'Once in a Lifetime' returns to London

Moss Hart and George S Kaufman's debut Broadway hit is coming back to London. Alan Strachan looks at the duo who ruled over a golden age of theatre
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The Independent Culture

With its cast of more than 30 and settings ranging from Times Square hotels to spectacular movie studios, it is hard to recall that the Hollywood satire Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 Broadway hit for the then-new team of Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, was the first great comedy success of Depression-era America.

It was last seen in London in Trevor Nunn's razzle-dazzle RSC production. Now our other subsidised giant tackles the play. David Suchet reprises his 1978 performance as the movie magnate Herman Glogauer, but it will be intriguing to see if Edward Hall's National Theatre staging is a different take on this American classic.

Once in a Lifetime, written by two quintessential Broadway Babies, and featuring in its cast an acerbic dramatist (first played by Kaufman, who also directed) fleeing from Hollywood's inanities and insanities, potently evokes that lost age when Broadway, ruled by a gilded circle of writers, stars and producers, was the main source of energy, talent and ideas for all of American show business. The Depression saw the balance shift.

Hart was only 26 when Once in a Lifetime was produced, and had never even visited the West Coast. Although always a theatre-centred, Manhattan-based writer and director, he occasionally later fed from the hand he had bitten, writing such screenplays as the Judy Garland A Star is Born. The more senior, always sceptical, Kaufman, similarly wary of Hollywood's lunacies, also would sometimes go west, most notably to co-write such Marx Brothers vehicles as A Night at the Opera.

The plot is triggered by a brainwave of Jerry, one of a trio of vaudevillians down on their luck, to cash in on the movies' sudden need for trained actors, by opening a Hollywood voice-school. Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer had been released in 1927 and by 1930 the talkies were so familiar it is a wonder that no dramatist had jumped on the idea before.

The play's ebullient satire - English-mauling producers lumbered with English-murdering stars ("they're beautiful girls, but unspeakable") coat-check cuties passing round rumours of casting-calls for prostitutes ("but this is for talking prostitutes"), no less than 12 rival-mogul Schlepkin brothers and a daedal portrayal of innocence blissfully trumping ineptitude - was the fusion of two happily contrasted talents.

Fifteen years older than Hart, whose main experience when they met was "borscht belt" summer-camp shows , Kaufman was cool and caustic, a Columbia graduate who loathed sentimentality, and who was an established Broadway luminary as author (collaborating with various writers, including Edna Ferber on that valentine to the theatre, The Royal Family) and director (The Front Page). Hart was mostly self-educated, exuberant, flamboyant in dress ("Hi ho, Platinum!" was Kaufman's passing acknowledgement of a loudly-jacketed and glitteringly-cufflinked Hart on adjacent Hollywood lots) and a dazzling charmer.

Both were tall, dark and Jewish, and both had private demons - Hart insomniac and depressive before a happy marriage to Kitty Carlisle, Kaufman a case-book of phobias including compulsive hand-washing and a horror of close physical contact (although not enough to hamper an extraordinarily busy amatory career alongside his two marriages) - but their differences made the partnership by far Kaufman's best collaboration.

In Act One, his Horatio-Alger-style memoir of an unhappy Bronx boyhood up to the opening of Once in a Lifetime, Hart wrote that he conceived the play from a cheap balcony seat as he watched June Moon, the Tin-Pan-Alley-set hit by Kaufman and Ring Lardner (a scrutiny of dates contradicts the claim but then, as Broadway director George Abbott said, Act One tells "a truth-ier truth" about the theatre than mere facts).

The pre-Broadway try-out was a frustrating saga of endless rewrites and rehearsals, but the authors simply could not stop audience laughter fading away during the second and third acts, and the veteran producer Sam Harris decided not to risk it on Broadway. A despairing Hart - always an inspired improviser - quickly came up with a new third-act idea set in an extravagant Hollywood nightclub and persuaded Kaufman to give the play another shot. The new version played in Philadelphia to constant laughter for two acts but then, after a guffaw as the curtain rose on the outrageous nightspot set, the play simply laid an egg (the nightclub was called The Pigeon Coop).

With a New York opening booked, time was against them. A radical rewrite saw another third act, jettisoning the expensive new set and replacing raucous extravagance with gentler, character comedy.

The opening of Once in a Lifetime has passed into theatrical legend because of Act One, in which Hart wrote so vividly of it and of the surprise he and the audience felt when Kaufman, famous for a detestation of curtain-speeches, stepped out of the line-up during the rapturous applause; expecting some acidulous bon mot they heard him carefully say only: "I would like this audience to know that 80 per cent of this play is Moss Hart".

The duo had other joint triumphs (You Can't Take It With You won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize) and Kaufman also had his directorial glories, not least his inspired staging (with uncredited script-work) of Guys and Dolls. Unsentimental Kaufman may have been, but he was never less than warmly generous about Hart (who died in 196l, aged only 57, shortly after Kaufman) and he seemed always to have had a soft spot for Once in a Lifetime.

It may even have been on one of its troubled try-outs that a vintage Kaufman story originated. Going backstage after an exhausting afternoon rehearsal of rewrites, he was stopped, by an officious new stage-doorkeeper who did not recognise him, with the demand: "Excuse me, Sir, but are you with this show?". Kaufman paused only briefly before slowly replying: "Well, let's put it this way. I'm not entirely against it".

'Once in a Lifetime', National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000) 21 December to 11 May (previewing currently)

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