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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From the big screen to the Broadway stage now. Tonight, the show that was the fastest selling ticket in the history of London's West End opens on Broadway with its original cast. The play is called "One Man, Two Guvnors" and, as Jeff Lunden reports, it relies on a style of comedy that began in Italy some 500 years ago.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: If you weren't a college theatre major, you can be forgiven for not knowing much about commedia dell'arte, which is the Italian form Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni used for his comedy, "The Servant of Two Masters," in 1743.

Contemporary playwright Richard Bean has adapted that play into "One Man, Two Guvnors" and he says all you really need to know about commedia is - well, it's funny.

RICHARD BEAN: Commedia dell'arte is a very physical comedy and there's a lot of clowning in it, yeah. You won't find much irony in this play, you guys. You know, if you think this is going to be - oh, one of those very sophisticated British ironic comedies - no, we're a little bit more Benny Hill than Monty Python.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: I've got two jobs. How did that happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Oh, you got to concentrate, ain't ya, with two jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: I bet I can do it, as long as I don't get confused. But I do get confused easily.

LUNDEN: Commedia dealt with stock characters - the clown, the saucy maid, the oppressive father, the shady lawyer, all of whom show up in "One Man, Two Guvnors," albeit in British stereotypes. The play showcases the comic talents of James Corden, a British TV star, says Richard Bean.

BEAN: The play is about stock characters and stereotypes quite deliberately. It's not a failing of the play that they're stereotypes. It's actually pretty much the point of the play and James' character is a fat guy who's hungry. It's as simple as that. In the second half, he's the fat guy who's horny.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS")

JAMES CORDEN: (as Francis) He likes his food, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Does he prefer eating or making love?

CORDEN: (as Francis) It's a tough one, that, isn't it?

BEAN: It's the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on. Do you know what I mean?

LUNDEN: Actor James Corden.

CORDEN: I've never heard noise like that in a theatre, like the noise it's generated in the audience from this play.

LUNDEN: Part of the noise generated comes from Corden's direct interactions with audience members. Director Nicholas Hytner says, just as commedia dell'arte made use of improvisation, Bean's play has moments that allow for spontaneous mayhem.

NICHOLAS HYTNER: One of the things that we do is a lot of audience participation. You should be warned, if you sit on the front row, you might be pulled up onto the stage.

LUNDEN: And James Corden told me as he was preparing to go on for the 238th performance of the play and his fifth in New York...

CORDEN: I've never actually done the same show twice. I just have this great freedom, I guess, to really see how the night's panning out. You know, every night, I never quite know what I'm going to say, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: "One Man, Two Guvnors" is set in Brighton in 1963. It features original songs in the pre-Beatles British pop style called skiffle and all the actors do little solos with the onstage band during scene changes.

Director Nicholas Hytner says Brighton was the perfect British equivalent for Venice, a place where disguised lovers hide out in "The Servant of Two Masters."

HYTNER: Brighton is a seaside town on the south coast, a tourist town. It's where you go for a dirty weekend. It's always had a slightly shady criminal underworld. There are a lot of hotels, a lot of pubs, a lot of people walking along the promenade courting each other and exactly where you'd go if you were on the run from the law in the big city.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: My rival in love, Roscoe Crab(ph), arrived from London today and is staying here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Well, dah. Roscoe Crab is the name of the chap I killed accidentally last Saturday evening, stabbing him three times in the chest with a knife I bought earlier.

LUNDEN: The show's creators say very little has changed with the Transatlantic crossing - just language which American audiences might find confusing, says director Nicholas Hytner.

HYTNER: We've come here genuinely, in all humility. This is what we find funny. If you find it funny, we're delighted. We think you'll find it funny because you find "Fawlty Towers" funny, but it is English humor.

LUNDEN: And the very English "One Man, Two Guvnors" opens at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: And you can see a scene from "One Man, Two Guvnors" at NPR.org.

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