Perhaps it should be called That Show With the Legendary Music or simply Nice Work If You Can Get (Tickets). Because although previews for Broadway’s newest musical Nice Work If You Can Get It have just begun, the soaring demand for this 1920s-era bootlegger-meets-playboy show is apparent: seats are already selling out. And why not? With music written by the venerable George and Ira Gershwin, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara in the starring roles, and Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall and bookwriter Joe DiPietro crafting the show, Nice Work is more than just nice. It’s brilliant. Here, Matthew Broderick, Joe DiPietro, and Kelli O’Hara share what makes this show one hot ticket.
How do you prepare for your role as Jimmy, the wealthy playboy?
Matthew Broderick: I watch a million old movies, but I do that anyway. When there’s a 1930s movie on TCM, I tell myself its “research” and watch it. I also had back surgery—that was part of getting ready actually. But other than that, I don’t know how to prepare. I know how to watch movies and get surgery.
How has it been learning Kathleen Marshall’s dance moves?
MB: It’s been hard, but really, really fun. She’s really patient, and all the other dancers are so good. I can grab any one of them and ask, “What is this?” and they’ll show me. And even when I’m on stage, they can tell if I’m veering off and I’ll feel a little push. I’m getting there.
It looks like you are. There a lot of musical comedies on Broadway; what do you think makes this one unique?
MB: Well, me. And Kelli O’Hara. We’re really a comedy that has songs in it, I think. It feels like a comedy play that just happens to have the best songs in the industry.
If you could play hooky and take the day off from rehearsals, what would you do for the day? What spots would you go to?
MB: Ohhh, I see—Wrigley Field and all that crapola. I would probably just walk around the house. I don’t need to do a lot on a day off. I love a day off. I would go to the Hudson River and take a nice walk with my good friend Victor Garber. We’d get a nice cappuccino at Sant Ambroeus on West 4th and Perry and then we might stroll over to, what’s the one on 12th and W. 4th. The place on the corner? We often eat there.
MB: No, it’s across the street. And I don’t mean the lesbian bar. (laughs) We don’t go there!
MB: Yes. Great breakfasts.
How did you come up with the concept for the show?
Joe DiPietro: I was approached by the Gershwin estate, and they wanted to develop a new musical comedy. They gave me an old 1927 musical called Okay, and they said, “Take the germ of this idea of the show, do whatever you want, and pick any song you want from the Gershwin song catalogue.” So I did that; I took this old show and I made up my own characters and took the situation, but I completely re-wrote the plot. I researched the songs and tried to put together all the songs in a really delightful way.
Is it strange not having all the writers present?
JD: It’s interesting. We joke that I’m the only living writer on this show. It does, in a very weird way, feel like George and Ira are my collaborators. I was just trying to do well by them, really write something that I hoped if they walked in the room they’d be thrilled with. So that’s my metaphysical way of saying I did try to collaborate with them.
Are there any lyric changes?
JD: The lyrics are exactly as Ira wrote them.
What has been the greatest challenge in writing book for this show? It can be a pretty thankless job. They always say, “You don’t notice the book when it’s good.”
JD: Yes. Bookwriters always say, “When your show’s a hit, you get ignored. When the show’s a flop, you get blamed.” I think the hardest thing is writing backwards. It’s preexisting songs, so you have to write characters that, when they sing these songs, their language matches the language of the lyrics and the music. So sometimes you have to fit a round peg in a square hole. But the music was so good and I love this era of comedy and style of 1920s jazz-age stories and comedies.
So are you always trying to find a way to write this in the most pithy way?
JD: Writing a book is oddly like writing a screenplay. You can’t just have long scenes of dialogue. In a play, you can have long scenes of dialogue where you delve into the character. But in musicals, especially this musical where you have these archetypal characters, you want them to come in and the audience to love them. And that’s part of the delight of it and that’s part of the challenge.
West Side Story is commonly regarded as the musical with the most economical book.
JD: Oh yes. You can’t put all the information about a character into a scene because the song has to say some of that. I don’t want to write the love scene because I want the song to express that. The emotion always needs to primarily be expressed in the song. You need to write up to that and, hopefully, you can enjoy the lead-up to that.
Do you have a nice collaboration going? Does Kathleen give you feedback?
JD: Kathleen is a genius and is incredibly easy to work with. I feel like she can tell me anything and I can tell her anything. She always has good ideas. And she does musicals. When you’re working on a musical, if you’re director doesn’t know musicals, you’re in trouble. There’s a lot of ways a musical can teeter, and a director is one of the big ways. Whenever she says something to me, I always listen and think about it because I know she’s onto something.
What about Memphis? Do you see it becoming a movie?
JD: We recently celebrated our thousandth performance. I think it’ll be a movie, yes, and I’ll believe it when it happens cause Hollywood is its own crazy world and I don’t really understand or know too much about that. But it sounds like it will be put in that pipeline shortly.
You’ve worked with Kathleen Marshall on Broadway several times, in shows like Anything Goes, The Pajama Game, and Follies. How does it feel to work with her again?
Kelli O’Hara: I feel really comfortable with Kathleen. Obviously we’ve worked together several times and we’re good friends, and I think with that you’ve got the freedom to ask for help and say what you feel and build something together and trust, as opposed to feeling like I’m trying to impress her or I don’t want to disappoint her. It’s a very comfortable room between the two of us to do the things we need to do for this. That’s very important because sometimes you lose steps when you worry about the things that don’t matter. So knowing her as well as I do and having had success with her in the past, we just feel good about each other.
How would you classify this show?
KO: I remember when I did South Pacific, people saying “They don’t write them like this anymore. They write new ones that either comment on the way they used to be written or don’t have some of the elements that make it like they used to be written.” This is trying to take all of that—what started musical theatre and musical comedy off in the first place—and make them for a 2012 audience. So not it’s like, “Oh, great, there’s another one that’s being written now.” It’s poignant and timeless for today’s audience. It’s not a revival. The subject matter is set in a certain period, but we have contemporary jokes since the bookwriter is alive; he can write things that are timely. What you have is something that you may have been searching for: you didn’t want a revival, you wanted a new show. That’s what this is. You wanted one of those old shows, but you wanted it to be new. That’s what this is.
Between rehearsals for this show, what’s a favorite restaurant you’ve been doing to?
KO: Oooh, that’s a good question. I have so many. Last night I went to this new place on 49th street called Lillie’s. it’s huge and open and the décor in there and the Irish pub food is so fantastic. They’ve got one by Union Square too.