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The Scarlet Pimpernel : Broadway's Most Intriguing Musical.

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Interview with Nan Knighton

What better way to close out Center Stage at the Neil Simon than a follow up interview with Nan Knighton - the woman who was largely responsible for making it all happen, and for keeping The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway for what will be a total of 772 performances when it closes on January 2, 2000? SP was Nan's first Broadway show and it earned her a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical in 1998. She is also responsible for the stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, which is currently doing spectacular business in Pimpernel's former house, the Minskoff Theatre.

A note about the pictures - the photos I took of Nan for this interview did not come out well, so thanks to Renee Girard, I have included pictures of Nan with Douglas Sills from last February. Coincidently, these shots were taken the night I was introduced to Nan for the first time, so they hold special meaning for me.

NR: Here we are at yet another milestone in the SP story. What are you feeling right now?

NK: Oh, my God! Vis-a-vis Pimpernel, I suppose of the 25 emotions that I have, the one at the top is gratitude. It's primarily gratitude to the producers and I include in that the original producers as well as the current producers. This is a show that could easily have died after two months and it's here in its third year, and yes, it's about to close, but how astounding that it's run for all this time. I was thinking the other day, "What am I going to do when it closes?" and my first thought was I'm going to write letters to the producers and thank them again, because it's rare. The typical scenario in the theater when a show isn't doing well financially, and/or gets bad reviews, it's got a really limited life and "bye-bye." This show has been so lucky, and I feel like I've been so lucky that we've had such amazing producer support and I've never appreciated more in my life how crucial that is. I think most artists going into the theater just kind of put the idea of a producer on the back shelf - "Oh, I've got to find a producer." I don't think they realize that that's critical. That's your life blood, whether you're going to be able to run or not. You can have the best show in the world, if you don't have advertising, no one's ever going to know or go see it. You could have a producer who interfered or who dictated artistic decisions. You could have producers who didn't believe in it. It's an extremely important element and I feel enormously lucky that we've had the producers we've had. That's my number one emotion.

My number two emotion is "Thank God it's going on the road." I think that my sorrow is really mitigated by the fact that I know it's going to keep living, that it's going to be going town to town and people who've never seen it will be able to see it. That makes me really happy. It may be that the bulk of the tri-state area that was going to see this show, has seen this show. So fine. That happens with some shows. It sort of plays itself out within the area. But there are all those people, all around the country, who haven't seen it and that makes me really happy that they're going to see it.

I guess those are both positive emotions. I'm not feeling too much sadness about the closing in New York. I would be if there was no future beyond that. Then my feelings have also been completely entangled with Saturday Night Fever. I've been spending much more time over there at the Minskoff in the last six months than I have at the Simon. It's funny because it's like I've developed a real emotional attachment to the Minskoff. I think my ghost will come back and haunt the Minskoff because I've had such happy times there. It feels like home. I go in the stage door and there's Mike or Nathan. I go up and I talk to Helen (ladies room matron) and the ushers, Mike the electrician. It's like a second home and I love it. When Pimpernel left the Minskoff, I stayed there, and I think if Fever had been at a different theater, that I might not have felt quite the emotional attachment to Fever that I felt with it coming into the Minskoff.

NR: Really? That surprises me.

NK: It's possible. I don't know. It's just that I already thought of the Minskoff as home, and then Fever came into my home, so I was still home. Pimpernel went to the Simon, which I never really got to know.

NR: What's your worst memory from the show?

NK: That's really easy. It was the night that Pimpernel 1.0 opened. I had so many friends try to prepare me, friends in the theater who tried to prepare me for bad reviews. Bob Avian, who was Michael Bennett's partner (he co-choreographed Dreamgirls and Chorus Line and all those shows) was brought in to help with choreography in the last two weeks of previews before Pimpernel 1.0 opened. He was already a friend and I would go out to dinner with Bob between rehearsals and the preview that night. Bob is the gentlest man in the world and he would say, "You know, when bad reviews come out, it really hurts." And I would say, "Oh, yeah, I can imagine." Then he'd kind of look at me and think, "No, she doesn't get it at all." Then he'd try again. He'd take a deep breath and he would say, "And the pain kind of goes on for several weeks because the reviews keep coming in. You're through with the newspaper reviews and the television reviews, but then the magazine reviews come in, and then the regional newspaper reviews come in, so the pain kind of goes on for awhile." I would just go, "Uh huh." I would hear people saying things like this to me, but I thought, "It's not going to happen." I knew there were problems, but night after night of seeing preview audiences on their feet, cheering, and having such a good time...I did not yet know that that can be very deceptive. It's not deceptive in terms of the show - people genuinely loved that show. It's very deceptive in terms of what kind of reviews are going to come in. The thing that I didn't realize, which I think really does hold true, is that there are an enormous number of people out there who choose what show they're going to see based on the reviews. I've had a lot of times when I have trounced around saying to people, "It isn't true. Nobody pays attention to reviews" and that's bull. They do, they just plain do. I went into Opening Night feeling that it was going to be wonderful. I can remember that one of the first things that happened Opening Night was that I saw Bill Haber backstage and I said, "Do we know anything yet?" He said, "I know we've got at least two unqualified raves." I thought, "Oh, my God!" As it turns out, they were the only two good reviews that we got. One of them was from Michael Sommers of The Star Ledger. God Bless Michael Sommers. He's the best. There was one other good print review but I can't remember what it was. Earlier in the day I had seen the Variety review, which was horrible, so I had a quiver in my bones already. But I still thought after Bill mentioned the raves, "Well, maybe we're going to be OK."

I didn't watch the show Opening Night. I would just sort of go in and out of the back, but mainly I stayed out in the lobby and paced around and smoked. Adrian Bryan-Brown and Michael Hartman (SP's publicists at the time) were out in the lobby. Adrian looked like he had just lost his entire family on the Titanic. He just sat there. Michael was at least making attempts to smile. I finally went up to Adrian and I said, "What is it? Do you know things? Is it really bad?" Adrian said, "Oh, no, I always look this way Opening Night," which of course was not true. So, I sort of began to have a feeling.

After the show was over we went to the party. It was sort of this whirlwind. I had dreamed for so many years of the Opening Night party when it would be my Opening Night. It's inevitable, particularly for someone like me who's been to so many Opening Nights because of my husband's business, that I would have that dream. Everything was different from what I thought. I never got any food. I wanted a drink so badly.

NR: It sounds like when you're getting married.

NK: Exactly. That's exactly what it was like. I wanted a drink so badly. Nobody was saying anything about reviews so I was starting to get really nervous. I went downstairs where it was setup like a French cafe and that was where all the smokers were. I went down there and that's when I found out that the reviews had started coming in and that they were bad. It was like being walloped in the stomach with a mallet. I just don't know how to describe it because it was the shock and the pain all together. I went up to James Judy who had become a really close friend. I sat down in his lap and I said, "They've crucified us." He said, "Oh, honey, no" because none of us could believe it. We were all such a happy family.

(laughs) Then we started drinking. Dave Clemmons gave an impromptu last minute party at his place after the Opening Night party. About fifty of us went to Dave's apartment and stayed till about 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. The pain just kept building and building. We were all trying to keep each other buoyed up and it was getting harder and harder. Nick Corley was with me - dear Nick - sort of babysitting me. I finally turned to Nick around 3:30 and said, "I have to leave now because I know I'm going to cry." Nick and I left and we got about 20 steps and I burst into tears. We were standing on a corner and I sobbed for about fifteen minutes in Nick's arms. The strange thing was that a man came up, whose face I never saw. He was homeless or a drunk and he started talking to Nick. He said, "Why is that girl so sad? That girl shouldn't be so sad. That girl should be happy." I just kept sobbing into Nick's shoulder and Nick said, "Well, she's just a little sad right now but she'll be OK." The man kept talking and he was saying, "When I was in the Second World War..." and he started talking about his war experiences and he kept returning to this thing of "Why is that girl so sad? She should be happy." Then he went away and I pulled back from Nick and said, "Do you think that was some angel?" He said, "Well, the thing is, Nan, he really looked like my father who was in World War II and died."

NR: Wow!

NK: So Nick and I both decided he was an angel, who wandered up on the street to say, "Don't be sad." Then Nick took me home in a cab and it was now 4:00 in the morning. My husband was asleep in bed. I had sent him home because I just needed to be with the cast. I went over to his side of the bed. I sunk down on my knees by his side of the bed and burst into tears. I just said, "It hurts. It hurts so much. I don't understand. Why did this have to happen? It just hurts so much." It really, really, really hurt. He got up with me and we went into my office. I sat down on the floor and started going through the bag with all my Opening Night presents that people had given me - all the actors in the cast. I took out each little thing from the different actors and I cried some more. Those moments of pain, particularly crying on the street with Nick and then crying at home with John, are probably my worst memory of the show. The pain was so excruciating.

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Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.

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