Theatre yesterday and today



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As famous theatre legends go, the one about the night Shirley MacLaine went on for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game is pretty much at the top of the list. You don't know this story? Although there are many versions of it (and even MacLaine's own tellings have contradictions) the underlying one is 100% true. Of course it carries with it a scene as old as when films first began to talk and sing—the understudy who goes on in a pinch and becomes a star overnight. It goes like this: Back in June of 1954, about a month into the run of the hit new Broadway musical The Pajama Game, MacLaine found herself rushing to the theatre to get there by curtain time. Highly ambitious, MacLaine was already tiring


This past Broadway season that ended with the Tony Awards two weeks ago, provided me with the chance to see more shows than I have in a long time. This was due mainly to my moving back to Manhattan after many years in Los Angeles, but also because I am lucky that I make a good “plus one.”My friends who invite me to the theatre know that I’m the one that never says no to an invitation. Even if it’s a show I’m not interested in seeing, I’m still interested. I know that might not make sense, but sometimes there’s more to see than just the play. The old joke about coming out of a musical humming the scenery, is sometimes truer than you might think. For example, the Tony Award nominated set by Ch


In 1943, Agatha Christie, then at the height of her fame as a murder mystery novelist, had one of her most popular stories turned into a play for London's West End. The show's title (same as the book) was the offensive Ten Little Ni**ers. Raising no protest back then, the show was a hit, though when producers took it to New York a year later, a name change to the still derogatory Ten Little Indians was deemed more permissible. As both versions had successful runs, Hollywood came calling and bought the property for an all-star cast film version. So it became 1945's And Then There Were None (although in England, its title reverted back to Ten Little Ni**ers). Not nice. What's also not nice, an


Today is Helen Keller Day. And that's no joke. Perhaps even mentioning this is not politically correct, but as far back as when I was a kid and she was still alive, Helen Keller jokes were common. Making fun of disability, something someone without deep personal experience can never understand, is a defense mechanism. It masks fear and provides cover in some deluded belief the offender, by way of some rude joke, is better than the person they are ridiculing. Part of Helen Keller’s life's work was to make people deal with the existence and experiences of the disabled, even if it made them uncomfortable. In the late 1800’s, when Keller was born, those without the ability to see, hear or speak


Today marks the day when in 1973 The Theater Development Fund opened the TKTS booth at Broadway and 47th street. This familiar site (revamped, redesigned and reopened in 2008) is now a New York City institution. It has provided theatregoers from the tri-state area, as well as from cities in countries around the world, discounted prices to most shows that haven't sold out before their curtain times between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. on any given night. The TKTS booth back in the old days Now more than ever it is a life-saver to anyone in deep need of a discount for the ever-rising costs of a Broadway show. But isn't the booth itself one of the reasons that ticket prices began their upward spiral in t


Yesterday I wrote about Sugar, the 1972 musical version of the classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. By no means any sort of classic, Sugar still managed to be very entertaining on its own merits. I saw it early in its run in April of 1972 (I was fifteen, if anyone wants to know) and was absolutely blown away by the energy, comedic skills and charisma of Robert Morse. As Jerry, a musician who inadvertently witnesses a gangland killing, forcing him to go on the lam dressed as a woman in an all-girl orchestra, Morse was the real deal. This was my first time seeing him on stage, although I kind of already worshiped him more than a little bit from his performance as J. Pierpont Finch in the 1966


In 1959, director Billy Wilder, along with his long-time writing partner I.A.L. (“Izzy”) Diamond, brought their screenplay Some Like It Hot to life in glorious black and white. The film, which starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe became an instant classic, earning five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. In June, 2000, nearly fifty years after it premiered, it was named number one on the list of America’s Funniest Movies by the American Film Institute’s panel “of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community.” In 1972, David Merrick, a producer with an enviable track record as well as a talent for alienating close to everyone he ever came in contact wi


On June 22, 2006, demolition began on the northwest corner of 46th Street and Broadway. This was a sad day for me, as well as for many others, who knew which structure was coming down. The empty pits in our stomachs wasn't for the building itself, (it was no architectural gem) nor was it for the end of the food that would be served from the restaurant that would be no longer. No, we mourned that only memories would be left of the many afternoon and evenings spent in one of the booths of this Howard Johnson. Back in its hey-day, Broadway sported all sorts of of these type of eateries: Nedick's and Nathan's, not to mention ones geared especially (if not exclusively) for Jewish clienteles: the


Today would have marked the 113th birthday of the artist Al Hirschfeld, the Broadway caricaturist whose drawings chronicled shows and stars for close to 80 years. A name above the marquee, or a Tony Award have always been high points in an actor's career, but for anyone fortune enough to have had a Hirschfeld in the New York Times, that right of passage was perhaps the pinnacle. The Line King, the ironic title of a 1996 documentary about Hirschfeld, showed in great detail how this artist could do more with the graceful flow of a simple line to not only create a drawing that flowed with movement, but to do so with wit, charm and love. I'm not much for handing out new names to old theatres, bu


If you have yet to see George C. Wolfe's brilliant Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, what are you waiting for? By that I don't mean rushing to see Audra MacDonald before she exits for maternity leave. Yes, she's wonderful, but I've visited the show twice; once with her and once with her understudy, Darlesia Cearcy, and they are both well worth seeing, as is the entire musical. It's sensational. This dramatic recreation of the behind-the-scenes goings on of what was the first all-black Broadway musical written and directed by an all-black team tells an extraordinary story. Shuffle Along was the biggest hit of 1921, with its leading actors, the


Father's Day falls today on June 19th—a Hallmark holiday (as many coin such occasions) in order to sell a few cards and neckties. Of course Mother's Day came first, and was an idea that gained strength in 1868 as a way to unite families torn apart by the Civil War. Father's Day was inspired by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, who was raised a single child and wanted a way to pay tribute her dad. Through her efforts, the notion took hold in the early 1920s, though it wasn't until the 1970s that President Richard Nixon proclaimed the third Sunday in June officially as Father's Day. In the year 1971, I saw a very short-lived play called Father's Day. This was the second Broadway produc


June 18th is George Hearn’s birthday. The two-time Tony Award winning actor was born eighty-two years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. Speaking with him recently, his voice depicts none of the wear and tear that a role like Sweeney Todd might potentially have done to it. Although he told me that he hasn’t sung for two years—“not even in the shower,”—that voice still rings in my ears from all the years I saw him in shows, whether they required him to sing or not. For Hearn, though a great musical theatre actor, was an actor first and foremost. Originally trained for the opera, his talents couldn’t restrict themselves to only one art form. Not long after arriving in New York after a stint in the ar


On this date, June 17, 1972, Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running show in Broadway history. It had broken the record as the longest running musical a few months earlier when it surpassed Hello, Dolly!, but producer Harold Prince wasn’t content with that. He set his sights on overtaking Life with Father, the play that held the overall record. How great a phenomenon was Life with Father? To better understand its achievement, it held onto its 3,224 record-run for twenty-five years after the night it closed in 1947. Not even Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady could beat it. And the only straight play to even come close to Life With Father (and it wasn’t that close) was a little play called Gemi


With the terrific Tonys telecast still fresh on the brain, it brought to my mind how far this once humble ceremony has come. On this day 50 years ago, the 20th Tony Awards ceremony took place and it was a very different affair indeed. The early Tony Awards were sponsored entirely by the American Theatre Wing, a small but dedicated organization to good works in the theatre back then the same as they are today. But 1966 marked a temporary take-over by the League of New York Theaters, consisting of theatre owners and producers, known today as the Broadway League. Not only did the ceremony take place at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, but it was in the middle of the afternoon for the fir


On this day June 15, 2000, as the century was drawing to a close, a new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth opened at the Music Box Theatre. It was roughly the 40th Broadway production since 1900 of this very popular play with a notoriously troubled history. It has plagued producers, directors and actors alike going as far back as Shakespeare’s time. As appealing as the tragedy is on the page, many have become justifiably gun-shy over the years when it comes to taking on the Thane of Cawdor, his willful wife and his path from mighty warrior to common murderer. Just ask Kelsey Grammer. Agreeing to star in this limited engagement, the classically trained actor was at the height of his successf


This week’s Tony Awards were presented on the evening of a day when in the morning the world woke up to yet another senseless mass shooting (the worst in U.S. history as it would turn out). While watching the broadcast, I found it remarkable that almost to a person, the Broadway community rose to the event and brought us what they do best: an innate ability to be present in the moment and create something out of nothing, capable of entertaining and lifting our spirits. Sure, one or two winners may have expressed emotions at receiving a Tony Award better reserved for the delivery room when a child is born. But those tears are often shed out of the sheer joy of hard work being paid off and in


Hard to believe what with the extraordinary success of the Broadway revival of Chicago, now running for over 20 years, that its original 1975 production went home the night of the 1976 Tony Awards with zero trophies to show for its eleven nominations. That was due to the steamroller effect of the show that took home the lion’s share of awards that season—a juggernaut called A Chorus Line. How else to explain the first Chicago being ignored? It had arguably Bob Fosse’s best work as a director and choreographer, and a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb which has undeniably stood the test of time. Not to mention the star power of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. With personal ownershi


June 12th is the birthday of Uta Hagen, an American actress who would have been 97 today. She was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States. Raised in Madison, Wisconsin she went from high school productions almost directly to playing Ophelia opposite Eva La Gallienne as Hamlet. She was 18 years old. Her swift rise was dazzling. Her Broadway debut was as Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull, not only one of the most challenging roles for any young actress, but her co-stars were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the reigning star team of the American theatre. Shortly thereafter she was George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Shakespeare's Desdemona (opposite Paul Robeson's Othello and her then-husba

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