About 18 months ago, former HBO Films chief Colin Callender moved his family back to Manhattan – he’s from the U.K. and spent the better part of three decades working with company head Chris Albrecht. He’d already started Playground LLC, with producing interests in film, television and Broadway. Now he’s got two Tony contenders: Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, which he co-produced with Fred Zollo and Bob Cole with the Manhattan Theatre Club, and the revival of Hedwig And The Angry Inch, which has affirmed that even — or maybe especially — as a slightly-botched-job transsexual German rock star, Neil Patrick Harris can sell out the house seven times a week at premium prices.
But before the Tony Awards on June 8, he has another venture that literally — well, physically, at least — dwarfs both those shows: Kenneth Branagh’s New York acting debut in the title role of the Scottish play, an import from Manchester, England having a limited run in the vast, demanding expanse of the Park Avenue Armory. What was once a regimental marching hall has been converted to the battlefield opening of the play, which promises to launch Shakespeare’s drama of power, lust and powerlust with a visceral thrill. For Callender, who got his start working at the Royal Court Theatre, it’s like going from sub-atomic particles to Gravity. Or something.
Callender made an enormous splash last season when the late Nora Ephron sent him her script for Lucky Guy, her ink-stained romance based on the story of love-him-or-hate-him tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, who pissed off a lot of people, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Abner Louima police brutality case and died too young. Ephron was having no luck getting it produced as a movie, but Callender saw its potential as a stage play. George C. Wolfe came in to direct. Oh, and Tom Hanks starred as McAlary. The resulting play was an earnest mixed bag but the show was not: It became the highest grossing non-musical in Broadway history, recouping its costs in about ten minutes.
Callender’s a booster for both his Tony contenders, no surprise, but Hedwig is an investment –- he admires producer David Binder — while Casa Valentina has been his project from the start. It began with a portfolio of photographs of men in women’s clothes who, it turned out, were heterosexual married guys in the ‘50s and 60s who relaxed at a weekend hideaway where they could indulge their jones for crinolines and what my grandmother called unmentionables and my mother called foundation garments. Call them Pad Men. Callender, Zollo and Cole brought the project to Harvey Fierstein. Joe Mantello came aboard to direct.
“Harvey and Joe’s great accomplishment on the play,” Callender told me during a conversation at Playground’s office in the warren of spaces Starz has on Fifth Avenue in Midtown, “was creating something funny and heartfelt while never laughing at the characters. There’s not a moment when there’s a joke at their expense.”
Callender gave me a copy of the book of photos and it’s haunting, these bewigged, full-figured girls in pearls ready for the next martini. There’s a surreal lack of sex in them — and in fact the play turns on what happens when sexuality rears its head.
When I point out the interesting throughline between Casa Valentina and Hedwig, he nods in agreement. After all, Fierstein’s Broadway debut as a playwright was with Torch Song Trilogy, in which he played a decidedly gay drag queen searching for love. He’s the linchpin in much of the most adventurous new work on Broadway, because ultimately, he appeals to the universal desires for love, family and respect.
But don’t get Callender started on his own Tony beef: That Casa Valentina is in the running for best play but Mantello (The Normal Heart, Wicked) is not irritates Callender no end. “It’s incomprehensible,” he said, adding that “there’s an enormous difference between directing a new work and directing a revival. There really should be separate categories.” Well, good luck with that.
With Macbeth and the missus dispensing bodies around the Upper East Side and two shows on Broadway nearing the ends of their runs, Callender’s attention is also back in London, where he has Christopher Hampton revisiting Les Liaisons Dangereuses (he wrote the celebrated stage adaptation) for a miniseries; for the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s bestseller Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis is in production. And with fellow Brit and co-producer Sonia Friedman, there’s Harry Potter in the wings. On Broadway, though, he’s home.