For one night only, the stars turned out on Broadway last night to stage a reading of 8, the new dramatization — directed by Joe Mantello and penned by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk — of Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, the landmark 2010 trial that led the Federal Court to rule Proposition 8 unconstitutional. To say that the night’s cast was star-studded is an understatement; performers included Morgan Freeman, Rob Reiner, John Lithgow, Bradley Whitford, Ellen Barkin, Cheyenne Jackson, Matt Bomer, and Christine Lahti, among many other big names.
A crowd of celebrities, theater lovers, and LGBT rights supporters packed into the small but historic Eugene O’Neill Theater. On the way to find my seat, I spotted Barbara Walters, Jeffrey Toobin, and Fran Drescher, with gay ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson in tow. Amid set pieces for The Book of Mormon, which is currently in engagement at the Eugene O’Neill, the stage was set simply with director’s chairs arranged Inherit the Wind-style to represent a courtroom. The performers walked onstage to thunderous applause — it was really a heart-swelling, galvanizing moment to see the group taking their seats, especially on the eve of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s official repeal.
Black based the play on transcripts from the actual trial — which opponents of marriage equality fought hard to keep from the public until now — in addition to interviews with key players, including the plaintiffs, couples Sandy Stier (played by Lahti) and Kris Perry (Barkin) and Jeff Zarrillo (Bomer) and Paul Katami (Jackson). Lithgow and Freeman, reading as the couples’ lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies, delivered rousing speeches, and Whitford gamely read the role of the opposition’s stumbling lawyer, Charles Cooper. Reiner drew big, wry laughs with his portrayal of Institute of American Values founder David Blankenhorn, as did Broadway veteran Jayne Houdyshell as anti-same-sex rights activist Maggie Gallagher, who, oddly enough, was in the audience.
Afterwards, the performance got a standing ovation as the real-life plaintiffs stood next to their celebrity counterparts (Zarrillo and Katami looked thrilled to be played by Bomer and Jackson — but who wouldn’t be?), and the party moved a few blocks downtown to Gotham Hall for a late dinner and cocktails. You really just had to follow the horde of svelte, well-dressed men through Times Square to find your way. At the after party, I ran into Gossip Girl star Chace Crawford, who is currently filming What to Expect when You’re Expecting opposite Anna Kendrick. “He’s a genius,” Crawford said of Black, a good friend. “I’d love to work with him some day.”
Next, my friend Mell introduced me to White Collar star Matt Bomer, who was graciously shaking hands and talking to a never-shrinking cluster of people all night. Bomer, whose intense eye contact and all-around pleasantness was a bit overwhelming — charisma overload — told me about his preparations for the night. “I called Jeff [Zarillo] when I got the job to see where he and Paul were during the trial, what they were going through, what they were feeling. They’re really incredible, brave people.”
I sat down with Lost alum Ken Leung, who played Dr. William Tam in 8 and worked with director Mantello 13 years ago in Corpus Christi, as he finished his dinner. He told me his interest in LGBT issues came just from being a “fellow human being.” I also asked him about his involvement in the rumored Showtime adaptation of the comic book Chew — he is indeed in talks with author John Layman, but nothing is official yet.
With some trepidation, I approached two of the biggest stars of the evening, twins Spencer and Elliott (portrayed by Jay Armstrong Johnson and Ben Rosenfeld in the play), sons of Perry and Stier. I wasn’t sure if the mama bears would appreciate their boys being hounded by the press, but they were bursting with pride for their moms. “I’m proud of them 24-7,” said Spencer, “but on days like today, my pride is just something else.” On their depictions in the play, Elliott said, “Towards the end, I felt like I was watching myself.” Spencer added, “When [Armstrong Johnson] started crying on stage after Kris’ speech, I started crying too — it was weird, like a mirror image.”