Places, everyone! Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are reuniting on Broadway in It’s Only a Play, an ultra-meta comedy about what happens after the curtain goes down on opening night. In this revamped revival of Terrence McNally’s 1978 play, Lane and Broderick play two best friends: Peter Austin (Broderick), a playwright with a brand new Broadway show, and James Wicker (Lane), his actor pal who fears it’s a flop. The ensemble show also features Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham and Micah Stock—with this many stars packed into one theater, anything could happen! Dim the lights, get ready for curtain, and remember, “Whatever happens tonight, it's only a play.”
McNally ignored Steinbeck’s advice
Before Terrence McNally was a celebrated playwright, he was a struggling stage manager for playwright Molly Kazan's workshops. When she asked McNally if he might be interested in being a tutor for the children of one of her writer friends, he jumped at the opportunity. The writer? John Steinbeck. According to The Los Angeles Times, the legendary novelist had some important words of advice for the young playwright: “Don’t write for the theater.”
His first play was a flop
Steinbeck be damned, McNally wrote his first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, at 25. The reviews for the 1965 Broadway comedy, about a man who brings his cross-dressing boyfriend home for dinner, were terrible. The playwright recounted one particularly scathing review to The New York Times: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.”
The setback inspired him
After attending the opening night party for the short-lived Broadway play Legend, starring F. Murray Abraham and Elizabeth Ashley, McNally realized his wasn’t the only one getting panned. “I saw their pain as the reviews came in, which were pretty brutal, very much as they’d been for my first play," McNally told Broadway.com. "I saw the pain and the comedy in it.” His experience (and the earlier cradle-smothering review) sparked the idea for Broadway, Broadway, a sendup of reviewers, producers, playwrights, and everyone involved in the wacky world of the Great White Way.
Broadway, Broadway, an insider’s look at the world of theater, was poised to be a hit. It featured Geraldine Page and James Coco, and after its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia in 1978, the comedy was bound for Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. But sadly, the play never made it out of the City of Brotherly Love. “I felt like I’d done something wrong,” McNally later told The New York Times. “I lost confidence. I sulked a lot...But I came to understand there are worse things than having a play close in Philadelphia.”
Time heals all wounds
In 1982, four years after its epic fail, McNally resurrected Broadway, Broadway at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Punch Line Theatre with a revised script and a brand new title: It’s Only a Play. With a cast featuring British screen actress Frances Cuka, Paul Guilfoyle (TV’s CSI) and Ken Kliban (Legal Eagles), the comedy fared better. “You’re laughing and trying to remember some of the funny one-liners to quote later," the Associated Press remarked.
After the well-received but sparsely attended production of It’s Only a Play, McNally added even more punchy quips, name-checking theater folks Lanford Wilson, Rita Moreno and ''Betty'' Bacall. The revamped production ran off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1985, with James Coco reprising his role, joining Christine Baranski and Paul Benedict...and it was a hit! “Only a writer who loves the theater and has survived its bloodiest wars could have written a comedy like this one,” Frank Rich of The New York Times noted.
Next stop, L.A.
After another round of updated jokes featuring Joan Rivers and Macaulay Culkin, McNally’s peek behind the Broadway curtain headed west in 1992. The star-studded cast included David Hyde Pierce, Dana Ivey, Paul Benedict and Doris Roberts (playing the later-cut role of cab driver Emma Bovary) and Charles Nelson Reilly, who was also the punch line for several jokes in the script.
Play got a 2014 facelift
As It’s Only a Play entered the 21st century, McNally continued to update the topical punch lines. Out were Joan Rivers and Shirley McLaine to make way for gags about Kelly Ripa and Rosie O’Donnell. The playwright packed the play with sendups of current Broadway shows, including The Lion King, Rock of Ages and a musical tribute to Wicked. Shia LaBeouf, James Franco and Jeremy Piven are even namechecked and joked about in the revamped version.
Broadway (finally!) beckoned
36 years after closing in Philadelphia, It’s Only a Play has officially arrived on Broadway with a megawatt cast—including F. Murray Abraham from Legend, the play whose opening night initially inspired the comedy to begin with! “If you’ve never been to an opening night party of a Broadway show, then you haven’t lived,” Abraham joked to Broadway.com. What makes watching a show about theater people so much fun? “No matter what, we go on,” Nathan Lane explained. “You can kick us ‘til we’re bleeding but we get up and say, what’s next?”
See It's Only a Play, opening October 9 at the Schoenfeld Theatre!