Talk with producer Don Gregory; Hollywood and Broadway -- a link that's growing
Hollywood and Broadway are busily cross-fertilizing each other.
As always, the movies are borrowing material from the legitimate theater -- ''On Golden Pond'' and ''Zoot Suit'' being two recent examples.
And, in a more unusual trend, Hollywood filmmakers are turning their talents to the stage. Robert Altman, of ''M*A*S*H'' and ''Nashville'' fame, is opening his first Broadway show -- ''Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean ,'' which is even named after a movie star. William Friedkin, of ''Exorcist'' notoriety, also tried his hand at stagecraft not long ago, though the show (''Duet for One'') promptly closed.
Meanwhile, the versatile Arthur Penn, director of the classic ''Bonnie and Clyde'' and the current ''Four Friends,'' is slated to direct ''Monday After the Miracle'' for the New York stage, and the great Gene Kelly is in charge of the forthcoming ''Satchmo.'' A theatrical version of the 1954 movie favorite ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,'' now touring, is due on Broadway in April. French filmmaker Louis Malle, director of ''Atlantic City'' and ''My Dinner With Andre'' -- in retrospect, two of last year's very best pictures -- is helming a major Off Broadway production. Ulu Grosbard, whose last film was ''True Confessions,'' continues to commute between movies and plays.
And in the midst of this activity, subject matter as well as talent is making the switch from screen to stage. In a few weeks, one of the most famous figures ever to grace the movie world will be the subject of a major Broadway musical. ''Charlie Chaplin,'' now in preparation by producer Don Gregory, will focus on the most beloved of all movie comedians -- a man who didn't conquer the cinema, however, until he had learned and perfected his art on the music-hall stages of his native England.
The show will not concentrate on Chaplin's years as an international star, or on the controversies that peppered his career. Says producer Gregory, ''We're not taking the obvious tack. His later life, his stardom, his marriages, his politics -- all that's of no interest to me.'' Rather, he says, attention will be paid to ''the things that molded Chaplin's character, and inevitably led him to become 'the tramp' we all remember. That character is filled with the pathos and sadness of his early life.''
The musical, with John Rubinstein in the title role, is slated to begin Broadway previews May 29 for a June 3 opening night. Before that, an out-of-town tryout in Boston will begin April 22, after about five weeks of rehearsal. A company may also open in London at the same time as the Broadway premiere. It will be ''a visual show,'' says Gregory, since Chaplin was ''a visual person.'' If it realizes its potential, it could be a treat for movie as well as Broadway fans.
Where did the idea for a Chaplin musical come from? ''It's unlike a producer, I suppose,'' said Gregory during a recent interview with the Monitor, ''but I had the idea myself. In fact, I've had it for three years. But I had to look for the right people to write, develop, and direct it. For example, I wanted a dramatic writer who also had background in comedy. Ernest Kinoy fits the bill: He wrote 'Roots' for TV, yet he started out writing for Imogene Coca and Nat Hiken. So he had the right combination -- to show the Dickensian workhouse where Chaplin lived for a year, and also to show how he discovered that humor could be derived from sadness. . . .''
For a while recently, it looked as if we might have two Chaplin musicals coming up, since producer David Merrick and star Anthony Newley have recently worked on a similar idea. But their show has been dropped from production, at least for the time being, leaving the Chaplin sweepstakes to Gregory and company.
Is there something magical about the Chaplin story just now, since it has generated such interest in Broadway circles? Only time -- and the audience's response to Gregory's extravaganza - will tell. Chaplin's films are perennially popular, but in recent years a portion of his limelight has been diverted to Buster Keaton, whose popularity continues to grow, perhaps at Chaplin's expense. Still, the Gregory idea is not to reproduce Chaplin's movie magic, but to tell how it came into being. The new ''Charlie Chaplin'' will chronicle the creation of the tramp, not what became of him.
In fact, says Gregory, ''I was never a giant Chaplin fan, though I always liked him. So I wasn't inundated with the nuances. I could be more objective about him. And you need this objectivity if you want to derive the essence of his spirit.''
How will that essence be conveyed on stage? The first act, Gregory says, is constructed like a series of English music-hall sketches, with each sketch depicting one phase of Chaplin's early life. The second part details his departure for New York, his discovery by the great comedy filmmaker Mack Sennett , his journey to Hollywood, and his discovery of the ''tramp'' character. This will be portrayed as ''a memory,'' with the now-successful Chaplin looking back on it all.
According to Gregory, ''The show tries to involve all the feelings that accompanied his life. It portrays the father who was an entertainer but drank too much. The stepmother who didn't want him, and the mother who couldn't afford him. The workhouse he was placed in. But the happy sides are all there, too, as when he discovered that laughter can be evoked without speaking.''
The musical will end in Hollywood as Chaplin comes up with the tramp character -- on the spur of the moment, though the show implies that Chaplin's own history is what led him to choosing the jaunty walking stick, the oversize shoes, the ill-fitting derby, and the moth-eaten clothes to be his props for years to come. As the final curtain prepares to fall, he becomes the tramp for the first time, before our eyes. ''And as in so many of his films,'' says Gregory, ''he walks off into the sunset.''
The big challenge in shows about comedians, of course, is getting enough laughs to make the hero credible. Gregory sidesteps this pitfall when he insists that his musical will be ''between a comedy and a drama.'' In other words, if it doesn't make you laugh, it might warm your heart a little -- or have some other effect, no matter what - and that will be OK with Gregory, who isn't going after mere chuckles in the first place. ''True to the concept of a memory,'' the producer continues, ''it won't be a big show. There are only 18 or 20 in the cast, and people will play more than one part.
Since he is deeply involved in the show-business scene, Gregory is a good man to ask about current trends and tendencies. Unfortunately, as he sees it, Broadway is in a ''terrible'' state right now. His analysis carries important meanings for all mass-media moguls, from Hollywood (which has improved lately, but has certainly not earned the right to be smug) to New York. ''The majority of producers have opted for money, as opposed to message,'' he says. ''In these times of economic difficulty, audiences do want to be entertained, and they don't really care how. But it's up to the creators to guide this process.''
Continuing, in words that should be heeded in both theatrical and movie territory, Gregory insists he doesn't ''just want to give pap to people. And,'' he continues, ''I don't believe in coming down to audiences. They are capable of a great deal, and I don't want to mete things out on an eighth-grade level. I want people to rise to the occasion, and they can. They're capable of greatness, in their way!''
What sort of thing does he have in mind, to stimulate us spectators? ''Entertainment and education can go hand in hand,'' he says. ''There's nothing wrong with a good revue, but there's also nothing wrong with educating, reflecting social changes, illuminating and illustrating people who were part of our world. We all come away a little richer when we encounter that. I like to help and be responsible for that.''
Gregory's record bears out his sincerity: Among his shows are Broadway and TV productions of ''Clarence Darrow,'' with Henry Fonda, and ''The Belle of Amherst ,'' with Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson. For TV he also produced Dore Schary's ''FDR,'' with Robert Vaughn, which became a movie, and ''Paul Robeson,'' with James Earl Jones. His recent Broadway shows include the somewhat lifeless revival of ''My Fair Lady,'' with Rex Harrison, and the sumptuous ''Camelot,'' with Richard Harris, and ''Othello,'' with James Earl Jones.
How does the future look? Focusing on his own area of expertise, Gregory says that ''drama has suffered on Broadway for the past few years, but prices are so high that selectivity has begun. People will pay for quality. The play will become the thing again, as opposed to the mere vehicle.''
In the movies, too, ''you have to do it with quality,'' he says. ''And if pictures like 'The Four Seasons' and 'Ordinary People' can do well, then quality can make it.'' Unfortunately, though, some of Broadway's troubles can be traced to Hollywood, which -- along with TV - ''siphons off some of the talent, especially writers.''
An active person who prides himself on being a ''working producer'' rather than a mere money man, Gregory openly adores all kinds of show-biz talent. He sees himself as a kind of guide for the artists -- ''they're all basically loners, and they need guidance'' -- who are involved in his projects. Though he hopes ''Charlie Chaplin'' will be more than a mere nostalgia piece, he has his own nostalgia for a time that no longer exists on Broadway, but could exist again.
''I long for the days when you used to get work of social significance that said something about the times,'' he muses. ''Those would be great things to produce today! I would have loved to be producing in the '30s and '40s when all that wonderful work was being done -- Odets and Inge and all of them. You had something to sink your teeth into, back then.''
Will such times return? Yes, ''if we prepare new talent on the undergraduate and graduate level, and if producers will open their minds to more than what they think the public will spend 30 bucks on. There are constant surprises in that department, and producers don't know any more about it now than they did in the past. They just think they do.
''As for me, I know the public will spend its money on good drama. There's nothing like that great excitement. . . .''
It might be a good thing if more creative producers - in Hollywood and TV studios as well as on Broadway - pondered these words long and seriously.