Literary battle takes the stage in ‘Friends’

New musical features music by Hamlisch, lyrics by Carnelia

Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy may get their day in court after all.

The battling literary titans are the subject of a new musical, “Imaginary Friends,” by composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia and book writer Nora Ephron. A reading will be held in Gotham Nov. 2 with Christine Baranski playing Hellman and Cherry Jones as McCarthy. Jack O’Brien, who is on Broadway with “The Full Monty,” is directing the presentation.

If all goes well, there is talk of a fall 2002 Broadway opening for “Friends.” Bill Haber, who is producing, could not be reached for comment.

McCarthy and Hellman were already bitter enemies when the author of “The Little Foxes” sued the author of “The Group.” The lawsuit focused on McCarthy’s publicly issued stinger: “Not one word (Hellman) has written is true and that includes ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Hellman died in 1984, before the lawsuit could come to trial. McCarthy died five years later.

It’s the busy autumn for Hamlisch and Carnelia. Next week, they begin rehearsals in New York for another new but long-gestating tuner, “Sweet Smell of Success,” which opens at Chicago’s Shubert Theater in December. The John Lithgow-starrer comes to Broadway in March 2002.

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