Comedy is what we need right now, says Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George), who ran London’s National Theatre for a decade.
It’s fine to have heavy-lifting dramas by Ibsen or Schiller, but boy-oh-boy laugher is an increasingly uplifting necessity.
Which is where Guys & Dolls and James Corden, post his life on The Late Late Show, come in.
Hytner, partnered with longtime executive Nick Starr, now own and control London’s Bridge Theatre and is overseeing a fully immersive revival of the classic Broadway musical Guys & Dolls, choreographed by Dame Arlene Phillips (Strictly Come Dancing) and now in early previews.
It stars Daniel Mays (The Long Shadow, 1917) as Nathan Detroit, Andrew Richardson (A Call to Spy) as Sky Masterson, Celinde Schoenmaker (Rocketman) as Sarah Brown and Marisha Wallace (Aladdin) as long-suffering Miss Adelaide. Cedric Neal plays Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Also in the cast are Jordan Castle, Cornelius Clarke, Cameron Johnson, Anthony O’Donnell, Mark Oxtoby, Ryan Pidgen and Katy Secombe.
Corden ends his The Late Late Show experience with CBS this summer. Hytner has spoken with Corden about what he wants to do when he touches down in the UK. One of the things he’s definite about is recharging his stage skills with a return to One Man, Two Guvnors, in which he gave a masterclass in physical comedy winning him a Tony on Broadway.
“We’re nudging that into place at the moment,” Hytner tells me.
Corden, he says, would do the show either at the Bridge or in the West End at the end of this year, or early in 2024.
Hytner directed the original production in 2011 at the National when, needing to add lighter fare to an otherwise “serious” season, he commissioned Richard Bean to adapt Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters with Corden as its star.
Cal McCrystal, a director, writer, actor and a trained circus clown, was hired as associate director to develop physical comedy routines and create a comedic vocabulary for the show.
I happened to be at its first preview. Laughed myself silly. I returned three nights later to see if it made Mrs. B laugh. The moment we exited the theater texts flew out to all her friends. That’s when I knew it would be a hit, and so it was.
Subsequently, McCrystal’s wit enlivened other productions with larky sketches of funny business. Most recent is Ian McKellan playing Mother Goose in London, now on a tour of the UK.
There’s chatter about McKellen’s Mother Goose laying golden eggs on Broadway. I quite like the idea of showing off the theatrical knight’s turn as a pantomime dame in heels — at 83 years of age! Well, Nancy Pelosi has no trouble.
There’s long been an eagerness to to put One Man, Two Guvnors onto the big screen, but those close to it shake their heads lamenting that “the physical gags won’t translate.”
What’s required, they say, is a complete reboot to create a screenplay that can visualize the humorous physicality that works so effortlessly on a thrust stage. It was delightful to view the NT Live version of the actual One Man, Two Guvnors, filmed during its original run, but it didn’t have me rocking on my sofa at home the way it had at the National.
The likes of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond painstakingly plotted every comedic moment for Some Like It Hot.
I remember seeing a stage adaptation of Some Like It Hot starring Tommy Steele. It was about as much fun as being locked in a walk-in freezer with an incontinent elephant.
Perhaps some theater shows aren’t meant to be turned into features for theatrical release. And visa versa.
Take Guys & Dolls. There have been a couple of sensational revivals (Oh, come on! I wasn’t around to cover the original 1950 production with Robert Alda, Isabel Bigley, Vivian Blaine, Sam Levine and Stubby Kaye, but I used to know people who were.)
With the exception of Blaine, Kaye and Jean Simmons, Hytner doesn’t much rate Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1955 screen version that starred Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. “The stories from it are pretty great,” says Hytner.
“The stories from it are better than the movie, of Sinatra and Brando hating each other,” he argues.
Kaye and Blaine are stand-out, because they’d done the show.
Hytner smiles when he tells me that Laurence Olivier had once wanted to play Nathan Detroit back in the days when the National was located at the Old Vic Theatre. The National’s board axed the idea.
It was to be decades before the idea was revived. By that time the National had moved into its own dedicated digs overlooking the Thames. So it was that in March 1982, Richard Eyre mounted the NT’s first ever musical: Guys & Dolls.
Bob Hoskins, Julia McKenzie, Ian Charleston and Julie Covington played the leads and it was a sensation.
Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) and Imelda Staunton (The Crown) were further down the cast list playing Big Jule and Mimi, one of the Hot Box chorus girls. They’ve been a couple ever since.
“It was the first time a great Broadway musical was done on the London stage with all the care and detail and expertise and resources of the subsidized theater. Nobody had done a great Broadway musical as if they were doing Shakespeare,” says Hytner when we meet during a break from rehearsals where he, along with Phillips and stage managers, choreograph the show’s opening Runyonland number.
As the company hustled and bustled around the stage they had to imagine what it’ll be like with 400 audience members on set with them fully immersed into the action. Phillips explains that stage assistants will marshal the audience around the stage so they avoid bumping into the cast, and moving scenery.
It’s fascinating to watch and I stay hours longer than my allotted time. The immersive staging allows every single thespian to shine. I’m also pleased to see Mays, a stranger to musical theater, having fun and clearly getting on well with co-star Richardson — unlike Brando and Sinatra.
Hytner believes that musical comedies written “by guys” are “all telling the same story, which is that guys are dumb and the dolls are always wiser, smarter and fighting against the odds.
“And if you think about it,” he adds, “everything from Much Ado About Nothing through to the great Hollywood films … think of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn pictures. Katharine Hepburn’s always smarter. Beatrice is smarter than Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.”
I nod my head because I know he’s right and Mrs. B would like his assessment, too.
“In a world where where the rules are made by guys, if the romantic comedy is worth doing, it’s always the guys doing the learning. The romantic comedies where the dolls are doing the learning, they’re not classics,” he insists. “They’ve gone.”
Hytner reckons that the musical is “an American art form,” and few would argue with that, though he concedes that there are some great British ones. However, none would make his top five.
He recalls a conversation he had when he was directing a musical of Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway with music by Marvin Hamlisch. Someone asked, ”What are the top five musicals ever written?”
Hytner listed Carousel, Guys & Dolls, West Side Story, Showboat. “And I can’t remember what my fifth was. And a little voice behind me went, ‘What about A Chorus Line?’ And it was Marvin. I said, ‘Number six, number six.’ ”
The art of the con is to exude confidence. And to not give yourself away.
I’m completely hopeless. I usually burst out laughing whenever I attempt to kid family and friends. Cards? Forget it.
My whole face is a tell.
That’s why I’ve become obsessed with Apple TV+ and A24’s original film Sharper, where grifters play out a scam involving a Park Avenue billionaire played by John Lithgow.
Director Benjamin Caron’s ace thriller stars Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith and Briana Middleton. They’re all terrific, but it’s Moore’s poker face that I keep returning to.
What is it about this film, I ask her, that has had me analyzing her character’s body language for clues?
“It is sexy in the sense that its got people and their relationships to one another, and their personal desires. And we haven’t seen many movies about people trying to get things from other people through their relationships,” Moore tells me over a crackly telephone line as she’s being driven home from the set of anther tantalizing project she’s filming here in London called Mary & George, directed by Oliver Hermanus (Living) and produced by Liza Marshall (Boy A, Temple) for Sky and AMC+. It’s a historical drama set in the 17th century at the court of James I, where her character Mary Villiers has inveigled herself. ”I haven’t done many period films outside of the 20th and 21st centuries,“ she says, “and I’ve never done anything Jacobean, that’s for sure.”
She’s having fun though. Living in trendy Notting Hill and enjoying playing opposite Nicholas Galitzine, who portrays her son George.
The folks in Sharper, says Moore, have the “sexy idea of people using their intelligence and their ability to enhance another person.”
Madeline, the woman of mystery Moore plays, is “very tricky. You have to pay attention,” she tells me.
We talk endlessly about the movie’s deliciously wicked twists and turns. Yeah, but is such and such in on the con, I ask. And what about when that happens? ”Baz, listen. You cannot say any of this. You can’t give anything away,” Moore says sharply on the need to keep the secrets of Sharper to myself.
I can see why she wanted to play Madeline. As she says, “it’s so delightful and refreshing to read something adult and entertaining” when we briefly analyze the screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanka. Moore loved what she read so much that she signed on as star and producer.
The Oscar winner talks about “what kind of pleasure” Madeline must be getting from the way she chooses to make a living. “What she’s doing is extremely dangerous … it excites her. I love playing somebody like that who feels like there’s no obstacle to what she can achieve,” Moore says.
We’re all a little bit like Madeline, she adds. “We are different people, all of us human beings are different. We have a different relationship to ourselves than we do to somebody we work for than we do a childhood friend, to somebody at a restaurant. We have different personas as human beings and Madeline is skilled at presenting different faces to the world. ”But it really is just an exaggeration of what we all naturally do as human beings,” she tells me.
At the recent BAFTA Film Awards, Moore presented her friend, the costume designer Sandy Powell, with the BAFTA Fellowship. They worked together on several movies including The End of the Affair, Far From Heaven, Wonderstruck and The Glorias. “That’s kind of major,” she says. “I was very lucky to work with her.”
I ask Moore what she wanted the costumes she wears in Sharper to say about Madeline. “That she’s wealthy,” she says with a knowing laugh.