New Yorkers have that chance Tuesday at the Hudson Theatre, where McKellen is giving a one-night-only performance of his acclaimed one-man show “Ian McKellen on Stage.” Tickets are hard to come by — the cream of Broadway is descending on the theater — but if you can score one, it’s for a good cause: All proceeds will benefit Only Make Believe, a nonprofit organization that gives children in hospitals, care facilities and special-needs schools the chance to put on plays.
“I have seen the miracles,” McKellen says. “The kids get so involved, and it helps their recovery.”
“Ian McKellen on Stage” is an exuberant blend of autobiography, Shakespeare and theatrical gossip, with some of Gandalf, his most famous role, seasoning the mix. He put the show together to celebrate his 80th birthday in May, and took it on tour to 80 theaters “up and down the United Kingdom. I did it simply to tell people how much I love theater, but I’m astonished at its appeal. At a time when my country is riven by Brexit, the theater is indispensable.”
Profits — more than $3 million worth — were donated to local theaters and charities.
He had such fun, he brought the show to London’s Harold Pinter Theatre. Sources say he may be persuaded to bring it to Broadway in the spring or the following fall for a more extended run. McKellen hasn’t committed to anything yet, but says: “There is nothing more enticing than being in a Broadway show. If people like it, I might be tempted.”
McKellen wanted to tour England because that’s how he got his start — in repertory companies, traveling from city to city.
“It was marvelous training,” he says. “One night you’d be in ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ and the next night, you’d be doing an Agatha Christie. I played a butler in his 80s when I was in my 20s. You did what you were given and it made you alert.”
That world is long gone now, but McKellen brings it to life in his show.
He first came to New York in 1967 with Eileen Atkins, in a Russian play called “The Promise.” Walking through Times Square for the first time, he saw a man urinating on the statue of George M. Cohan and thought, “The critics have arrived!” Equity picketed the production because its cast was British. It didn’t last a month. He returned to Broadway in 1980 as Salieri in “Amadeus,” the role that launched his career in America.
International stardom came with “Lord of the Rings.” When he was cast as Gandalf, there was no script. He’d read “The Hobbit,” but not Tolkien’s trilogy, so he wasn’t sure what he was in for during the shoot in New Zealand. But then he started blogging — he was early to social media — and discovered millions of people were interested in the books and then the movies, which have grossed nearly $6 billion worldwide.
“I am very grateful to have stepped into Gandalf,” he says.
He has two movies coming out this year. The first is “The Good Liar,” out Nov. 15, in which he stars opposite his friend Helen Mirren. It’s a thriller, so he doesn’t want to give too much away.
“It’s old-fashioned in the way that Hitchcock is old-fashioned,” he says.
And in December he’ll be portraying Gus the Theater Cat in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” The trailer has caused quite a stir with its so-called “digital fur” on the faces of Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson and James Corden.
“ ‘Cats’ is not really about cats,” McKellen says. “It’s about human beings pretending to be cats. We had dots on our faces, and then they organized our feline faces on the computer later. The film is stuffed with stars, but what I think makes it are the dancers. They do everything from ballet to hip-hop.”
He recites T.S. Eliot’s poem about Gus the Theater Cat in “Ian McKellen on Stage.” But there’s a bit of Lloyd Webber as well.
“I do sing,” he says. “I like to la-la-la.”
If you get shut out of McKellen’s show, tune in Tuesday to “The Little Mermaid Live!” on ABC. You’re going to hear that classic score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman played by a 45-piece orchestra, plus a new song by Menken with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Ashman died of AIDS in 1991). I hear Queen Latifah is a hoot as Ursula, and Shaggy makes a delightful Sebastian the crab. “The Little Mermaid” turned Disney Animation around in the 1980s, and though the Broadway show was not a success, the story and score are as durable as they come.
“Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” airs weekdays on WOR radio 710.
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