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BWW Interview: Alison J. Murphy and Mark Edward Lang in LUNT AND FONTANNE 'THE CELESTIALS OF BROADWAY'

As the characters Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Mark Edward Lang and Alison J. Murphy seem to be a perfect fit in the play about the famous Broadway actors. Lang and Murphy are married in real life and have been performing together for many years. Recently visiting San Antonio, Texas, BWW had a chance to sit down and chat with them about their roles and about the show LUNT AND FONTANNE "THE CELESTIALS OF BROADWAY."

Where did it all begin for you? When did you decide you really wanted be actors?

Mark -I grew up in New York City and then I went onto Vassar College to major in theater there. I did a lot, I learned a lot so ultimately something I always enjoyed. In high school I used to do my own videos and my friends said, "Why don't you try the stage?" It spun off from there. But the fact that I was able to come home to New York and audition without having to move to New York and find an apartment helped. But, often you're there auditioning and you get the gig that's going to take you all over the country on tour. It was nice to not have to sublet and deal with that. I love different creative outlets. I've always loved visual art, writing; I'm not an experienced playwright but when we got to this, it took many years to hone it with the help of developmental meetings. I love telling stories, love performing, love dialects, I love characters, I love playing heavy drama but I love playing whacky comedy. So you can find the human experience in a play and in sharing a play with an audience. In our play, we have 40 years of a great couple's life compressed into 90 minutes. You can experience even tidbits of an entire life in 90 minutes or a great film or great bio pick; experience an entire life in a short period of time. As a performer and as an audience, I just love that.

Alison -As a really little girl, maybe four or five, I always remember inviting our neighbors in for a play that I would be doing for the neighborhood. Then in high school, I got more opportunities. I remember people laughing and I thought, "This is amazing. I love this." Then in college, we did outdoor Shakespeare for the first time so it was the very beginning and I had another whole experience with that. Ever since I can remember, I was always reading and watching movies and going to the movies with my dad. I think also that it was an escape too growing up because my parents divorced so I think that at a pivotal stage, that had an impact on me and it was going into a different world. I got good at doing different characters. I loved it and it was comforting and art could come out of something that was difficult. I went to Ramapo College in New Jersey and I majored in literature and I minored in theater but spent most of my time there doing theater. I started the Equity Membership Candidate Program there in college. And I remember we worked for American Stage Company and you did everything. You did lights, sound, so I had such an appreciation of not just the people on the stage but the people that did everything because nothing else would have happened without that. I also remember my dad taking me to see EVITA with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patikin. And I wasn't a singer, but after I saw them, I said, "That is what I wanna do." And I got to audition for Horton Foote when I was in that program. One step kept moving to another step and then I was away from it for a little while and then had an opportunity in Cape May (New Jersey). My mother said, "There's someone on the board of East Lynne (Theater Company) that is looking for an actress." And I said, "I'm not interested. Don't even ask me, I don't want to do that." And my mom can be very persuasive and very talkative and she wasn't. She just said, "I think you're closing a door on yourself." So I thought about it overnight and I said, "You know what, maybe you are right." So I went down and I got the part and Mark...

M -I happened to be in that play in 2001 so there hangs the tale.

A -My mother was prophetically right.

M -I also went to college for Liberal Arts and got to do a little bit of everything. In the theater major, you take scene design, you do tech work, you do acting, you do directing. You have to take ballet and language and I took visual art as well. I love drawing and painting. To me, Liberal Arts makes more sense than a conservatory because you feel like a more rounded person than just focusing on one thing. And to me, graduate school was going out on the road doing Shakespeare, doing regionals all over the place. We did Shakespeare at the Odessa over at the college. It was a cool experience. Everybody has their own trajectory. We just did a class on the business of acting and so we broke it down. These are the building blocks but everybody has their own direction. It's so often that theater programs are cut in the schools. Not that we need another ten thousand actors in New York, but, those are skills that are helpful in life.

Tell us how you met and how you got involved in this production of LUNT AND FONTANNE "THE CELESTIALS OF BROADWAY."

M -It's been a process. We met in '01 and we did a play in Cape May called THE DICTATOR which is an obscure 1905 play that did really well. I played the lead in that. I almost didn't get to do it because I was in another gig I was supposed to do this theater festival but the artistic director said, "I think we can make that work. " Alison might not have heeded her mother's advice so we might have not met, but we did meet and we became regulars there. We'd be invited back to do this play and that play. So over the years between '01, '02, '03, 04', we did all these plays together. Sometimes two plays in one season, back to back. Sometimes we'd do a play one season and they'd bring it back the following season so we had all this time onstage together in Cape May so someone said, "Oh, you guys are the Lunt and Fontanne of South Jersey which we thought was funny. Then we thought, over time, wanting to create your own work, I said, "Why don't we look into that?" You know who they are but you don't know who they are. You don't know them, you know of them.

A -They only did one film.

M -There's a huge wonderful theater in New York called the Lunt Fontanne where they play big musicals. It opened in 1958 with their play, THE VISIT. That became the jumping off point for this play. We're on opening night. It's May 1958 and they're in their 60s. It's their last hurrah onstage, their last opening night. So, from there, we cycle back. As far as the Genesis of the play...

A -We did THE GUARDSMAN...

M -In doing the research, we found an original script from THE GUARDSMAN from 1924 and went through it and showed it to the artistic director in Cape May. That opened the door to us actually playing their signature play together onstage.

A -Everyone was interested in them a couple and actors and what their trajectory was in their lives and their journey.

M -So a lot more research. We went to their home in Wisconsin. Every summer they would go to Ten Chimneys which is in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. Actually a working farm and this mini mansion which had extensive renovations, murals on the walls, the white piano.

A -They would have Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, they were very close with them. Eventually, Helen Hayes.

M -They were good friends with all these amazing people.

A -They used to say, being invited to Ten Chimneys was like a Catholic being invited to the Vatican. Carol Channing said that.

M - There are three major biographies of them. It was a lot of research and spending time with them and going to the collections at The Lincoln Center of Performing Arts has an amazing collection including original recordings of their interviews with Maurice Zolotow; hours. So, we're there with our headphones on cause you can't take the stuff out. You're there listening to them talking about their lives and disagreeing about things and her getting huffy about this particular person was coughing too loud and there are bits of that we wove into the play. We had a friend who had a friend who when he was a young man lived in that area and met Alfred Lunt when he was working at the local drugstore. Over time, he realized that this kid was interested in theater. So he said, "Why don't you come over to the house one afternoon?" So this guy Jim went over there and got the tour and Alfred was very warm and Lynn was aloof. So, you hear these things first hand.

A -And Harry Gribble.

M -A good friend of my dad's, growing up, is an older British gentleman by the name of Harry Gribble. He always wore an ascot and had a certain attitude about him. I knew he worked in the theater, but I didn't know what. Uncle Harry died in 1981. So, we're researching the play.

A -I think we were in Wisconsin, in the house and Mark looks at the poster of TAMING OF THE SHREW and it says, "Directed by Harry Wagstaff Gribble."

M -Our family friend, worked with them in the 1930's. And they lived in our neighborhood in Manhattan.

A -And even during the rehearsal process this last month, we were with our Jesuit Group and we were on the west side.

M -They took over this former nuns' residence on the west side. So, it's not a conventional rehearsal hall but they said we could work (there).

A -One night I was up late and I opened the biography and I just saw the address for where Alfred and Lynne went and where Noel Coward lived when they were in a boarding house just starting. It was directly across the street from where we were rehearsing.

M -And we have a scene with them and Noel Coward and (they are) projecting their future. "Let us project our future eminence," he said.

A -After that, I thought, "They're really with us in this process."

M -We did a workshop production of it last year. We had done developmental readings, we had gotten feedback and got in touch with one of the biographers, Jared Brown who was gracious enough to give us some feedback on his thoughts about the play and them. It's been a process. It was originally very presentational. I thought cabaret show, they're going to tell stories and do scenes. People said we like it but we want more of a play. We want more interaction between the two of them in their lives. Then, I had to put that all aside and take some time and start again which is hard. You can understand things intellectually but then how do you make it work? I think I'm good at dialog but I'm not a master at structure. What is the structure? How does it work? How does the story unfold? What are the key elements in their lives that we want to put into this play? It took time. But, hopefully the time paid off and all the work and fine tuning and our director, Owen Thompson has been so incredible asking questions and helping us shape it and asking questions. What about this topic? He doesn't tell me what to write. What's their story about children? This whole scene came out of one comment from the director. What about children? They didn't have children. She in particular wanted to focus on the career and it was a little unusual in the 1920's. But, that was their focus.

A -And we wouldn't of had this opportunity if it wasn't for Sheila Rinear who's been a family friend. I knew her brother before I even knew Sheila and we were in BOUND BY TRUTH.

M -Sheila was our conduit. She said the Classic is bringing shows in here. She connected us to Kelly and one thing led to another. And miraculously we're here. It's an incredible opportunity to be here and to play to an audience that really knows this stuff.

When did you start sharing this story?

M -We performed it for the first time last year. We did developmental meetings over the last five or six years. It's been in development for eight years with stops and starts.

A -Then we applied for the New York Fringe Festival this past year.

M -They have people apply from all over the world and they only accept 200 shows. They chose our piece even though it's not so fringy. It's pretty straight forward. We're going to be performing there next month as part of the festival for five performances. It's their 20th Anniversary of the festival. They have companies coming from Japan and Middle East and across the U.S. so we're excited. But, everything is back to back to back. Just having the leisure of getting our tech together here. We have an hour to get our tech together there we have two days here.

You're aiming to get to Broadway?

A -Absolutely.

M -Off-Broadway. She thinks we're going to play to 2,000 people. This play plays better to 500 people.

A -A smaller theater on Broadway. Another thing that we hope to do is something that the Lunts did to tour the country and to maybe go over to Edinburgh or London where they went during the Second World War and went all over the place to make them known again and to bring them into the consciousness.

M -I had done another biographical piece in a play about Marian Anderson, the great opera singer. We played San Francisco, Atlanta, the Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas. I think that was part of the spur too. I thought, maybe I can do my own piece and we get to play different roles in that and to play some cameo parts in this.

A -It deals with a lot of different things. It deals with relationships and relationships that are working together.

M -Like a partnership. Working together is hard. Marriages are hard. Getting older is hard. This plays tries to cover the arch. Not just 20th century theater history but their own personal history.

A -Hopefully a relatable arch that to everyone sees it that we all deal with these things. We deal with our own mortality.

M -We had people tell us, "Oh that reminded me of my marriage."

A -Or we're in a rehearsal scene and he's forgetting his lines. He's older. And someone came up to me and said that resonated for them.

M -They also fought tooth and nail. They loved each other dearly but they were really both strong personalities. The musical KISS ME KATE was based on their production of SHREW in the 30s. They were fighting onstage and then come back and they'd fight backstage. People observed that and said this would be an interesting musical and Cole Porter said, "Sure."

The show LUNT AND FONTANNE "THE CELESTIALS OF BROADWAY" plays at the Classic Theatre in San Antonio, Texas until July 24, 2016. You can get tickets by going to their website.


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