Nathan to the Rescue; Nathan Lane Is Replacing Richard Dreyfuss in the Producers at a Record-Breaking [Pounds Sterling]39,000 a Week. John Lyttle Meets the King of Broadway Musical Comedy to Find out If He's Worth It

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Byline: JOHN LYTTLE

Here's an odd thing. Nathan Lane is about to enter the history books as the first actor to earn [pounds sterling]39,000 a week in the West End and the brisk young lady in charge of seating at the Savoy tea room has no idea who he is. She looks him up and down in his baggy black suit. What's his name? Has he booked? Is he resident at the hotel? The name again? She sighs. Lane sighs.

Eventually we're escorted to a table near the back - social Siberia - and as we sit sipping coffee and listening to the pianist bang out Phantom Of The Opera you can practically see the thought balloon bobbing over the tiny - 5ft 5in - and rather tired actor's head: 'This wouldn't happen in Manhattan.' In the Big Apple, the rotund 48-year-old is king of the musical comedy, the manically energetic star of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, The Frogs and Guys And Dolls. (Actually, his stage moniker is borrowed from Guys And Dolls' Nathan Detroit.

His birth name is Joseph.) Over there he is a local institution - 'a god' declared the New York Times - to ladies who wear mink even to matinees. He has been a hit in everything from Neil Simon to Noel Coward, from Simon Gray to Terrence McNally, whose Lisbon Traviata, back in 1989, helped establish Lane's flamboyant stage persona of 'funny on top, bleeding underneath'. Over here he's better known for his film appearances, though celluloid, like TV, contains rather than captures him.

Still, he blithely purloined scenes from Robin Williams - Robin Williams!

- as the selfdramatising drag queen in The Birdcage, his 1996 movie breakthrough, and there are generations of children who instantly recognise him as the voice of Timon the meerkat in The Lion King.

That voice is both tongue in cheek and slightly nasal, showbiz Jewish and as gay as a Judy Garland convention. 'I came out to the Advocate magazine in 1999, but by then, who didn't know and who cared? Really?' Right now that voice is triumphant about preview reactions to his outrageous theatrical mountebank Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks's bad taste musical The Producers.

'They told me that audiences here didn't stand up, that they weren't warm.

They are standing up. They are warm. We're getting ovations. Ovations!' Come next Tuesday, opening night, Nathan Lane's transatlantic anonymity ends. It will be springtime for him as well as Hitler.

Still, this isn't how Lane ever saw himself making his West End debut.

He's the natural choice, of course - he famously created the role on Broadway, won his second Tony award for it and became a legend during his two-year run. 'It wasn't just the biggest success of my career, it became an event,' he says - a $100 million event. But Richard Dreyfusswas the Max Bialystock Britain was supposed to see. Except that three weeks ago the Jaws star unexpectedly left the show in a blaze of bad publicity, having found Lane's tap shoes a little too big to fill.

Well, perhaps not that unexpectedly. The call to Lane's Hamptons holiday home begging him to save the day wasn't exactly a bombshell. …

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