Broadway Keeps It Real

New York Post
Keepin’ it real
Broadway rips it’s stories straight from the headlines and bigger-than-life-characters
Last Updated: 1:12 AM, March 27, 2013


For an industry that famously celebrates dreams, broken or fulfilled, Broadway is getting thrillingly real this spring. Hot on the high heels of “Ann” and the hubcaps of “Hands on a Hardbody” – about, respectively, the late governor of Texas andabunch of hard-pressed Lone Star Staters vying for a truck – come a slewof shows about real people: Motown singers, a Hollywood superagent, a newspaper columnist. And, in the case of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s “Kinky Boots” (opening April 4), the owner of a failing shoe factory who gets a lift from a drag queen.

What gives?

“There’s something that thrills us about seeing our history onstage,” says playwright Douglas Carter Beane. “Even Shakespeare wrote history plays!”

Beane’s new play, “The Nance,” opening April 15 at the Lyceum, sets a fictitious character in a real-life situation. Nathan Lane stars as a gay man who works in burlesque as a “nance” – a kind of homosexual blackface – at a time when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was shutting down burlesque houses to combat the “deviancy” of gay visibility.

“La Guardia was a fantastic man,” Beane concludes, “but even a politician you love can do something reprehensible.”

Another larger-than-life character – brassy Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers – will be reincarnated in “I’ll Eat You Last.” Starting previews April 5 at the Booth, it’s a one-woman show starring the larger-than-life Bette Midler.

John Logan – the Tony winning writer of “Red,” about artist Mark Rothko – met Mengers in 2007, and was fascinated by her. Little wonder: After Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, Mengers reportedly assured one of her clients, “Don’t worry, honey – stars aren’t being murdered, only featured players.”

To research “I’ll Eat You Last,”Logan says, “I read everything I could and interviewed scores of her clients, colleagues and friends and enemies, famous and nonfamous, pro-Sue and anti-Sue.”And? “They echoed my own response to her: a woman much more complicated than she first appears.”

He and director Joe Mantello spent a lot of time with Midler, discussing how best to tell Mengers’ story, and “Bette jumped in courageously.”

“I may get fewer invitations to Hollywood parties after the play comes out,” adds Logan, who grew up in California and New Jersey, “but that’s not my natural turf anyway.”

Maura Tierney is well aware that the woman she portrays is just an LIRR ride away: Alice McAlary, widow of former Post columnist Mike McAlary, whom Tom Hanks plays – with a sandy mustache – in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy,” opening Monday at the Broadhurst.

Tierney says director George C. Wolfe discouraged the women from getting together until rehearsals were well under way.

“George wanted us to figure out the characters on our own,” says the former “ER” star, “but I just wanted to meet her. We had breakfast and chatted, and I asked if Mike had any pet names for her. He did. He called her ”˜Ali Baba.’ ” That phrase is now in the play and, Tierney says, “I really want Alice to like it. I want her to be happy. She’s very smart and really gracious!”

Charl Brown feels the same way about Smokey Robinson, whom he plays in “Motown,” opening April 14 at the Lunt-Fontanne. Brown, who’s in his early 30s, says he first saw Robinson on “Sesame Street.”

“Smokey sang ”˜You Really Got a Hold on Me’ with the letter U,” he says. “It was one of my first memories!”

Though the “Motown” cast was encouraged to research their roles, he says, they’re not interested in impersonating Robinson, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and other greats, because “it is theater and we need to bring our own sensibilities into it, as well.”

Even so, Brown says he panicked one night when he heard the real Smokey was in the house. Afterward, he went into the audience – and Robinson greeted him with a hug. “It was a great experience,” Brown says. Even better is the chance to feel like a legend, if only for a while.

“It’s definitely making me smoother,” Brown says. “We had our first preview the other night, and the crowd went up at the very mention of his name.

“That’s a good perk. I get topretend to be him and have his audience for a couple of hours every night!”

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