‘Diner’ goes from film to the stage

🕐 9 min read

Nelson Pressley (c) 2014, The Washington Post. NEW YORK — Barry Levinson is settled into a booth at the diner. He’s waiting on a burger and a diet Coke, and, just like Shrevie, riffing about the hit records of 1959.

“Listen to this,” says Levinson, looking bohemian smooth in a black scarf and overcoat, with black framed glasses and a yellow ball cap. “Number one position: ‘Battle of New Orleans,’ Johnny Horton. Bobby Darin, ‘Mack the Knife.’ Then you get Lloyd Price, ‘Personality.’ Frankie Avalon, ‘Venus.’ Paul Anka, ‘Lonely Boy.’ Bobby Darin, ‘Dream Lover’ — you don’t think of that as a rock ‘n’ roll song.”

That’s where he’s going with this. The new stage musical “Diner” — based on his much adored, ingeniously chatty autobiographical film about Baltimore high school buddies coming of age in ’59 — won’t necessarily have a rock ‘n’ roll score, even though the new songs are by rock (and now country) star Sheryl Crow.

You can practically hear Boogie and the gang saying, Wait a sec — “Diner,” the musical?

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It’s an odd project that has taken a bumpy path to its premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, where the show is in previews. But then Broadway is in an extended era of swallowing all the Hollywood product it possibly can, from cartoons to boxing pictures to vintage MGM movies (see next month’s “Gigi” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and “An American in Paris” on Broadway next spring). The trend now includes Levinson’s 1982 directing debut, a lot of which runs on idle chatter over late-night fries and gravy:

“What is that, roast beef?”

“Don’t ask me this anymore, Modell. Yes.”

“Gonna finish that?”

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“Yeah, I’m gonna finish it. I paid for it. I’m not going to give it to you.”

“If you’re not gonna finish it, I would eat it. But if you’re gonna eat it, good.”

“What do you want!? Say the words.”

“Diner” was pivotal not only for Levinson, who was 38 when he wrote and directed it, but also for all the young talent emerging in indelibly drawn roles – Mickey Rourke as the cool guy Boogie, Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin as the troubled young married couple Shrevie and Beth, Kevin Bacon as the jittery, heavy-drinking Fenwick, and Steve Guttenberg as Eddie, who demands that his fiancee, Elyse (unseen in the movie), pass a grueling test on Baltimore Colts history before they can get married. Paul Reiser was the deadpan Modell, and Tim Daly played Billy, who drunkenly took over the piano at a scuzzy strip club and earnestly proposed to his pregnant and professional-minded girlfriend, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling).

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The picture created a loose, offhand frame for its series of dramatic and comic flare-ups; it’s an enduring portrait of a generation bumping its way toward maturity. “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on that we don’t know about?” Fenwick says in a line that captures the movie’s sense of savvy and bafflement.

Levinson was wary when producer Scott Zeiger of BASE Entertainment explored the idea of a musical. Broadway songs? Bubbly nostalgia? “Bye Bye Birdie”? He couldn’t picture it. And what would be the point of just copying the movie for the stage?

But there was an angle — a whole realm, really — that had gone unexplored. “Diner” is largely a boys’ club, because for Levinson, that’s the way it was. In “Sixty-Six,” his autobiographical 2003 novel about Baltimore in the era of Vietnam, drugs and free love, the Levinson-esque narrator remarks on “our unspoken rule for the Diner: ‘No girls allowed.’ “

In this new “Diner,” an older Boogie will narrate, and the women will be heard.

“What happens if I put a scene where Beth is talking to Elyse or Elyse is talking to Barbara?” Levinson says as the burger arrives in this Manhattan diner, a retro oddity in the Chelsea neighborhood. “What would that do? Because just to have them sing wouldn’t be enough.”

At 72, he is a newcomer to musicals, as is Crow. But that doesn’t seem to faze Levinson, whose movie and TV career has been ridiculously rich, from executive producing NBC’s hit “Homicide: Life on the Street” to directing “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man” (best picture and directing Oscars), “Bugsy” and the Baltimore pictures that followed “Diner”: “Tin Men,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.”

“Barry Levinson is the coolest cat around,” says Kathleen Marshall, the “Diner” director-choreographer who earned Tonys for reviving the Broadway classics “Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game” and “Anything Goes.” “He dresses cool, talks cool, acts cool. And he’s funny as hell.”

“He’s a great hang,” Crow says. His working style seems to be extremely laid back, yet subtly insinuating. As he and Crow emailed and phoned and wrote, Levinson would mention music he’d been listening to in what she calls “a nonchalant way.”

“It would seem unrelated, but the next thing I knew I was writing a song,” Crow says. “He knows how to finesse in a way that doesn’t interfere with what you bring to it.”

“In his diner guy way, he says ‘What if we did this, or ‘What if we did that?'” Marshall says. “It’s very casual, yet he’s obviously incredibly thoughtful and specific about what he wants.” It’s no accident, she adds, that Levinson’s pictures have featured especially captivating performances from the likes of Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.

“Diner” was announced three years ago as a Broadway endeavor, but the slow liftoff has featured the kind of turbulence that is typical for musicals. A tryout at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre was scratched, and so were New York target dates. An October 2012 workshop was complicated by Hurricane Sandy, and original producer Zeiger told the New York Times last year that the projected spring 2013 opening was being postponed to raise more money for the musical, reportedly a $9.5 million project.

When BASE’s option expired last year, a new producer took over — Scott Landis, Marshall’s husband, whose Broadway credits include the current plays “The River” and “It’s Only a Play,” as well as Marshall’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” a 2012-2013 musical with Gershwin tunes. Landis brought the project to the nonprofit Signature, a Tony-winning company with two small stages (the 276 seat Max, where “Diner” is, and the 112 seat Ark) and a track record for new musicals.

“Diner” is obviously not a $9.5 million venture now: It’s one of eight shows Signature is producing this season for a grand total of $8.5 million. Landis says he has added a small amount of “enhancement” money to cover the extra “Diner” expense of hiring more New York actors than Signature normally uses.

Perhaps disingenuously, Levinson and Crow consistently disavow much engagement with what they call “the business side” of this new arena. But during a panel discussion Monday night at Signature, they said delays weren’t due to creative difficulties but to production snags that kept the team from getting to the point they have now reached at Signature, with a cast, a design and sustained time to work.

Crow and Levinson have talked together “at length” (her phrase) about being rookies in this field. Early on, she says, “people were reticent to give us notes because they figured we weren’t amendable to making changes because of who we are. Which has never been the case.”

Levinson has been reading theatrical memoirs and marveling about great numbers written under the gun on the road, even though in his early days he met weekly deadlines as a TV writer for Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett. This was just after he studied broadcast journalism at American University and interned at a D.C. TV station, working on the morning puppet show and eventually directing the evening news – just like the protagonist in “Sixty-Six.”

But he has never been particularly crazy about musicals. He enjoyed “Book of Mormon” and laughed at “The Producers,” by his old mentor Mel Brooks — Levinson helped write “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety” — but he rightly categorizes them as comedies first, with music. What he really admires is the sturdy melodic stuff, like “South Pacific.”

He can talk “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel,” Marshall says, and Crow says he easily refers to everything from early rockabilly icon Eddie Cochran to “High Society.” But at the diner, he seems wary of the dark mark of the frivolous Broadway show.

“I’m not precious about the material,” he says. “But it does have to be a dramatic comedy. There are dilemmas. Shrevie and Beth don’t share common interests, and they’re desperately trying to connect. You can’t just pull that out and make it a fluffy piece.”

“Barry’s dialogue is so natural and so sort of organic that you have to make sure everything else matches that,” Marshall says. “Anything that feels false or contrived feels jarring.”

Levinson doesn’t flinch from saying he “obviously” hopes this new version of his signature movie finds its way to Broadway. But it’s plainly not the kind of emotional crusade for him that “The Last Ship” is for rock star turned Broadway writer Sting, who is temporarily starring in his own deeply personal musical to stir up business.

Right now, Levinson seems as invested in “The Humbling,” his new film based on Philip Roth’s 2009 novel about a panicked actor late in life. The actor is played by Pacino, who starred in Levinson’s 2010 HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack” as well as ” … And Justice for All,” a 1979 comedy about a chaotic criminal justice system that Levinson wrote with his then-wife, Valerie Curtin.

(So many roads lead back to the diner: “The stories,” Levinson says of “Justice,” “were based on friends of mine who became lawyers who were telling me things I’d never heard about, how chaotic the legal system was. Lawyers going in with the wrong client, a judge carrying guns — that all came from the diner guys who told me stories.”)

Levinson made “The Humbling” for a cheap $2 million, shooting some of it in his Connecticut home; it’s played the festival circuit and is making its way to cineplexes. He also quit the Writers Guild of America last spring in a dispute over screenwriting credit. In a long, indignant riff as he finishes his soda, he insists that he could have lived with the ruling had it been logical. But it wasn’t: One of the adjudicators had read the wrong draft of the script.

“You just have to be credible,” Levinson says, getting a little worked up. “I cannot support a group I don’t believe in.”

He’s also finishing “Rock the Kasbah,” a comedy he’s directing with Bill Murray as a rock manager stranded in Afghanistan. The cast includes Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson and Zooey Deschanel. (It’s due out next year.) And he’s directing the pilot of the NBC police drama “Shades of Blue,” starring Jennifer Lopez, with more projects in various stages of readiness.

So this is the window to get “Diner” right. After a couple of brief workshops and a few years of Levinson emailing and phoning with Marshall and Crow, the show will finally be on stage long enough for them to gaze and evaluate.

“We’ve really been longing just to see it on its feet to see what we have,” Crow says.

“This,” Levinson says, “is the real deal.”

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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