The ’20s for the 21st Century

With Nice Work If You Can Get It, the Gershwins retake Broadway

825 The 20s for the 21st Century

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Broadway fortunes have been forged from Abba’s Greatest Hits. Hearts and bank accounts have been broken trying to do the same with the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Last year, Kathleen Marshall found success directing a revival of Anything Goes, packed to the gills with Cole Porter classics. Next month, she will attempt a repeat with Nice Work If You Can Get It, an original musical built from the Gershwin songbook, which opens April 24. But despite superficial commonalities with Mamma Mia! and its descendants, Ms. Marshall has one thing to make clear.

“This is not a jukebox musical,” she said last week.

Rather, she said, Nice Work is “a musical comedy for people who love musical comedies.” To charm that discerning demographic, she presents a farce that wouldn’t be out of place on the Prohibition-era stage. It is as light and bubbly as illegal Champagne, and will find success only if it can rise above pastiche to attain the feel of something the Gershwins might have written themselves.

“From the business standpoint, we’re going for the low-hanging fruit—the people who know who George Gershwin is,” said Roy Furman, one of the show’s producers. “Real theatergoers. The people who love showmanship and razzle-dazzle.”

What separates George and Ira’s numbers from Abba’s—aside from, ahem, everything—is that they were originally written for the stage. The natural theatricality of “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “S’Wonderful” mean they should flow easily from the lips of Nice Work’s stars, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. As Boardwalk Empire prepares its third season, and the city continues to thirst for speakeasy cocktails, Ms. Marshall and her producers hope that ’20s nostalgia can carry them to a long, pocket-lining Broadway run.

Last week, in a rehearsal studio a few blocks from the Flatiron Building, the ensemble hoofed through “Fascinating Rhythm,” and Ms. O’Hara and Mr. Broderick told The Observer, in an interview, that it was the era that drew them to the show.

“Most people who do musicals like old musicals, whether they admit it or not,” said Mr. Broderick. “I like the flasks, the shoes. My costumes are so beautiful in this. It’s when there were real tailors. My god, how old do I sound?”

Besides looking like the ’20s, the show will sound like it. “There’s no American Idol here,” said Ms. O’Hara. The songs, most of which are well-known standards, “are going to be familiar in the same way that history is.”

“With a new twist!” said Mr. Broderick.

“A new twist,” she allowed. “The ’20s for the 21st century!”

In the late ’90s, the Gershwin estate—flush with the success of 1992’s “reimagined Gershwin musical” Crazy For You—hired playwright Joe DiPietro to write something similar. Where Crazy for You was “very much about the dancing,” he said, this was to capture “the crazy farcical nature of the Gershwins.”

Mr. DiPietro’s book for Nice Work is loosely based on the Gershwins’ 1926 hit Oh, Kay!, whose book was cowritten by P.G. Wodehouse. Oh, Kay! was the third Gershwin show to open that year, and one of about 30 that the brothers churned out during the decade. Although their songs became immortal, the plays were not built to last.

“If they had a comic who was a juggler, suddenly there’d be a lot of juggling,” said Mr. DiPietro. “There’s a big tap-dance number in the original Oh, Kay!, and I realized it’s because one of the minor characters was an excellent tap dancer, so they put his vaudeville act into the show.”

Though bereft of juggling, Nice Work maintains that spontaneous spirit. Mr. Broderick plays a playboy with a bad habit of waking up hungover next to chorus girls and who attempts to cure himself by marrying “a woman of substance.” The weekend of his wedding, he falls for a brassy bootlegger (Ms. O’Hara). Madness ensues.

“The times are demanding something light, something frothy, something fun, something fresh,” said Mr. Furman. “The public wants to be delighted.”

After a 2000 production at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, under the title They All Laughed, Nice Work nearly opened in 2008, with Harry Connick Jr. as the lead, but the production was shelved amid rumors of infighting. After a few more years in the Broadway version of development hell, Mr. Broderick’s arrival brought a swarm of investors hoping for a repeat of The Producers.

“Even though it’s taken 12 years,” said Mr. DiPietro, “the show has always had some forward motion to it.”

Last fall, with the play’s $10 million budget in place, its producers scrambled to find a theater in time for a spring opening, winning the Shubert’s Imperial Theater when funding collapsed for Funny Girl. Two weeks away from the start of previews, Nice Work has a theater, an ad campaign, and two stars who, in Mr. DiPietro’s words, “know what schtick is.

“They take the lightness very seriously,” he said.

After making a career playing the ingénue, Ms. O’Hara was hungry for a character who is “street smart, scrappy, and not quite as dependent on sashaying across the stage in a nice costume.”

Mr. Broderick, meanwhile, was lured to the show by his former agent Scott Landis, a lead producer and husband of Ms. Marshall. For Mr. Broderick, Nice Work is a chance to make believe he’s a marquee star of old Broadway.

“I don’t even like to say it because I’m such a pale imitation,” he said, “but whenever I dance I’m thinking of Fred Astaire. I’m laughing because you’ll laugh too, when you see it.”

“Matthew could have been a music star in the ’20s,” Mr. DiPietro said. “He’s a ne’er-do-well, and he plays a ne’er-do-well in the show. How often do you use the word ne’er-do-well nowadays? But he can actually play a ne’er-do-well!”

Mr. Furman, the producer, put it more directly. “Kelli’s a supernova,” he said, “and will be supernova-ed again. Matthew is just delicious.”