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NEAL CONAN, host:

The scene: Cleveland 1934. Italian superstar Tito Marelli arrives to star one night only in the Opera Guild production of "Othello." But then, an overdose of sleeping pills, the impresario plots to substitute his nebbishy assistant, a dizzy sequence of slamming doors, mistaken identity and romantic interludes with a not-so-innocent daughter and a delicious diva.

The revival of "Lend Me a Tenor" is getting cheers at the Music Box Theater in New York. In no small part, do the stars Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia and Justin Bartha and director Stanley Tucci, who is better known as an actor himself, most recently in his Oscar-nominated role as the bad guy in "The Lovely Bones" and as Julia Child's husband in "Julie and Julia."

If you'd like to talk with him about his work or about the role of farce in our culture, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stanley Tucci joins us now from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Director, "Lend Me a Tenor): Thanks. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And congratulations. You've got great reviews since your opening.

Mr. TUCCI: I know. We have wonderful reviews. I'm thrilled and appalled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Appalled?

Mr. TUCCI: No, no. I'm - no, no sh(unintelligible).

CONAN: What attracted you to farce?

Mr. TUCCI: Well, it's funny. And I like to laugh. And I think that what's satisfying about farce for me is that - first of all, as an actor is that it uses every part of you. And it has to be played very realistically. But then you modulate the level of your performance and you can go to great heights if you maintain that reality. But also, what I like about it is the specificity of it and the mechanical nature of it and almost the science of it, because if one thing is off, the next three things are off or maybe the next five things are off. And it's probably the hardest kind of theater to do.

CONAN: There is a clockwork aspect, too. And everything must measure with everything else.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: There are those scenes in which each of those three main actors - and indeed, I think all of the supporting actors, as well - seem to get room to do star turns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. Yes. In other words, everyone has lots of really, you know, has moments where they can just be as cheap as they want to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yes, indeed. And we love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. That's right. They always - you know, the actors will come backstage and offstage and say, you know, oh, I don't know why I didn't get applause that time when I left the stage, or I don't know why they didn't really applaud when I did that one thing. And then I say, well, it could be because so and so was moving at this point. And let's just make sure that when your hand is here, that it's not blocking the blah, blah, blah.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: And then usually, if we'd make that adjustment, we go and watch together or somebody else would come and watch with me sometimes, and then we make that adjustment and then, you know, they'll get the laugh or the applause.

CONAN: Is this - in terms of directing this, it seems like there's a lot of drill. You've got to be exactly here and doing exactly this, while they are doing exactly that.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. It has to be that way. But the beauty of it is that is finding that, is going through the process and finding that. And that's the great joy of it. And then once you find it, it's very exciting. And then you have to drill it, drill it, drill it, and hone it, and hone it, and hone it.

CONAN: There was - I don't know if you were there at the Matinee yesterday, but...

Mr. TUCCI: I was at the first - I was actually there for the - most of the first day.

CONAN: Oh, well, this was in the second act. There is a well-timed scream...

Mr. TUCCI: Yes.

CONAN: ...by the daughter of the impresario when she realizes, or believes, that she has been making love to the wrong fellow.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes.

CONAN: And at that moment, the - she and the delicious diva turned their back to the audience and you could see their shoulders heaving with laughter.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes, I heard about that.

CONAN: What happened?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: What happened was - they did what's called breaking. They broke because there's - I gave a note session earlier that day and I said, you know, when Mary Catherine screams at that point, because the show I had seen the night prior, was, people - everybody was doing kind of different things. You got a big laugh, but I said, guys, I think let's have everybody just stare at Mary Catherine, so that - because I want, like, utter stillness there. Let Mary Catherine be the only who's moving.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: And the audience, you know, I think maybe we can get an even bigger laugh, you know? So everyone did it and then Jen Thompson, who's the actress who plays the diva, she said, I'm so angry that you gave me that note because I - the only way that I could get through that was not to look at her. So once you told me that we all had to look at her, there was no way that I couldn't laugh, and that's why she ended up laughing.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We figured it was something that - some inside joke of some sort, right?

Mr. TUCCI: Right. Right. But it's not even necessarily an inside joke as much as it is that the actress think it's as funny, what Mary Catherine does with the audience, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, it was pretty funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You also end up having your actors throw lots of stuff into the orchestra.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. Yes. I like the idea of breaking that fourth wall. I think in certain plays, you can do it. And what's exciting to me is that the audience gets very excited about it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: And particularly they never - if you set it up in a way so that they never actually know what's going to happen. The original, there's, you know, Tony Shalhoub spits something into the audience...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: ...at first. And it's only...

CONAN: You'd be amazed at the competition for that.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes, I'm sure. The - it's in the script, but it only happens once in the script. So then, I kept adding other ones because I thought it would be exciting.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation.

Mr. TUCCI: Okay.

CONAN: Our guest, the great Stanley Tucci. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

J.C.'s(ph) on the line from Lansing in Michigan.

J.C. (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

J.C.: Mr. - Stanley, I wanted - I'm a young actor myself and you're talking about farce, and I wondered with honesty being such a central component of. I feel, of acting, how can you take something that's so outlandish and find the honesty in that and find ways to really listen and react honestly when you're dealing with something which is almost - is so dishonest? And also, if you have any thoughts - obviously, you've been very successful in film and theater, if you have any general thoughts about that and kind of climbing the ladder.

Mr. TUCCI: Just because something is comic or farcical doesn't mean it's dishonest. It means it's the heightened form of honest behavior and situations. If a piece is dishonest, whether it's comic or dramatic or whatever it is, then you just shouldn't do it. But a good farce, a great farce is absolutely honest, honest in the sense that like every - excuse me - every genre has its own aesthetic. Farce has its own rules, just like abstract expressionism has its own rules that are completely different from naturalistic painting.

So you have to realize what those rules are. And then you have to play it for keeps, as they say. So in essence, you never tell a lie. Acting is a lie to begin with. So I mean, really, I mean, we could - you can say that about any play that you're doing. But if the premise within the context of that genre is truthful, then you can just play it truthfully. And then as I said earlier, you modulate your performance accordingly.

And funnily enough, the notes that I gave the actors yesterday were, number one, do not lose the reality of the play...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: ...as absurd as it is.

CONAN: As silly as that is.

Mr. TUCCI: Right. Right. I mean, look at "Waiting for Godot." What is that? And how absurd is that? What is it?

J.C.: Right.

Mr. TUCCI: But if you don't play it truthfully, it just doesn't work.

CONAN: Hmm. J.C., thanks for the call. Good luck.

J.C.: All right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Some people might say, Stanley Tucci, you could - you could do better things with your theater. These are serious times, there are important issues to be discussed here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Yeah. Yes. I'm sure there are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: But I'm interested in discussing them over dinner. But, you know, I think it's awfully fun to go to the theater and laugh. If we ever - if we lose our sense of humor, you know, we don't really - there's not much left.

CONAN: There are, in this play, two good friends of yours, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Mr. Shalhoub, of course, co-starred as your brother in "Big Night," where you directed him.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And here you are in a scene from that film in a spat over a customer who wants both spaghetti and risotto for dinner.

(Soundbite of movie, "Big Night")

Mr. TONY SHALHOUB (Actor): (As Primo) Why?

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) She likes starch. I don't know. Come on.

Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Primo) How can she want? Look, maybe, I should make mashed potato for her other side.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, look, don't, okay? Because they are the first customer to come in two hours...

Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. She's a criminal. I want to talk to her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So given that...

Mr. TUCCI: Yeah.

CONAN: ...could Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia have switched parts?

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, yes. Yeah, we actually talked about it. I mean, I think ideally, with a play like this, I think that my ideal is - and we've talked - Tony and I have talked about this, Anthony and a number of people that, ideally, you would do a play like this in rep with another play. And then you could - you would play different parts in the - obviously, and maybe different kinds of parts in the other play, but also then you could rotate parts in this play. You could easily take Anthony and put him in the role of Saunders and Tony in the role of Morelli very easily.

CONAN: It also struck me that if you could give either of them a few drafts of barbiturate, you could step in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Yeah. That's right. That's right. Yes, we're all interchangeable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go next to Taylor(ph). Taylor with us from Augusta, Georgia.

TAYLOR (Caller): Yes, hi. I - big honor talking to you right now on the phone.

Mr. TUCCI: Thanks.

TAYLOR: And I'm a big fan of yours ever since I saw you in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the film production.

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, yeah. Thanks.

TAYLOR: And recently, I saw a movie of yours, "Blind Date."

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

TAYLOR: And I was just wondering - and I thought that movie was phenomenal. The whole movie...

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you.

TAYLOR: ...all the way up to the ending was great.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you.

TAYLOR: I was just wondering, would you consider that a melodramatic farce?

Mr. TUCCI: No, I would - you know, I don't know what I would consider "Blind Date." "Blind Date" is a remake of a Theo van Gogh movie, for people who don't know - most people don't know, because I think you might be the only guy who saw it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: But they - it's a remake of a Theo van Gogh movie. And Theo Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker who was killed tragically about five years ago. And he had three films that he made that were two-handers, meaning just two people in the picture, and that he always wanted to remake in English. So we ended up doing it with his Dutch producers and with Patricia Clarkson and myself. Excuse me.

And I don't know that it's a melodrama. I think it's - it has elements of farce, although usually, there are more than two people in a farce. But I would call it a sort of tragicomedy, maybe. I don't know. I wouldn't know what to call it. But I'm glad you liked it.

CONAN: Taylor, thanks very much for the call.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Stanley Tucci who's directing "Lend Me a Tenor" at the Music Box Theater on Broadway. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Edward(ph) in Milton, Massachusetts. I've been a Stanley Tucci fan for many years. And his "Big Night" is one of my favorite films. It was said at the time that the recipes in that film were from Tucci's own mother. One of them for shrimp risotto has become a signature dish of mine. Is it true that Momma Tucci served this while Stanley was a boy? And by the way, what Italians name their boy Stanley?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: You know, that's a good question. The shrimp risotto, yes, is something that my mother would make. But mostly, she made risotto Milanese, which is a classic risotto with saffron and mushrooms. And I'm named Stanley because my father is named Stanley and his father was named Stanley. His father's name was actually Stanislaus, named after St. Stanislaus, who I never knew existed until just a little while ago.

CONAN: So are you the third?

Mr. TUCCI: I guess I am. Yes.

CONAN: Let's go next to Caroline(ph). Caroline with us from Boston.

CAROLINE (Caller): Mr. Tucci, I have been a fan of yours for a long, long time.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you.

CAROLINE: And I think one of the best forms of farcical comedy that you have done was "The Impostors" with Oliver Platt.

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, yeah.

CAROLINE: That was one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. And I was wondering if - not only if you are going to be making anymore movies like that, but actually recently, I had a moment - we just went through restaurant week here in Boston.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

CAROLINE: And a friend of mine asked me if I was going to start off with the risotto and then get the ravioli. And I thought, are you crazy?

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, God.

CAROLINE: Are you crazy? I was thinking of you in that moment...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CAROLINE: ...and I was just wondering what you were going to do as far as your film career and farce.

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, I - you know, I don't know. And I made that film a number of years ago. And I really love that movie. I - there are directorial flaws in it, which are all mine. And unfortunately, the movie did not do very well, although it seems to have become some sort of cult classic. And I'm very glad of it. So most likely, no one will ever let me direct a farce again on film. But maybe, you know, after another generation, they'll forget about it and maybe somebody will let me do it again. But it's...

CAROLINE: Well, I think you're fantastic.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you so much. And just tell your friend that she needs to adjust her, you know, dietary needs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you.

CAROLINE: I will do that. Thank you for your time.

CONAN: Thanks for your call, Caroline.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you.

CONAN: Why did you decide to direct this film, this show, as opposed to starring in it?

Mr. TUCCI: Well, I - you know, I haven't done a play for a number of years, about seven years. And my wife passed away last year. And for me - and I have three young children. So for me to do a play every night - I don't live in the city proper. I live outside the city. So for me to do a play every night and matinees is really, really hard. You're on a completely opposite schedule than your children.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCCI: So it's not really conducive to a healthy familial, you know, the lifestyle. But - so that's the reason why I really haven't been able to do a show. And - but I so wanted to - I've wanted to direct a play for a long time. And I love farce and I knew that I was choosing a very difficult genre. And, you know, choosing Broadway, you know, first time out of the gate was a little daunting. But ultimately, when you're working with people like this - and I have to say these actors are just extraordinary, extraordinary actors - they made it so easy for me.

CONAN: Let's go to Chuck(ph). Chuck with us from Athol, Massachusetts.

CHUCK (Caller): Hey, guys. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHUCK: I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Go ahead.

CHUCK: I wanted to say, I've actually done "Lend Me a Tenor" before. Absolutely love the show. And one of the things - the best note I ever got from my director is when it is tragic for you, it is the highest comedy for the audience.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm. Yep.

CHUCK: And I wanted to ask if you have thoughts on that, Mr. Tucci.

Mr. TUCCI: I think that's the best direction I've heard in a long time. It's absolutely true. You know - the thing that makes farce work so well is the desperation of the characters. And the more you play that desperation, the more truthfully you play that desperation, the funnier it will be.

CONAN: Because the great moments for all those characters - for Tito is his wife leaves him and he throws this amazing fit, it can only be described. And then, of course, when Tony Shalhoub, the producer thinks Tito's dead, he tries to strangle him.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Tries to strangle a dead man.

CONAN: Yeah.

CHUCK: It's amazing to me, though..

Mr. TUCCI: Now, what's funnier than that?

CONAN: What's funnier than that?

Mr. TUCCI: Yeah.

CONAN: That's comedy.

Mr. TUCCI: That's comedy. Yeah.

CHUCK: Well, it's amazing to me that in the sense of if you're going to see a Greek tragedy or a great Shakespeare tragedy, the same experience is tragic.

Mr. TUCCI: Mm-hmm.

CHUCK: But in the elevated sense of farce, it becomes hysterical. (Unintelligible) joke.

Mr. TUCCI: There is no reason - I believe there is no reason why you can't take a beautifully written tragedy, perform it as a tragedy, have the curtain come down, bring the curtain up again and perform the exact same thing unchanged as a comedy.

CONAN: "Lend Me a Tenor" is Stanley Tucci's Broadway directorial debut running through the summer at the Music Box Theater in New York. He joined us today from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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