Beginning Thursday, the New York City Center Encores! series will kick off a special 12-performance run of the newly adapted musical, The Band Wagon. Featuring a starry cast including TONY Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell and TONY Award nominee Tony Sheldon and 7-time Emmy Award winner Tracey Ullman, the show will bring back to life the classic MGM film that featured Fred Astaire - all under the careful watch of acclaimed director and choreographer, Kathleen Marshall.
Also featuring Academy Award nominee Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap, The Best Man) and TONY Award nominee Laura Osnes (Bonnie & Clyde, Cinderella), the musical now adapted by Douglas Carter Beane (The Nance, Sister Act) from the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, The Band Wagon tells the story of a washed-up Hollywood type (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who attempts a comeback by starring in a Broadway show with all the hijinks and run-ins with colorful characters one might expect along the way.
I had a chance to catch up with Brian Stokes Mitchell (or "Stokes" as he's commonly called), known for his incredible performances in shows including Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate and Man of La Mancha, who took a break from rehearsals to tell me about this newly mounted production.
Having seen the film before, Stokes acknowledged that "[it] had great numbers (music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz) and great choreography, but for me the musical lacked a good cohesive book," something Douglas Carter Beane has worked to evolve with this new adaptation. "I have actually since learned, that when [Comden and Green] were writing the book for it, I think they ran out of time and their contract expired so they just throw in a bunch of numbers at the end," Stokes said. "But, Douglas Carter Beane has done a really brilliant job of adapting the original story and weaving in the characteristics in a way that is much more interesting and complex than it ever was in the movie."
About taking on a role made famous by such an iconic star as Fred Astaire, Stokes confessed, "There's only one Fred Astaire, so I'm not trying to be [him]. I'm trying to be me and find what is my strength in the numbers. I'm trying to find humor and the comedy and some great singing and a little dancing, as well." But not entirely revealing his approach, Stokes said, "I don't want to say too much. I think surprise is a good thing!"
Among all the big names associated with this production a pairing that certainly stood out is that of Broadway leading man, Stokes and funny lady, Tracey Ullman. About their rehearsal process, Stokes admitted that he's a big fan of Ullman's, and "to me, she's a Broadway gal. She's got the same timing, the same sense of comedy and everything... It's just so much fun we're having, discovering each other and finding little thing - it's a really good group to riff off of."
Besides being a special event for Encores! there's rumors that like other musicals this series has "resurrected," (Chicago, Violet, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, Finian's Rainbow) The Band Wagon may join their ranks with a transfer to Broadway.
Although he wouldn't confirm the rumor, Stokes did give Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, Nice Work if You Can Get It) a major endorsement to see The Band Wagon through wherever the show may go. "This is the perfect Kathleen Marshall show. She has such respect and reverence for the musicals of that era, but she knows when to send them up and when to have fun with them, as well." He continued, "She comes at them with a fierce intelligence and a huge amount of knowledge and a gigantic choreographic and directorial palate to work from. She really is brilliant. I can't think of a better director, actually, to do this show."
"Working with her, even now, for Encores!, we slap these things to together basically in two weeks. It's like doing a show on the road." If all goes well, perhaps that road will be a short one, just a few blocks south to The Great White Way.
The Band Wagon will run from November 6th through the 16th at New York City Center. For information and tickets, visit www.NYCityCenter.org.