It’s 1939. Producer David O. Selznick, unhappy with his efforts to bring Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel, Gone with the Wind to the silver screen, has halted production after three weeks of filming.
He’s unhappy with the script that multiple writers have struggled to tame, and he’s just fired the most recent one. He’s also fired the film’s director, George Cukor. Selznick moans that it’s costing him $50,000 a day to idle cast and crew, but he wants to get it right.
At the same time, he has to fend off the gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who are phoning him, demanding to know what is going on.
In desperation, he calls in Ben Hecht, renowned screenwriter and script doctor who, as it turns out, is the only person in America who hasn’t read the novel.
He then calls in Victor Fleming, who’s been directing The Wizard of Oz, and tells him he’s now directing GWTW. The plan is to lock himself and the other two in his office for five days, the three of them working around the clock to develop a viable screenplay.
Inspiration strikes! Selznick and Fleming will act out all the parts, including birthing babies, as Hecht types and commits it all to paper. Convinced that digesting full meals will sap the men’s creative energy, Selznick restricts their intake to bananas and peanuts, which he calls “brain food.”
Based on actual events, versions of this story have circulated to the point where it has become an accepted Hollywood legend. Ron Hutchinson created a hyperbolic comedy that offers his animated and Marx Brothers-like take on those five days with Moonlight and Magnolias, the latest production of the Actors Theatre Playhouse.
According to ATP Artistic Director Sam Pilo, “Moonlight and Magnolias is truly one of the funniest scripts we have encountered over the years. The dialogue is so well scripted and character-driven that you are thrown into the maelstrom of Selznick’s hellzapoppin panic from the very first moment.
“Watching the characters improvise and construct all of the scenes from Gone With The Wind that we already know so well and take for granted turns everything on its head and is comedy writing at its best. ‘Birthing Babies’ is never to be forgotten.“
Moonlight and Magnolias features Mark Tullgren as legendary producer David O. Selznick, Gregory Lesch as equally legendary director Victor Fleming, Sam Murphy as famous screenwriter Ben Hecht, and Gail Haas as the fictional Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s secretary. Marilyn Tullgren directs with Heather Martell as production stage manager.
However, the script isn’t all hilarity, as Murphy noted.
“Hecht’s character is interesting because on the one hand, he’s funny, but at the same time he’s fighting for the social causes of his time. It’s an interesting dichotomy.”
“This is a comedy, but it has those moments when it gets serious and reveals such issues as the racism of its time,” he said. “The issues it raises are particularly relevant to today. However, those moments where it gets dark are not the concerns of my character. Fleming is a big shot and he likes the power. He’s also terrified people will find out he used to be a chauffeur.”
’We have a job to do’
In the play, Hecht repeatedly chastises Selznick for not contributing to the causes Hecht fervently supports:
HECHT: There’s going to be war in Europe sometime soon.
SELZNICK: Europe’s a long way away and it’s none of our business.
HECHT: No? With half the directors in Hollywood here because they’ve had to run from the Nazis? But of course you’re the guy who won’t give me one lousy dollar for Jewish relief.
SELZNICK: Don’t start that stuff again. We have a job to do.
As Tullgren sees his character, Selznick is by turns funny and sarcastic. He blusters, wheedles, and charms to get his way.
The three men in this production, on stage every minute for the duration, must work in ensemble, with their emphasis on the play itself rather than on individual performances.
“I treasure being on stage with these actors,” Lesch said. “We have this core, this safety net of people, that brings out a good performance.”
“Theatre is so intimate,” Murphy said. “You expose yourself in a way you don’t even to your own family.”
The actors bring a variety of experiences to the stage.
Tullgren got his start at Keene State College. “There was a blizzard, and my roommate and I said, ‘Why not audition for the play?’ I got a part! I was hooked from then on. It was my first experience portraying someone else.”
Since then, Tullgren has both acted and directed. “One summer I was an apprentice with the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire,” he said. “It was repertory theatre, so we’d rehearse one show in the afternoons and present a different one at night. In eight weeks, we mounted six shows.”
Tullgren used to direct the musicals presented by the Keene Lions Club and was a producer of summer theatre at Keene State. “At this point in my life, I prefer directing,” he said. “I like the growth that happens from when 20 or 30 cast members first arrive to when they begin to think of who their characters are and the reasons for their characters’ actions on stage.”
A return to the stage
Lesch said he was stung early by the acting bug, from middle school all the way through graduate work. He tried the professional route. “I had some small successes,” he said, “but I like to eat and I wanted to have a home. The idea of waiting on tables so that I could have one or two lines in a walk-on I just couldn’t do it. This way, I play a greater variety of roles.”
Murphy acted in two musicals in high school, then didn’t act again for 10 years.
“My friend was working with Vermont Theatre Company and called me,” Murphy said. “He said they were voting on their next production: either Fiddler on the Roof or Urinetown. I said, ‘If it’s Urinetown, I’m in.’ It was, and I haven’t stopped since.”
Haas, who plays Miss Poppenghul, sees her character as devoted to Mr. Selznick. “She’s more than a stenographer,” Haas said. “She’s his assistant, his right-hand person. She’s someone who is issuing orders of her own.”
Cast members praised the approach of director Marilyn Tullgren.
“This play has a 1930s style to it, and Marilyn gets it,” Lesch said. “It’s making fun of the industry, and that’s juxtaposed with the serious pieces, such as people owning other people. Hitting those pitches is a challenge.”