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Theater Diary: Ludacris Meets The Von Trapps, And A Bartender Proves Unreliable

<strong>Three's company:</strong> M (Jason Butler Harner, left) and F (Amanda Quaid) spar over the affections of the paralyzingly uncertain John (Cory Michael Smith) in Mike Bartlett's <em>The Cockfight Play.</em>
Joan Marcus
Three's company: M (Jason Butler Harner, left) and F (Amanda Quaid) spar over the affections of the paralyzingly uncertain John (Cory Michael Smith) in Mike Bartlett's The Cockfight Play.

On Monday night, a theater-critic buddy and I were hoisting a round at a 9th Avenue saloon called Flaming Saddles. "God Bless Texas" was on the jukebox, which was an actual jukebox and not somebody's Spotify playlist, and the big-screen TVs were showing Shirley MacLaine getting smashed in Can-Can, because it's that kind of establishment.

It's also the kind of establishment where the bartenders are often actors, and when ours finished up his Coyote Ugly-style boot-scoot on the broad, sturdy bar, we all went back to talking about things theatrical.

Shortly after which, upon information received from said bartender, whose roomie supposedly worked for a casting agent or some such, I posted the following tweet: "Rumor I would like to believe: Judith Light to replace Candace Bergen in Broadway's The Best Man."

Seemed vaguely plausible: Light would be a great fit as the sturdy, wary wife of a politician with some substantial baggage, and she'd just won the Best Featured Actress Tony. And she'd told us, backstage, that she had a few projects she was mulling.

That'll teach me to trust a New York bartender. Not only did producer Jeffrey Richards give me an emphatic "No" when I called to ask if it was true, he chuckled a little at my summer-stock Michael Riedel impersonation.

And then, as if to rub it in, he announced a whole other slate of performers who'll be rotating into The Best Man. Gotta say, it's stunt-casting worthy of a Weissler: Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Elizabeth Ashley and Sex and the City's Kristin Davis will take over four of the core roles.

For what it's worth, I liked the production when I saw it a few months ago. And if anybody's gonna fill Angela Lansbury's shoes as a fearsome lady political organizer, a veteran scene-eater like Ashley is probably it.

Meet A Guy Who's Met Pretty Much Everybody

Remember the guy standing onstage with Lansbury last Sunday, talking about the group that created the Tonys, while Neil Patrick Harris dangled upside-down on a wire behind them executing what will with any luck be history's last prime-time gag involving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? That's Ted Chapin, and he's one of Broadway's bigger deals.

Chapin chairs the American Theater Wing, a theater-booster nonprofit that's been around for almost a century. He's also the author of Everything Was Possible, an I-was-there chronicle about the making of Follies, that cultiest of cult pleasures among musical-theater fans. (He jokes that copies have been flying off the shelves "by the tens" in the wake of this season's Tony-nominated revival.)

But he's also the boss of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sure, Richard and Oscar themselves are dead, but they left behind the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which controls their legacy (plus a host of other theatrical properties that R&H didn't create), and which Ted Chapin runs. Want to put on a production of South Pacific? The King and I? Oklahoma or Allegro or Cinderella or Carousel? You gotta go through this guy.

What's fun about Chapin, though, is that he's one of the theater world's better talkers. (And don't get me started about his irrepressible PR chief, Bert Fink, who I bet would be good for a story or two at Flaming Saddles.)

I'm not going to retail everything we covered when I went to visit Chapin at his office, because some of it was off the record and some of it was earnest theater-geek chat and some of it was just us two going on about Follies, which anyone who listens to Pop Culture Happy Hour has probably had about enough of.

But I will tell you a couple of things:

  • The Spidey bit was NPH's idea, Chapin says.
  • The first draft of said bit? Written by Harvey Fierstein, who people sometimes forget is an accomplished playwright, and whose work this season included the libretto for Newsies.
  • Chapin's younger daughter works for NPH. So sometimes he gets Dad calls, and sometimes he gets "Mr. Harris would like to discuss ..." calls.
  • Also: In the hallway near Chapin's office are two pairs of plush velvet seats from the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where Rodgers and Hammerstein tried out many a show before bringing it to Broadway. Row B, one pair from each aisle.

    Those are seats that once held the butts of the American musical theater, is what I'm saying. I didn't ask if I could sit.

    And Now, Back To That Play Whose Title I Can't Type Here ...

    Tuesday evening, West 46th. I've met up with a couple of actor friends for a pre-theater snack. (And, let's be honest, a Manhattan, because it's pouring rain and I'm damp in disconcerting places.) Actor A, who's in the Chicago ensemble, eyes the antipasto plate skeptically. "I'll have a beet," he decides.

    I think he was being arch, but then he's stripping in Broadway Bares on Sunday, so I'm not entirely sure.

    Actor B and I, having divided the rest of the spoils after A ditched us for a pre-performance gym session — I told you he's in Chicago, right? Have you seen those chorus boys? — splooshed our way down to 42nd Street for a performance of what propriety demands I call The Cockfight Play, which is not actually called that and has nothing whatsoever to do with roosters.

    There is a certain amount of combative interaction, though. A lot, actually. In fact one of the challenges of Mike Bartlett's dazzling dark comedy is how fast and how furiously the verbal knife-cuts come, as a young man (Cory Michael Smith) and his lover (Jason Butler Harner) part ways, then struggle to reconnect — even as the younger partner finds himself falling for a woman (Amanda Quaid).

    The central character's near-indiscernible sense of self, his utter inability to understand his own desires, is one notion Bartlett sets out to interrogate, as is the question of whether we've boxed ourselves in with over-rigid notions about sexual identity and the fluidity thereof.

    But the sinister brilliance of The Cockfight Play is in the way it locates the profound selfishness that often tangles itself in what we think of as love — the way we'll scheme, steer, shove those we desire in the direction that'll make them want us, need us, love us back. It's a brutal picture of how hard it can be to connect without wanting to control — and though the actors rarely touch, and the production contains not the first hint of nudity, it's one of the most stirringly sensual things I've seen on stage in forever.

    P.S. — Here's That Ludacris/Von Trapp Connection

    You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Ha.

    Among the things I learned on my visit to Ted Chapin is that Ludacris is represented by Imagem Music, which is the pop-music-publishing arm of Imagem, a Dutch conglomerate that in turn is controlled by a massive pension fund. Imagem's 2009 purchase of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization means that Ludacris and The Sound of Music's Von Trapp Family are, in a sense, kissing cousins.

    Or at least that's how I like to think of it.

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    Trey Graham edits and produces arts and entertainment content for NPR's Digital Media division, where among other things he's helped launch the Monkey See pop-culture blog and NPR's expanded Web-only movies coverage. He also helps manage the Web presence for Fresh Air from WHYY.

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