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Viewing Joker a second time — thanks to Deadline’s Awardsline screening series — not only provided further insight but also a chance to hear director Todd Phillips explain himself, just as he did at the film’s World Premiere Q&A. Phillips is no stranger to controversial award nominations. In 2006 he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for scribing Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical comedy Borat — not exactly the most politically correct film of its day. Now he’s gotten both hosannas and harangues for his very un-comical Joker (though it has darkly funny moments). But despite divisive responses, it nonetheless spurred 11 Academy Award noms including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay and earned him the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.
Once known for writing and directing comedies from 2000’s Road Trip to The Hangover trilogy (released in 2009, 2011, and 2013), Phillips expanded into other genres when he did a biographical crime drama — 2016’s War Dogs. But did he ever imagine that Joker — an experiment in transforming a comic book character into some kind of relevant, contemporary figure — would produce such a response, “Honestly, I couldn’t have imagined the level of discourse it [stirred] in the world. It’s a complicated movie and that’s okay. It sparked conversations and debates around it. It sounds insane, but there has been so much conversation around the movie written by people that haven’t seen it. There have been think pieces that say, ‘I haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to see the movie’ and then they write two pages about it. I didn’t expect that. See the movie and then comment; it seems logical. But it probably helped to have people talk about it. I just didn’t expect that.”
When he dug into the character, Phillips used existing storylines and character as a foundation but took things in a radically different direction from other cinematic Jokers. The director expanded on how what he and his team came up with ended up on screen. “When the idea came to do a stripped down comic book film, we wanted to do a character study on one of these characters we’ve seen before. The logical choice was the Joker. He represents mayhem and chaos, two things I’ve always been somewhat attracted to.”
Added the 49-year-old, “To breakdown how we got it like that was very simple. Scott Silver and I wrote the screenplay and it was about running things through as realistic a lens as possible. That carried over to the design, the cinematography and everything else. What do we know about Joker? He laughs in the comics and movies. How did he get that laugh? Why is his skin white and his hair green? Well in the comics, he fell into a vat of acid. We thought about that in the real world and said, ‘What if he was a clown?” It was fun backwards-engineering that while we were writing, giving him this affliction [as the reason] for his laugh. There was a lot of things that formed. There’s childhood trauma, which is not a new idea, and there's a lack of love; there’s Gotham which represents a lack of empathy. There’s all these things that to us build character.”
Born in Brooklyn, this New Yorker had been interested in controversy ever since he began as a student filmmaker making a documentary about the late shock punk purveyor GG Allin — “Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies.” So when Phillips cited the directors and films that inspired him, he picked some controversial ones. “When I was younger the movies I grew up on were comedies. But as I got older and started to study filmmaking at NYU, I was studying the great filmmakers of the 1970s the ones who really touch people in a [strong] way. There was Sidney Lumet’s ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and of course Martin Scorsese, his influence is in this movie — ‘King of Comedy’ and obviously, ‘Taxi Driver.’ Production designer Mark Friedberg, Mark Bridges, and I were referencing those films. We talked about Network. I discovered these movies in my early 20s and that changed me. We were referencing those movies throughout this. There’s also the visual references we used for this movie from others and from photographs. Mark and I would pour over that and Mark grew up in New York.”
His Gotham is very much like New York of the 1980s, so this city was about creating this character, which he sought to explore. “I grew up in a town called Teaneck, New Jersey. So as someone who went into the city and snuck in on buses and stuff in the early 80s, I have strong memory of that era. Much of the movie is about that look for references and something anthropological. What did Gotham, New York and New Jersey — since we were shooting there — look like back then? How do you get to that? I found that every time we’d reference movies like Dog Day photographically, it’d be like ’It’s not that movie.’ It’s more of an influence for the idea than the look and feel of it. So for me, what I did was transport my memory of what it was when I got robbed. What did it feel like? What did the city feel like?You start talking about being in New York in the early-80s, late-70s, garbage strikes, what New York looked like. Everything in the movie was run through a very realistic lens.”
Besides the aesthetic, there was the development of Joker’s character, which Phillips acknowledged was as much because of a collaboration between him and star Joaquin Phoenix as anything else. “Joaquin is just somebody who got into it, through all of the characteristics of Arthur Fleck. He liked the spirit of the film, the sort of anti-comic book film.”
Phillips and Phoenix had detailed meetings over three to four months before committing, as the bearded Phillips added “It really helped us down the road.” One thing they discussed was Fleck’s distinctive, uncontrollable laugh. That aspect of Phoenix’s performance had to be right. Phillips recalled, “He was nervous about the laugh. “[The time we took] was like prep in a way. It really helped us down the road. But Joaquin is just somebody who got into it through all of the characteristics of Arthur including the wardrobe.”
Not only has the film garnered all the award buzz, it has been one of Warner/DC’s biggest hits with a box office of $1 billion in global sales. Sequel talk has been surging. “Joaquin and I have talked about it. We’d really like to do more in this world, but the story would have to be right. Neither one of us wants to do it just to do it.”
As Phoenix said at the premiere, “Now when I look back on it, I’m so grateful we did that because playing Joker informed how we approached Arthur. We had a sort of radical reinterpretation of the character. I wouldn’t change it. That happens more often than not. When people ask me I say whatever it is it’s seems right.”
For electric bassist Robert Miller and Project Grand Slam, his jazz-rock band, it’s been an auspicious year. In releasing “Trippin,” their latest full-length album, he embarked on a readjusted sonic path, one that has brought him back to his rock and roll roots and garnered him and his septet some of the best reviews in his long career. The resulting buzz led to “Trippin’” (the album) being submitted to the Grammys for Album Of The Year, Jazz Vocal Album, Pop Vocal Album, Recording Package and Producer Of The Year, while “Trippin’” (the song) has been submitted for Instrumental Composition. The songs “Lament” and “You Started Something” have each been submitted for Grammys for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year, and “Lament” as well for Pop Duo/Group Performance.
The veteran band leader explained, “It’s only the first step to getting Grammy but it is a step. This reaction will be used to bolster our Grammy hopes. Though I didn’t realize at the time, those positive reviews really started a ball rolling…”
In order to achieve such a response, he stocked the album with new tunes rich in vocals, some solid reboots of old classics, and various rock-ified improvisations. Plus he’s worked with a band he has known for several years, established the kind of tight bonds any great combo needs to have to make work
Besides bassist/composer Miller, his Trippin’ band includes singer Ziarra Washington, percussionist Guillermo Barron Rios, drummer Joel E. Mateo, saxophonist Mario-Castro, and guitarist Tristan Clark. Said Miller, “I think that the band has blazed a totally unique path in today’s music, and I’m so pleased that our music has resonated with every audience that we’ve appeared before. Getting any Grammy nomination would be the icing on the cake for PGS!”
Miller’s Project Grand Slam has celebrated a Jazz Rock Fusion all along but really threw the spotlight on Washington’s singing. “Ziarra has really come into her and she really knows how to command the stage. I got such a great response to her performance that I started writing songs with her in mind.” He really believes that emphasis on both musicanship and live performance got them the Grammy nominations in several categories.
Their highly acclaimed 6th album was released in June 2018 and achieved the #1 spot on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart in August, remaining in the Top 10 through September. This iteration of PGS not only released “Trippin,’” it headlined seven domestic and international music festivals including their first two in Europe. In fact, their performance at the Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia led to a top flight live recording and compilation video from the performance which has already been viewed 100,000 times on YouTube in the short time since its release. “We were lucky that performance, was recordee and they provided us with a copy,” Miller remarked, “We thought it was so good, it’s going to be our next album.”
PGS also performed in 2018 at a number of the major performance venues in the U.S. including The Ridgefield Playhouse (CT), Mayo Performing Arts Center (NJ), Count Basie Theater (NJ), and the Paramount Hudson Valley (NY), and has shared the stage with such artists as Edgar Winter, Boney James, Blues Traveler, Mindi Abair, and YES.
Known for their dynamic shows and signature fusion, they also transformed re-imagined Classic Rock covers. A huge fan of these ‘60s and ‘70s benchmarks, Miller likes to do versions of some of the best-known songs with the added twist of using female vocalist Washington. This style has quickly become a fan favorite and a hallmark of PSG including covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, and Cream’s “I’m So Glad.” ’Trippin’’ continued this trend by including PGS’s uncharacteristic rendition of The Who’s iconic “I Can’t Explain”. This track is also up for Grammy consideration as Best Rock Performance. As Miller said, “Those live performances shine and anyone who gets to see us live will see what and why it works — we understand the past but we also project it into the future.”
In 1967, when Mart Crowley began writing his play The Boys in the Band, he was so frustrated with his career as a screenplay writer that he intended, with every breath of each invented character and situation, to be controversial. The themes of the play were self-loathing and self-destruction, the loneliness that envelops you when the crowd disperses. “These were things that fascinated me,” he revealed. “Things I was hung up on much too long. I tried to learn how people become their own worst enemies. Once I came to grips with that realization, I became a happier person.”
When the play opened Off-Broadway a year later, his intentions were well served. It became a sensation, and one of the longest-running Off Broadway shows (just short of 18 months; 1001 performances). It went on to thousands of regional and world-wide productions. An Associated Press blurb read: “One of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”
Soon after the praise for the blistering portrayal of his nine diverse characters, the play opened a powder keg of emotions just as America’s gay pride and identity movement opened another powder keg after the Stonewall Inn arrests. The onset of the fateful AIDS crisis came next. Gays fought for research funding and a better portrayal of themselves. Crowley’s play was considered divisive, too-stereotypical. He never imagined he and his play would be targeted and so reviled. The fame was not short-lived; however, the cheers were.
Now 50 years later, after the play has been revived three times, produced regionally and worldwide, andfilmed with its original cast, the playwright and The Boys in the Band are making their Broadway debut amid great fanfare. It is subdued compared to back when it became the first homosexual-themed play to reach mainstream audiences.
“I’m back!” laughs Crowley. “The band is still playing. Who in the world would ever believe this would happen? I’m extremely blessed for all the good fortune at this time in my life.” This was the day after he stood across the street from the Booth in pouring rain as the giant sign high atop the theatre blazed the play’s title in lights over the Theatre District and the theatre marquee with the play’s title and his name were lit.
Though you’d never guess, unless you do the numbers, Crowley turns 83 in August. Success and life may have had their ups and downs, but now transplanted back to New York after a storied life and career in Hollywood, he feels a spry 38.
No less impressive than the play’s revival,with producers including David Stone, Scott Rudin and Ryan Murphy, is the cast of eight stage, TV, and film stars – and one newcomer, headlined by Golden Globe and four-time Emmy winner Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Tony-nominee Andrew Rannells, two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesús, and Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Matt Bomer. Two-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello directs.
Responding to the controversy his play stirred, Crowley says, “The Boys in the Band is no sermon. I’ve giving no one advice. What do I know about social causes? I had no hidden agenda. If anything, my agenda was very much other there. I was writing for personal fulfillment and for my own survival after years of frustration and failure. It all came onto the page, maybe even boiled over, rather quickly and easily.”
He says there is “a little of me in some of the characters, and a lot of many people I have known, but the black comedy is not a confession, nor is it autobiographical” – although there’s some dialogue that draws personal parallels.
The Boys in the Band is set in an apartment in New York Upper East Side, as Michael (Parsons), a once successful film writer now between jobs, holds a birthday party for his bitingly-frank and sarcastic friend Harold. The guests include five gay friends, a hustler (Harold’s “present”), and Alan, Michael’s straight, married former college roommate, who arrives unexpectedly and in the throes of a personal crisis.
Though the play unleashes a fast stream of hilarious gay one-liners, it has moments of brutal honesty after Michael, drinking heavily, initiates a cruel truth or dare game where each guest must call the person he has loved the most. With the laughter faded and raw wounds opened, the birthday cake, strewn gift-paper, streamers, and confetti are the detritus of a disastrous event.
The success of the play came just in time for the Vicksburg, Mississippi native, who as a youth immersed himself in community theater and countless hours daydreaming at the movies. He went as far as making movies with his uncle’s camera in the city’s military park that traces the siege that Ulysses S. Grant inflicted on the city.
Hollywood was his dream and it appeared he was on the right and fast track. “But, and isn’t there always a but?” he says. “I was dried up in LaLaLand, and so exasperated at trying to make it as a screenwriter and being shut out that I considered throwing in the towel.”However, success at 32 was also tough. Crowley faced stress, depression, and alcoholism.
After his 1953 graduation from Catholic school, Crowley didn’t head to college – the Catholic college his father wanted for him, Notre Dame, but hopped a few buses to California, didn’t go to UCLA but got a job washing dishes in the cafeteria, and visited movie lots. His dream was to attend UCLA Film School, “but dad said it was out of the question.” He’d read that Catholic University of America in Washington had an excellent drama department. “That led to a compromise.”
Home for Christmas in 1955, Crowley discovered through a family friend in Greenville that Elia Kazan was shooting Baby Doll, based on the Tennessee Williams’ rowdy short story set in the Mississippi Delta. Kazan and his stars Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach were eating in the friend’s Greenville restaurant. No one ever tore rubber on a highway faster.
“I knew Kazan’s work and was in awe of him,” said the playwright. “I went up and introduced myself and asked him a lot of questions. I was ready to quit school and go to work for him. He seemed amused, but advised, ‘Go back to school. Get your education, then come and see me.’”
Crowley went back to school, but it was UCLA, and to work on an art degree. He briefly became an illustrator, then returned to Catholic University, majoring in speech and drama and working in college productions and summer stock. “Those summers on the road was when I began to write.”
Back in New York after university, Crowley got a job as a PA on the 1959 remake of the prison break film The Last Mile, starring Mickey Rooney. That led to jobs on another Williams adaptation, The Fugitive Kind starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward; Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher; and others.
Fate intervened one night when Crowley literally ran into Kazan walking. “The first thing he said was, ‘What the hell took you so long?’ He hired me as an assistant on ‘Splendor in the Grass.’” He impressed the director with his culinary expertise creating Greek salads, and became Natalie Wood’s shoulder to cry on when it came to Warren Beatty.
Jump forward to 1960: Wood was starring in “West Side Story” and needed an assistant. “Lots of scripts and novels came in for her. Natalie trusted me to read them and tell her what I thought.” They became devoted confidants. “Knowing how badly I wanted to write, she told me if I returned to California she’d introduce me to an agent.”
Crowley became an integral part of Wood’s life, not only professionally, but escorting her, joining her and husband Robert Wagner at parties at the homes of s Jane Fonda, Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, and Roddy McDowall. He became the person Wood could depend on above all others. “Finding someone as precious as Natalie was so rare,” he states. “She was warm, caring, wonderful.” The pressures of stardom and romance led to problems for Wood, who more than once attempted suicide with sleeping pills. The first time, Crowley discovered her unconscious and rushed her to the hospital, where he registered her under a pseudonym and managed to keep the incident out of the press. He says, “I was just as helpful to R.J. [Wagner] when he had “to overcome some rough spots.”
Though he prefers not to discuss Wood’s drowning because so much misinformation has been spread, he was devastated to lose his beloved friend. He’s godfather to Wood’s two daughters – one by second husband, producer Richard Gregson; the other, her second marriage to Wagner. Wood stipulated that in the event of her death, Crowley “would be second in line after my older sister (Lana) to raise the children.”
In a 2011 interview, Crowley revealed that although Wood was afraid of “dark water, she loved being on water – finding it a tranquil escape from the public eye. He pointed out Wood was adept at piloting the dinghy for errands to and from the vessel. He stated it is ludicrous to believe Wagner could have harmed her, “There isn’t a human being on the face of the earth he worshiped and adored more. He was besotted with her, and she with him in her own way.”
Wood came through. Crowley was signed by the giant William Morris agency, an unknown on a roster of megastars and Oscar-winning writers. He was hired as a contract writer. “It was very much like those scenes in Sunset Boulevard of the writer’s offices -- writing all day, with trips to the water cooler and roaming the back lot, but to no avail.”
There was a screenplay for Wood, optioned by Twentieth-Century Fox, which never made it past studio chief Darryl Zanuck [Crowley was to make a triumphal return to Fox years later]; and 1968’s Fade-In, to star Burt Reynolds. However the studio brought in another writer [it was never released theatrically, but occasionally pops up on TV retitled Iron Cowboy]. With the first money he made from Boys, he paid to have his name removed from the negative. “No one tried harder,” he points out, “but nothing ever panned out. Plays were rejected. Film scripts that were optioned never got off the ground. TV pilots I wrote never got picked up. It was one flop after another. I went from being an optimist to a pessimist.” He was also hurting financially. He’d housesit for stars, and at one point needed to sublet his apartment.
“On days when I didn’t have one martini too many, I’d fall asleep on the couch. I tried to get motivated by thinking up projects usually for me, not for the studio.” One idea came to him was while he was at a birthday party surrounded by very interesting people. I started mulling that over. The title came from a Judy Garland line in A Star is Born, but the stimulus that motivated Crowley was a piece in The New York Times about closeted drama. “I wondered why playwrights didn’t really write what they were writing about instead of beating around the busy. I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that?’”
In July 1967, he got a call from Diana Lynn, a film/TV actress adept at comedy, drama, and the piano [she starred opposite Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo], who asked him to house-sit her Beverly Hills mansion. “For five weeks, I sat in the library and fought off the servants and wrote. It was there that I got the idea of setting the play at a birthday party.”
He met with a New York agent. Her reaction: “A play about homosexuals at a birthday party! I can’t send that out. Come back in five years.” The comedy/drama was worshopped in 1968 at the Playwrights’ Unit in a small Greenwich Village theatre [now, the Soho Playhouse] under the aegis of producer Richard Barr, instrumental in the career of Edward Albee. Word spread and soon there were lines around the block of those hoping for a ticket to one of five performances. When funding came up short, Crowley and the actors passed a hat around to the waiters at Joe Allen’s, where Allen made a sizable investment. “They all came out pretty well,” laughs Crowley.
The Boys in the Band premiered in the mid-50s way west of the theatre district and was an instant if controversial hit. It became a celebrity magnet drawing the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Rudolf Nureyev, and Groucho Marx.
New York Times critic Clive Barnes called it “one of the best-acted plays of the season” and “quite an achievement,” adding “I have a feeling that most of us will find it a gripping, if painful, experience – so uncompromising in its honesty that it becomes an affirmation of life.” Those were words Crowley never forgot and, in his darkest days, would repeat over and over.
The play brought Crowley the prestige that had eluded him in Hollywood. The major studios wanted the rights “but didn’t want my involvement. I probably would have done the first draft of the screenplay and then lose control. I wanted it done right, with the cast of the play and with me as producer. No way! So, I settled for less money but got what I wanted – including a brilliant director, future Oscar winner William Friedkin.
The film did well, and has become a cult classic. Crowley suddenly had more money than he’d ever known: from royalties from Off Broadway, touring companies, regional, the West End production with the original cast, and worldwide productions, and income from the film. “It didn’t last forever,” he regrets, “particularly the way I lived.” In 1973, for six years, he “sort of evaporated” and tried to regain momentum in Paris, the south of France, and Rome. “You see where the money went, but like Edith Piaf, I am regret free.”
Wood and Wagner remained loyal friends. Crowley returned to the West Coast and 20th Century-Fox to be executive story editor and later producer of Wagner’s hit series Hart to Hart. Due to the intense stress, he left after four seasons – returning to write two TV movie specials. Not long after, he collapsed following a massive heart attack. “That was my wake-up call to stop drinking and change my diet.” Wagner, who attended the Transport Group’s 2010 Obie-winning revival, with audience members seated throughout the playing area, came in for the Broadway premiere. Mart Crowley flung open a door 50 years ago and the closet hasn’t been shut since.
There were other plays, including A Breeze from the Gulf, a brutal, thinly-disguised family life story in the mode of Eugene O’Neill and Albee. One critic wrote: “A deeply-religious alcoholic father, a dope fiend mother — well, what chance does an only son have for happiness?” It co-starred Ruth Ford, the beautiful model turned actress, who lived in the famed Dakota on Central Park West where she became muse to writers, actors, and musicians. It opened way Off Broadway, on New York Upper East Side. Reviews were strong to mixed, but it failed to find an audience. In retrospect, many feel it was ahead of its time and is ripe for revival.
The play can be found in 3 Plays, a collection that includes Boys and his last play For Reasons that Remain Unclear, an autobiographical one-act about a writer who arranges a reunion to confront a priest who molested him.
The playwright’s second work, Remote Asylum, produced in Los Angeles, was about three lost souls: an actress, her tennis pro lover [played by William Shatner, breaking away from Captain Kirk] and a gay writer friend, Michael – introduced in Boys, who escape to a Mexican villa to find themselves and end up dancing on each other’s graves. The reviews were poor. This failure, coming on the heels of Boys’ mega success put Crowley in such a tailspin he escaped to France for two years.
“I tried very hard, couldn’t shake the depression. To do that, I had to change my inner self and get to know the real Mart Crowley.”
At the 2018 Olivier Awards, held in massive Royal Albert Hall, it was no surprise that Hamilton and Angels in America scored big. The musical captured seven of its record 13 nominations.
Play: The Ferryman [which captured eight nominations]by Jezz Buterworth (Jerusalem). [Play opens in October at Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre.]
Score: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton.
Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton.
Outstanding Achievement in Music: Miranda and orchestrator AlexLacamoire, Hamilton.
Director, Play: Sam Mendes, The Ferryman. [The category makes no distinction between Play and Musical.]
Revival, Play: Royal National Theatre’s Angels in America, Parts One and Two, TonyKushner [now on Broadway with the original stars Andrew Garfield and NathanLane].
Revival, Musical: Follies, Stephen Sondheim.
Actor, Play: Brian Cranston, Network, adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott).
Actress, Play: Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman.
Actor, Supporting, Play: Bertie Carve, Ink [by James Graham, about mogul Rupert Murdoch].
Actor, Musical: Giles Terera (Aaron Burr), Hamilton. Actress, Supporting, Play: Denise Gough (Harper Pitt), Angels In America, Parts One and Two. [She’s now on Broadway.]
Actress, Musical: Shirley Henderson, Girl from the North Country [Conor McPherson's musical, scheduled to come to Broadway, is based on the work of Bob Dylan; with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls].
Actor, Supporting, Musical: Michael Jibson (King George III), Hamilton. Actress, Supporting, Musical: Sheila Atim, Girl from the North Country.
Presenters this year included Cuba Gooding Jr., Andrew Lloyd Webber, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Michael Sheen, and Juliet Stevenson.
Among U.S. shows nominated were Oslo, An American in Paris, Five Guys Named Moe, 42nd Street, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Young Frankenstein. Performances from nominated musicals included: Hamilton; Everybody's Talking About Jamie; Girl from the North Country, Young Frankenstein, Follies and 42nd Street.
Ms. Rivera, Andy Karl (2017 Olivier, Actor, Musical, Groundhog Day), and Adam J. Bernard (2017 Olivier, Actor, Supporting, Dreamgirls) performed "Somewhere"for the In Memoriam segment.
A special 50th anniversary honor went to Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with past stars including Jason Donovan and Linzi Hateley.
Sheen introduced the In Memoriam segment. Among those remembered and known here were: Hywel Bennett (film/TV actor, Loot, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Eastenders, Pennies from Heaven, Shelley), David Cassidy, Barbara Cook, Bruce Forsyth (legendary Brit actor/comedian/singer/dancer), Peter Hall, Thomas Meehan, Roger Moore, Bernard Pomerrance [playwright, The Elephant Man), Sam Shepard, and Stuart Thompson (six-time Tony-winning producer).
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