Theatre yesterday and today



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Alan Jay Lerner was born on this date in 1918. One of the most colorful of men, this librettist and lyricist of the golden age of the American musical (My Fair Lady and Camelot), had a penchant for theatricality that fit him like the white gloves he often wore to prevent him from chewing his cuticles until they bled. He was a mixture of many things: erudite, fastidious, intelligent, highly neurotic, well bred and a pugilist. Born into wealth and privilege, he befriended John F. Kennedy at prep school and Leonard Bernstein at Harvard. He had eight wives, summed up best by the famous line that went: "When Alan marries someone, that's just his way of saying goodbye." A number of biographies hav


Her name may not mean much anymore, as Shirley Booth retired from acting in 1974 at the age of seventy-six. When I was a teenager I saw her in two shows, a play and a musical, nearing the tail end of her fifty-year stage career. The first was Look to the Lilies, a musical version of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, with Booth as a nun who enlists the help of an itinerant handyman to build a church in New Mexico. Since it opened and closed quickly, it allowed for Booth to return later in the same season, for what would prove her final time. It was a revival of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, which I am sorry to say, also was a failure. Both shows allowed for only the tiniest glimpses of those qual


The actress Melissa Errico's recent piece she wrote in the New York Times caught my eye, as I'm sure it did many others. Breaking a show business rule (hopefully going out of fashion some day, one can only hope), she openly asks what it will take for a woman her age to act her age. "At age 46, when does an ingénue hang up her ponytail?" Or does she have to? Recently cast (for the third time) as Sharon in the Fred Saidy-Yip Harburg-Burton Lane 1947 musical Finian's Rainbow, Errico has reason to intelligently inquire (as she puts it) if "the ingénue police are at my door." First of all, let me announce my own prejudice that I think Melissa Errico was sexy when I first saw her in her twenties o


Ben Gazzara, born Biagio Gazzara on this day on the east side of Manhattan in 1930, was "an actor's actor." Though there were significant ups and downs in his career, which spanned more than fifty years, he had the respect of his peers, and audiences who were lucky enough to see his work in the theatre, recognized his subtle power on stage. I will never forget his George opposite Colleen Dewhurst in the 1977 Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1977) By the time I saw this production (directed by playwright Edward Albee himself), I was already in college and my exposure to Gazzara's talents were solely from f


Yesterday would have been the 98th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. With two years to go before his centenary, some major celebrations are in store, so why not get started now? This composer/conductor led a life in the arts that is equal to none. If anyone deserves fireworks in their honor, it is he. Born August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein was (naturally) a child prodigy. As the story goes, when his Aunt Clara needed a place to store her piano while going through a divorce, the ten-year-old was fascinated by the instrument, but his father wouldn't pay for any lessons. The desire to play the piano was so strong, it drove Bernstein to seek odd jobs in order to pay for lessons


At yesterday's matinee of the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, a young actor who usually performs the role of Mordcha, the Inkeeper, went on as Tevye for the vacationing Danny Burstein. With his performance, Michael C. Bernardi, at just thirty-one-years-old, became the youngest actor to ever play Tevye in any of its five Broadway productions over the last fifty years. Bernardi is following in the tradition of his father, Herschel Bernardi, who was the third Tevye in the original Broadway production (following Zero Mostel and Luther Adler). Herschel Bernardi played it more than 700 times on Broadway and hundreds of more times on the road, culminating in a Tony Award nomination


Julie Harris died three years ago today, August 24, 2013, a sad day for the American theatre. Had there ever been an actress like her? Will there ever be another? As befits someone of her status, the outpouring of love and affection upon her death was tremendous. She was one of the last of a dying breed: a star with her name above the title who (even if the play itself proved insignificant) was always worth seeing. If Julie Harris was in it, there was always going to be something special about it, plain and simple. The recipient of five Tony Awards for Leading Actress in a Play, she was respected and revered, even sanctified. To which Julie Harris might have said, "That's nice, but all I'm r


I'm going to London in October. And if you're like me, planning a trip there involves (from the get-go) finding out what's playing in the West End. More to the point: who's playing. When I get to see actors trained in the British tradition doing what they love most and do best, then I know I'm in for some memorable theatregoing. I have been fortunate in the past to see such actors on the London stage as John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Kenneth Branagh and Tilda Swinton—all in productions which never came to America. There is a feeling of an added excitement when in London seeing something your fellow compatriots back home might never will. Not that I mean


When I went to college as an eighteen-year-old, one of the first things I did was check out the campus library. This was an extension of my intense fascination with libraries which began when I was very small. Possessed with an overwhelming need to read, and my parents' limited resources, which made buying books unfeasible, the library was a life saver. So was Miss Barbara, the librarian at my town's local brach, who guided and pushed me in directions I could never have navigated myself. She had a beehive hairdo and wore thick black glasses and I can easily conjure her voice after more than fifty years. With her aid, I devoured everything from Where the Wild Things Are to Stuart Little, and


Carolyn Leigh was as smart and tough a lyricist who has ever written for the theatre. Better known today for her pop songs, and though only credited with four Broadway shows, she was nonetheless a talent to be reckoned with. Born on this date in 1926, she collaborated with a number of different composers over the course of her career and wrote dozens of songs which bared her distinctive stamp: a mix of the sweet and sour. There was an air of Dorothy Parker about her. Leigh's lyrics were often barbed and witty, but unlike Parker, she had the ability to be crushingly romantic. Her best known works for the stage included the Mary Martin Peter Pan (a complicated legacy) with composer Moose Charl


Yes, it was a mere 98 years ago tonight that the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank opened on Broadway. Well, not really Broadway. The theatre was the Century, and its location was at Central Park West and 62nd Street, which puts it outside the parameters of the Broadway we know today (with the exception of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Broadway and 65th Street, which has always been an exception). I love envisioning what theatres off-the-beaten-path like the Century must have looked like, nestled as they were in neighborhoods, as opposed to commercial districts. Photos don't really do them justice, but for those of you with a similar interest, The City and the Theatre: New York Pla


Actor-director-producer-environmentalist-philanthropist Robert Redford turns eighty-years-old today. He's been a movie star for nearly five decades since his breakthrough role as the latter of the infamous duo in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But since he hasn't appeared on stage since 1964, it's pretty much forgotten that he was once a leading man on Broadway. And not just any leading man, but one with enormous promise, and one who many pinned hopes of continuing in the theatre. Like Bogart and Brando before him (to name just two), Redford is a Broadway actor who, once the movies beckoned, never returned to the stage (at least up until now). It’s a shame, since those that saw h


The actor William Redfield died forty years ago on this date, far too young, at the age of forty-nine. Born to an orchestra conductor and a former Ziegfeld Girl, he made his Broadway debut at age 9 as Billy Redfield in the musical Swing Your Lady. By twelve, he was cast in the original company of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town. By fourteen, he was the lead ingénue in Junior Miss, a big hit back in its day, directed by Moss Hart. As an adult, he was famously directed by Sir John Gielgud as Guildenstern a 1964 production of Hamlet that Richard Burton brought to Broadway. This was at the peak of Burton's reign as a superstar and during his fresh (and first) marriage to the most famous woman


New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley goes to England every August and attends whatever theatre strikes his fancy. Considering that he is paid for this and stays in high quality hotels and all the theatre is free, it makes me damn jealous whenever I read his reporting each summer. More so, when he writes about theatre and performances I may never get a chance to see. But yesterday, he did something a little different. The Times printed an interview in which Brantley took advantage of his close proximity to London and sought out Mark Rylance—who isn't even appearing in anything at the moment—just to sit and talk about one of the actor's more recent triumphs. Not the Academy Award he rece


The musical Hairspray opened on Broadway fourteen years ago today. August openings are a particularly rare thing, though for its star, Harvey Fierstein, they have been something of a good luck charm. On August 21, 1983, his adaptation of the film La Cage Aux Folles opened at the Palace Theatre. He wrote its book, and although he didn't appear in its original production, he was a huge part of that musical's enormous success (and eventually played the role of Albin in the 2004 Broadway revival). La Cage ran on Broadway for four years, but Hairspray ran for six and a half. It actually ran just a bit longer than The Producers, considered one of the biggest hits of the first part of this century


Well, it’s August. And if you are anywhere in the United States this weekend and dealing with the stifling heat, my heart goes out to you. I spent this past Friday exclusively indoors (with no air conditioning) that was as oppressive as any day I can recall in my lifetime. It made me miserable. Though unfair to blame an entire month on a few days, this foul, fetid August forced me to look for ways to conjure up images and feelings that would take me to a better place. It wound up taking me to a better month — December of 2007, and a different mindset of August altogether. This is when I saw a Wednesday matinee performance of August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, that was then in previews on


It was Laurence Olivier who once said, “Everything I know about acting I learned from Alfred Lunt." Today, Olivier's name isn't recognized the way it once was, and far less so the name of Lunt. This is mainly due to the fact that (as opposed to Olivier) nearly all of Lunt's triumphs were on the stage. Considering that 1958 was the last time he was in a play, there is practically no one under the age of sixty who could have conceivably seen his work. The same goes for his wife, Lynn Fontanne, with whom he acted almost exclusively. With but one film they made together (The Guardsman in 1931) and appearances in three television plays, theatre was their whole shebang. Broadway, the West End, or


Yesterday while writing about lyrics to Broadway scores, I found myself conjuring up memories of listening to record albums in my bedroom as a kid and as a teenager. I know that records are making a comeback right now (Hamilton released one so we know it's a "thing"), and I got caught up in recalling the ritual. If you're unfamiliar with it, here goes. With records back in circulation, I'm assuming nothing's changed. But back in the day, a record came in an an album casing (cardboard) and a protective sleeve (paper lined in plastic). Upon purchase, the first order of business was to cut the exterior plastic wrap with which the jacket was encased, then remove the vinyl album and place it on a


When as a child I first began listening to the cast recordings of Broadway shows on records (yes, records!), it not only began my education of the American musical theatre, but of my vocabulary. I know I'm not alone in that I can trace certain words and how I first figured out their origins, by hearing them as lyrics before reading them, or hearing them introduced in general conversation. Play along with me. I'm sure a number of examples of your own will leap to mind. The first record album I ever wore out was the one for The Music Man, that featured my idol, Robert Preston. Due to its being set in 1912, and with Meredith Willson's love for the arcane (all the better for surprise rhyming), t


As I'm currently directing a production of A Funny Thing Happened to the Forum in summer stock, I have comedy on my brain. It's forced me to recall some of the wonderful comedies I saw on Broadway in my youth, as well as affectionately steal bits and pieces from them to add to this Forum, a show which lends itself to "everything but the kitchen sink" humor. Over the last twenty to thirty years most laughter that emanates from the Broadway stage comes when attending a musical. Gone are the days of Neil Simon offering a play a season guaranteeing (if not always a brilliant show) at least enough laughs to make the relatively low cost of a ticket well worth it. Now when you look at the last thir

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