan Sheik musical bowed last summer at the Atlantic, it seemed an obvious Broadway transfer. And it still is, but British producer Sonia Friedman took a shine to the show and has rerouted it to London after the first of the year–then, Broadway. It, too, qualifies as a coming-of-age musical, about a white girl (named Lily, yet) who finds shelter from an abusive father among black beekeepers. Sam Gold directs. . . . A pity E.M. Forster died 15 years before his stories started reaching the screen in impeccable translations (Howards End, A Room with a View, Maurice, A Passage to India), and now he has become a character in a play: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour, Olivier Award-winning gay cavalcade, The Inheritance, currently previewing for a Nov. 17 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Forster is addressed by his actual middle name, Morgan, and played by a Brit brought over from the London production, Paul Hilton. . . . Not only did the actor research the writer’s closeted life, he and the playwright did an atmosphere soak at Rook’s Nest, Forster’s childhood home and the template for Howards End. “I sat in his old bedroom and wandered his garden and his grounds and got a sense of the place,” recalls Hilton. “It’s not a grand, palatial place. It’s a humble country cottage, but the rural idyll, the connectedness to nature and the earth that you feel there—all that’s remarkable.” . . . For Hilton as an actor, this particular play has been life-changing: “It has allowed me to connect my head and my heart in a way that I’ve always aspired to do on the stage. There is a freedom and spontaneity that emerges in spite of the fact that we’ve played it over 100 times. And that’s as a result of an audience witnessing this piece, fresh and new every time. It’s a shared humanity unlike anything I’ve ever experienced that happens in the theater.” . . . The King’s Speech was good to go as a play before it won Oscars for 2010’s Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Direction (Tom Hooper) and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler)—and now it’s actually and finally going (through Oct. 20) at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the first stop of a national tour. Directed by Michael Wilson, it stars Harry Hadden-Paton as the tongue-tangled, stammering monarch, George VI, and James Frain as his unorthodox and eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. . . . Seidler didn’t find this story as much as it found him, he admits. He was a profound stutterer as a child, and his boyhood hero was the similarly afflicted “Bertie” [before he was crowned George VI, he was an Albert]. “During the later stages of the war when I listened to his broadcast speeches,” Seidler remembers, “my parents told me his stutter had vastly improved. ‘If he can do that at this stage of his life, there’s hope for you,’ they said, so he became a symbol of hope for me. When I finally got rid of my stutter at 16, I knew I wanted to do something about ‘Bertie.’ I had no idea what.” . . . His writing partner and wife suggested a play, lest the basic story get lost in a lot of cinematics—“the tent poles will always be two men in a room”—but research was a bear. Historians tended to brush the royal stutter under the royal carpet, glazing over it lightly or tossing it off as a footnote. Eventually, Seidler went to Logue’s surviving son, who kept the notebooks his father made while treating the king—but again there was a caveat: he had to get the permission of the Queen Mother, then 73. “Please, not in my lifetime,” she wrote back. “The memory of these events are still too painful.” When she died—at 101—Seidler submitted the play and a film outline of it to a producer, Joan Lane. She had an assistant, who lived two blocks from Gregory Rush in Melbourne and, during Christmas vacation, slipped the plot synopsis in his mail chute. Rush rushed to judgment, saw (correctly) an Oscar-nominated turn in Logue, and a film was born. . . . Hadden-Paton–a.k.a. Herbert Pelham, 7th Marquess of Hexham of Downton Abbey and phonetics professor Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady–will next be seen tripping on LSD with Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck) and Clare Booth Luce (Carmen Cusack) as Brave New World author Aldous Huxley in Flying Over Sunset. A James Lapine–Tom Kitt–Michael Korie musical, it will start previewing March 12 at the Vivian Beaumont. . . . George VI’s father, George V, is the monarch who came to banquet with the Downton Abbey set in their $17-million big-screen goodbye. That’s Simon Jones under all that Monty Woolleyism, and he found that it was fun to be king. “The only nerve-wracking time was my horse-riding scene–no one had checked to see if I could ride, and it’s been 40 years since Brideshead,” says the “Bridey” of that memorable miniseries, Brideshead Revisited. “I rode a horse in that one. I also fell off it, so I wasn’t keen on doing that again.” A stand-in, twice Jones’ height, stood by but mercifully wasn’t used. “[The producers] were delighted and thrilled and rather relieved because it would have been an expensive shot to have to do again.” . . . You’ll next find Jones doing some English-butlering for Panama Hattie, in the last of the York’s Cole Porter “Musicals in Mufti” series Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Arthur Treacher did it for Ethel Merman in 1940, and he’ll be doing it for Klea Blackhurst. “It’s the one Merman musical Klea hasn’t done, and I’m sure she’ll be splendid.” . . . Another actress in Blackhurst’s wheelhouse is Shirley Booth. During her Feinstein’s/54 Below act this week, Lucie Arnaz mentioned that the musical version of Booth’s TV series, Hazel, is still an active project. It was written for Blackhurst by Arnaz’s musical director, Ron Abel, with lyrics by Chuck Steffan and book by Lissa Levin.
TWO FOR THE SEESAW: It started out as a joke. Whenever Lucas Hnath was asked that irksome question no playwright likes to be asked–“What are you working on?”–he would blithely lie, “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Then he got to thinking in earnest about what might happen if Ibsen’s Nora did return decades later to the door she so resolutely slammed shut and insisted on admittance. A play started taking shape in his head, and, when it came out, it was no joke. In fact, it just tied with Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as the most-produced play of 2019-2020. . . . American Theatre magazine tossed a party to post The Top Ten Most-Produced Plays of the year. (Actually, because of ties, it came out as The Top 14.) Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing held second-place tightly all by itself, but Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline had to share third place with the Steve Martin–Edie Brickell musical, Bright Star. Nine plays were in fourth place: Nia Vardalos’ Tiny Beautiful Things, Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls or, The African Mean Girls Play, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves and Ken Ludwig’s Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. . . . The only playwright repeated on this prestigious list—Lauren Yee—was interviewed at this event, and a scene from her Cambodian Rock Band was performed. Replete with a live rock band, this drama will surface at the Signature Theater Feb. 4-March 8. . . . Laura Linney will reprise the neat little trick she pulled in London—playing mother and daughter without ever leaving the stage—in My Name Is Lucy Barton, a solo show adapted by Rona Munro from Elizabeth Strout’s novel. The five-time Olivier-winning director, Richard Eyre, will help the four-time Tony-nominated actress fill the Friedman, starting Jan. 6. . . . On the off-chance Where’s My Roy Cohn? left you with some shred of sympathy for the title character, the NYFF came up with a second opinion: HBO’s Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn. Director Ivy Meeropol has a special axe to grind: Roy Cohn’s first job out of law school was to send the filmmaker’s grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair.
THE HIGH ART OF HOSTING: Journalist-biographer-memoirist Patricia Bosworth also acted for a while, and on Oct. 7 she will be playing a Perle Mesta of sorts, throwing open her home to another of her fabulous book parties. (Secretly, she has something to celebrate herself: Farrar Straus just snapped up her latest tome, Protest Song: Paul Robeson, J. Edgar Hoover and the Struggle for Racial Equality.) . . . This particular Bosworth book-bash is in aid of Jerome Robbins’ latest and last, Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections From His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir. All this has been assembled and edited and colored with her own commentary by Amanda Vaill, who wrote the definitive biography of him (Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins) and scripted the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning documentary on him (Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About). . . . Because he knew Kenneth Lonergan was a longtime lover of the film, New York Film Festival director Kent Jones tapped the playwright (and Oscar winner) to host NYFF’s screening of Dodsworth Oct. 10 at 8:45 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall. Its screenplay came from good stock: Sidney Howard adapting his own 1934 play adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1929 novel. Director William Wyler’s depiction of a disintegrating marriage was the first film the Motion Picture Production Code permitted a man to walk out of his marriage and not go to hell in a hand basket (“Love has got to stop some place short of suicide!” is the exit line). Walter Huston, in one of the great unsung performances, delivered it hundreds of times on Broadway and on tour and, eventually, on screen opposite Ruth Chatterton as the selfish, straying wife. She and Wyler collided constantly over how villainous to make her (he had a similar argument with Bette Davis in The Letter). And who won that? Chatterton, her confidence decimated, did a couple of dinky flicks after that, then retired from features. Wyler won the first of a dozen Oscar nominations (more than any other film director). . . . Scripter Howard died at 48, the victim of a tractor mishap on his farm. At the time, he was working on a dramatization of Carl van Doren’s biography of Benjamin Franklin and, with his left hand, the screenplay for Gone With the Wind. Numerous writers contributed to that screenplay (F. Scott Fitzgerald, among them), but Howard was the one who got sole screen credit for it–and the posthumous Academy Award that went with it. . . . In his latter years, when asked about his next picture, Gregory Peck would say a remake of Dodsworth with Elizabeth Taylor. (As the years progressed, he modified that to a remake of Wild Strawberries.) . . . A great admirer of Huston, Peck said he got a great-rule-to-live-by from him while filming Duel in the Sun—to wit, “Give a good show, and always travel first-class.”