Nothing about the beloved New Orleans-set novel A Confederacy of Dunces has come easy.
It’s well known that the author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969 after numerous failed attempts to get it published. Only the persistence of his mother, Thelma, eventually got the manuscript into the hands of Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer and a professor of English at Loyola at the time. He ended up loving it, and saw to it that it was published in 1980 by LSU Press.
In the 34 years since, the best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner has been translated into dozens of languages, and has affected readers all over the world. A 35th-anniversary edition is coming out next year.
But aside from a few stage productions with limited runs over the decades, every major effort to bring the novel off the page and onto the big screen or the stage has fizzled.
“It’s a well-known brand, and people love it,” said producer John Hardy. “Some people don’t understand it, but there are millions and millions worldwide who do. And they wonder the same thing: Why haven’t we seen this somehow, whether on film or as a play, why haven’t we seen it?”
Few know just how hard it’s been to bring Confederacy of Dunces off the page than Hardy. For years, he and Hollywood heavyweight Stephen Soderberg were part of a group that tried to get the film version made. (Hardy and Soderberg go back a long time. The first film Hardy produced in the U.S. was with Soderberg – 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. They’d go on to work together on Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean’s 11 and 12.)
“And later, Director David Gordon Green got on board, and it threatened to happen several times but never did,” said Hardy. “I can’t tell you exactly why things are done or not done in Hollywood.”
But an invitation to coffee by Phillip Mann and Chris Stelly, two representatives of the state’s Entertainment Development Commission, got Hardy thinking in a different way.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you forget about the film? Why don’t you do a stage play?” said Hardy. “I said, ‘That’s actually a very good idea, thank you very much, I’ll buy your coffee!’”
Hardy went to the people at LSU press and convinced them that he could do the play, and with his partner at Shelton Street, Bob Guza, got the theatrical rights. And in April, the effort to stage A Confederacy of Dunces on Broadway took a major step forward with what’s known in the theater industry as a “29-hour staged reading.” Actors rehearsed for four days with the producers (Hardy and Guza), director (David Esbjornson) and playwright (Jeffrey Hatcher), and then performed the play – with scripts in hand –in front of nearly a hundred of Broadways’ biggest investors and backers at a New York City studio.
“We were very happy” with the performance,” said Hardy. “Everyone was laughing. That’s a pretty good sign that things are working when all your jokes are working.”
Most of the actors who performed in the reading won’t be with the final production, with the exception of the star: Nick Offerman, aka Ron Swanson of NBC’s Parks and Recreation fame, is cast to play Ignatius J. Reilly.
“He did a wonderful job, because it’s a tough, tough role to play,” said Hardy. “He came to it, I’d like to think, because I wrote him in an email some years ago. I was putting together a film called Ruggo!, and he was very interested in playing Ruggo and we were very interested in him playing it, and it’s yet another film that didn’t happen. But I got to know Nick and I thought he would be great for Ignatius J. Riley, and he was.”
The production should also benefit from the recent addition of Soderberg, who was at the staged reading and offered his support afterward. Hardy says that the next step in the production process is a developmental performance – another stage performance with more backers in the audience — likely in Boston, which has a long history of launching shows to Broadway. If that goes well, A Confederacy of Dunces could be on Broadway next year or early 2016.
“We have an opportunity to actually do something with this,” said Hardy, “so let’s get on with it. Let’s make it happen, and don’t drop your guard, don’t lose any energy, just keep on going.”