NEW YORK, N.Y. – There’s a musical war brewing on 46th Street and things may turn nasty if Matthew Broderick has his way.
He and Kelli O’Hara are at the Imperial Theatre starring in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” a new comedy with songs by George and Ira Gershwin. Next door â€” literally next door â€” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, there’s another Gershwin musical, “Porgy and Bess.”
What are the chances of two Gershwin shows in the same season sitting next to each other? Broderick, normally a very peaceful man, is considering a sneak attack on their rival, especially if they’re doing better.
“If it appears that they might run longer than us, I’m not above going over there and just smashing the set to smithereens,” he says, sitting beside his co-star in the empty Imperial seats.
“And when we come out of the stage door, if there’s a bigger crowd for them, we should move the barricades so it will appear from the outside that people are standing and waiting for our show,” O’Hara offers.
“That’s a good idea,” Broderick says.
“It’s just an appearance thing but it makes people think,” she adds.
They’re joking, of course. Well, at least the part about smashing the set next door. These are, after all, slightly stressful days as Broderick and O’Hara tweak the final pieces of their show. Their muscles ache from new dance routines, their heads are filled with stray bits of last-minute dialogue.
“This is a scary time,” admits Broderick.
Their screwball romantic comedy â€” loosely borrowing from the 1926 musical “O, Kay!” â€” takes place in the 1920s and tells the story of a female bootlegger who meets a wealthy, often-drunken playboy on his wedding weekend.
“It’s a show that should look like it’s fun to do. But it IS fun to do so that hasn’t been a struggle,” says Broderick. O’Hara agrees: “I’ve never laughed as much in my whole career.”
Book writer Joe DiPietro and director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall have raided the Gershwin song catalogue to cobble together a sumptuous score including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” ”Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” ”S’Wonderful” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” (Only songs from “Porgy and Bess’ were off-limits.)
O’Hara, the Tony Award nominee of “South Pacific” and “The Pajama Game,” was hesitant at first about the idea of belting out iconic Gershwin songs, ones she calls the “soundtrack of our lives.”
“I think now that we’re up and in it, it feels much easier to do it than the thought of it before hand,” she says. “The thought of singing ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ did not appeal to me hugely. Just because it’s been done so many times.”
Broderick, 50, knows the feeling: “You suddenly remember Ella Fitzgerald in your brain and you can either run screaming into the street and just never come back …”
“And hope a car goes and hits you?” O’Hara offers, sweetly.
“… or you can just say, ‘Well, we’re not hurting Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings’ and people ought to redo these things,” he continues.
Broderick, who had worked with Marshall before, was the first to be interested in the show, attending a reading that led to a workshop. O’Hara, who has often worked with Marshall and even sang at her wedding, signed on later, not having done a musical in a while and thinking it might be fun.
While the show is a clearly a farce, both Broderick and O’Hara credit good writing and directing for making it more than just a romp surrounded by good songs. “I actually sing some songs in this show that almost seem spot-on perfect to exactly what I’m feeling and I don’t think jukebox musicals can say that,” she says.
Broderick and O’Hara, who recently celebrated her 37th birthday, had never worked together before, but had met a few times and were admirers of each other’s work.
“I’m a huge fan, all kidding aside. I am,” he says, turning to face his leading lady.
“I’m a huge fan, too,” she replies with a smile.
“Not to make pressure, but I do think it’s a big treat to hear her sing this stuff, to tell you the honest truth,” he says. “It’s a reason to buy a ticket. I mean, hopefully me and the whole show, too. But that alone is pretty good.”
Broderick tries to be modest but he knows a thing or two about treats on Broadway. His career includes “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” ”Biloxi Blues,” ”How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and the monster hit “The Producers.”
“‘The Producers’ took on its own life. That’s one of those rare phenomenon things,” he says and then looks for something wooden to knock before adding: “I don’t want to jinx it, but this seems a little like that.”
Though both have spread their wings artistically â€” she recently played in “King Lear” and he will be co-hosting “Live! With Kelly” â€” there’s something about screwball pieces that draws them.
“I’ve asked myself the same questions: What is it about this kind of thing that attracts me?” says O’Hara. “The comedy is classic. There’s not shock value. It’s slipping on a banana peel as opposed to calling someone a bad name.”
Broderick agrees, citing Mel Brooks and “The Honeymooners” as huge influences. They both adore black-and-white films and grew up on Gershwin music. “I’m very out of date with my comedy,” he says. “I like old fashioned things. I shouldn’t even say it, but that never frightens me. I’m very happy with any old-fashioned thing.”
“Me, too,” says his co-star.
And then, as if to prove the point, they get a little zany, a little madcap. The topic of discussion turns to upcoming rehearsals. They both come to the conclusion that they don’t really need more.
“We don’t want the show to be too good,” says Broderick.
“No, no, no,” says O’Hara. “Couldn’t do that. We want people to like us.”
“… Not love us,” he replies.
“If it was too good, people wouldn’t like us,” she shoots back. “The underdog always wins.”
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