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If you go
What: “Moonlight and Magnolias”
When: 7:30 p.m. today; Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 21, 22, 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 23 at 1:30 p.m.
Where: New Huntington Theater, 528 N. Jefferson St., Huntington
Admission: $29 to $55; call 454-0603 or go to www.different-stages.com
Ben Mikesell | The Journal Gazette
The cast of Different Stages performs a scene from “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

Often-funny story behind ‘Wind’ brought to stage

Though one of the most beloved films from the golden age of Hollywood, “Gone With the Wind” has a back story that frankly, my dear, is much more epic.

Different Stages’ new production of “Moonlight and Magnolias” today at New Huntington Theater depicts the stranger-than-fiction story about how the masterminds behind “Gone With the Wind” had gone off the rails trying to produce the film.

The play covers an exhausting five days, as desperate producer David O. Selznick barricades “Wizard of Oz” director Victor Fleming and Ben Hecht, “the Shakespeare of Hollywood,” in his office to completely rehash the script.

Playwright Ben Hutchinson actually developed the 2004 play from memoirs and relatives of the men involved, imagining what events happened between them over those five days. Artistic director Joel Froomkin describes the result as a combination of “ ‘The Three Stooges’ and the film ‘Saving Mr. Banks.’ ”

“We wanted something comedic that we thought people would be interested in. Although this title is not that known in this area, it is one of the 10 most produced plays of the past five years. Because it is about the writing of ‘Gone With the Wind’ and because it is based on a really ridiculous, funny, true story, it has this built-in knowledge of Hollywood backstage trivia, and that kind of 1930s screwball comedy elements that I think will interest people.”

Selznick was under plenty of pressure and frenzy-inducing doses of Benzedrine when the production on “Gone With the Wind” completely came to a halt on Feb. 13, 1939.

Looming under the relentless criticism of MGM founder and father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, Selznick had fired director George Cukor and literary legend F. Scott Fitzgerald from his running list of 17 different writers of what he thought was an awful script.

That’s not to mention how the reluctant Clark Gable, looking to marry Carole Lombard after his divorce, had producers pay off his first wife before he would commit to playing Rhett Butler.

With delays costing the studio each day, Selznick pulled director Fleming off the set of “The Wizard of Oz” and Hecht from his home at the crack of dawn, demanding a rewrite.

Locking the men in his office, sustaining them on a diet of bananas and peanuts – “brain food” according to Selznick – the three produce a final draft in a matter of a week, for better or worse.

“I think what’s so impressive about this play; it’s one of the truly funniest plays I’ve come across. I would put it up there with ‘Noises Off,’ ” Froomkin says. “But with the research (Hutchinson) did, a great deal of what the characters say is something that they actually said at one point in their life. In the play, Victor Fleming, who was directing ‘Wizard of Oz’ at the time, actually makes reference that he did slap Judy Garland. There’s a lot of these interesting things that are not just for the film buffs, but it’s all of this impossible-to-believe trivia that is really fun.”

Executive director Richard Najuch adds that although there may not be an obvious moral to the story – and clearly, audiences will know the men do succeed in making a masterpiece – it’s important audiences leave with something they didn’t have before the show.

“One of the goals I always have is that the audience is engaged with the story throughout the whole time,” Najuch says. “We want to make sure that when we’re telling these stories to people, they learn from it or just be engaged with it. It should be an active experience, not a passive experience, necessarily.”

Froomkin says the cast, which is made up of company actors from the theater’s inaugural production last month of “The Sound of Music,” play an active role as well. He says he’s been impressed with the actor’s ability to keep up with the frenetic energy of the play.

“It’s like running a marathon for actors. I’ve never seen the show done with the level of physical commitment that I thought the material deserved, and the guys we have are really killing themselves. They are giving 110 percent, and they are very, very funny,” Froomkin says. “Funny is hard to do. People don’t realize how scientific it is to get a laugh. That’s a great challenge.”

As a new stage venue for the area, Najuch says the theater is still working on how to draw audiences but is building off the positive energy of their previous show as a step in the right direction. He says they were surprised at the number of people outside Huntington who came in for “The Sound of Music.”

Froomkin says the two heard “Even my husband likes it” so many times that they thought the compliment would make for a funny slogan.

Najuch says by using their previous audiences as ambassadors, he hopes the theater’s reputation will precede itself.

“We’re focusing on cultivating people who came to the last one and asking them to share it with their friends and bring different people this time,” he says. “Something that we’ve said all along, is that the best thing you can do for theater is bring a different friend with you next time. Then they will bring a friend and share.”

kcarr@jg.net

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