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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

'The Audience,' starring Helen Mirren, and other plays based on real people

Helen Mirren stars as Elizabeth II in

Helen Mirren stars as Elizabeth II in "The Audience," opening March 8, 2015 at the Schoenfeld Theatre in Manhattan. Credit: Johann Persson

"Presumptuous?," the voice on the phone bristles just a bit at the suggestion. Peter Morgan, the British writer whose London smash, "The Audience," opens tonight at the Schoenfeld Theatre with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, surely has heard the word before.

After all, he specializes in acclaimed fact-based theatrical fiction -- or fictionalized fact -- about real people, alive or recently dead. This includes "Frost/Nixon," the 2006 drama (and 2008 film) inspired by taped TV interviews of the disgraced former president by fading British talk-show star David Frost. Also in 2007, Mirren won the Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth in Morgan's "The Queen," about the royal family after the death of Diana.

This latest drama imagines what was said in the private weekly meetings the Queen has held with Britain's 12 prime ministers since her reign began in 1952. Since Morgan considers Elizabeth "unknowable" and no transcripts exist, this leap of faith must require, if not presumption, a special kind of courage.

"Some people don't have a fear of going up on a ladder," he explains. "I do. But I have no fear about writing about real people."

Morgan, who has written three works involving former Prime Minister Tony Blair, continues, "Maybe I'm not frightened because I have no guilty conscience. I don't go in meaning to do them any harm. It is like being a portrait painter. I don't want the picture they would put on Instagram. . . . There's a difference between accuracy and truth. . . . I don't go in with malicious intent, but because I find them interesting."

He says that if potential subjects are unnerved and want him to back off, he will. "I quite understand. But I am less tolerant of people who invite me to write about them, we agree, then they are uncomfortable with what comes out." As an example, he says, "David Frost loathed what I wrote about him. But when he saw people standing up and clapping, he turned around and said, 'Isn't it marvelous!' "

Pop-music icon Carole King had her own solution to the discomfort of having her life turned into the musical "Beautiful." She waited four months before seeing the hit show because, as daughter Sherry Kondor told Playbill, "She said, 'I can't watch my life played out before me.' " The singer-songwriter ended up liking it so much that she actually attended the London opening last month.

The blurry line between fact and fiction has been especially problematic in recent movies. Surely, I'm not the only person feeling queasy about the real-life trial of Chris Kyle's murderer happening at the same time Bradley Cooper was playing the former Navy SEAL as an action hero in "American Sniper."

Also, Hollywood and Broadway have been disseminating wildly contradictory ideas about the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the movie "Selma," the former president is initially seen as indifferent. In "All the Way," the drama that won 2014 Tonys for playwright Robert Schenkkan and star Bryan Cranston, LBJ is obsessed with getting the act passed.

That's what we get for thinking we can get our history lessons from entertainment. Whose Middle East truth was portrayed during the Metropolitan Opera's controversial revival of "The Death of Klinghoffer" last fall? How will Washington respond to "The Originalist," a new play about controversial Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, opening this month at the Arena Stage? Should artists worry about their creations having an impact in the real world? It seems almost ridiculous to include "Clinton The Musical" in the same space as "The Audience." After all, the show, which begins Off-Broadway previews at the New World Stages later this month, is a comedy that Paul and Michael Hodge, brothers from Australia, have been developing at least since 2009, when Hillary Clinton had already lost the nomination for Democratic presidential candidate.

But the musical comedy, which has played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, London's King's Head Theatre and the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival, portrays Bill Clinton as two separate characters -- the libidinous Billy and the formidable WJ Clinton. As Paul Hodge, composer, lyricist and co-author, told me in a recent interview, "There is the Saturday night Bill and the Sunday morning president. This seems a really apt way of depicting a very complex human being."

It's probably safe to say that at least two people -- the former President and Hillary, the possible 2016 Democratic presidential nominee -- would not be thrilled right now to have people reminded of the two sides of Bill. Have the Hodges felt any pressure, even in the gentlest way, to cease and desist for a year or two?

"I honestly don't know what the Clintons think or would think," says Hodge, apparently disarmed by the very idea. Asked how he would feel if the spoof negatively affected Hillary's chances by picking an old scab, he answered, "I doubt we could have any effect. People already have such a fully formed view of them. They've been in public life for a very long time."

Oddly enough, both he and Morgan mention the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle, what Hodge calls the "media portrayals of politicians . . . our show at least brings a bit of humanity to the subject."

As Morgan puts it, "these people are snapped and commented upon and have their privacy invaded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's presumptuous."


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