EXCLUSIVE: Conventional wisdom dictates that most new plays need an off-Broadway or out-of-town tryout before they’re Broadway-ready.
Norman Twain didn’t do conventional.
The New York movie and theater producer spent years nurturing The Lifespan of a Fact, a comic-drama about the interplay of facts and truth in the magazine world, based on the 2012 book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Twain sought to open it cold on Broadway, in a starry one act, while putting a cleaver to runaway production costs.
“Things have gotten to a state where they are being done just because [that’s how] they have been done,” Twain wrote to me in December 2015. He elaborated later: “Seems I am on a different track of thinking and doing. Doesn’t make me right. Just out of whack.”
On August 6, 2016, Twain died of bladder cancer, at 85 — a sad day for his family and friends. (We hit it off after I moved in next door to him and his wife, Deanna, on the Upper West Side in 2009.) His death seemed a likely end to Twain’s Broadway ambitions.
But maybe Norman wasn’t out of whack after all. Under the auspices of his friend Jeffrey Richards, Lifespan is to begin previews on Sept. 20 at Studio 54, ahead of an Oct. 18 opening. It stars Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale. Leigh Silverman directs.
In the play, a star magazine writer (Cannavale) justifies playing fast and loose with facts because it’s in the service of a higher truth. He’s hounded by a dogged fact-checker (Radcliffe), and it’s up to the editor (Jones) to adjudicate. The play was written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell.
Twain opted against a developmental production, which he viewed as less bold than a Broadway premiere. He also argued that a tryout adds to the overall cost and is a gamble in itself. Doing the play initially with a little-known cast may land differently than with big-name talent, he maintained, and a tough regional critic can do serious damage. (The flip side, of course, is that material can be improved or abandoned in a tryout, potentially averting a costly Broadway failure.)
When Norman wasn’t working on Lifespan, he was studying Broadway League grosses and scouting the competition. He ridiculed the depressing story lines of some contemporary plays and musicals. “Alienation is very in!” he joked in one email. He added in another: “Broadway should and I say SHOULD be compelling, soaring theater.”
Although Norman died three months before Donald Trump was elected President, Trump’s hostility to facts and the press may bestow upon the play a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency. The producer had a deep interest in media, its power and limitations. He encouraged me to dig deep and be fearless, and recalled Sam Zolotow, a theater reporter employed at the New York Times from 1919 to 1969 who was relentless in breaking news.
And the day after Charles Isherwood gave Waitress a mixed review in the Times, Twain presciently declared it to be critic proof. “Not a good Charles for Waitress,” he wrote. “Won’t hurt. The ladies will line up for it. The matinees should be a hoot!”
I’m hoping Lifespan of a Fact gets a good Charles or a good Elizabeth Bradley. And a good Ben or Jesse. And a good Terry and Sara and Matt and Marilyn and David or Frank and Adam and Alexis and Joe and Tim and Greg and Chris and Peter and Roma and Robert. A hit would be swell for Twain’s legacy and for Deanna, who teaches at Marymount Manhattan College and, like Norman, is credited as a lead producer.
A hit might even encourage others to produce against the grain.
Editor: Alice Scovell