Stage ‘Mother’

If it’s been seen on the screen, someone will stage it. With “The Producers” everywhere, “Footloose” in the West End and “The Lord of the Rings” and “Dirty Dancing” in the wings, this would seem to be the producer’s mantra. And the latest candidate for translation to theater? Pedro Almodovar‘s 1999 Oscar winner “All About My Mother.”

This trend is nothing new, but the wary might take a look at the Broadway history books. For every “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Nine” (from Fellini’s “8½”), there’s “Nick and Nora” out of “The Thin Man,” which played 71 previews but just nine performances. The notorious “Carrie” managed 16 previews and five performances; and this columnist’s personal (sadly unseen) favorite, “Here’s Where I Belong,” the “East of Eden” musical that included a song-and-dance number about a lettuce harvest and opened and closed the same night.

On the play front, even John Lahr came a cropper moving celluloid into the limelight with his torpid version of “The Manchurian Candidate.” But first-time producer Daniel Sparrow is undaunted, convinced this nonsinging Almodovar property demands to be staged.

“When I first saw the film, it struck me that it had a real sense of theatricality,” says Sparrow. “It’s about actresses acting both on and off stage.”

He has smartly surrounded himself with experienced talent. Caro Newling and Beth Key-Pugh at Neal Street Prods. have brokered a partnership with Ariel Tepper, the Nederlander producing office and Kate Pakenham at the Old Vic. The latter is hosting a two-week workshop this month, led by director David Leveaux (“Nine”).

The adaptation is by Samuel Adamson, whose compassionate and constantly surprising “Southwark Fair” is playing in Nicholas Hytner‘s production at the National Theater. Having completed his second draft, Adamson is clear-eyed about the project.

“This is definitely not about replicating the film onstage,” he offers. “I don’t necessarily have a problem with traffic between the two, but you have to have very sound reasons to do it. I truly believe we can go beyond the film and throw new light onto these women. We can do very playful things onstage that will have a very different effect. That’s to do with the nonliteral approach of theater. We can have some cheeky fun.”

Almodovar agrees. He’s so keen that he’s flying in not just for the final workshop perf but for three days.

Friedman gets real

The insurance of a known title like “All About My Mother” steadies a producer’s nerve. Putting on an unknown play by an unknown playwright is an even riskier business. Just ask Sonia Friedman, whose next London opening is June 22: No one but her production team and a Channel Four TV crew know the play’s title or author.

Following an invitation to create a theater-based reality TV series, Friedman agreed to host a competition to find a brand-new play she would produce in the West End. Two thousand people submitted a synopsis and 25 pages. Friedman, literary agent Mel Kenyon of Casarotto Ramsay and actor Neil Pearson whittled them down to 30. Ten were then mentored by playwright-screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys and a final trio selected for intensive development.

Friedman now openly admits the overall quality was depressingly low. “I thought at the beginning that one playwright would emerge who was head and shoulders above the rest,” she confesses. “That didn’t happen.”

Would it have been wiser not to confine entry to complete beginners? After all, several London venues, including the Royal Court, Bush and Soho theaters, regularly program plays by first-timers. Why not develop their nascent talent and take them to the West End? “It’s television,” says Friedman. “Channel Four wanted to increase the jeopardy.”

She also argues it was valid to discover grassroots talent. “It has been wonderful to see the whole process through the eyes of the winner. This person has had an amazing experience, going from not being a writer to having a designer as great as Mark Thompson responding to the play and coming up with a design that completely exceeds their imaginings.”

Whether the play merits the media attention remains to be seen. Friedman’s regular investors all have contributed to get it off the ground. “None of them has a large stake, so no one will get too hurt,” says the producer.

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