You get four Tony winners for the price of one in “Speech & Debate,” the upcoming movie based on Stephen Karam’s first play.
Karam, also the film’s screenwriter, just picked up the Tony Award for best play for “The Humans,” currently selling well in its new Broadway home. But “Speech & Debate,” directed by Dan Harris and screening for potential distributors this fall, has also roped in a slew of theater names to fill out its ensemble: The cast list includes this year’s fellow Tony champ Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) in a cameo; Roger Bart (Tony winner for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”) in a somewhat larger role; and Kristin Chenoweth (also a Tony winner for “Charlie Brown”), singing an original song over the end credits.
Those performers and more were attracted not only by Karam’s ties to the theater world, but also by a storyline that celebrates high school theater-nerds everywhere. The film and the 2007 play that inspired it, which kickstarted Karam’s career and simultaneously launched the emerging-artist incubator Roundabout Underground, follow three misfit high school students who find their voices through the speech and debate team. One of the three, Diwata, is a rabid theater fan who joins the team when she can’t score a good part in the school play, and throws herself into the acting events that are an integral part of forensics competitions.
“I really do think of it as a love letter to anyone who did speech and debate or did the school play,” Karam said. “To have the movie infiltrated by the actual Broadway community is something I never envisioned when I was writing the play. I wrote it when I was 25. I didn’t know anyone in the Broadway community!”
Right off the bat theater fans will recognize one of the movie’s leads. Sarah Steele, currently appearing in “The Humans,” plays Diwata — reprising the role she originated almost ten years ago at Roundabout Underground. In the film, she stars alongside Liam James (“The Way, Way Back,” “The Killing”) and Austin P. McKenzie, who played the lead in the recent Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening.”
Miranda shows up in a brief, goofy role — it involves a VHS and harem pants — and “Hamilton” gets a shout-out, too, in one of Diwata’s audition medleys. Bart plays the school principal, one of the adult roles fleshed out as Karam expanded the story beyond its roots as a four-actor play. Gideon Glick, another alum of the 2007 “Speech & Debate,” also pops up. So does Darren Criss. Over the end credits, Chenoweth sings “Losers are Winners,” an original song penned by Karam.
The writer had once given hope on a movie version of “Speech & Debate” ever coming to fruition, after the production company that initially optioned the play in 2008, Overture, folded. But Harris, working outside the comic book realm in which he’s done his best known work (as screenwriter of “X-Men 2,” “Superman Returns” and “X-Men: Apocalypse”), remained attached to the project, and eventually producer Tom Rice (“The Hollars,” “Begin Again,” “The Way, Way Back,”) and Sycamore Pictures signed on to revive it.
Rice loved the play — and sees a healthy potential audience for the movie. “Last year over 300,000 kids were in high school productions of ‘The Crucible’ alone,” said the producer, referring to the Arthur Miller play that figures prominently in the film’s climactic musical performance. “There must be millions of teenagers out there who’ll recognize themselves in the movie.”
“When I think of myself in high school, I would have craved a movie like this,” Karam added.
Although he remains committed to theater — “I think I’m best when I’m starting from scratch, and in terms of going forward, I’m focused on the next play” — Karam has another movie in the can, too. It’s another play adaptation: A movie version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss, currently in post-production.
Both “Seagull” and “Speech & Debate” ended up filming over the same several weeks in the summer of 2015. Karam ended up shuttling between upstate New York (for “Seagull”) and Mississippi (doubling for Salem, Ore. in “Speech & Debate”).
Among the onscreen elements on which he had a strong influence: A musical-theater T-shirt that appears in the movie’s early scenes. “Honestly, writing aside, if I’ve made any contribution to the film, it was strongly suggesting the kind of ‘Miss Saigon’ T-shirt Diwata would be wearing,” he said. “She would have cut it herself, and I knew exactly how she would have done it.”