EXCLUSIVE: These days, theater buffs can choose between two versions of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods — Rob Marshall’s big-screen extravaganza with tons of stars and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway presentation of loosey-goosey Fiasco’s stripped-down, story-theater version with no stars at all, at the Laura Pels. But that’s small beer compared to the coming showdown between the dueling productions of Wolf Hall, each offering lavish takes on Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels — one free, the other really expensive. Isn’t it bliss?
As you know, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s two-part, six-hour production of Mantel’s drama of intrigue, lust, betrayal and general bad behavior in the court of Henry VIII is coming to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. It’s one of the biggest cross-the-pond events since the RSC’s Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby sailed over back in the day when Roger Rees could play a juvenile. Like Nick/Nick, Wolf Hall arrives with “hit” stamped all over it (the two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Man Booker Prize). And like that RSC production of the Dickens novel, Wolf Hall comes with a flotilla of rave reviews for Mike Poulton’s deft adaptation and Jeremy Herrin’s staging, including from you-know-who at the NY Times. The $4.5 million show begins performances on March 20, officially opening April 9. The lead producers are man-about-Broadway Jeffrey Richards and his partner Jerry Frankel.
But hold on! A few days ago, another Wolf Hall adaptation opened, on TV in the UK, courtesy of the BBC Two via Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment and Company Pictures. (Colin Callender! Wasn’t he instrumental in bringing Nick/Nick to the television audience? Indeed he was.) The six-part miniseries, filmed on location (castles, horses, etc.), stars two-time Tony winner and deliverer of arcane acceptance speeches Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell; Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn; and another Tony owner, everybody’s favorite Miss Saigon Engineer, Jonathan Pryce, as Cardinal Wolsey.
The first hour in the six-part series kicked off January 21 and man booker, the critics were shouting hallelujah. “This is event television, sumptuous, intelligent, and serious, meticulous in detail but not humourless or po-face,” wrote Sam Wollaston in The Guardian. (“Po-face“?) Not to be outdone, the Sunday Mirror‘s Kevin O’Sullivan called it “a masterpiece” that is “close to perfect television.”
Speaking of masterpiece, the series will have its American debut on the Public Broadcasting Service’s Masterpiece — beginning April 5. That’s smack in the middle of the Broadway previews. Broadway producers generally hate it when there’s competition from movies or TV, even though Mamma Mia!, Chicago and Hairspray all benefited at the box office from revived interest after the movie versions came out. But those shows were already in profit when the films were released. In the case of Wolf Hall, which needs to fill the Winter Garden’s 1,526 seats (non-premium orchestra seats are $250 for both parts), customers will have to decide between navigating the Broadway gauntlet to see the live performance or putting on those Royal Family Coat-Of-Arms pj’s and snuggling up in front of the curved-screen HDTV.
In truth, it’s no laughing matter. PBS depends on such British imports for support as much as Broadway producers depend on ticket buyers. So is it a competition?
Not at all, says Richards, who has emerged in recent years as one of Broadway’s go-to guys for risky shows. “They’re two entirely separate entities. I can only hope one seeds the other.” He said that the show has a healthy advance, though I can attest that it’s not doing the $13.5 million reputed to be the record-making advance sale so far for Larry David’s upcoming debut, Fish In The Dark. But it’s respectable.
Richards did admit that the timing is curious. “We heard the PBS series might be in the fall, and then they changed it to the spring,” he said. “They planned it that way.”
“Wolf Hall was briefly considered for the fall schedule, but the April date was settled on months ago,” says Ellen Dockser, a spokesman for Boston-based WGBH, which presents Masterpiece for PBS. “We put it in the spring schedule so it could be eligible for the 2015 Emmys. The scheduling of the TV show and the play is a coincidence. Of course, we hope it’s a happy coincidence that benefits both productions.”
Callender — while all but howling over what he called “the tsunami of reviews” from the UK TV critics — also didn’t want to look like he was, er, reigning on Broadway’s parade. “We had no input on the scheduling decision made by PBS,” says Callender, a former head of HBO Films, before going all diplo on me. “I think the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts,” he said, dubbing it “WolfHallMania in Manhattan.”
Said the ever-optimistic Richards, “People can’t get enough of something when there’s interest.” Especially when there’s interest in the principals.
And here’s the latest stop-the-presses update that makes Wolf Hall particularly of-the-moment: “The BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall is a deliberate ‘perversion’ of historical fact, Professor David Starkey has said, as he argues its star shows too much emotion,” howls The Telegraph.
“Prof Starkey, the academic and broadcaster, said the television adaption of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels had ‘not a scrap of evidence’ behind some scenes.
“Saying the stories, about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor court, were ‘wonderful fiction,’ he added the characters of Cromwell and his arch enemy Thomas More had been misrepresented.”
Call Joe Califano!