'Frost/Nixon' Is a 'Truly Titanic' Production

"One of those definitive Broadway experiences." "Staged with the momentum of a ticking-bomb thriller and the zing of a boulevard comedy." "Crisp and entertaining."

Those are just a sample of the praises the critics have heaped on Broadway's newest hit play, "Frost/Nixon."

With less than three weeks left in the 2006-07 Broadway theater season, the British import not only has a lock on a best play Tony Award nomination, but it also looms as the front-runner to win the accolade.

It's pretty heady stuff for any play, especially a first play, and that is exactly what "Frost/Nixon" is.

But the play's author, British screen and television writer Peter Morgan, 44, is not exactly an unknown, having scripted the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "The Queen" and co-authored the screen adaptation of "The Last King of Scotland."

Morgan's maiden voyage on the stage covers heady ground: the period before, during and after British talk-show host Sir David Frost's now-legendary 1977 series of televised interviews with former U.S. President Nixon.

Under Frost's relentless questioning about his involvement in the illegal political espionage, violation of public trust, bribery, contempt for Congress and attempted obstruction of justice involved in the Watergate scandal, Nixon conceded for the only time that he had "made mistakes," "said things that were not true" and "screwed up terribly."

Forty-five million people tuned into the first of Frost's quartet of 90-minute-long cross-examinations, making it, to this day, the most-watched political news interview in television history.

A 'Perpetually Fascinating Subject'

Through the years, Nixon has remained a perpetually fascinating subject for dramatization. The former president has previously turned up as a character in numerous works, including motion pictures by Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, a play by Gore Vidal, John Adams' opera, "Nixon in China," and at least 20 episodes of "The Simpsons."

In "Frost/Nixon," Morgan casts the discredited leader as the contemporary equivalent of a tragic hero in a classic Greek tragedy. Cursed with the urge to destroy himself, Morgan's Nixon hears "voices ring in his head," urging him to do whatever it takes to overcome his inevitable destiny to be a "little man" and "loser."

In a repeat of their London assignments, two-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (British Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen") portray Nixon and Frost respectively.

The Nixon character, of course, is by far the showier role, and Langella has reaped lavish praise for his performance.

As one major critic put it, the performance is "truly titanic. … One of those made-for-the-stage studies in controlled excess in which larger-than-life seems truer-to-life than merely life-size ever could."

The President as Parent

Counting down the days to opening night, Morgan characterized his state of mind as "completely terrified."

The director was most concerned about American critics' response to a British writer's take on not just any traumatic moment in contemporary American history, but one that specifically involved an American president.

But he also took comfort in the responses of preview audiences.

"What became clear to me is that Nixon simply didn't traumatize the British the way he traumatized the Americans," he said, "and the anger at Nixon was still palpable. I could literally feel that anger when I was in the theater. In America, the president is both a politician and the head of state, giving him a much deeper connection to the people. The president is more like a parent, and when a parent lets you down, it is very traumatic."

"English audiences are much more detached about our politicians behaving badly because our politicians are not like our parents, but merely our guardians," Morgan said.

"Unlike the president, the queen is our head of state, and we had the same thing with her that the Americans had with Nixon when she got it wrong in the days after the death of Princess Diana. Suddenly people were really questioning whether we really needed a monarchy, did we need the queen at all, and what were we doing with these people? A sense of our constitutional makeup had been thrown into question, and it was really liberating and frightening."

Morgan traces his interest in the Nixon story to a 1993 two-hour television profile of Frost. Although the program devoted a mere five minutes to the Frost-Nixon confrontations, the writer sensed immediately that a play about "two people with everything to gain and everything to lose pitched in gladiatorial combat with one another" held the potential to become exciting theater.

The idea simmered on his creative back burner for the next 10 years.

After achieving success with the 2003 British TV play "The Deal," which featured Tony Blair as a character, and then "The Queen," he felt confident enough to transform the "real" Nixon and Frost into dramatic characters.

Heady Research

To research Nixon, Morgan traveled to Washington, the Nixon Foundation and Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., and the Nixon Western White House in San Clemente, Calif. He interviewed the surviving participants in the drama, including Henry Kissinger and the research team that wrote Nixon's memoirs.

He also hired a tutor to teach him about the American political system.

"I came to see Nixon and Frost as a combination of ingredients. Each had what the other desired," he said. "Nixon had this extraordinary awkwardness and inability to be liked; Frost, this great superficiality, charm and ease with life. Yet the moment that I knew I had to write about them arrived when I came to see their similarities and not just their differences."

Morgan believed each man wanted to utilize the media event to secure a personal goal -- Nixon viewing the interviews as a potent opportunity to rehabilitate his image; Frost envisioning them as an eye-catching platform that would allow him to relaunch an American television career that had reached a dead end.

Frost, 38 at the time the interviews aired, had a reputation as a lightweight, globe-trotting television personality with an unctuous and sycophantic interviewing style; someone who was ill equipped to confront an ex-president accused of "committing the biggest felony in American political history."

Because Frost is still alive, Morgan had to secure his permission to create a dramatic portrait. Initially skeptical, the broadcast legend eventually was persuaded to give his approval without receiving either payment or editorial control of the project.

After viewing a London preview, the typically hyperbolic Frost declared the play "brilliantly written, brilliantly directed and brilliantly acted … as exciting a night as you are likely to get in the theater this year."

At First, Rife With Error

However, Frost also pointed out a series of factual errors in the script, some with stunning dramatic license.

For example, Morgan scripted a drunken late-night telephone call from Nixon to Frost. Declaring they have much in common -- they both came from modest circumstances and have been lifelong victims of snobbery -- the Nixon character goes on to declare both men "headed for the dirt … the place the snobs told us we'd always wind up."

The scene "captures the Nixonian self-pity and his sense of being the wrong side of the tracks," Frost told an interviewer. But unlike Nixon, Frost said he wanted to make it clear that "I never felt I was born on the wrong side of the tracks."

Almost 30 years later, the Frost-Nixon interviews remain an arresting case of checkbook journalism. Nixon's participation earned him $600,000 plus a 20 percent cut of the profits that may have boosted his earnings to $1 million. Incapable of selling the broadcast rights to a national television network, Frost peddled the syndication rights to 155 local stations and 10 foreign broadcast systems, also earning as much as $1 million in the process.

At the conclusion of "Frost/Nixon," the audience is told that the stupendous success of the interviews ultimately reflected Frost's instinctive grasp that politics and show business had become one.

"Finally, my play is not about politics," Morgan said, "but a play about the power of television, and I quite prefer it that way."

It appears destined to have a long life, as Ron Howard has purchased the motion picture rights. Filming is scheduled for this summer, and although Warren Beatty and Kevin Spacey are reportedly both vying for the opportunity to portray Nixon, Langella is negotiating to reprise his stage performance on film. Sheen has already been signed to be the screen Frost.

The play -- Tony Award or no Tony Award -- is scheduled to continue holding court at Broadway's Bernard J. Jacobs Theatre through Aug. 19.