Assembling the starry cast of the upcoming Broadway production of Steel Magnolias -- Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, Marsha Mason, Lily Rabe, and Frances Sternhagen -- was an unusually lengthy process. "We were really casting a group, not just a star and some supporting players," says director Jason Moore. "Sometimes we came close and one person just wouldn't fit, so we had to start over. I also wanted some Broadway veterans and some actresses who were making their Broadway debuts, because that kind of difference in life experience mimics the dynamics of the play. And there had to be distinct generational differences, so the whole process was really tricky." Moore's choices also had to be approved by playwright Robert Harling. "This play is very special to me, since it's the story of my mother, sister, aunts, and friends," says the scribe. "I had to make sure everyone we cast was just as crazy as they were."
While the press junket at Trattorio Dopo Teatro was held just two days after the cast had met for the first time, the ladies were already seemed like one big, happy family. "All of these women so impressed me at the first reading the other day; I was charmed and enchanted," says Burke, who plays hairdresser Truvy. "I still can't believe I'm going to be on Broadway with Marsha Mason. And whenever Lily Rabe opens her mouth, she is so damn funny! She knows how to take a beat, say one word, and crack you up." Burke feels particularly blessed to be back on the Great White Way, just a year after debuting in Thoroughly Modern Millie, as she recently had to cope with husband Gerald McRaney being diagnosed with lung cancer and also with the discovery that she has a serious case of high blood pressure. "I love the warmth and compassion that Truvy has," Burke remarks. "People didn't necessarily get to see that part of me when I played Suzanne [on the TV show Designing Women]. But, someday, I'd really like to play Ouiser."
That enviable task has fallen to Mason, who's happy to "age up" to play the crotchety senior citizen. "I really wanted to do something different than I did in Wintertime last year at Second Stage, because I don't want people to put me in too narrow a category," says Mason, a remarkably youthful 62. "I also love that these women are really individualistic; so many women friends tend to look alike, especially in Los Angeles. Frannie and I were saying that we wish we had the kind of relationships in our lives that our characters have, where someone can say the toughest things to you and still have that kind of enduring love. People are usually too nice to each other."
Sternhagen, despite her New England upbringing, is looking forward to another go-round as a Southerner following her roles in The Exact Center of the Universe and The Foreigner. "I know people like Clairee from my past," she says. "Many of my mother's friends from New England had the same kind of strength and humor." This time around, Sternhagen has a little something extra to draw on, having finally made her first visit to Louisiana last year. "New Orleans was amazing," she comments.
Rabe, who plays Annelle, is the youngest member of the cast but she's hardly intimidated by her elders; after all, her parents are Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe (author of Hurlyburly and several other famous works). "When I was very little, my parents told me that being an actor was the most horrible thing," she relates. "But they have come around. My parents are my dearest friends." Has she ever performed in any of her father's plays? "In my senior year at Northwestern, I finally got up the nerve to bring in one of his scenes," she says. "All the other people in class were doing them, and I finally thought: that I should be able to do these great plays as well."
Gayheart may have the toughest challenge of all the Steel Magnolias, following in the cinematic footsteps of Julia Roberts' Shelby, but this Kentucky native is undaunted. "I knew a lot of girls like Shelby," she says. "I even think I strived to be a Shelby, though I am not sure I made it! But the one thing I hope we can really accomplish is to stress the similarities between these characters, rather than the differences between a Southern person and a Northern person. Of course, Southern women are larger than life -- and so is their hair!"
Many musical theater fans have been suffering Jeanine Tesori withdrawal since the composer's two Broadway musicals, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change, closed. They can get some relief on February 28 when the hot, hot, hot Transport Group hosts a benefit at the Barrow Street Theater that will include a Q&A with Tesori as well as performances by Matt Cavenaugh, Chuck Cooper, and Caroline herself: the fabulous Tonya Pinkins.
LETTS DO IT
Speaking of the Barrow Street Theater, a.k.a. the Greenwich House Theater, perhaps it should be re-named the Tracy Letts Theater? Just a few weeks after his play Bug completed its year-long run there, Letts will co-star in Orson's Shadow, Austin Pendleton's new drama about Orson Welles, which begins an open-ended run on March 1. Meanwhile, Letts' first hit play, Killer Joe, will have its West Coast premiere on March 19 at Gardner Stages in L.A.
Seems like S. Epatha Merkerson and Jesse L. Martin truly love each other's company. The talented twosome are not only co-stars on Law & Order and in the recent HBO production of Lackawanna Blues, they were both greeting friends and fans at the New Federal Theater's 35th Anniversary Gala at Town Hall on February 13. Martin told me that rehearsals are going well for the film version of Rent, in which he's recreating his stage role of Tom Collins; and Merkerson confided that she's anxiously awaiting her return to the stage as the title character of Cheryl L. West's new drama Birdie Blue, opening this summer at Second Stage.
HAROLD AND MIMI
Feinstein's at the Regency has made some additions to its spring schedule. From March 22 through 26, the club will present Arlen Plays Arlen, another centennial tribute to Harold Arlen, starring saxophonist Sam Arlen (the late, great composer's son) plus singers Liz Callaway and Everett Bradley. And from March 29 through April 2, the amazing Mimi Hines, who just finished a run in the L.A. Reprise! production of Pippin, comes East to blow the house down. Don't miss it!
SEEN IN THE SEATS
Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who is set to star in a new film version of A View From The Bridge with Tony Award winner Anthony LaPaglia, at Thom Pain (based on nothing)...Tony winner Alan Cumming at Shockheaded Peter...Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham at Hiding Behind Comets...Theatrical supercouple J. Smith-Cameron and Kenneth Lonergan at Pyretown.
[To contact Brian Scott Lipton directly, e-mail him at BSL@theatermania.com.]