Backstage with ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’

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(Host) The Dorset Theatre Festival opens its 31st season this week with the New England premier of the comedy, “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

The play is a take off on a true story about the making of the film “Gone With the Wind.”

VPR’s Susan Keese went backstage for a preview.

(Keese) Picture this: three temperamental Hollywood geniuses locked up together for five days with nothing to eat but peanuts and bananas. That’s producer David O. Selznick’s idea of brain food.

It’s 1939 and their assignment is to create a script for the movie Gone with the Wind.

Jim Shankman plays the screenwriter Ben Hecht.

(Shankman) “There’s a famous story here that David Selznick shut down production of Gone with the Wind’ three weeks into the show and threw out the script by Sidney Howard and called in his buddy Ben Hecht, who was a famous Hollywood screenwriter and playwright but was also the world’s first major script doctor and so Selznick calls him in and says, We have one week, cause I am losing money – $50,000 a day holding down this production. I gotta get a new screenplay. And he locks them together in a room with the director and says, nobody leaves this room until the script is done.'”

(Keese) Unfortunately it turns out Hecht hasn’t read the novel. The news makes Selznick crazy.

(Selznick) “You’re putting me on, right? Everybody in the world has read this book.”
(Hecht) “Not me.”
(Selznick) “You know about the book?”
(Hecht) “Gone with the Sure I read the first page. Feh.”
(Selznick) “Feh?”
(Hecht) “Moonlight and Magnolias, give me a break.”

(Keese) Selznick has also fired his director and brought in director Victor Fleming, a good friend of Clark Gable’s.

Fleming is a big macho guy who doesn’t work well with the liberal intellectual Hecht. But Selznick decides that he and Fleming will have to act the novel out, scene by scene, for Hecht’s benefit.

Selznick — played by Erik Bratton — takes the part of Scarlet. That leaves Fleming with all the other parts.

(Selznick as Scarlet) “War, war war, that’s all anybody wants to talk about…”
(Fleming) “What?”
(Hecht) “I’m running low on dialogue here”
(Selznick) “Why Ashley Wilkes, I didn’t see you there…”
(Fleming) “Grsh…. I have something to say to you Scarlet. Something about my cousin Melanie and me.”
(Selznick) “Why that poor little flat-chested skinny little Melanie? Why fiddle dee dee..”

(More typing, punctuated by music)

(Keese) Douglas Coler plays Fleming.

(Coler) “I love bouncing between playing the very pregnant Melanie and Prissy the maid. And It’s something I never thought I would do in my career is play Prissy the maid.”

(Keese) Conflict erupts between Fleming and the politically correct Hecht over the scene where Scarlet slaps her teenage servant. Jim Shankman.

(Shankman) “Hecht is a fire breathing liberal. And he believes in the equality of man. And he doesn’t believe in slavery. And he doesn’t believe in the old south. And he can’t believe his good friend, David Selznick, is making a movie that glorifies the old south. So yes, in the context of a comedy there’s a lot of fierce political discussion going on.”

(Keese) The play veers toward slapstick as the three collaborators knock each other silly trying to get the slap scene right.

As the play progresses, Selznick’s office reflects the character’s chaotic state of mind — littered with discarded pages, peanut shells, banana peels.

(“Tara’s Theme” plays)

(Keese) Of course everyone knows how it all turns out. “Gone with the Wind” is a big success. But John Morrison, the play’s director, says the process of getting there is a comic treat that audiences will remember for a long time.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Susan Keese.

Note: Moonlight and Magnolias opens tonight and runs through June 24th.

The Dorset Theatre Festival

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