National sets lineup as RSC, 'Producers' gear up

In what has been the busiest week in memory for London legit, answers are starting to emerge for three of the most pressing questions of the year:

Will the Royal Shakespeare Co. once again have a London home?

Can Nicholas Hytner’s sophomore season as National a.d. rival his spectacular first?

Does Richard Dreyfuss sing?

To take the last first, the Oscar-winning Dreyfuss’ vocal chops were among key (pun intended) topics at the Feb. 2 press launch at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane, for next fall’s local bow of “The Producers.” The lunchtime event was attended by the show’s creator, Mel Brooks, as well as director-choreographer Susan Stroman, co-book writer Thomas Meehan, and a cadre of “Producers” producers, including Tom Viertel.

Passersby that afternoon might have been startled to see the neighboring Fortune Theater announcing Bialystock and Bloom in “Springtime for Hitler,” with front-of-house pictures and balloons heralding the show.

The theater, normally home to long-runner “The Woman in Black,” had been usurped for a “Producers” sales pitch to ticket agents, though the keen-eyed will have noticed a small placard announcing “Woman in Black” still playing. (After the promo event, the front of house was returned to its normal self.)

Back at Drury Lane, Brooks said “manic energy” was the key to casting Dreyfuss in Nathan Lane’s Tony-winning role as Max Bialystock. (English funnyman Lee Evans, Lane’s co-star in the film “Mouse Hunt,” will play the Matthew Broderick role of Leo Bloom.)

“Richard is a brilliant artist and a nervous wreck, and all his crazy nerves are in this desperate con man, this producer,” said Brooks.

That’s all well and good, but can Dreyfuss belt out “Betrayed,” the show’s bravura eleventh-hour workout? “Absolutely,” said Brooks. “I’ve seen him: He did it. He hits every note right center, right square; his pitch is perfect.”

At Dreyfuss’ vocal audition, he first sang “Springtime for Hitler,” which impressed co-producer Viertel, who was there to hear it. (That’s not one of Bialystock’s songs in the actual show.) “Richard sings quite beautifully, and that’s a tenor song,” Viertel told Variety. “It’s not an eight-times-a-week voice, but that’s something we can coach him to do; he’s got seven months of vocal coaching” — as well as a voice-strengthening Broadway run in “Sly Fox,” opening in April — “to build up the chops.”

“Better than anything,” added Brooks, “is that, like Chevalier, Richard sells a song: He sells the emotion and the story.”

Auds can judge for themselves starting Oct. 22, when “The Producers” starts previews, prior to a West End opening Nov. 9.

That could well be the month — though the deal has not yet been concluded — when the RSC finally moves, as has long been rumored, to the Piccadilly Theater, where a.d. Michael Boyd’s season of four Shakespeare tragedies would then play in repertory through the winter. Initially, the RSC would not occupy the London venue 12 months a year, instead gradually increasing its tenancy with each respective season.

The delay in finalizing the paperwork surely has something to do, at least in part, with the theater’s imminent tenant, opening April 19: the stage preem of the Elvis Presley movie musical “Jailhouse Rock,” which presumably would have to move in the fall — if it is still running.

And by November, we should have some idea whether Hytner’s second season running the National has rivaled his wildly acclaimed first, a proposition Hytner broached Feb. 5 with the same engaging candor that has marked his regime to date.

“We’ve had a successful year, and we will, I promise you, have less successful years; it’s a law of nature,” he said.

Speaking at the official launch of his 2004 lineup, Hytner played prophet: “We will surely at some point do two or three or four shows in a row that are seen not to work, and you (the press) will be quick to point that out.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hytner said, “It was at those times when the National works best.” Why? “They test the continuity of the place and its capacity constantly to be supporting tomorrow’s talent, which is at the core of the National.”

Much of Hytner’s upcoming season has already been mentioned in various places, including Variety, starting with “The History Boys” (opening May 18), Alan Bennett’s first new play since “The Lady in the Van,” and a rare burst of levity from director Edward Hall (“Rose Rage,” “Edmond,” “Macbeth”), who in July will stage in the Olivier a revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Larry Gelbart musical romp, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Desmond Barrit stars as Roman slave Pseudolus, the role that brought Nathan Lane the first of his two Tonys. (Coincidentally — or maybe not — Barrit also was among those who auditioned to play Bialystock in “The Producers” here.)

Rather more controversy is bound to be stirred up by “Stuff Happens,” the new David Hare play that will follow “Forum” into the rep of Hytner’s second £10 Travelex season, in which two-thirds of the seats in the National’s largest venue are sold for a scant £10 ($18.40), so as to broaden the theater’s audience. (Last year’s Travelex season played to an astonishing 95% across four shows, with even the roundly panned “Tales From the Vienna Woods” playing to 75% attendance, not least because it was 50% sold before opening night.)

The Hare play, as yet unwritten, will be workshopped at the National’s Studio next month and takes its title from a quote by Donald Rumsfeld in April 2003, in reference to the ongoing violence in Iraq: “Stuff happens … And it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

The germ of the play, says Hytner, who will direct it, comes from a letter written to President Clinton early in 1998 by a neo-conservative org, Project for a New American Century, in which, among other things, 40 signatories urged the removal from power of Saddam Hussein.

“Stuff Happens” was originally attached to Stephen Daldry, who helmed both Hare’s solo play “Via Dolorosa” on stage and then film, as well as Hare’s Oscar-nommed screenplay of “The Hours.” Daldry had to drop out of the new play for scheduling reasons, said Hytner, leaving the a.d. “to walk in gratefully and happily myself.”

Between the move to the Lyttelton in the spring for nearly five weeks of “The Permanent Way” and the scribe’s adaptation in the fall for director Howard Davies of Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” Hare is clearly the NT’s dramatist du jour. It’s hard to think of another living playwright who has been repped in one 12-month period by three separate plays (trilogies don’t count), even if, said Hytner, “David is not the house dramatist. What he is, is very good at reacting to contemporary events; he has the form within his power to do it.”

The title of the new Hare rather aptly sums up the National’s ongoing prominence in London legit: This is clearly the place where stuff happens.

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