"UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS"

Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT

In 1968, during Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidency (that he won in a squeaker against Hubert Humphrey), author Joe McGinniss trailed the candidate and wrote a book the following year called The Selling of the President. A huge success, it made the 26 year old McGuiness the youngest living writer to ever make the New York Times best seller list at that time. The book chronicled the marketing and branding of Richard Nixon, a relatively new way to sell a candidate, mostly the brainchild of a guy roughly the same age as McGuiness— Roger Ailes — who, as we all know, eventually became the power behind Fox News until his downfall this past ye Ingenious book cover design of McGinniss’s best

THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY

In the world of theatre, there’s really no one else I admire more than Harold Smith Prince. Not only for this many contributions as a producer and director, but also as the “prince” that he is. He has mentored and aided in the careers of thousands of people over his nearly seventy-year career, one with still no end in sight. It is no exaggeration that he is often referred to as the most important person in the musical theatre in the second half of the twentieth century. Serious, but indefaticable (and with the always present glasses perched atop his forehead). For anyone unfamiliar with his accomplishments, he began as a stage manager, moonlighted as a casting director, until his first produ

THE MAGIC OF AUGUST WILSON

“August Wilson left such a tremendous body of work for us. He wanted to make sure that our culture did not become history without some life and love and breath it it. He wanted a heartbeat in the stories that we told.” These are the words of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor and director who has come to be one of the foremost interpreters of the work of August Wilson. Beginning his relationship with the playwright when he created the role of Canewell in the 1996 Broadway production of Seven Guitars (for which he won a Tony Award), Santiago-Hudson has performed in and directed a number of Wilson’s plays over the last twenty years. Tonight Jitney, the last of the 10-play-cycle of Wilson’s yet to

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. JONES

James Earl Jones, who turns eighty-six years old today, was the first actor I ever saw on the Broadway stage who took my breath away. Seeing him as Jack Jefferson in Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope was one of the highlights of my theatregoing life. He took my breath away because watching him felt like I had been sucker-punched in the stomach; I was literally gasping at the range and scope of his performance. I had never seen anything like it. And today, nearly fifty years later, it remains so. James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope (1968) Jones made his Broadway debut in 1958 with a small role in Sunrise at Campobello, the first of what would come to total twenty Br

THE EYES OF BROADWAY

The theatre lost one of its most treasured artists yesterday. Martha Swope, who produced “hundreds of thousands of images of performers in action,” according to her obituary in the New York Times, died at the age of eighty-eight in New York. Martha Swope in 2012 (photo Fred R. Conrad/New York Times) With the proliferation of cameras on cellphones, taking a photograph these days seems about the easiest thing in the world to do. Point and shoot, right? But even with how sophisticated things have gotten, have you tried recently to get a decent shot of your kid in a school play? How often does it result in the shot you intended? Isn’t there always a blurred arm or one actor in a quartet whose ey

POTENT POTION, PART 2

To continue yesterday’s history behind Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Broadway comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, it’s important to remember its status as more than just a record-breaker with regard to its lengthy run, closing out as the fourth longest running show ever. It went on to break the mold for how shows were done beyond Broadway. Its producers, the long-experienced playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, took bold steps to insure that the play would have a significant afterlife. According to a Life Magazine piece written by Crouse and published in April 1944 a few months before the show closed, he wrote about the play’s historic series of firsts: 1. It was the first play to be presented

POTENT POTION, PART 1

It was on this date in 1941, nearly a full year before America would go to war, a comedy with nothing more on its mind than to entertain opened on Broadway. Armed with the unlikely title of Arsenic and Old Lace, it premiered on January 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre (later to be renamed for Helen Hayes and demolished in 1982). It would run for three and a half years and bid its fond farewell in 1944 as the fourth longest running play in Broadway history. Its run in London’s West End was almost exactly the same length. Arsenic and Old Lace, 1941 (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) Its author, Joseph Kesselring, was not nearly as fortunate with his two previous outings on Broadway. Cross-town ran

ONE-PERFORMANCE WONDERS

Back in the days of my early theatregoing youth, it wasn’t uncommon for a Broadway show to open and close on its opening night. When faced with terrible reviews and little advance sale, old school producers knew enough to throw in the towel and call it a day (or a night). But why does this happen so infrequently nowadays? Over the last twenty years, you can count on one hand the shows that lasted but one night. In the first four years of the early 1970s, when I was handing over my hard-earned paper route money to fund my theatregoing habit, there were an astounding seventeen shows that closed in one night (eight of which I managed to see during previews). With the astronomical cost of produc

JOEY, JOEY, JOEY

Sixty-five years ago today, a revival of Pal Joey opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre. The year was 1952 and it had been twelve years since its original production opened in 1940 starring Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal. It was a singular triumph for Kelly in what would be the last time he would appear on Broadway, as it led to an MGM contract that turned him into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But curiously, this musical version of John O'Hara's novel about a heel named Joey Evans, had not been greeted very warmly by critics when it first opened. An anti-hero was a new concept at the time, and though all agreed its score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was superb, many tho

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