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' Frost/Nixon' Puts Political Fallout on Stage

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' Frost/Nixon' Puts Political Fallout on Stage

Performing Arts

' Frost/Nixon' Puts Political Fallout on Stage

' Frost/Nixon' Puts Political Fallout on Stage

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The 1977 series of interviews of Richard Nixon by David Frost is the storyline of a new play in London. Frost/Nixon explores the motivations of both men: Nixon needed money and vindication, while Frost was desperate to revive a flagging career. The play suggests that Nixon and his advisors grossly underestimated Frost. And the results helped shape the public's memory of Nixon, who resigned in 1974.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The line between politics and show business can sometimes seem a fine one, and the interaction between the two is the subject of a new play in London. It's called simply Frost/Nixon. And, as the title suggests, it's a study of the interviews that President Richard Nixon gave to the British journalist David Frost three years after Watergate.

NPR's Rob Gifford went to see it.

ROB GIFFORD: In 1977, British talk show host David Frost's career was flagging. To try to kick-start it, Frost wrote a letter to former President Richard Nixon offering a large sum of money in return for a long series of interviews. He hit the disgraced President at just the right time. Nixon had been out of office three years and was out of pocket several hundred thousand dollars. The money and perhaps a chance to transform his legacy appealed to him, and a deal was done.

Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon charts the courting of the former president by the Frost camp and then the interviews themselves. As Nixon recalls in the play, they'd met before.

(Soundbite of play, "Frost/Nixon")

Unidentified Man #1: I remember before the '68 election, Frost interviewed all the candidates. This was the campaign for president of the United States, the full glare of publicity, every work picked over by a hundred newsmen, and Frost comes up with, at root, what would you say people are on Earth for?

GIFFORD: The play is an astute character study of both men and muses on how politics, show business and journalism overlap. It explores the similarities between the two men, both outsiders in their own way among the elite who'd fallen on hard times, both - as Nixon puts it in the play - looking for a way back. Only one can win, he tells Frost. The other will end up in the wilderness. So David Frost goes for the jugular right from the start.

(Soundbite of play, "Frost/Nixon")

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. President, we're going to be covering a lot of subjects in a great deal of detail over the course of the next six hours. But I'd like to begin completely out of context by asking you one question more than any other. Almost every American and people all over the world want me to ask - Why didn't you burn the tapes?

GIFFORD: But Nixon plays a much more savvy game, beating off explorations of sensitive topics. There are increasing frustrations among Frost's advisors about the interviewer's going nowhere questions and Nixon's 20 minute answers because, in the end, what they wanted to hear about was, of course, Watergate and some kind of admission of guilt or wrongdoing. The play pivots on one moment when Nixon decides he simply doesn't want to go on denying it all, and the interview turns confessional. Michael Grandage is the play's director.

Mr. MICHAEL GRANDAGE (Director, Frost/Nixon): I think what's extraordinary about the play is that it takes a man who goes on a journey from resignation, a very low point at the beginning, with a new found strength through the interviews, where he is the opposite of benign. I think during the course of all of those interviews, where he's on the front foot making David Frost do all the work and then, through Frost's brilliance at a particular moment in the interview, there came a turning point, and he seized it, and in that moment, Nixon opted for the wilderness. And that, I think, is the greatness of the play, and that is something that the production has tried to make work.

GIFFORD: Grandage says Nixon opted for the wilderness, but the audience can't help feeling that by confessing his mistakes, Nixon was, in fact, reaching out for redemption.

(Soundbite of play, "Frost/Nixon")

Unidentified Man #1: I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government that'll think it's all too corrupt and the rest. I made so many bad judgments.

GIFFORD: Reviews from the London critics have been almost unanimously good, and Variety Magazine reports that director Ron Howard and Universal Pictures have bought the film rights of the play.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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