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Present Laughter and the Best Backstage Dramas

Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline, in Broadway’s PRESENT LAUGHTER. Credit: © Joan Marcus

by Elisa Lichtenbaum

Present Laughter
Kevin Kline
photo: © Joan Marcus

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, but who needs turkey when GREAT PERFORMANCES is serving up some fabulous hams in Broadway’s Best on PBS, a special Friday night line-up of toe-tapping musicals, captivating dramas, witty comedies, and other specials guaranteed to delight both Broadway regulars and those yet to have the pleasure of seeing a live performance on the Great White Way.

We hit a comedic high note with Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (Friday, November 3, 9 p.m.), a backstage comedy from 1942 starring Tony winner Kevin Kline as a hilariously self-obsessed actor named Garry Essendine. Juggling his considerable talent, ego, and libido, Garry — the theater’s favorite leading man — finds himself caught between fawning ingenues, crazed playwrights, secret trysts, and unexpected twists. The spectacular cast of this Tony Award-winning 2017 production also includes Kate Burton (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), Kristine Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), and Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) in her Broadway debut.

To whet your appetite for this laugh-out-loud comedy, here’s a look at five other iconic backstage dramas and musicals and the hammy actors and divas populating them. Think of the backstage comedy or drama as the tell-all memoir of many a playwright and theater star, where all the world’s a stage and its colorful inhabitants eat, breathe, live, and sleep theater.

The Best Backstage Dramas

1) The Royal Family

George S. Kaufman and Edna’s Ferber’s 1927 comedy spotlights a famous, eccentric theater family reminiscent of the Barrymores, so there’s no shortage of hams in this family tree. There’s Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch; her daughter Julie, the reigning queen of Broadway; and Julie’s daughter Gwen, who scandalizes the family by considering — gasp! – a life of marriage instead of a life in the theater. But it’s the swashbuckling, booze-slugging lothario Tony Cavendish who most closely resembles the histrionic hero of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. He swings into town, on the lam from La-La Land after hitting a movie director. He’s part John Barrymore, part Errol Flynn, and a whole lotta drama.

Fun Facts: When The Royal Family made its West End debut in 1930 (with the title Theatre Royal), the production was directed by Noel Coward and starred a young Laurence Olivier as Tony. Speaking of Tonys: the Tony-winning 1975-76 Broadway production, starring Rosemary Harris and Eva Le Gallienne, with co-director Ellis Rabb as Tony, aired on GREAT PERFORMANCES in 1977.

2) Kiss Me, Kate

Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, the central characters in Cole Porter’s witty musical Kiss Me, Kate, are ex-spouses starring in a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. Fred’s the egotistical director, producer, and star of The Shrew (he plays Petruchio), and his glamorous stage-and-screen star ex-wife Lilli is proud and haughty (like Katherine in The Shrew). The sparks fly onstage and off in this battle of the sexes as our leading lady and gent spar during rehearsals, performances, in their dressing rooms, and in the wings. (You’ll note a similar exes-who-still-love-each-other theme in Present Laughter’s Garry and Liz, played by Kevin Kline and Kate Burton.) Toss in a couple of 1940s-style gangsters singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” for some yucks, and finish with a happy ending where love conquers all. And the love is real: “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” Kate’s exuberant opening number, is the ultimate valentine to those colorful, passionate, greasepaint-addicted creatures called Show People.

Fun Facts: Kiss Me, Kate (1948) was inspired by the on- and offstage battles of husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne observed by a stagehand during their 1935 Broadway production of Taming of the Shrew. The Tony-winning 2000 revival starring Brent Barrett, Rachel York, Nancy Anderson, and Michael Berresse, taped during its run at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre, aired on GREAT PERFORMANCES in 2003.

3) Noises Off

Don’t you love farce? There’s sex, sardines, and door slamming in Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy Noises Off, which follows a bedraggled British acting troupe touring in a silly sex farce, Nothing On. We witness their calamitous dress rehearsals, disastrous performances, and petty personal dramas both onstage and backstage, complete with missed cues, flubbed lines, and pratfalls galore. It’s a manic world where chaos rules, emotions and egos run amok, and a plate of sardines wreaks havoc on Dotty, the perpetually flustered actress playing the housekeeper in Nothing On. It’s a running gag: does she leave the sardines on the table or exit with them? Leave ‘em, the director tells her. “Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce, that’s the theater,” he tells his exasperated cast. “That’s life.”

Fun Fact: Frayn got the idea for Noises Off (1983) when he was in the wings watching a performance of The Two of Us (1970), a farce he wrote for Lynn Redgrave.

Dotty (Andrea Martin) wrestles with prop dilemmas in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2016 revival of Noises Off, also starring Megan Hilty, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Rob McClure, Campbell Scott, and Jeremy Shamos. (Video courtesy of Playbill Video)

4) 42nd Street

The quintessential backstage musical, 42nd Street has it all: spectacular song and dance numbers, snappy dialogue, the requisite show-within-a-show, and iconic characters including über-diva Dorothy Brock. A fading star with a titanic ego, Dorothy is cast in director Julian Marsh’s new musical, Pretty Lady, because her sugar daddy Abner Dillon is backing it. She’s temperamental, petulant, and tantrum-prone during rehearsals – because that’s what Divas-With-A-Capital-D do, and she’s still in love with Pat Denning, her ex-beau and ex-vaudeville partner. When Dorothy breaks her ankle, the show must go on – and does! – thanks to straight-off-the-bus-from-Allentown chorus girl Peggy Sawyer. Peggy goes out there a youngster and comes back a star, while Dorothy, happily hobbling on crutches, comes back as Mrs. Pat Denning.

Fun Facts: The original 1980 Broadway production of 42nd Street starred Tammy Grimes (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) as Dorothy and Jerry Orbach as as Julian Marsh. Christine Ebersole (War Paint) played  Dorothy in the 2001 Broadway revival, and pop star Sheena Easton is currently wowing British audiences as Dorothy in the acclaimed 2017 West End revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

5) Legends!

James Kirkwood, who co-authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of A Chorus Line, also penned a comedy called Legends! It follows Sylvia Glenn and Leatrice Monsee, two feuding screen queens of a certain age who have the chance to make a comeback if they star in a shady producer’s new show: Star Wars: The Play. Kirkwood’s play, filled with name calling, wig pulling, and zingers, received almost universally negative reviews, but enjoyed a successful U.S. tour starring real-life feuding legends Carol Channing as vicious Sylvia and Mary Martin as sweet Leatrice.

Fun Facts: Kirkwood wrote about his zany, tumultuous adventures with the Channing-Martin Legends! tour of 1986 in his memoir, Diary of a Mad Playwright. And keeping the diva tradition alive, Joan Collins and Linda Evans – who feuded onscreen as Alexis and Krystle in the primetime soap Dynasty, but adore each other in real life – teamed up for a 30-week North American tour in 2006.


See Present Laughter on-air or online anywhere you watch PBS programming, including and PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast. Visit the Broadway’s Best on PBS collection for in-depth features about Present Laughter and other GREAT PERFORMANCES programs, and to watch previews and programs online. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #BroadwayonPBS.



Elisa Lichtenbaum, editor of the monthly THIRTEEN program guide, is also Senior Writer at WNET, a tap dancer and theater geek.