NEW YORK -- A play based on last year's federal court fight over California's gay marriage ban made its Broadway debut on Monday night with an all-star cast, only hours after a federal judge decided to unseal the trial's video recordings.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's play "8" was born, in part, by frustration that Proposition 8 backers had succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to bar broadcast of the landmark case.
During the trial, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson and attorney David Boies – best known as adversaries who represented opposing sides in the disputed 2000 presidential election – put on a powerfully clear argument in favor of gay marriage. Prop. 8 was eventually ruled unconstitutional in August 2010. The case is under appeal.
Black, a member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, wrote his play using the trial transcript, firsthand observations of the courtroom drama and interviews with the plaintiffs and their families.
"It was extraordinary," Joe Mantello, who directed the reading, said afterward. "The actors really threw themselves in it. It was mind blowing."
The play was performed as a one-night-only reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre starring Morgan Freeman, Ellen Barkin, Anthony Edwards, Bradley Whitford, John Lithgow, Cheyenne Jackson, Campbell Brown, Christine Lahti, Rob Reiner and Larry Kramer, among others. The mood was festive and no mention was made of the latest judge's decision on stage.
The 21 actors read from binders that contained the script and sat in director's chairs on stage. The only props were the flags of California and the United States and a video monitor that played anti-gay marriage political ads. One odd note was struck inadvertently right at the beginning: The proscenium was decorated like a Mormon temple – the legacy of the show that usually plays in the space, "The Book of Mormon."
Freeman portrayed Boies, Lithgow played Olson, Whitford played pro-Prop 8 attorney Charles Cooper and Bob Balaban played the judge. The other actors played various plaintiffs, witnesses and experts. Celebrities spotted in the audience included newscasters Brian Williams and Barbara Walters, and actress Fran Drescher.
At the end of the reading, the cast invited the real Olson and Boies onto the stage, as well as the four plaintiffs: Sandy Stier (played by Barkin), Kris Perry (Lahti), Paul Katami (Jackson) and Jeff Zarrillo (Matt Bomer).
"I thought it was great," said Boies afterward. "It's a little bit humbling to see Morgan Freeman up there and a little bit worrisome – now my clients are going to want him and not me."
Boies said the judge's decision to release the video of the trial wouldn't harm the play's prospects. "Having all of these ways of expressing this issue is important. Theater has a way of reaching people and I think the people who did this did a terrific job of boiling down a three-and-a-half week trial down to 70 or 80 minutes."
The American Foundation for Equal Rights and fellow producer Broadway Impact, a gay-rights group, hope to license "8" to schools and community organizations nationwide in order to spur action, dialogue and understanding.
Just hours before the play's debut, Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Francisco ruled that no compelling reasons exist to keep the video recordings secret. His order will take effect on Sept. 30 unless a higher court overrules him.
Andy Pugno, general counsel to the Protect Marriage coalition, said his group would appeal immediately to the Ninth Circuit. He declined to comment on the Broadway reading or the play.
The audience at the reading was overwhelmingly pro-gay marriage, although Black tried to tease out both sides' best argument from trial. Reiner, who played a witness for the anti-gay marriage side, triggered laughs when he was cornered by the plaintiff's attorneys or fumbled for an answer.
The text itself was sometimes technical and dense, though Lithgow's passionate reading as Olson in closing arguments cut through much of the legalese and the audience cheered and clapped.
In an earlier interview, Black, who penned the Academy-Award winning feature film "Milk," said he wasn't worried if the trial video was one day made available, saying most Americans wouldn't have the patience to watch the dozens of hours of testimony. He also thought his play might act as a guide to editing the footage.