Theatre yesterday and today



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Avenue Q officially opened on Broadway on this date in 2003. Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, it had originally opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre four months earlier and was an instant sensation. Ironically, I first heard about it from my friend Winnie Holzman, who after seeing it, told me it was the funniest show she'd ever seen. Avenue Q (original cast, 2003) Little could Winnie have known that once it moved to Broadway it would wind up as the chief competition to her and Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, which opened the night before Halloween on October 30, 2003. At the Tony Awards the following June, the two musicals went head-to-head in a


We're in the dog days of summer. It's very hot and many New Yorkers flee on weekends to escape the heat for the mountains or beach communities. That leaves tourists in town, taking up space on the streets and in restaurants, but God bless them—they are the ones mainly responsible for keeping some shows alive through these summer months on Broadway. There are always a cluster of shows that hang on until the Tony Award nominations are announced in late May in hopes that they might provide a lift at the box office. Higher hopes are pegged still on the chance that performing a number on the broadcast might encourage word of mouth. But as is always the case, some shows fail to get either the nomi


On this date, the original Broadway production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate gave its final performance at the New Century Theater after 1,077 performances. Nearly three years earlier, this was Porter's late career triumph and one for which he had been pining. The exemplar of sophistication in the 1930s, his last two attempts on Broadway had been failures (although one of those shows, a revue called The Seven Lively Arts, produced one of his greatest standards, "Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye"). Patricia Morrison and Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate (1948) Kiss Me, Kate would turn out to be the longest running show of Porter's career, one that included such famous titles as Leave It To Me, Gay Divor


Having made it two months past his 100th birthday, the comedian Bob Hope died on this day thirteen years ago. At the time of his death, he was still known to millions, but by 2003, there was a generation of young people with little to no awareness to the tremendous impact Hope had on American culture. Not only did he single-handedly invent the notion of a "stand-up" comic on television, but he came to embody what it meant to elegantly and wittily host an awards program on television, something that today is considered a high commodity. My first exposure to Hope was exactly that—as the host of the annual Academy Awards. When I first began watching them as a little boy in 1966 (the year The So


The great Frank Loesser died on this date, July 26, 1966. He was fifty-nine years old, the age I am now (yikes!). He left us way too young and it's hard to imagine how much richer the American songbook might be today if he had lived longer. But a chronic smoker like Loesser was playing Russian roulette with his health. Take a look at photos of him and you'll almost always see a cigarette either in his mouth or hand, such as the one below where an ashtray lies close to his heart. The scores Loesser composed for Broadway included Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Most Happy Fella, certainly the most ambitious of his career. When it premi


Yesterday afternoon, I attended the 100th and final performance of George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover's glorious Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It was one I didn't want to miss even if it would be my third time seeing the show. When I first saw it at the end of April, I did something I hadn't done in thirty years: I went back to the box office and bought a ticket to see it again right away. This musical had an effect on me that's difficult to put into writing. But since that's what composing these columns is all about, I'll give it a try. Taken July 24th, the last time the Music Box marquee would offer a performance of Shuffle Along To sta


The Humans will give its final performance today at the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street—but not its final performance. It will reopen August 9th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre around the corner on West 45th Street. This move will cost the producers a small fortune, but their only other choice is to close The Humans, as vacating was pre-determined as part of the contract with the Hayes's new owners, the Second Stage. This long-established Off-Broadway theatre company with a number of well known plays to their credit (among them the Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, by Paul Vogel), bought the Helen Hayes a few years ago. Their plan has always been to give it a serious ma


I had the wildest experience earlier this week driving 4 hours between Boston and New York (and back) in a twenty-four hour period, thinking it would be entertaining to listen to a play while on the road. Most people I know enjoy books on tape, but I don't. I've only been able to get through one book read out loud, and that was Martin Short performing his autobiography, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, which was absolutely hilarious. I don't have the concentration necessary to sustain interest in someone reading, over the course of many hours, a novel or a work of biography to me (especially if it's one they didn't write themselves). However, a play is different. Actors at micr


A day late and a dollar short, but I didn't want to miss out entirely on the anniversary of the death of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, who died on July 20, 1923, assassinated in an ambush by a half-dozen riflemen that also took out his bodyguards, secretary and a chauffeur. It was a few years after a decade-long war had ended, but payback for the atrocities Villa was responsible for during that time was not forgotten (or forgiven), apparently. Villa, whose real name was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, was born in Durango to a sharecropper father and, while still a teenager, gained a sordid reputation as a bandit and a killer. Such skills allowed him to rise through the ranks of the


Forty-seven years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. I remember being glued to the television set as a twelve-year-old alongside my whole family while we watched Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America, wipe away tears at the sight of it. Most anyone who was alive on the planet could tell you today in an instant where they were that night. But that summer of '69 was also about a lot of other things for me as a kid growing up in Great Neck, Long Island. The New York Mets, the worst team in baseball for the past seven of its eight seasons since joining the National League in 1962, were beginning a slow but steady ascent towards capturing the pennant. It was as clo


Fourteen years ago today the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp musical Movin' Out opened in Chicago en route to Broadway. The reviews were mixed to terrible, but okay—that's what out of town tryouts are for. In light of that feedback, Twyla Tharp, one of modern dances most respected choreographers, whose first Broadway directing effort this was, did something admirable: she took the critical brickbats to heart, left her ego outside the rehearsal room door, and somehow managed to make the necessary changes that turned a near flop into a hit, not only on Broadway, but worldwide as well. Very few shows in the modern era have been able to successfully re-craft, (sometimes re-design), but most importantly r


Gene Lockhart was born on this day, July 18, 1891. He was a character actor best known for his more than 150 appearances in film and television, not including countless radio plays. He was one of those tried and true reliables seen in so many films that it almost seemed he was everywhere at once. Gene Lockhart as the judge in the film Miracle on 34th Street, in the film's climactic scene when all the letters to Santa are dumped on his desk. Of course, in the days of studio contract players, of which Lockhart was one of thousands, it was easy to go from picture to picture in small roles. In fact, it was common back then for actors to shoot scenes in two different films (or more) on the same d


On this date in 1971, a new musical opened in a city not known for out of town tryouts. But back in the day, it was not uncommon for shows to test the waters on the summer stock circuit in far-flung places beyond Broadway’s purview. This is how it came to pass that W.C., based on the life of the vaudeville and film comedian, W.C. Fields, made its debut in Albany, New York. What made this show interesting was its participants, many of whom came from so many disparate areas of show business. First, Mickey Rooney was cast as Fields and it wasn’t an illogical choice. Like Fields, Rooney once performed in vaudeville, as it’s where he started as a child before the age of two. While only nineteen,


The summer months on Broadway are not the favorite time of year for producers. With the Broadway season unofficially ending each season when the official Tony Awards are televised in early June, the rest of June and all of July and August are considered a poor time to open anything. Sure there are exceptions. A theatre may have a small window for an interim booking if something else is scheduled a few months down the road. But more often than not, producers look to the Fall and Spring to open their shows. It's generally considered a terrible idea to bring in something new in December either, as tourists are seeking the tried and tested during the winter holiday. Take a look at how The Lion K


I didn't plan to write a themed series of blogs this week, but it seems as if my desire to honor key dates in theatre history keep bringing me back to certain figures of the late 50s and early 60s Broadway. One of the best librettists of the American musical theatre, Arthur Laurents was born on this day and, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 99th birthday. Laurents almost made it. He passed away just before his 94th birthday five years ago and had been working practically until the end. He was past 90 when he directed the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy, which led to Tonys for Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaynes (Rose, Louise and Herbie). He also won his own Best Direct


With the inability to get any of Stephen Sondheim songs for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out of my head this week, perhaps it's a good time to tell how he came to write the score for it—the first chance a Broadway audience heard both music and lyrics by the composer. At the start of his career, Sondheim wasn't able to get producers interested in his being hired to write both music and lyrics. He was very young and totally untested. He came to West Side Story, his first hire for Broadway, only when the chosen lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, couldn't get out of a Hollywood contract. When Leonard Bernstein's experiment at writing words to accompany his own music prov


My long and abiding affection for the Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, can best be summed up in one word: comedy. Being hysterically funny is the main reason why The Producers took Broadway by storm fifteen years ago. It was possibly the most hilarious show to hit town since the original Forum back in 1962. And with Nathan Lane, the closest thing to bringing back the memory of Zero Mostel, it made people of a certain age nostalgic for a time when a comedian could lead a show to such uproarious heights. The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q are modern classics that are extremely funny, but not star-centric. In order to p


As I begin rehearsals today to direct an amateur stock production of the Larry Gelbart-Burt Shevelove-Stephen Sondheim musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I'm feeling very nostalgic. Why shouldn't I? My connection to this show goes back nearly fifty years! The first time I even heard of it was in a movie theatre at age nine when I saw the trailer for its film version in 1966. There was Zero Mostel (who I only knew off the album of Fiddler on the Roof) cavorting with scantily clad women all over ancient Rome. It sure seemed like a lot of fun to me! When I told my mother that I saw the coming attraction and that it was something I would like to see, she told me "That film


Yesterday I wrote about my great affection for the actor John McMartin, who passed away on July 6th. In September 2013 I was fortunate enough to sit with him for two hours and discuss his long career in film, television and of course the theatre, for my upcoming book Up in the Cheap Seats. Funny, that even with some wonderful roles in film, McMartin had a hard time relaxing into them: "I’ve never enjoyed working in film or television. I can’t watch myself on film. I don’t like the way I walk, talk, look. I’ve never been comfortable because of all the setting up that needs to be done every day with the lights, and so forth. Once it’s all right with them, then you do it. But the feeling of bei


"Who remembers him?" is the last line of Stephen Sondheim's monumental "The Road You Didn't Take" that John McMartin sang when he originated the role of Ben Stone in Sondheim, James Goldman, Harold Prince and Michael Bennett's Follies. This marvelous actor who died a few days ago at the age of eighty-six, held a special place in my heart. Who remembers him? I know I always will and ... I know I'm not alone. Of the five actors I chose to profile in my upcoming book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the first one I knew I would write about was John McMartin. Though many might know him from his work in film and television, most of his greatest performances were given on the stage. Sure, he is very funny

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