Interview: Husbands of the Stage Musical ‘The First Wives Club’

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CHICAGO – Like the recent movie-to-stage-musical adaptations, “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” Chicago has become the proving ground before a Broadway premiere. The latest is almost a no-brainer, “The First Wives Club,” adapted from the 1996 film that starred Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton.

The big news is that the original song writing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland) have reunited to write new music for the show, adding to their familiar hits “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” 22 new songs have been added to “The First Wives Club” stage musical, representing the first new output in years from the famous songwriting trio.

Seán Murphy Cullen, Gregg Edelman, Mike McGowan
Seán Murphy Cullen, Mike McGowan and Gregg Edelman of the new musical, ‘First Wives Club’
Photo credit: First Wives Club The Musical

Portraying the threesome made famous in the film by Midler, Hawn and Keaton is Broadway baby Faith Prince, with Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusack. The 2015 Chicago tune-up commences on Tuesday, February 17th, with a Broadway premiere later in the year. attended the introductory press conference, and got to talk to the threesome portraying the ex-husbands of the “first wives” in the musical. Seán Murphy Cullen (Morty), Gregg Edelman (Aaron) and Mike McGowan (Bill) talked about the variations on doing a world premiere stage musical. Seán, when formulating your character, what is different in the process between a role in musical theater versus a non musical play? And how did that process go in developing Morty in ‘First Wives Club.’?

Seán Murphy Cullen:The first thing I do is read the script, to see what the character says and what your position is in the show. I discovered in this particular play isn’t a guy positive show, but there is a sweetness about Morty, and he is a bit ashamed of himself for the kind of life he’s leading. And since this is a musical, when you add songs to the play it just heightens the emotion that is already there. Every word is useful, every word has weight, and it all helps in developing a character. Gregg, you had a small role in the film version that became this musical. Were you able to remember anything from the original set that made it into a note for this musical?

Gregg Edelman: The guy who played my role in the film, Stephen Collins, did have a wonderful ease about him, while all the craziness went on around him. I just remembered that the first time I picked up the script for this play. The wonderful oblivious quality that Aaron has in the movie is maintained in the musical, but this version takes it to another level, and in this script I’m raising the comedic stakes. Mike, what pitfalls does a company want to avoid when mounting a premiere, and when do you think changes should stop before the first show?

Mike McGowan: This might sound like a cliché, but what we always want to do as actors is be truthful. It’s easy when you’re doing a new show to try and understand the audience, and work to appeal to them, and then it’s easy to lose sight of the story. But what we’re negotiating beautifully in this play is understanding what matters in the story, and figuring out a truthful way to figure out relationship problems.

I love changes in the script. It’s nice to freeze the show eventually, but that’s what this process is about. We’ll often rehearse a new version during the day, and then do the old one at the actual show at night. That’s the nature of the process, and we have to stay nimble. It’s a work in progress. Seán, your name is so quintessentially Irish. How close are you to your Irish heritage? What is most Irish about your acting style?

Cullen: I am Canadian, and the Irish side is about 200 years in the past. The fact that I’m playing a Jewish character is very Irish. [laughs] For some reason, that’s what people tend to think I am. I grew up with an appreciation for humor, words and poetry. I guess that could be an Irish heritage thing.

Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill, Carmen Cusack
Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill and Carmen Cusack, the Members of the ‘First Wives Club’
Photo credit: First Wives Club The Musical Gregg, since you’ve appeared in all the following musicals, what do you think endears audiences to works like ‘1776.’ ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Cats,’ when all of them come from such strange or unlikely sources?

Endelman: I have a friend, who has also been a mentor to me, whose name is Joseph Masteroff – he wrote the original book for the musical ‘Cabaret.’ He always says the most important decision that a creative will make, when they decide to write a show, is which show are they going to write? It’s one thing to come up with an idea that wants to be a musical, but how do you find the idea that creates the proper angle to it, that will make it an event?

Taking the example of ‘1776.’ it’s a suspenseful show about ‘will they ever get enough votes to form a new country?’ Well, we know it happens, but you watch that show and you still wonder if it will happen. It’s that unique theatrical experience that authors are looking for, and I think that’s why those shows that you brought up work well.

Cullen: You were a ‘Cat’?

Endelman: Longest year of my life. I remember I took six months off from the play, and the day I went back I shot out of bed in the morning, and I panicked because I couldn’t remember the make-up design of my character. [laughs] Mike, divorce is such a prevalent part of the culture right now. Are you of the opinion that people in general get married too young, before they are able to find out who they are?

McGowan: Yes. [laughs] Seriously, I think people want things to be easy, and nobody wants to work for anything. One of the husbands in the play is willing to work at it, and the payoff becomes huge.

Cullen: Nobody ever does a show about the hard ten years when you’re suddenly bored. [laughs] My parents fought like wild dogs, but they stayed together because of the perceived value of being together. For you all, what is the greatest theater palace and the lowest scum hole you’ve performed in, and give one characteristic of each that made it great and horrible.

Cullen: There were many horrible places I’ve played. Once I was on a stage that was a fire door they had put on sawhorses. You had to careful not to step in the little window. There was another place where there were no bathrooms back stage, so I had to take a pee in a pint glass. That says more about me than the place. [laughs] The best place was Massey Hall in Toronto, a hundred year old beautiful theater, that I played on New Year’s Eve.

Endelman: The best place I’ve played was on the Tony Awards. The places are great, but what is coolest is the people – every great talent you’ve ever admired is just walking around. One year, I shared a dressing room with Matthew Broderick and Christopher Reeve, and Reeve just said ‘Hi, Gregg’ as if he knew me. As for the low points, I have performed in shopping malls.

McGowan: I’ve played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and it feels like you’re performing in a monument. You work a bit differently in a place like that. I’ve also been fortunate to have played Carnegie Hall. The worst place is a State Fair. I was wearing a costume called ‘Curly Lasagna’ and I worked it when I was 22 years old to play the bills. That’s when you think, ‘I can’t believe my life.’

StarGo to Page Two for an interview with Executive Producer Elizabeth Williams and Producer Paul Lambert of “First Wives Club The Musical”

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