Ousted Post Theater Columnist Re-emerges as … a Playwright!

The Producers

Theater columnists and Broadway producers often find themselves in disagreement when it comes to reporting on things like grosses or trouble backstage between cast members. But when you join the two together to write a play, you sort of expect them to agree on at least how they got the idea for writing the play. Or not, as is the case with If It Was Easy …

“People were laughing so hard they had to call the ambulance in,” producer and newly minted playwright Stewart F. Lane was saying on the morning after staging a reading of the two-act farce he co-wrote with former New York Post theater columnist Ward Morehouse III at the Berkshires Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass.

Mr. Lane, who is 48 years old and wears a big Tony Orlando mustache, won Tony Awards for co-producing La Cage aux Folles and The Will Rogers Follies . Mr. Lane also co-owns the Palace and Biltmore theaters with James Nederlander and is an investor in Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Grill and Tribeca Film Center.

Mr. Lane and Mr. Morehouse were treading on familiar ground when they started writing If It Was Easy … .The play, which the pair began collaborating on last summer, concerns a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer named Steve Gallop who, after being quoted out of context by a tabloid journalist, finds himself in partnership with the Mafia, producing a big-budget musical based on the life of Frank Sinatra.

If there remains any doubt about the factual basis for Steve Gallop or the story, Mr. Lane’s last two Broadway productions, a revival of 1776 and Quentin Tarantino’s famously maligned star vehicle, Wait Until Dark , were both glorious flops.

And Mr. Lane, like the fictitious Gallop, also had the strange experience of cracking opening a New York tabloid–namely, the May 25, 1998, edition of the New York Post –and being shocked to read that he was thinking seriously about producing a musical based on the life of Frank Sinatra. The byline on the column: Ward Morehouse III.

Mr. Lane denied that he was ever really planning to do a Sinatra show. “The rumor started when I was giving an interview to Ward. Sinatra had just died, and Ward said, ‘Do you think [Sinatra’s life] is a good idea for a musical?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s got problems. I wouldn’t be interested in doing that.’ Then he said, ‘Who do you think would be good to write for it?’ I said, ‘Maybe Cy Coleman would be good.’ So there was an article the following Monday that I was producing the show.” In the paper, Mr. Coleman, who wrote Witchcraft , was mentioned as a musical consultant to the project.

In the days following the Post story, news of the Sinatra musical spread all over the world. Mr. Lane was inundated with audition tapes by would-be Sinatra clones from as far away as Sweden.

“Ward led me right into it,” Mr. Lane said, chuckling. “It was really quite funny.”

Mr. Morehouse told the story slightly differently. “I had worked on a number of Frank Sinatra stories when he died while I was with the New York Post . After that, I got word that [Mr. Lane] was interested in doing a small Sinatra musical. I talked to him about that, and he said that he was considering it.”

When The Transom recounted Mr. Lane’s version of the conversation, Mr. Morehouse sounded surprised. “Well, that’s not my understanding,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what the story said at the time, but, you know, maybe he just said it was a very interesting idea for a show. I think that we couched it and said that he was considering it, or that he would consider it. But I don’t have the story in front of me.”

It may be a touchy subject for Mr. Morehouse, who was the Post ‘s theater columnist from 1994 to 1998. Until he was asked to resign from the paper last year, Mr. Morehouse wrote many stories that pushed theater news into the first pages of the paper, stories that sometimes tested credulity. Mr. Morehouse reported that musicals about the Princess of Wales and about a Jurassic Park-like dinosaur were in the works. In December 1997, he wrote that Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was “considering” taking a part in Frank Wildhorn’s Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde . He also fueled the rumor that after she split from Spice Girls, Geri (Ginger Spice) Halliwell was considering a part in the Off-Broadway play Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral . Though both stories appeared in the New York Post , neither of the British subjects ever did show up for rehearsals.

According to one source in the theater community, Mr. Morehouse sometimes wrote articles “a little bit ahead of their time, before they were unequivocally true. When he was involved in stories, some of them were a little speculative.” Another Broadway wag said, “Ward used to get quotes from carpenters, people who had opened the stage door once, and producers who hadn’t put on shows in 40 years.”

Mr. Morehouse has a certain Broadway pedigree. His father had his own theater column in the New York World-Telegram and The Sun in the 1950’s. The younger Mr. Morehouse now writes for the Christian Science Monitor and People magazine. (Notably, he contributed to People ‘s cover story on Cindy Crawford’s baby and reviewed Neil LaBute’s Bash for the Monitor .)

As for If It Was Easy … , Mr. Lane isn’t quite sure if it will land on Broadway any time soon. He certainly won’t be the one producing it. “It looks bad when you start producing your own shows,” he said. “Even Harold Prince stopped producing when he became a director.” Mr. Lane hopes to do another public reading of the play this summer at the Actor’s Theater of Nantucket, Mass., where he is directing A.R. Gurney’s The Golden Age . Perhaps borrowing a page from Mr. Morehouse’s playbook, Mr. Lane suggested that Kathie Lee Gifford, a summer resident of Nantucket, was mulling over the idea of reading the part of Randi Lester, the tabloid journalist with a penchant for creative writing.

If only Mr. Morehouse were still at the New York Post , Mike Nichols might be “seriously considering” directing.

–Andrew Goldman

The Transom Also Hears

… On July 29, a culinary chapter in TriBeCa will close when the Italian restaurant Barocco closes its doors for the last time. During its 13-year run, the restaurant played host to a high art and fashion crowd that included artist Ross Bleckner, hotelier Ian Schrager, designer Calvin Klein and the Interview magazine crowd. Co-owner Daniel Emerman explained that the restaurant’s lease was up, the rent was about to be doubled and that relations weren’t all that good with the landlord, anyway. Besides, Mr. Emerman noted, the neighborhood had changed a lot. “There’s a hotel going up right across the street from us,” he said. Mr. Emerman and his partner had already followed the art migration to Chelsea, where they opened Bottino. And now, he said, “we’re planning on opening another restaurant, possibly in Nolita,” which Mr. Emerman translated as “Not Your Mother’s Little Italy.” Regulars who want to dine one more time at Barocco might want to make a reservation before July 29. On that day, said Mr. Emerman drily, “we’re just going to be sobbing.”

… Someone tell Sissy Biggers that the French are a fairly modern culture. During a Ready … Set … Cook! showdown at the lengthily named ” Gourmet Global Tastings, A Food Network Event” shindig at East Hampton airport on July 17, Ms. Biggers, who is the host of the cookoff show, asked the French-born Peacock Alley chef Laurent Gras if he knew what Jell-O is. “Of course he knows what Jell-O is,” replied Babbo chef Mario Batali, who was on the opposing team. “Just because he’s from France doesn’t mean he’s impaired.”

Correction

In the July 12 issue of The Observer , The Transom incorrectly identified the actress Ellen Barkin’s publicist as Ellen Ryder. Although Ms. Ryder is in the public relations field, she primarily handles publishing clients, not celebrities. She also returns phone calls, which Ms. Barkin’s Los Angeles publicist, Nanci Ryder, did not do in this case. The Transom regrets the error.

Ousted Post Theater Columnist Re-emerges as … a Playwright!