In ‘Tales From a Ghetto Klown,’ Broadway minus the glitz

“Tales From a Ghetto Klown” follows actor John Leguizamo as he creates his one-man show for the theater.
“Tales From a Ghetto Klown” follows actor John Leguizamo as he creates his one-man show for the theater.Ben DeJesus

You could consider “Tales From a Ghetto Klown’’ the anti-
“Smash.’’ Both are backstage dramas about the development of Broadway shows, but the similarities pretty much end there.

“Smash’’ is a fictional, glitzed-up prime-time NBC series that tracks the tumultuous attempt to create a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, complete with a fierce rivalry between two ambitious actresses (one of whom sleeps with the other’s fiance) and a conniving assistant who sends a big-name star to the hospital by lacing her smoothie with peanuts.

In “Tales From a Ghetto Klown,’’ a solid PBS documentary directed by Ben DeJesus and airing Friday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, there are no poisonings, there is no sex, and most of the conflict is of the inner kind.

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It’s a step-by-laborious-step chronicle of the struggle by actor-playwright John Leguizamo to create “Ghetto Klown,’’ a solo show that ran on Broadway in 2011. The documentary offers not just an in-depth look at the development process but a taste of the real-world vagaries of show business: a surprise blizzard in Chicago that wreaks havoc with a pre-Broadway tryout specifically scheduled so Leguizamo can test the show before a live audience, a sudden cancellation by a New York theater that leaves “Ghetto Klown’’ temporarily without a Broadway home.

The Colombian-born Leguizamo has built much of his theater career on his explorations of Latino culture and his own life, including his turbulent upbringing in a home dominated by a harsh and rigid father. A willingness to be honest about his emotions has been one of his hallmarks, from “Mambo Mouth,’’ his 1991 off-Broadway breakthrough, through subsequent one-man shows like “Spic-O-Rama,’’ his Broadway debut “Freak,’’ and “Sexaholix. . . A Love Story.’’ In the documentary, he makes no attempt to hide his frustration and anxiety as he tries to whip “Ghetto Klown’’ into shape with the help of his director, Fisher Stevens.

“Wow, those expectant faces, huh?’’ Leguizamo says nervously as he walks into a rehearsal studio for a workshop performance to which Stevens has invited a clutch of intimidating heavy hitters, including Ralph Fiennes, Liev Schreiber, and Joe Mantello. Seemingly describing his own state of mind, Leguizamo remarks to the group: “A lot of anticipation, right? A lot of fear, a lot of panic.”

And it’s made clear that a lot of hard work went into “Ghetto Klown.’’ The documentary does not stint on the nuts and bolts, showing Leguizamo writing, rehearsing, getting notes from Stevens, rewriting, rehearsing some more. On and on, for more than six months, with Leguizamo turning down movie roles along the way, determined to get “Ghetto Klown’’ right and to avoid what he calls “a race to Broadway.’’ (One of his recurring movie roles is as the voice of Sid the sloth in the animated “Ice Age’’ series, whose latest installment, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,’’ opens Friday.)

Among the strengths of “Tales From a Ghetto Klown’’ is its illustration of the impact an astute director can have on even the most personal material. Stevens says he told Leguizamo that “the anger’s gotta go,’’ and that he urged him to focus not on what he’s been through but on how he got through it. No detail is too small. When Leguizamo is crafting a monologue, Stevens presses him on his word choices. “Why are you saying, ‘I almost gave up theater’?’’ the director asks. “Why don’t you say, ‘I almost quit doing this, I almost quit one-man shows forever’?’’ Leguizamo concedes the point.

However collaborative the process, though, “Tales’’ also offers subtle reminders that solo performers face unique pressures; they have to go out there onstage all alone, with nobody to pick them up if they fall. As Leguizamo works up a sweat with his choreographer, trying to get his moves down right, he says to her jokingly: “You going to be there? Every day?’’

When “Ghetto Klown’’ opened in March 2011, it was panned by the all-important New York Times. The documentary shows Leguizamo appearing to enjoy himself at the opening-night party, but a later interview reveals that he was anything but relaxed. “I don’t want to be reliant on critics for my sense of success and self-worth. I don’t want that ever to be my life, you know?’’ he says. “And here I was, a whole party waiting for the reviews.’’

“Ghetto Klown’’ survived, though, for 15 weeks after those reviews. Leguizamo still wasn’t done with the piece. He decided he wanted to take it to Colombia, which meant he had to work for months with a translator and hone his Spanish-speaking skills. A whole new round of insecurities set in. “I don’t think I can do this,’’ he says at one point. “How do I get out of doing this play in Colombia? I just can’t do it.’’ But he could, and he did, and “Ghetto Klown’’ was a hit there.

By the end of “Tales,’’ Leguizamo seems satisfied that his efforts paid off, or at least as satisfied as this perpetually restless man will allow himself to feel.

“I really went after something really dangerous, something that really meant a lot to me, and I really risked a lot,’’ he says, speaking about the Colombian performances in words that could also pertain to his career. “And maybe it didn’t succeed, but I felt like an artist. I felt like I was doing something. . . . And I guess that’s the high you’re always really chasing.’’

TALES FROM A GHETTO KLOWN

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