The show played New York. There was a struggle for the show's rights and royalties. Its playwright became a producer. And Katharine Hepburn died.
The show, starring Kate Mulgrew, who received raves for her performance of Kate the Great at ages 31 and 76 at every stop along the way, is hitting the road and returning for an eight-performance run, starting Tuesday at the Bushnell's Belding Theater.
The show is back in Hepburn's hometown in a new and improved version, says playwright Matthew Lombardo.
Lombardo, who grew up in Wethersfield, says the show has changed "at least 50 percent" since its Hartford Stage premiere.
"I cut the hell out of act one," he says. "I made [Hepburn] more vulnerable because audiences didn't warm up to her." The end of the play has substantially changed. "I am more confident and comfortable with the play now whereas in Hartford I didn't know what I had," says Lombardo, 40.
But it's not just "Tea" that has changed.
Knowing the success he had with this star vehicle also gave Lombardo the confidence to create his own production company to get the show on the road after last year's New York engagement.
After playing Phoenix and Hartford, the tour will travel to Boston's Shubert Theatre in December, Baltimore's Hippodrome in January and the Seattle Repertory Theatre in May. A more extensive tour is being considered for the 2005-06 season, using the Hartford and Boston dates as a lure for executive directors of theaters planning their next season.
"The Hartford Stage experience was a blur and extremely difficult for a number of reasons," Lombardo says. "First of all, I was excited about the opportunity to come back to here having played Hartford Stage [as a boy] in `Damn Yankees.' However, I was under the assumption that bringing the play to a place like Hartford Stage, we would be able to develop the play in a safe and comfortable environment without the scrutiny of New York or anyone else.
"But when you're doing a play about Katharine Hepburn and starring Kate Mulgrew, who has this international fan base, [interest] just naturally occurs. But it threw me for a loop. There was a lot of pressure on me in particular because I had the most to lose and the most to gain. The rehearsal process was fairly excruciating because I would be in rehearsal all day and then I would be rewriting all night long."
Going into opening night director John [Joey] Tillinger took Lombardo aside and said, "I don't want you to be upset if you don't get good reviews."
Recounts Lombardo, "I thought, `Of course, I'm going to get good reviews.' This play is great and the audiences are loving it. But Joey explained that this was not a critic's play but an audience play. I suppose if I were to choose, I'd take the wildly successful play."
Tillinger's forecast was true. Mulgrew received Valentines from the critics while Lombardo's play received a cooler response. "An odd mix of emotionally charged family drama and tidbits of tabloid gossip" - Hartford Courant. "Seldom gets below the Hepburn surface" - Variety. "Trivia spiced with titillation" - New York Times.
"Kate [Mulgrew] took me aside and said, `Look, I just want you to know it's impossible to give a wonderful performance without wonderful material,'" says Lombardo. "Being an egotist, I chose to believe what she was saying."
Lombardo suffered a personal blow when Katharine Houghton, speaking on behalf of the Hepburn family, saw the play and dubbed it "trash."
"If my aunt saw this, she'd slit her wrists," said Houghton in March 2002. Hepburn, who was in poor health, was living in the family home in Old Saybrook. Lombardo says he didn't expect an embrace from the Hepburn family "but I certainly didn't think she would come out publicly and call my play `trash.'" Lombardo was so incensed he wrote a letter to the editor at The Courant criticizing Houghton's comments.
"Perhaps after seeing my play," Lombardo wrote, "the evidently tormented Miss Houghton was sadly reminded of the career she had so desperately wanted but never seemed to achieve. ... Moreover, in the unlikely event that Katharine Hepburn would slit her wrists, it would be undoubtedly caused by her niece's public foot-stomping to The Courant, a newspaper the Hepburns have always despised."
"I don't apologize for [the letter]," he now says, "but perhaps repent for it. For Katharine Houghton to come out against a work I spent five years of my life on and say what she did - I thought it was reprehensible for an artist to denounce another artist's work publicly and that's what she did. Granted, she may have had ulterior motives because she was writing her own play about Katharine Hepburn which `Tea at Five' overshadowed."
However, not receiving the seal of approval from the family didn't deter the show's popularity in Hartford. Nor did it deter the interest of other non-profit, subscription-based theaters or commercial producers.
"In fact, they thought, controversy sells tickets," Lombardo says.
Following Hartford, the Hartford Stage production was booked that summer and early fall at the Cleveland Play House (where Mulgrew's husband, Tim Hagan, was running for governor of Ohio; he lost the election to his Republican opponent) and in Cambridge, Mass. In both cities the show was a hit at the box office and Hartford Stage prospered in co-productions there.
Then investors and producer Daryl Roth came forward to move the show to off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre with a production capitalized at $750,000. Performances started in February, 2003 and opened in March with the show again receiving mixed reviews; Mulgrew's performance was again lauded and critics split on the script's worth. But as in Hartford, Cleveland and Cambridge, it was a hit with audiences. In June 2003, Hepburn died, at the age of 96, at her family's longtime summer home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, where the play is set. Box office at that point started to climb.
But owners of the New York theater said it would not extend "Tea at Five" beyond its mid-July commitment. (A new musical, "The Thing About Men," eventually opened in August and ran for six months.) "Tea at Five" closed after five months when producers felt it was too costly to transfer the show to another theater in the summer - besides, no suitable theater was available, says Lombardo. Also, he says, producers felt it would look as if the show was capitalizing on Hepburn's death. The show closed without recouping its investment.
After the New York run that fall, producers took the show to a small theater in West Palm Beach, Fla., for a four-month run. Initially there were plans to play the show in other cities.
"But there were personality conflicts within the producing team," Lombardo says. "I don't think they ever totally agreed on a direction to take this play."
The stories differ on what happened after West Palm Beach. David J. Gersten, one of the six commercial producers of the show, says his team allowed the rights to produce the show to expire although there were attempts to line up cities such as Seattle and Boston, according to theater managers in those cities.
"I was told that the producers were abandoning the project," says Benjamin Moore, managing director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre where the initial tour was to have taken place.
Lombardo says the producers neglected to renew their option and were negotiating for a tour without securing the rights to the play or a contract with the star. Some industry insiders say that sometimes producers put feelers out to see if there are enough feasible dates to launch a tour, before spending money on options on a show.
Gersten, who declined to be specific regarding the details of post-New York life with the show, said "Tea at Five"'s original producers will still participate in the tour's profits, no matter who produces the tour.
Lombardo decided to form his own producing company - the Lombardo Organization. With Roger Alan Gindi, a producer and general manager of many Broadway and road shows, they are producing the "Tea at Five" mini-tour with a capitalization of $150,000. There may be other cities, Lombardo says, but the master plan is to create an extensive tour for the 2005-06 season with the original New York production and star.
The post-New York life for the show was not a windfall for Hartford Stage.
The theater sold the props, costumes and set from the Hartford Stage production in exchange for a percentage of the limited partnership in the New York run, which did not make money, says Jim Ireland, managing director of the theater. Ireland came to Hartford several months after the end of "Tea at Five"'s run. Hartford Stage's original agreement did not envision what happened: a dissolution of the original production company - but a continuation of the tour with new producers. Ireland says it is not worth the legal costs to pursue this gray area. "The tour with the original producers died holding our rights," he says. "There was no survivorship."
Hartford Stage did co-produce the show when it played Cleveland and Cambridge immediately after its run and before the New York engagement and for that participation, the Stage earned about $40,000. It also retains program credit for Hartford Stage in all future productions, he says.
Future plans for the play include filming Mulgrew's performance for television, possibly PBS, Lombardo says - and there is interest from London. (The audio version of the play has already been recorded through HighBridge Audio.)
As for Lombardo, besides his role as producer, he is currently working on a one-person play about Tallulah Bankhead, starring Elizabeth Ashley. Titled "Looped," it centers on a dubbing session during the actress's last film, "Die, Die, My Darling." John Tillinger is also on board as director.