The odd couple
NEW YORK √≥ Walking along 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue this past month, you could have turned in either direction and spotted Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
At Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the actors are represented as the characters who brought them together on stage: Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, the bumbling protagonists of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Across the street, Broderick and Lane have been rehearsing in the flesh for a new production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Previews begin next Tuesday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the show, directed by Joe Mantello, opens Nov. 4. If you haven’t nabbed a ticket yet, as they say in Max and Leo’s business, break a leg.
Like The Producers, Simon’s 40-year-old comedy finds Lane and Broderick stepping into roles made famous by other performers. Art Carney and Walter Matthau introduced unlikely roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison on Broadway, while Jack Lemmon and Matthau played them on screen. For millions of TV viewers, Tony Randall’s fussy Felix and Jack Klugman’s gruff Oscar became definitive incarnations.
But the stiffest competition for the new couple √≥ Broderick as Felix; Lane as Oscar √≥ may be themselves. Though their only joint project prior to The Producers was the animated Disney flick The Lion King, their rapport in Brooks’ hit musical established them as a showbiz dream team.
“There’s this mythology about Nathan and Matthew, though they’ve just done one play together,” Mantello says. That mythology may take on new proportions in December, when The Producers: The Movie Musical arrives, with Broderick, Lane and Broadway co-stars Roger Bart and Gary Beach reprising their roles alongside Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell.
For now, Broderick, 43, and Lane, 49, seem content to be the hottest duo treading the boards this fall.
Q: I’ve heard you two described as an iconic team. Do you have a sense of being viewed that way?
Broderick: I feel like we’ve had this history in vaudeville, like we came up through the circuit together.
Lane: It’s unusual. It doesn’t happen much anymore. The last team you can really think of is (Jackie) Gleason and (Art) Carney on television. I guess you could say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. Well, Owen Wilson, he’ll team with anyone.
Broderick: So will I. How about Chris Farley and –
Lane: David Spade? Were they an iconic team?
Broderick: They did four or five movies together.
Lane: That doesn’t make them iconic. (Pause) You know, to us, it’s just about being two actors who respect each other and enjoy working together. We became friends doing The Producers.
Broderick: That show was a perfect fit, right from the shoot for the poster. Maybe we won’t have it here. Then we’ll have the big breakup.
Q: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. How did the idea to work together again in The Odd Couple come about?
Broderick: I’ve always loved that play, and in the back of my mind, I knew that some day I wanted to do it. I like all of Neil’s plays, and I hadn’t worked with him in 20 years or something.
Lane: When I was a kid, I joined the Fireside Theater Play of the Month Club, and the first play they sent me was The Odd Couple. So it’s always been in the back of my head as well. We mentioned it to Manny (Azenberg, Simon’s longtime producer) while we were doing The Producers.
Broderick: We were just starting, still in previews.
Lane: Then (Simon) wrote this letter where he said, “I really want you to play Oscar and (Broderick) to play Felix. I’m not going to give the rights to anyone else; I want you guys, so let’s work out the timing.” What a great way to be able to honor him, with one of his best plays. We both have a history with him, obviously. (Broderick starred in Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Broadway, and the latter on film, while Lane’s credits include the original Broadway production of the playwright’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the national tour of his Broadway Bound.)
Q: What was it like working with him on an older piece?
Broderick: He changed a line here or there, but it was different from working with him on original plays. In those days, he would wander off and come back with a whole new scene.
Lane: Every once in a while, he would still come over with a new page and say, “What do you think?” He couldn’t resist. But we all decided to just do the original play. Don’t update it, don’t give them cellphones, you know? It’s a period piece, a comedy set in the ’60s about divorce.
Q: A lot of people are most familiar with The Odd Couple through the television series. Do you think they’ll find surprises in this production?
Lane: The TV show was wonderful but doesn’t have much to do with the play. Especially Tony’s take on Felix. The show incorporated Tony’s love of opera, and it really became a much more flamboyant character through his performance, which was great. In the play, I mean, he is this obsessive-compulsive type, but he’s also an extremely distraught man who has lost his marriage. It’s gotten so bad that his wife says, “You have to leave, I can’t take this anymore.” And that kills him, because that was his whole life.
Broderick: Both characters have some distance from their divorces in the TV series. Both are more comfortable with it; they go on dates. This is more about taking that first step.
Lane: Yeah, even in my case. I don’t think (Oscar) was a guy who cared that much about how the house was taken care of. But now that there isn’t someone there to take care of things, it’s really gone to seed. He gives this impression of, “Yeah, life’s fine; I go on, I like playing poker and drinking and having a cigar with my friends, and I have a great job.” But when his kid calls him, it hurts a little. And he gets into a little thing with his wife; he’s $800 behind in alimony.
Broderick: That’s a lot of money back in 1965. Our rent is $240.
Lane: How about that?
Q: So the comedy isn’t as broad or consistently wacky as it was in The Producers?
Lane: Not at all. It’s all about behavior. There’s a very sweet quality to it.
Broderick: And a musical, by nature, is different. In The Producers, most of our scenes were short. There were a couple of quick jokes, and then something else happened or you sang. In this play, we’re sitting around blathering.
Lane: I think it’s more than blathering.
Broderick: It is √≥ it’s a lot more, which makes it challenging. You have to figure out how to keep it alive and interesting for long stretches. You’re not thinking “one more minute and then a tank is going to roll on with a Nazi in it.”
Q: Speaking of Nazis, are you pleased with how the new screen adaptation of The Producers turned out?
Lane: I haven’t seen the entire movie put together, but I’ve seen bits and pieces and liked everything I saw. They had these test screenings recently that went extraordinarily well.
Broderick: It looks a lot like the (stage version), which I think is very smart. They didn’t reinvent it too much.
Lane: We’re not Chicago, if you consider that the template for a modern movie musical that works. We’re not dark and sexy √≥ well, Uma’s sexy. But we’re a comedy. You couldn’t suddenly make it all dark and gritty.
Q: Then it’s not structured so that the story takes place inside Leo Bloom’s head, like Chicago shown through the perspective of Renee Zellweger’s Roxie?
Broderick: Hmmm. Maybe I just could have gotten hit on the head on the way to the office, and suddenly I’d see people dancing around and singing –
Lane: And then you wake up in a hospital room in a coma at the end. The doctor says, “He’ll never sing again.” Good night, everybody!
Q: But we’ll be seeing so much of you in the coming months, between the movie and the play.
Broderick: Are we overexposing ourselves?
Lane: I don’t think we’re overexposed. We’re not J. Lo and … whoever.
Broderick: I don’t know. Two people on the street came over yesterday and said they had just paid $250 for tickets to the show, and they didn’t seem too happy about it. “Well, I just spent $250 to get a ticket to see your show. That’s a lot of money.” You know, I don’t think we’re going to be that good.
Lane: Oh, don’t say that. Try to be positive.