Year of the Producer: Tom Kirdahy’s Eureka Moment for Master Class

Master Class, which stars Tyne Daly as opera legend Maria Callas, opens tonight (7 February 2012, previews from 21 January) at the Vaudeville Theatre having transferred to the West End from Broadway.

Here, as part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, Tom Kirdahy tells us the story behind this acclaimed revival of his partner Terence McNally‘s 1995 play, and how he teamed with fellow producer Sonia Friedman to bring it to London.

Tom Kirdahy: The Kennedy Centre in Washington DC was doing a festival of Terrence McNally’s plays in spring 2010, and the centrepiece of that festival, which I was co-producing, was to be Master Class. We knew we needed a great actress to play the part. Out of nowhere, when we were walking down the street one street, Terrence said, “Tyne Daly”. I had no idea what he was talking about. I turned to him and said, “Yes, I think she’s a great actress, but what are you talking about?” And he said, “Callas. Tyne Daly for Maria Callas.”

Having seen Tyne on stage many times before, I knew that he was on to something. We got in touch with Tyne. She had seen the original production and loved the play but was a bit nervous because, as she said, “I don’t know anything about opera, I’m not generally perceived as glamorous and I don’t look like Callas”. But she remembered the play, so she read it and said, “Yes, I want to do this.” So she did it for three weeks at the Kennedy Centre to great acclaim and that was it. There was no intention at that point of moving it to Broadway or taking it to the West End.

A few months later when I was on the West Coast producing a benefit reading of the play, Tyne called me up to have breakfast and she told me, “Maria is still in my system, I can’t shake her.” I said, “Are you telling me you’re ready to do this again?”

Tyne Daly as Maria Callas in Master Class

By the end of that Broadway run, the performance had only deepened and we were playing to sold out houses. It was absolutely extraordinary. I remembered that Tyne never had a chance to bring Gypsy to the West End. Tyne is one of America’s great actresses; I wanted to right that wrong, I wanted to make sure the West End had an opportunity to see Tyne Daly in what has now become one of the iconic stage roles. That was my Eureka moment. And Tyne said, “Yes, I want to perform this play in the home of Shakespeare. I finally want this dream for me to come true.”

I wanted to work with the right producing partner on the West End transfer. I got in touch with Sonia Friedman. She saw the production and she agreed that London needed to see Tyne. It all happened very quickly after that.

Tyne is a ferocious actress. The depth and range of her skills are extraordinary, her performances transformative. When she walks out on that stage, you don’t think, “oh there’s Tyne Daly playing Maria Callas”, you don’t think of Cagney and Lacey, you don’t think of Judging Amy. Within seconds of the start of Master Class, you are completely transfixed by the presence of Callas on that stage. Tyne never leaves the stage during the entire play, and she will have you laughing and thinking and feeling her pain. It’s a tour de force performance, a performance that people will be talking about for years to come. London is in for a treat.

– Tom Kirdahy was speaking to Terri Paddock

Master Class opens on 7 February 2012 (previews from 21 January) at the Vaudeville Theatre, where it continues its limited season until 28 April.