Is Hollywood stage-struck?

<B>Gordon Cox: Noises Off </B>

It’s not often that stage thesps get asked to reprise a signature role in a play-to-pic adaptation.

When Frank Langella was confirmed last week for the part of Richard M. Nixon in the movie version of “Frost/Nixon” — a role he originated in London and is currently playing to raves on Broadway — the announcement ended rumors the former U.S. president would be essayed on camera by Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks or Kevin Spacey.

It’s a common casting maneuver to replace the stage actor, no matter how acclaimed, with another thesp. In the upcoming movie version of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” for instance, lead roles played on stage by Broadway regulars Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne will be taken on by the more Hollywood-friendly Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

If a legit actor does reprise a stage role, it’s often alongside movie stars, as Langella did with his Tony-winning vampire in the 1979 screen incarnation of “Dracula,” which co-starred Laurence Olivier.

But Langella will star onscreen with his legit cohort, Michael Sheen, as interviewer David Frost, in Ron Howard’s film of “Frost/Nixon,” being adapted from his own play by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland”).

Movie stars, of course, can be vital in selling a pic version of a play that may not be a hot commodity outside legit circles. Recently, West End and Broadway smash “The History Boys” made the stage-to-screen leap with its entire creative team intact — but with little box office impact. And even such better-known tuner properties as “The Producers” and “Rent” couldn’t attract auds with original legit stars.

But “History Boys” didn’t have a hitmaking screen helmer (Howard) on its side, or a hot writer (Morgan) telling the kind of behind-the-personage tale for which he has become known. Or, for that matter, a universally recognized name in its title.

* * *

There’s no question everyone in the Gotham legit community will turn out for “ShowBusiness,” the new docu from filmmaker-producer Dori Berinstein that gets impressively far backstage in chronicling the 2003-2004 Broadway season. (That’s the one in which “Wicked” became a top-selling juggernaut and “Avenue Q” pulled the most surprising Tony upset in recent memory.)

Seemingly every Rialto denizen appears in the pic, from thesps Tonya Pinkins and Euan Morton to creatives Jeanine Tesori and Stephen Schwartz to producers David Stone and Rosie O’Donnell to critics Ben Brantley and Linda Winer.

But Berinstein, also a producer of freshly opened tuner “Legally Blonde,” hopes the pic will appeal not just to those who lunch regularly at Angus McIndoe, Joe Allen or the Polish Tea Room.

“I very intentionally did not make a film just for Broadway insiders, although we do have a built-in audience in that community,” she says. With the Internet and hit pics such as “Chicago” and “High School Musical,” “The theater community is so vast now. It’s national.”

The docu opens May 11 at Gotham’s Sunshine Cinema, and rolls out over the summer in Boston, Chicago, SanFran, Atlanta and St. Louis, among other cities. Movie will target a large chunk of its marketing toward regional theaters and legit schools in those areas.

A DVD will be released in the fall, with a TV broadcast deal in the works.

* * *

An online print-on-demand service and expanded merchandising could figure into the future of the 177-year-old legit publishing house Samuel French.

Prexy Leon Embry, who took over the company last October, is looking to shake things up at the original legit publishing giant.

“Companies get into a pattern that can become a holding pattern,” Embry says. “I have a broad mandate to make changes at this time.”

The fact that his last name isn’t Van Nostrand is already a change.

The Van Nostrand clan headed up the company for the better part of a century — beginning with ancestor Thomas R. Edwards in 1902 (through his death in 1930), continuing through Edwards’ grandson M. Abbott Van Nostrand (who was president for 38 years beginning in 1952), and up to Charles R. Van Nostrand, prexy from 1990 until Embry took over last year.

Embry has been with Samuel French since 1970, when he began running the company’s Hollywood outpost, and has been vice president for the past decade. (Now that Embry has stepped up to president, the new VP is Abbie Van Nostrand, Edwards’ great-granddaughter.)

Because Samuel French licenses the plays its publishes to regional theaters, amateur groups, and schools — and licensing can be a vital source of income for legit scribes –playwrights and the folks who rep them have an interest in Embry’s plans for the company’s future.

Look for Samuel French to reach a bit beyond the established hits that have dominated its fare in the past.

“A number of regionals are bringing new work to the fore,” Embry says. “We’re looking for more cutting edge. I’m very much open to seeking things to liven up the catalog.”

Some areas he hopes to expand include children’s plays and works by Latino playwrights. Embry also mentioned the possibility of a play to be published in both English and Spanish. He’s taking a cue from upstart competitor Playscripts Inc. and looking into print-on-demand and has already staked out a Website.

Soon, he says, thesps (or aspiring ones) will be able to order Sam French merchandise online. (Think “I Brake for Auditions” bumper stickers and T-shirts that read “No Dogs or Actors Allowed.”)

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