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‘It’s Only a Play’ pokes fun at the pain and pleasure of theater life

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, "It's Only a Play," but one with an all-star cast and a lot of laughs. It's also one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.

    Jeffrey Brown went to see why.

    MATTHEW BRODERICK, Actor, "It's Only a Play": All my life, I dreamed they'd yell, author, author. When I walked into my opening night party, they did, but it was for Tom Stoppard, who was right behind me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The actual play is called "It's Only a Play," a rollicking show within a show about the craziness, pain and ultimate thrill of theater life.

    Matthew Broderick is the writer of a fictional play titled — and you know this can't be good — "The Golden Egg," awaiting the first reviews at a celebrity-studded party after opening night.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    All of Broadway and half of Hollywood are down there. Steven Spielberg asked me if I wanted to write a screenplay for him. Sure, I said, what about? Good point, he said, and he walked away.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In "It's Only a Play," Broderick has been reunited with Nathan Lane, who plays his old friend, an actor now working in television who is, let's say, less than supportive.

  • NATHAN LANE, Actor:

    Of course I would've been wonderful in the part. It was written for me. Thank God for my series, or I might have had to tell Peter the truth about his god-awful play. But do you think I got so much as even a mention in the program? I only created the lead in his one and only hit, and no mention. The egos in this business.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The actual writer is Terrence McNally. And for this revival of his 1980s play, he's updated references to celebrities and technology, while keeping the behind-the-scenes backstabbing and name-dropping.

  • ACTRESS:

    I said to one woman, you look just like Hillary Clinton. She said, I hope so. I am Hillary Clinton.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's all helped along by what is itself a celebrity cast that includes F. Murray Abraham as a vicious drama critic, Megan Mullally as a loony first-time producer, and Stockard Channing as an aging actress who knows her way around pharmaceuticals.

    This afternoon in New York, I sat down with Matthew Broderick and Terrence McNally.

    Welcome to both of you.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Thank you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Matthew Broderick, so waiting for the review, especially from The New York Times, is it as close to a near-death experience as it looks in the play?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes, I think it sort of is. I don't usually like to admit it, but this play admits how frightened we all are, I guess.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes. Yes. I mean, maybe not everybody.

    TERRENCE MCNALLY, Playwright, "It's Only a Play": And we're the only art form that does that. Novelists don't wait. In one hour, they're going to be told if their book is good or not.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, you have put him as your sort of alter ego on stage.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    My surrogate, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Your surrogate, that you watch, feeling his pain, your pain?

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Yes, it's very public, what we do.

    And so are the reviews. And — but, you know, a novelist isn't there when you throw the book on the floor and say, this is terrible.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    The playwright and the actors are there. We know that night.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes.

    And then we go back the next night and do the play again.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    And pretend it was well-received, even if it wasn't.

    Fortunately, this play was well-received, so we don't have to do that part of the make-believe.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    But even the — you can recover. I mean, even if you have a bad night with your reviews, a week or two later, the play comes back to you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, I saw it yesterday. I was wondering, is it a love letter to Broadway or almost a hate letter? I mean, there is so much skewering going on of what Broadway is today in a way.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    I think it is finally a very big love letter.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes?

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    But, yes, I think we do some things that are absurd and we can look at critically. And — but I do love the theater. And I think these people love the theater.

    And I think New York audiences love the theater. Broadway ain't going away. In fact, right now, it's doing better than ever. So…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But the references to — and some of them come out of your mouth, right, the references to the Brits taking over, Disney films made into movies, movie stars trying to rev up their careers by coming back to Broadway, Irish dancers. I could go on and on, as you did. It's not a pretty picture.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    No. Well, he tries to evenly attack everyone, I think and…

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Including the people on the stage. We make fun of myself.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    That — we let our self-worth be defined by other people. That's a very bad way to live your life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is that what it is as an actor?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    It can be. It's something to avoid.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    I mean, if is a danger that you start to just live through, what do people think of me? And you have to try to somehow not do that.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you have been doing this since you were quite young. Have you always felt that? Or have you gotten — find ways to get past it?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    My memory is that it didn't used to bother me. But I bet it did.

    I — my way — you know, I don't really actually read reviews, if that is what we are talking about. I try not to. But there is no avoiding — every audience, I'm asking them to like me in some way. So that is part of the game. But I don't know how to deal with it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why don't you read reviews?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Well, for one thing, I don't want my feelings hurt. But also…

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Good reason.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes, I think that is the reason.

    But even when they are good, they can make you self-conscious about something that you might not want to be. Maybe you could learn from them. But I have given it up. I…

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    I finally stopped reading them about five, six — three or four plays ago.

    But I — what is bad about reviews is, the good ones are never good enough, and the bad ones are like just emblazoned like branding iron.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    I can quote — the review in the play about, "wish the parents of the playwright had smothered him in his cradle," was written about me, my first play.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    You don't forget that…

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CROSSTALK)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    … years later, I'm still quoting it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And are you putting it into a play. So, you're finding a creative way to use it.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    And I have gotten a few good reviews in the meantime, but I don't care about that.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes, we forget those, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, you both had successes and you both had some bombs, right? Have you figured out what makes a show work?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    No. No, I don't think…

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    No one. No one has.

    For a while, it seemed maybe Neil Simon had. He had like six hits in a flow — in a row.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    But no one — Shakespeare didn't figure it out. He has got a very up-and-down career, if you look what are considered the great plays and ones that aren't maybe so great. It's how it should be.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, so what makes you keep going? You watched — I watched this play. And you see the pain and the kind of horror in a way. What makes you keep coming back?

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Yes.

    Well, there's a lot of joy in it too. There are the horrible moments. But there are also the times when things are going well. And, you know, half the time — well, more than half, we love doing it. We just started the play. And I can see it in the eyes. Us — my cast mates, we are extremely happy a lot of the time. And when the audience is with us and his beautiful words, it's a very fine time.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    And I can stand at the back and say, I wrote that. And they're performing it well. And there's 1,000 people laughing or being moved by the moment. The play gets touching at times. And I can take pride in that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then there are those nights where maybe they're not doing exactly the way…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Yes. Then you want to shoot everybody.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Last night.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Starting with yourself.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    But we do it because I think we want to entertain. We want to be heard. We think we have something to say to people.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Terrence McNally and Matthew Broderick, thanks so much.

  • MATTHEW BRODERICK:

    Thank you.

  • TERRENCE MCNALLY:

    Thank you.

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