Before he was on set with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or developing landmark TV shows like The Odd Couple and Happy Days, Garry Marshall was just a kid sitting in the nosebleed seats falling in love with the theatre. In 1997, he founded the Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles, where he recently directed Billy and Ray, a play by Mike Bencivenga about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s collaboration on Double Indemnity. The play is bringing Marshall back to his native New York, where it runs at the Vineyard Theatre through Nov. 9.
You directed Billy and Ray in 2013 at the Falcon. What made you come back to it now?
Out in L.A., they thought it was about Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley, but after a while, they got it. It’s about film, and how Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler changed filmmaking. It was so successful in L.A. that the Vineyard Theatre said they wanted to do it, and we said, “Yeah, let’s go!”
It’s been a long time since you’ve directed a play in New York. Why now?
I grew up in the Bronx. I froze. I went to school in Chicago. It was very cold. So I said, “That’s it! I’m staying where it’s warm in L.A.” But then I kind of missed New York, so I came back with a lot of coats.
Has the theatre changed at all since you were last here?
No, the theatre is booming! Pretty Woman is becoming a musical, and I’m involved too! Theatre is bigger than ever!
Tell us about the Pretty Woman musical.
We’re going to have multiple composers rather than one composer, and we’re using some music from the picture—the song “Pretty Woman” in a different arrangement.
You have a different cast at the Vineyard than at the Falcon. How is it to direct the same play with different actors?
I gotta say, we went for a lot of funny people in L.A., but in New York, you have to have depth. So here we have actors who can really play the dramatic moments very well and also do comedy—Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men is playing Billy Wilder, and Larry Pine, who’s done everything on Broadway, is Raymond Chandler. Drew Gehling, from Jersey Boys, can do comedy and drama. And Sophie von Haselberg, do you know who she is?
She’s Bette Midler’s daughter.
Yeah! Last time I was with her, we spent a lot of time on beaches. She was two years old, so I carried her around a lot. Now she’s a lovely young woman, and I don’t carry her around. She speaks much better than when she was two, I gotta tell you. She’s bright and funny and quite a good actress.
Who got you interested in theatre?
My mother was a dance teacher who always taught me that live performances are the best. When I was a kid, my mother would take me to the Broadway theatre, and we sat in the last row in the back of the balcony, so I never saw what an actor’s face looked like—but I saw singing and dancing. Another big influence was Terrence McNally, who is a great playwright and who wrote Frankie and Johnny, a movie that I did. A lot of people in L.A., if they see a play, they think, “Will it make a TV series?” But here in New York, theatre is very alive, and I love it.
What were the last shows you saw?
I just saw the thing that won the Tony, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, and I saw Terrence’s play that’s up [It’s Only a Play]. I also saw Beautiful—I know Carole [King]—and I really enjoyed them all. There are a lot of revivals, but Billy and Ray is new, written by Mike Bencivenga. Mike also works for ABC News.
You also studied journalism, right?
I went to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, which is a great school—I learned a lot, but mostly I learned how to meet a deadline. So I’m never late. My three kids went to Northwestern, and it was the highlight of my life just a month ago when my first grandchild, Charlotte, started at Northwestern. She’s in media studies. She’s a whiz on the Internet. I don’t even have a computer.
What do you do when you’re not working?
What has kept me sane all these years is, first, my wife. She’s a nurse. She doesn’t care that much for show business. And second, softball. I still play softball. I just got a new knee because I couldn’t play as well. With softball, nobody cares what you’re working on—you either hit the ball or you don’t!
How long have you been playing softball?
I played baseball when I was younger, but now I play senior softball. It’s older people. They let you take a nap. In New York, they have a show league, and one of my highlights was when our team from Wrong Turn at Lungfish—it was Tony Danza, George C. Scott, Jami Gertz and Kelli Williams, along with my son, who works with me, and some stagehands—we beat Miss Saigon. We played against everybody, but Miss Saigon was a big show. That was a highlight.