In record numbers, this year’s Tony actor contenders are portraying characters with a past. Twenty-eight of the 35 noms come from revivals or stage adaptations of films. Which of them wins a Tony will pivot largely on how they compare to their predecessors.
How does an actor cope with a celluloid ghost?
More than anyone else on Broadway, Jayne Atkinson embraces hers. “The film of ‘Enchanted April’ inspired me to do Matthew Barber’s play,” says the actress.
In act two of the play, when Atkinson’s Lotty pantomimes opening a garden window, the stage actress invariably thinks back to Josie Lawrence’s performance in the movie. “When I look out over the audience, I’m seeing what Lotty saw from her room in the film. What they captured on film is in my mind. The film is right here,” says Atkinson, patting her chest for emphasis. “I took the best of the film. Matthew Barber took the best of the book.”
Atkinson performs with total recall. Most actors prefer dropping an invisible curtain between their perf and whatever came before. “I never considered it,” Marian Seldes says of the 1933 MGM film “Dinner at Eight.” “The movie is not the play, which is about desperation.”
In the recent Lincoln Center revival of the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy, Seldes essayed the bankrupt dowager Carlotta, immortalized by Marie Dressler in the movie classic. Seldes credits director Gerald Gutierrez with helping her to find a much darker approach. She remembers his first piece of direction: “When Carlotta first looks out the office window, Gerald told me, ‘You see 9/11.’ ”
Brian Dennehy vaguely remembers having seen Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, no less, in the film and TV versions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” What he took from those performances and put into his own James Tyrone, “I have no idea,” says Dennehy.
Once upon a time, he made the mistake of conjuring a ghost. “Being the thief that I am, I was going to steal Jason Robard’s performance from ‘The Iceman Cometh,'” he recalls. “And I lost two weeks of rehearsal.”
Even reprising his James Tyrone from last season’s Goodman Theater production proved futile. “I thought I’d be ahead, but I was behind,” he says of rehearsals for the Broadway production. “All my concepts from the Chicago production had to be thrown out.”
Dennehy credits co-star Vanessa Redgrave with filling the current production with a sexual, homicidal passion. “She found the rage,” he says.
Just as Seldes rejected MGM’s version of the Depression, Antonio Banderas found little in “8½,” the movie forerunner of “Nine,” to inform his philandering film director Guido. “Marcello Mastroianni was very passive. That approach wouldn’t work for a musical,” Banderas says.
In contrast, Banderas has kept Raul Julia’s performance in the original 1982 Broadway production at a safe distance — until now. Nearly two months into the revival’s run, he finally feels up to it: “I’m going to the Lincoln Center Library. I made an appointment to see the video.”
Tony voters are being asked to make the impossible choice between Banderas’ Guido and Harvey Fierstein’s Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”
As different as two perfs can be, the two thesps agree about the source material of their respective shows. “The film is totally different from the musical,” Fierstein says. Where Banderas finds Mastroianni’s Guido passive, Fierstein calls Divine’s Edna in the film version “an observer.” Beyond that, “I’m not getting into a fight with a dead drag queen!” says Fierstein, referinng to the pic’s Edna, Divine.
“Hairspray” co-star Marissa Jaret Winokur readily admits that she has some added advantages over the first Tracy. Lines uttered memorably by Ricki Lake in the movie version are blown up into full-scale production numbers in the musical.
And it doesn’t hurt that Lake is a talkshow host, not a movie icon. “It’s not like being compared to, say, John Travolta,” says Winokur.