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Tom Hanks is the “Lucky Guy”

The Broadway play featuring Tom Hanks, ‘Lucky Guy’ highlights the fact that Broadway plays’ level of success and notoriety are products of many factors outside of the intrinsic strengths of the play’s plot. Ideally, all plays would rise and fall based on their plot but such thinking is quite far removed from the reality of how Broadway plays are produced, critiqued, and received. As much as we’d all like to believe that it only takes a good story and great acting and production values to make it big on Broadway, we’d only be fooling ourselves if we don’t pay attention to external details that can greatly enhance a particular play’s drawing and staying power.

Tom Hanks’ debut Broadway vehicle, ‘Lucky Guy’ highlights the power of these external factors in drawing attention to one particular production and not to another. In addition to Hanks’ star power, ‘Lucky Guy’ also brings to the table a great playwright in the form of no less than Nora Ephron. Nora Ephron is no slouch in the literary world and many of her stories have been produced in Hollywood.

To elevate ‘Lucky Guy’s auspicious signals even higher, the play was produced a year after Ephron’s early death-just at the time when there was a heightened level of appreciation for Ephron’s works. Finally, Lucky Guy’s storyline isn’t fluffy, lightweight, or otherwise mediocre. It is, after all, a Nora Ephron product and benefits from all the literary skillfulness and powerful character development Ephron is famous for.

Finally, the setting of and topic of the play, pre-commercial Internet New York journalism, makes for a great look back and a great contrast to headline- and Twitter-driven modern news. It is no surprise that this play is turning a lot of heads. Just as the secret to a great-tasting cake are great ingredients, great timing, great mixing, and, yes, the right attitude, this play mixes all the right ingredients together to make something that is distinctive.

Back in 1999, Nora Ephron originally thought the story for Lucky Guy would make for a great ‘made for TV’ drama on HBO. Not a bad choice. Considering the fact that HBO has, since ‘The Sopranos’ regularly blown away any and all regular TV dramatic series offerings out of the water, Ephron’s conceptualization of what would otherwise be a high concept play for HOB makes a lot of sense.

If anything, Ephron’s consideration of HBO in 1999 (before The Sopranos’ runaway critical and commercial success) highlights her nearly prophetic ability to see premium cable TV’s potential as a medium for higher quality TV fare. Unfortunately for cable TV, as Ephron began working on the project, it quickly became apparent that Ephron’s project was not going to become a made for TV movie anytime soon because she ostensibly had a tough time looking for the right lead to play the story’s main character based on real life New York columnist Mike McAlary.

Post contributed by Rob Doherty, head writer at Goldstar and frequent theater-goer. He can be reached via email at r.doherty@epix

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“Lucky Guy”: A History

Kindred spirits

‘Lucky Guy’ is all about the rise and death of Mike McAlary. McAlary experienced the highs and lows of New York journalism as he rose from rank-and-file cub reporter to one of the leading ‘go to’ sources in New York for cop corruption and crime stories. At the highest point in his career, McAlary got his own column at a New York tabloid where he exposed police misconduct and other shenanigans by people in authority.

Nora Ephron instantly clicked with McAlary’s story because, in a certain way, it paralleled Ephron’s own rise. Ephron started out as a journalist and she was a crusader for and believer in certain causes. She saw that same intensity reflected in McAlary’s work. After all, McAlary was the top reporter who focused on the police abuse of a Haitian immigrant that exploded all over the nation’s headlines as the Abner Louima case.

Not only did the sheer brutality of the Louima case capture the national imagination in light of similar police brutality suffered by people of color all over the United States, it did so because the memory of police use of excessive force was fresh in the minds of Americans at both coasts. After all, the Louima case broke only a few years after the Rodney King case and the memory of the Los Angeles riots and the abuses, both reported and unreported, that precipitated it was still fresh in the minds of Americans.

McAlary’s coverage of the Louima case highlighted the steep price New York had to pay under the Giuliani years for a semblance of law and order. While it may be true that Giuliani managed to clean up New York a bit and pull the city back from the excesses and near bankruptcy the city almost faced due to the actions of previous mayors, the Louima case highlighted the threat of brutality that was just poised to explode to the surface.

It was this tension between repression and urban regeneration that was brought to light by the Louima case. So well did McAlary cover the Louima case that he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for it. McAlary’s award got Ephron’s attention but sadly, McAlary died of cancer only eight months after winning the Pulitzer. Still, he managed to write his best work while battling cancer. This was something that resonated quite hard with Nora Ephron as she also spent the last six years of her life battling cancer.

Just like McAlary, Ephron spent the last years of her life quite productively since she directed a film and wrote two plays in that time. In terms of identifying with McAlary and what he was going through, it would be safe to say that Ephron felt that she and her Lucky Guy’s protagonist, McAlary, were kindred spirits.

The power of gumshoe journalism

Another interesting angle Lucky Guy brings to the table is that it highlights the power of traditional journalism. Keep in mind that McAlary’s career really took off and was at its most active during the time around the beginning of the Internet’s commercial popularity. While the Internet has been around since the middle of the Cold War (1960s), it only really hit the commercial mainstream around 1995-1996.

During this time, McAlary’s career was shining brightest and it embodied all the classic elements of investigative journalism-lots of gumshoe action and police sources. In other words, McAlary’s career gives us an inside peak into an era that’s long gone by. Thanks to the rise of alternative media like Huffington Post, and Drudge Report, it is easy to think that journalism was and has always been about tweets and blog networks and social media buzz (source: TWPB).

When viewing the story of McAlary unfold in ‘Lucky Guy’ you can’t help but be transported back to the pre-Twitter days of journalism to see the gritty reality and tension of politics and source privacy that played out behind any big or small breaking news story.

“Lucky Guy” Legacy

Due to the interesting back story behind Lucky Guy’s writing and production, the play didn’t need a lot of help getting pre-opening publicity. Ephron died one year before the play opened. In a sense, Lucky Guy was a powerful homage to Ephron’s ability to flesh out powerful on-stage personalities and Lucky Guy didn’t disappoint.

According to many sources (such as Bolt and others), the reason it took quite a long time for Ephron to finally get Lucky Guy going was that she was having a tough time looking for the right lead for the play. In 2011, Hanks showed interest in playing McAlary after Ephron made some changes to the character. Finally, in 2012 Hanks was firmly on board. Sadly, Ephron died shortly after. Still, she laid down enough groundwork for this play that it really couldn’t slow down and had a life of its own.

After some cast changes and plot changes were approved by Ephron’s widower and rights successor, Lucky Guy finally opened for previews on March 2013 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater. It didn’t take a genius to figure out Lucky Guy will be a hit. The play was grossing $1 million in weekly preview sales. This was relatively rare for a play that wasn’t a musical.

By the time it was ready for its official debut a month later, it had $10 million in advanced ticket sales. The play was originally slated to run from April 2013 to June 2013 but was extended another month to July 2013. All told, Lucky Guy racked up total box office revenues of 22,900,000 plus dollars spread out among 104 performances.

After Lucky Guy

Considering Lucky Guy’s Broadway hit and impact, it would not be a surprise if this play gets produced on the West Coast. In such a situation, it would not be a surprise if Tom Hanks, once again, plays the role of McAlary. His rendition of McAlary in Lucky Guy is definitely a performance for the ages. From hopeful enthusiasm, coiled tension, and conflict, Tom Hanks fully fleshes out McAlary’s personality and gives us a much welcome peek into a side of New York journalism that is well in the rear view mirror of history.