‘Van’ in working order

LONDON — En garde, everyone: Maggie Smith is returning to Broadway.

OK, it’s not for more than 18 months, but one can always plan ahead. The fact is, the play everyone thought was too parochial for Broadway has decided to brave a New York run, which means that Alan Bennett’s Olivier-nommed “The Lady in the Van” should be crossing the pond late in 2002, says producer Robert Fox.

Fox’s trump card — and a smashing one it is — extends beyond Smith, who nabbed a Tony Award during her last Broadway visit, in Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage” in 1990, which was also a Fox venture. If all goes according to plan, Smith’s New York co-star should be none other than dramatist-actor Bennett, playing — you guessed it — himself. Who else to do it better?

In London, Bennett’s 1999 play cast two actors as Bennett — one repping the writer’s more reticent private self and the other his extroverted (relatively speaking) public one. Bennett actually went on as the latter, script in hand, during one preview matinee. For Broadway, however, Bennett will play the other role, the author-observer as opposed to the author-participant.

Both stage Bennetts respond to Smith’s begrimed and querulous Miss S., the titlular van lady who made the vehicle her home from 1965 until she died in 1989. For the last 15 years of her life, the van was parked in Bennett’s Camden Town garden, from which Bennett could espy her eccentric doings — and gather the sort of fodder to fuel any writer’s dreams.

“I think it’s exciting,” Fox says of the casting coup, which should intensify interest in a staging expected to cost around $2 million. (That’s more than triple the London capitalization, which double-recouped during the play’s nine-month West End stand.) “It gives the production a twist, which is exactly what it needed.”

Fox traces Bennett’s willingness to step once more in front of the footlights — those with longer memories than I will recall his New York presence four decades ago alongside Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller as part of the now-legendary “Beyond the Fringe” quartet — to a sellout reading the writer gave Nov. 27 at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

“Alan did an evening which was sort of triumphant,” says Fox, reporting an event that the producer could not actually attend, “and when he said ‘The Lady in the Van’ wasn’t coming to Broadway, everyone gave a big groan.” Therein was born the idea: “We felt we should definitely spend $2 million to make sure those people who went to the Y were happy.”

Bennett has also been writing the screenplay of “Lady,” though when that will be finished is anyone’s guess. (The writer’s last play-turned-film, “The Madness of King George,” nabbed four Oscar noms and the award for art direction.) Like that play as well as the newer one, any eventual film of “The Lady in the Van” is due to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, who looks set to have a busy time of it on Broadway, between this transfer and the ever-gestating musical version of “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

Bennett, 66, has not been repped on Broadway in any capacity since a short-lived run of “Habeas Corpus” (a then-unknown Richard Gere was in the cast) nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps it’s not too early to welcome him back.

GETTING ‘MARRIED’ TODAY

May 28 sees the start of London rehearsals for another movie-turned-stage musical, as “Peggy Sue Got Married” gears up for a Sept. 6 West End bow, probably at the Shaftesbury Theater (with previews from Aug. 29).

Pending final contracts, Ruthie Henshall is poised to return to the West End in the time-traveling role that brought Kathleen Turner a 1986 Oscar nomination: a 43-year-old woman, on the verge of divorce, who finds herself back at her high school graduation.

The musical had its world premiere in summer 1999 at the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, a suburb of Chicago. This new version began life in Toronto, where it was workshopped Dec. 9 (lead producer Paul Elliott’s birthday). Two new songs have been added since then to the original score, with Nashville-based Bob Gaudio on hand as composer and Jerry Leichtling as lyricist.

The book is by Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, who co-wrote the movie; Canadian Kelly Robinson will direct the $2.6 million venture that boasts a cast of 30. (Elliott must have Peggy Sue on the brain, insofar as the rock ‘n’ roll song classic of the same name figures importantly in the producer’s West End stalwart, “Buddy.”)

Prior to London, “Peggy Sue” will play Plymouth (July 7-21) and Southampton (Aug. 3-18), although Elliott has more immediate concerns: the Broadway launch April 1 of his London co-venture “Stones in His Pockets.” With opening night mere days away from our conversation, Elliott is pleased with a cash advance at the Golden Theater in excess of $1 million and daily wraps of $30,000-$40,000 a day.

“Why, we ask?” Elliott says. “I guess somebody wants to see it. Please God the New York reviews are as good as we’ve had everywhere else.”

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