It all began, Nate Herman says, with a party at Gary Houston's.
"I mentioned to Gary that a mutual friend of ours, whose hairline was receding, had started to look like the President (played by Peter Sellers) in 'Doctor Strangelove,'" says Herman. "And Gary immediately launched into one of the monologues of General 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott) from the movie."
As in: "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks."
Says Herman, "Gary and I started thinking about which of our friends could play what part," and thus was born a wonderful creative concoction called "Films For The Ear," in which a number of distinguished and admirably playful local performers gather, scripts in hand, to recreate films on stage. Herman, The Second City and "Saturday Night Live" veteran — currently head of the iO Comedy Writing Program — is the director.
This stage version of "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" — the 1964 film written by Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick, who also directed — was performed in February at that marvelous music venue SPACE in Evanston, with Houston as Turgidson. The late Roger Ebert tweeted about it. Tony Adler wrote a preview story in the Reader. The show sold out and the audience was pleased. "People applauded individual scenes," Herman says. "It was a huge success."
The show was re-mounted later at the Wilmette Theatre as a benefit for, Herman says, "Chicago actors and musicians without health insurance." And now comes a second show, "His Girl Friday," (a.k.a. "The Front Page") 7:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at a new venue called 27 Live at 1020 Church St. in Evanston.
There are laughs aplenty in "His Girl Friday," which was released in 1940 and stars Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy.
It was originally supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of "The Front Page," that classic Chicago newspaper romp written by that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. But during auditions, "Friday" director Howard Hawks was so impressed with the way in which his secretary read reporter Hildy Johnson's lines that the script was rewritten, by Charles Lederer, to make Hildy a woman.
"We select the shows by talking about our favorite films, ones that we'd like to try to recreate onstage," says Herman. "We want movies that people love, and seeing them performed live has a special feel to it. We don't try to re-imagine the films. We try to do them justice. We're like a tribute band. A movie tribute band."
By "we" he means such performers and old pals as actor/director Houston, actor/screenwriter Tim Kazurinsky, improv wizard David Pasquesi; actor/singer/impresario Bob Swan, writer/actor/musician Warren Leming and many others.
Here's what some members of the "band" have to say.
Houston: "It was fun getting to mimic George C. Scott. There is a choice you must make in something like this: Imitate the movie actor or approach it as you would any part handed you. And for me the difference is not between star and supporting (meaning obscured by time) actor. And though I know that I employed my own resources when I played Buddy McCue in the Goodman (Theatre's 1981 production of) 'The Front Page,' I will probably gravitate to the smart-assy McCue as he was played in ('His Girl Friday') by Roscoe Karns. Conclusion, or rather, confession: I am more film buff than actor."
Swan: "We picked a perfect thing in 'Strangelove.' The people involved were the kind that make you want to do your best, and who better to bring it about than Nate, who I would like to term a 'professional ironist'? I won't be able to participate in 'His Girl Friday' but it is possibly the most challenging thing I can imagine. Still, I think Nate can pull it off. He was so right on with 'Strangelove.' It wasn't just reading to microphones. There were plenty of props and stagecraft to help the hilarity. I think the audience literally saw the film anew through us, and in the special kind of way that only a live performance can induce. It's the reason I like to do stuff like this."
Kazurinsky: "Films for the Ear has a unique niche because film is the taped medium, not theater. Theater is usually turned into film, not the other way around. Nate asks the cast for suggestions on which films they would like to do … then probably lies about the voting and picks whatever film he'd like to see us do. But it is great fun. The audience is made up of folks who have a deep and abiding affection for the film we're making hay with. But the uninitiated seem to enjoy these shows as well. It's great writing, read by some great actors … and then there's the rest of us. Nobody's making any money on this. Basically we're doing it for giggles."
It's a big cast this time around, with Kim Turner flying in from Colorado to play Hildy.
As in: "Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain't gonna be any interview and there ain't gonna be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in 20 minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong! (She tears up her story.) Do you hear that? That's the story I just wrote. Yes, yes, I know we had a bargain. I just said I'd write it. I didn't say I wouldn't tear it up. It's all in little pieces now, Walter, and I hope to do the same for you some day. (To newsroom:) And that, my friends, is my farewell to the newspaper game. I'm gonna be a woman, not a news-getting machine. I'm gonna have babies and take care of them. Give 'em cod liver oil and watch their teeth grow."
That's on Aug. 5. But beyond that?
"We've talked about doing 'The Graduate,' 'Bedazzled' or 'Network,'" says Herman.
As in, as many of you may undoubtedly remember from the latter's Paddy Chayefsky screenplay: "So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"