As part of the 2015 PBS Arts Fall Festival, Act One, James Lapine’s acclaimed stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir by the same title, will air Friday, November 13, 2015 on Live From Lincoln Center on PBS. This “love letter to the theater” (New York) introduces audiences to Hart when he is a young boy growing up in the Bronx. Living with his impoverished immigrant family, he dreams of the riches that the glamorous world of show business could bestow upon him. From dropping out of school to finding success through partnering with George Kaufman on his first Broadway play, Once in a Lifetime, this amusing production lets audiences see the heart of Hart.
In this rags-to-riches story rooted in the golden era of American theater, Santino Fontana (Broadway’s Cinderella, Disney’s Frozen) trades in his princely duds for the chance to play Moss Hart. “I was just in Cinderella on Broadway,” remarks Fontana, “and now I'm kind of playing the Cinderella part.” Despite this little irony, it was other reasons that really drew him to the role. “To get to play Moss Hart in his own words, in a way, was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up,” says Fontana.
Originating a role on Broadway is always challenging, but portraying a real life theater legend comes with its own unique set of challenges. “People knew him,” says Fontana. “That's a big responsibility.” Fontana explains that the thing that makes creating Moss Hart for the stage the most challenging is that “people remember him as the man he became,” he says. “And I'm playing him as the man who's trying to figure out who he wants to be, and to see if he's going to be able to do that.”
Working opposite Fontana is Tony Shalhoub (USA Network’s Monk) as Hart the narrator, Hart’s father, and George Kaufman. “I always sort of approach my characters as if they're fictional because it's a representation of a person,” says Shalhoub on preparing for the three roles. To breathe life into these roles, Shalhoub explains that “it's more specifically about what these characters are after in this particular piece, in this play. What are their real objectives? And what are their needs? And what are their obstacles?”
Additionally, with approximately 50 locations written into the script, the Tony Award-winning set design for Act One requires a very imaginative and versatile build. Always up for a challenge, Beowulf Boritt (Hand to God, On the Town) came up with an impressive, revolving three-story structure that is captured beautifully in Live From Lincoln Center’s presentation of the play. “Reading the play—and the book, frankly—one of the things that was so important in the book, and the play, is the dichotomy between this horrible tenement that Moss Hart grows up in and the kind of grandeur and the glamour of George Kaufman's life,” says Boritt. “So, I always wanted those two poles to be a very important part of the set.”
In the final product, they truly are. The three locations that ground the set are the Kaufman house, the Hart tenement, and the theater. Additionally, there are multi-leveled neutral spaces that can be transformed into the other locations required by the production. “I've said often that I think set design is a transformation of space over time,” says Borritt. “That was hugely the challenge of this play: to create these environments, and get us from place to place, and not take a lot of time doing it.”
Being primarily a comedy and on a large set, the show requires feats of athleticism from Fontana’s Hart. “I'm a little worried about that on camera,” Fontana admits because he runs about a mile and a half in the production. Yet, he takes it all in stride. “Anywhere with a seat, that's my favorite part of the set,” Fontana jokes.
If you missed (or even if you saw) Act One’s celebrated run at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2014, you can catch it on your local PBS station. Recorded on June 14 and 15, 2014 for Live From Lincoln Center, the capture is one that will warm hearts while celebrating two of the most beloved legends from American theater—Moss Hart and George Kaufman.
Live From Lincoln Center’s presentation of Act One premieres in New York City on WNET at 9:00 pm on Friday, November 13, 2015. Outside of New York City, please check local PBS listings for broadcast times.