NEW YORK — Britney Spears? Seems inevitable. Suzanne Somers? Already done. But who would have guessed that the lives of Loni Anderson, Mr. T. and Vanna White would end up on a New York stage? Yet there they are in “Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Words,” a comedy-legit hybrid that started its open-ended commercial run at the Triad Theater this month.
The show, which has a rotating cast of celebrities giving dramatic readings from the memoirs of other celebrities, is finally staking a for-profit claim after years of testing the waters. Creator Eugene Pack began developing the idea in Los Angeles in the late ’90s, with positive buzz leading to performances at bigger and bigger L.A. venues.
Bravo aired a TV version in late 2005 that featured august moments like Jay Mohr reading a sex scene from David Cassidy’s book “C’mon Get Happy … .” The train finally reached Gotham in late 2007, when successful fund-raising perfs spawned a handful of shows this spring.
But those were easily marketable as limited-time events. Is there enough demand for ironic readings to support a commercial run?
“We’ve got rotating performers doing rotating material,” says Pack. “It’s never the same show twice. Plus, it’s a small house. It’s not like we’re trying to be seen by thousands of people every week.”
A group of regulars does anchor most shows — Rachel Dratch often interprets Joan Lunden’s book, for instance, and Richard Kind opts for Vanna — but fans of the form might be enticed to come back and see what’s new. Next month, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” alum Carson Kressley and “Saturday Night Live’s” Kristin Wiig are skedded to appear. Recent recruits have included Andrea Martin, Tony Roberts, Kristen Johnston, Sherri Shepherd and Bruce Vilanch.
The show plays only Monday nights to 136 seats, and word of mouth and the recent spate of good reviews have helped galvanize attention. With a modest weekly nut of $3,400 and capitalization of around $20,000, a few sold-out weeks of $45 tickets would also make the show a financial coup.
But there are potential snags. For one thing, the show relies on celebs to read the books. As Dratch points out, “In general, the material is so funny you could probably have anyone read it, but it’s even funnier seeing someone you know reading someone else you know.”
But what if the famous names dry up, or everyone gets hired to do a “Law & Order” that week? “I don’t think that could happen,” Pack says. “There are so many people who have done the show and could step in, and there are so many people who want to do it.”
Then there’s the question of irritating a celeb whose life story is being, um, interpreted. Pack responds that he’ll never stage a “dark or serious” story, and he carefully stresses that mockery is not the point. “It’s not that we’re poking fun at celebrities,” he asserts. “To me, it’s more about poking fun at the idea of the memoir — the fact that every known person gets to have a book.”
Some might miss the distinction between mocking Mr. T. and mocking the idea of his autobiography, but the show has at least one conceit that puts the focus on the text instead of the person who wrote it. Pack says, “We don’t do imitations or impressions. Impressions don’t illuminate the words.”
Regardless of its staying power in New York, the “Celebrity Autobiography” franchise is continuing to grow, with October dates set for Sag Harbor, N.Y. (Dratch, Kind, Bob Balaban and Joy Behar are among the stars for those perfs), and stops are being planned in Boston, Chicago and Toronto.
And no matter how many tours get launched, there’s no risk of running out of material. After all, this is the week that bookstores receive “The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying & Other Things I Learned the Hard Way,” by Diahann Carroll.