Tom Hanks Leads an A-List Broadway Season
by patrick pacheco
In Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Pollitt family patriarch Big Daddy says to his errant son Brick, “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is: Do you have the guts to live?”
The characters who populate the Broadway stage this spring have myriad answers to that question, touching on themes of desire, alienation, connection, and family discord. Williams is responsible for two of the most highly anticipated events: Renée Fleming singing Blanche DuBois in a semistaged performance of André Previn’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire on March 14 at Carnegie Hall, and Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Maggie in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, costarring Benjamin Walker as her husband, Brick, that runs through March 30. This marks the fifth revival of Cat on Broadway—the last one was only five years ago—and the celerity of its return is solely attributed to its marquee name. Johansson, having won a Tony Award for her debut in A View from the Bridge in 2010, is the hot-selling draw. “She’s a remarkable and amazing actor,” says her costar Walker. “The fact that she is attractive is the least interesting thing about her. She brings a sexuality and intelligence and chemistry that is easy to draw on.”
A marquee name is driving another star vehicle, Lucky Guy. Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in a drama about the New York Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mike McAlary by the late writer-director Nora Ephron. Mortality hangs over this production, which opens in previews on March 1. After a celebrated and controversial career, McAlary died of cancer at 41 in 1998. And this drama about his colorful life turned out to be Ephron’s swan song. Hanks, who appeared in Ephron’s films You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, has said of this collaboration, “It’s heartbreaking to consider her absence, but we will continue to be guided by people who have no small desire to maintain her voice.”
Ephron had a mordantly funny voice shaped in a Jewish family, which might have had much in common with the wry characters in Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, opening April 17. In a sprawling Upper West Side apartment, an extended Jewish family gathers for a holiday dinner to kvetch, crack wise, and try to avoid hot topics. The cast includes Jessica Hecht, Judith Light, and Sam Robards, who says he found the cross-talking familiar as someone who grew up on the Upper West Side and is now a parent himself. “It is fraught with peril on both sides,” says Robards, the son of Lauren Bacall and Jason Robards. “The seemingly small decision that we make, one way or the other, can have vast repercussions.” Spicing things up further is one of the mothers, Julie Bascov (played by Hecht), a former movie star.
If Julie had been repressed by real-life superagent Sue Mengers, it’s likely that she’d have salted away far more millions than she appears to have in Greenberg’s play. Money—and how to squeeze it out of studios—will no doubt be among many topics in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, the one-character drama that will mark Bette Midler’s return to Broadway after a three-decade absence. After fleeing Nazi Germany and growing up poor in the Bronx, Mengers barreled her way up the Hollywood ladder, cowing studio heads and corralling A-list talent, including Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Michael Caine, and Barbra Streisand. The production itself features A-Listers: director Joe Mantello (Wicked), writer John Logan (Skyfall), and producer Graydon Carter.
More A-listers are a part of the revival of The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote’s beautifully elegiac 1953 teleplay, which won an Oscar for Geraldine Page when it was made into a 1985 movie. Cicely Tyson plays Carrie Watts, a woman determined to redeem the past on a bus trip to the small town in Texas in which she grew up. Set in the 1940s, the production marks the Broadway debut of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., as Carrie’s overprotective son, and the return to the stage of Vanessa Williams, as her querulous and controlling daughter-in-law.
Emotional healing is also at the core of Kinky Boots, the new Harvey Fierstein musical, which marks the Broadway songwriting debut of Cyndi Lauper; the show opened in previews March 3. Here the would-be victims are a young Brit who must keep alive his father’s failing shoe factory and his unlikely savior, a glitzy drag entertainer. Fierstein says the emotions of his central characters stem from allowing the statutes of limitations to run out on their respective daddy issues. “We all grow up with holes in us and ultimately you have to forgive and acknowledge that your parents did their best, however flawed that might be,” he says. Fierstein added that working with the Broadway neophyte, Lauper, resulted in their own “mother-daughter” relationship. “She has a really huge heart which shows in her work,” he says of his collaborator.
Heart is what director Diane Paulus has added to Pippin, director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s dark and cynical morality play on the struggles of Charlemagne’s son to find his place in the sun, leavened by the songs of then wunderkind Stephen Schwartz, who would go on to write Wicked. While Paulus has wisely tapped Chet Walker to re-create the dancing in the style of Fosse, Paulus’s version has softened some of the story’s sharp edges and added bright and sexy circus elements. Prior to tackling Pippin, the director worked with Cirque du Soleil on the new production Amaluna, and it shows in the clowns, jugglers, and acrobats who enliven and animate the picaresque journey of young Pippin through ambition, war, revolution, lust, and romance.
The same verve informs The Nance, which will be brought to Lyceum Theatre March 21 by a triumvirate of seasoned and acclaimed talent: star Nathan Lane, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, and director Jack O’Brien. The play hearkens back to the days of burlesque and excavates a stock personality of that world: “the nance,” an effeminate and camp character who was the butt of jokes and comic routines. “It’s a fascinating piece of social history and Doug, who is one of the wittiest writers, has written a play that is very funny, moving, and tragic,” says Lane, adding that he is thrilled to be working with veteran director O’Brien for the first time. “[My character] Chauncey hates himself, but he also loves what he’s doing. He’s good at it. I love playing such a complex character—Doug calls him ‘the gay Willie Loman.’”
Photography by matthew murphy (kinky boots); joan marcus (cat on a hot tin roof); michael sofronski (lane). opp site, by françois berthier/contour by getty images (hanks)