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Broadway Season Bets On Big Stars, Short Scripts

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Broadway Season Bets On Big Stars, Short Scripts

Performing Arts

Broadway Season Bets On Big Stars, Short Scripts

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If last June's Tony Awards - Broadway's annual end-of-the-season bash - looked a little bit like the Academy Awards, it was no accident. A lot of the winners were movie stars: Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And as Jeff Lunden reports, this fall, more big stars are coming to Broadway in small plays.

JEFF LUNDEN: Last September, Broadway's hot ticket was for Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in a one-act play called "A Steady Rain." Or as Jeremy Gerard, theater critic for Bloomberg News says:

Mr. JEREMY GERARD (Theater Critic, Bloomberg News): Last season, when you had James Bond and Wolverine in a two-character play that was terrible, terrible play, didn't matter. It was completely sold out for its 12 week run, everybody made a lot of money and audiences went home happy.

LUNDEN: This fall, Broadway producers are hoping to duplicate that success with two very starry revivals of intimate, short plays: well-known TV stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" and Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy."

Mr. GERARD: It's undoubtedly going to be a sell-out. If I were the producer, I'd probably be kicking up my heels. I, as a critic and an audience member, would go see those people in anything that they do.

LUNDEN: Jed Bernstein is the producer kicking up his heels. Group sales have been brisk, even though rehearsals for "Driving Miss Daisy" only began this week.

Mr. JED BERNSTEIN (Producer, "Driving Miss Daisy"): I think everybody got very excited about this production very, very quickly. And certainly it seems that the general public has shared that excitement because the pre-ticket sales are going very well.

LUNDEN: In Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, Bernstein has not just bankable Hollywood stars, he's got two stage veterans who make it a point to come back to Broadway every few years. Redgrave last appeared in a one-woman show based on Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," while James Earl Jones played Big Daddy in a revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" a couple of seasons back. They've both been signed for a limited engagement of 16 weeks, in the first-ever Broadway staging of this three-character, one-act play.

Jeremy Gerard says it's one of Broadway's winning new formulas.

Mr. GERARD: You've got shorter plays and you've got stars and the third thing is short runs. They come in for 12 weeks, maybe 16 weeks, including the rehearsal period, and then they're gone. And, first of all, it creates audience demand. The runs sell out. Second of all, they can do it between movie assignments.

LUNDEN: For his part, James Earl Jones says much of the appeal of appearing in "Driving Miss Daisy" apart from sharing the stage with Vanessa Redgrave is it looks back at a period before and during the Civil Rights movement. Jones well remembers being unable to use the bathroom at gas stations in the South, when he was an Army private in the 1950s.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): And my line in the play is - colored can't use the toilet in no Standard Oil. You know that, he says to Miss Daisy.

LUNDEN: Jones says the play, which was done off-Broadway with only a couple of chairs, is a short, but tasty ride.

Mr. JONES: It is a very simple story. You might say it's a sparse meal, for theater. It doesn't have any act breaks. It just starts and then it ends.

LUNDEN: David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" is another quick ride: two characters, 85 minutes of backstage comedy about a mentor-apprentice relationship between actors in a repertory theater. Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, while well-known for their TV roles in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Grey's Anatomy," are both theater vets. Stewart says rehearsals have been a singular experience.

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): I've never before in my life rehearsed a play where we will finish running a scene and then we will have a conversation pretty much exactly like the scene we've just been in, because we are in rehearsal, rehearsing for a play about two actors who are in rehearsal all the time for plays.

LUNDEN: T.R. Knight, who as a very young actor was an apprentice at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, says he can completely relate.

Mr. T.R. KNIGHT (Actor): Well, the wonderful thing and the hateful thing about this play is how it sends our life up and, you know, how insane we are, just to do this for a living. And, just like the narcissism of the actor, it's just, so much of it is in there. And it's just, it's a little painful.

Mr. STEWART: (as Robert) May I ask you something, John?

Mr. KNIGHT: (As John) Of course.

Mr. STEWART: Could you do me a favor?

Mr. KNIGHT: What?

Mr. STEWART: In our scene tonight...

Mr. KNIGHT: Yes?

Mr. STEWART: Mmm...

Mr. KNIGHT: What?

Mr. STEWART: ...could you, perhaps, do less?

Mr. KNIGHT: Do less?


Mr. KNIGHT: Do less?


Mr. KNIGHT: Do less what?

Mr. STEWART: You know.

Mr. KNIGHT: You mean - what do you mean?

Mr. STEWART: You know.

Mr. KNIGHT: Do you mean I'm walking on your scene? What do you mean?

Mr. STEWART: Nothing. It's a thought I had, an aesthetic consideration. I thought, maybe, if you did less...

Mr. KNIGHT: Yes.

Mr. STEWART: know.

Mr. KNIGHT: If I did less.


Mr. KNIGHT: Well, thank you for the thought.

LUNDEN: And if you think it costs less to do smaller plays on Broadway, Jed Bernstein, "Driving Miss Daisy's" producer, says think again.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I don't think you necessarily, as a producer, sit down to say, oh, you know, give me one person and a stool because that's going to save me lots of money. It will, I suppose, save money if you really just did have one person and a stool. But, on the one hand, if you don't have a compelling story and a compelling actor telling it, saving the money isn't going to help you, 'cause people aren't going to want to come and see it. And you'd also be surprised how expensive one actor and a stool can be, depending on who the actor is and what the stool looks like.

LUNDEN: "A Life in the Theatre" starts performances on September 21st; "Driving Miss Daisy" follows on October 7th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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