October 7, 2008

World War II Hit Makes Its Debut on Broadway


It's odd no one thought of it before.

"To Be or Not to Be," the classic 1942 film comedy, would seem a natural for the stage, with its story about actors and scenes set in a theater.

Now, its stage time has finally come. An adaptation by English writer Nick Whitby is receiving its world premiere on Broadway, at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Currently in previews, the play opens Oct. 14.

Despite its theater settings, though, the story is not that easy to transfer, said director Casey Nicholaw.

"It's tricky," he said. "You have to walk a fine line."

He was referring to the film's delicate mix of tones, which can be jarring if not blended in the right way.

The film was a comedy set amid tragedy, a good guys defeat the bad guys satiric fantasy, in which we felt free to laugh despite the horrors that were happening just outside the scene's frame.

After the German invasion of Poland, members of a Warsaw theater troupe, led by its two extremely vain stars, Josef and Maria Tura, use their acting abilities to infiltrate the Nazi high command and thwart the delivery of information that would doom the Polish resistance.

With Jack Benny playing Josef Tura, and parading around disguised as a Nazi officer, the movie sometimes edged toward screwball farce, but the brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch kept everything in harmony.

The play is basically faithful to the film - which was unnecessarily remade by Mel Brooks in 1983 -- but with a tighter focus, said Nicholaw, who pointed out that it's hard to have performers jumping out of a plane in a theater.

"The play opens up more to the theater company," he said. "A lot of the humor comes from its actors. There's their day-to-day egotism, which is also there when they use their acting for espionage."

He said the humor is employed, in part, to pave the way for the gradual darkening of the story in the second act.

Nicholaw, who lived in Teaneck for many years before moving to New York recently, started out as a performer, became a choreographer, and then made a triumphant directorial debut on Broadway with the hit musical "The Drowsy Chaperone."

The road for "To Be or Not to Be" has been a little bumpier.

First, the veteran Brian Murray, who'd been portraying one of the troupe's actors, left the production.

And then Craig Bierko, playing Josef Tura, left just two weeks before the start of previews.

His departure led to the postponement of opening night for two weeks. David Rasche is now playing Josef, with the originallycast Jan Maxwell as Maria.

"The [off-stage] situation never got really dramatic," said Nicholaw. "It was just a matter of not being the right fit. We're back on track, though. All we lost was time."


If the name of the Broadway venue where "To Be or Not to Be" is playing, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is unfamiliar, it's because it's been on the marquee for only one month.

The theater, operated by the Manhattan Theatre Club, used to be the Biltmore.

The MTC sold the naming rights, for an undisclosed but "substantial" sum, to a foundation created by Friedman's brother and sister-in-law.

Friedman, who died in 1974, was a theatrical and film press agent and is the first member of that profession to have his name in Broadway lights.


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