Theatre yesterday and today



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As previously stated, I am currently immersed in the world of summer stock, directing a production of The Producers that opens this Thursday night in Plymouth, Mass. During the past month, I've been researching how certain actors' lives were enriched by this time-honored tradition; one that has fallen by the wayside a bit in terms of how it encourages and strengthens the abilities of emerging young talent. With the average age of my seventeen-member troupe around twenty, it is not lost on me that this experience is one that (for better or worse) they will carry with them for some time. So I have enjoyed reading about how some of my all-time favorites, such as the late Martin Landau who I wro


It was on this date, ninety-seven years ago, that Poor Little Ritz Girl opened at the now demolished Central Theatre on West 47th Street in Times Square. It was written by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, for whom it marked their official debut as authors of a Broadway musical. Until their partnership broke up in 1943, the next twenty-three years featured their names in the Playbills of some thirty shows—a remarkable achievement. Lorenz Hart (foreground) and Richard Rodgers at the piano. Many were revues (a couple were even revivals), but that does nothing to diminish their prodigious output. If I were to list even some of the hit songs they wrote, it would take up th


Currently, I am engaged in Plymouth, Massachusetts for the third summer in a row directing college students (as well as recent graduates) in a big old Broadway musical. Well, not that old — it’s 2001’s The Producers. But old certainly describes the Priscilla Beach Theatre: a glorious barn transformed into a theatre in 1937, where it once featured the likes of Gloria Swanson on its stage (among many others). Recently, it has been lovingly brought back to life by Bob and Sandy Malone, Plymouth locals who shared a desire to bring back the tradition of summer stock to their community. They have worked tirelessly, making sure that nothing got lost in its updating. In fact, one good thing was gain


One of the greatest singular talents who ever shined brightly in the theatre and on film is Barbara Harris, who turned eighty-two yesterday. Long retired, she is most notable for her brief time as a go-to actress for everything from subtle comedy, to moving drama to hilarious musicals. At the time, it felt like she could do almost anything, and critics were in love with her. I never got to see her on stage, beginning my theatregoing as I did about the time she left it—in 1967 when she was on top of the world, receiving the reviews of her career in the three one act plays that made up the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical The Apple Tree, written especially for her. After this personal triump


When listening to music on the many devices I own, I'm fond of employing the shuffle mode. It's fun not to know what's coming next, especially as your personal library will rarely, if ever, betray you. It also offers some interesting juxtapositions. For example, this morning while out walking my dog, I heard Ben Platt sing "Waving Through a Window" followed by Frank Sinatra singing "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her." The only thing these songs have in common is that they were both written for Broadway shows. And it got me thinking about the major difference with songs written for the theatre today as opposed to the ones when Sinatra was in his prime during what is now referred to as th


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning plays, is back among us. By among us, I mean that the two plays are currently being performed at the Lyttelton Theatre in London. Only you don't have to board a plane to see them. Last night night, I had the chance to see Part 1, Millennium Approaches, courtesy of National Theatre Live, the film series that has allowed over the last few years to see numerous productions born out of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, as it is officially known. The Oliver and the Cottesloe are the other two theatres within the cement complex (both government supported and protected, thank you ve


When I was a kid in the 1960s, and falling in love with Broadway musicals for the first time, I would listen to the original cast recordings and imagine what the shows looked like on stage, the same anyone might do today. However, at the time of this obsession, record albums sold for around $3 to $4, making them a bit costly and out of my reach. I was a little kid—I had no money. But when my dad brought home a reel-to-reel tape recorder (a Philips, if I recall correctly), everything changed for me. With this hefty forty pound machine in my house, I would now be able to take albums out on loan from the local library and make my own tapes of cast recordings that I could play to my heart's cont


The noted stage, screen and television actor Barnard Hughes was born on this date one hundred and two years ago. His first role was in 1935 on Broadway in Herself Mrs. Patrick Crowley. His last, in the year 2000, was playing a judge on a short-lived NBC series Deadline at the age of eighty-five. When he died, his obituaries claimed he had performed in over 400 roles in the theatre. If that figure is true, it's not hard to imagine him being good in all of them. "I didn't make a lot of money, but I worked all the time," he told a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. "I worked for writers who didn't make money, I worked for directors who didn't make money. There wasn't a basement in N


Born on this day is one of the best librettists of the American musical theatre, Arthur Laurents, who (if he were still alive) would be celebrating his 100th birthday. And Laurents almost made it. He passed away just before his 94th birthday six 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 Gaines (Rose, Louise and Herbie). Laurents was also the recipient of his own Best Director Tony in 1984, when he helmed the original production of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage Aux Folles. A man of intense contradictions, he was notoriously difficu


This is a totally true story, which might reveal more about me as an avid theatregoer than I care to admit. But I'm left with no choice, what with today marking the 40th anniversary of an extraordinary night spent in New York City, (along with millions of others), when I found myself plunged into total darkness during a city-wide electrical blackout. On a nasty hot and muggy summer night, at a time when severe budgetary restraints dramatically curtailed many of the city's most vital services, New Yorkers were already hot and bothered by things that had nothing to do with the weather. So it wasn't altogether surprising when anger boiled into rage shortly after 9:30 p.m. when a series of light


"Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out Strut down the street and have your picture took. Dressed like a dream your spirits seem to turn about. That Sunday shine Is a certain sign That you feel as fine as you look!" Simple, yet elegant. Two words which pretty much sum up the breadth of the work of Jerry Herman, who celebrates his eighty-sixth birthday today. Broadway first heard from him before he had turned twenty-nine, and his rise as a composer of both words and music, was meteoric, and his rise as a composer of both words and music, was meteoric, even if that first show, From A to Z, was a short-lived revue for which he wrote a few songs (other contributors included newcom


If I were forced to name the actor I would most have liked to see live — in anything — my mind would begin racing with the better known royalty of Broadway and the West End during the mid-to-late twentieth century: Alfred Lunt, Laurence Olivier, Kim Stanley … all of whom made their exits off the stage before 1969 when I began going to the theatre regularly as a teenager. But if pressed hard, I think the one who might have spoken to me most dynamically (and poetically) would have been Paul Scofield. Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas Moore in the film of A Man For All Seasons (1966). Scofield, born in Birmingham, England in 1922, only made it to Broadway once in a stage career that spanned six decad


"All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again." We all know the words to the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme, but did you know that once upon a time there was a musical called Humpty Dumpty that closed out of town in Pittsburgh? And that it starred a twenty-four year old Ethel Merman, one of the brightest and freshest faces in show business, the result of her triumph two years earlier in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy? Rewritten and retitled Take a Chance, the show performed the near-impossible, opening on Broadway two months after its premature closing to decent reviews and a good solid run. John Tenniel's illustration from the 1865 first edition of A


She only appeared in five musicals that were recorded. Yet if you are someone like me, who treasures their collection of original cast albums (be they on vinyl or CD), you know the name Susan Johnson. Though she never played the lead on Broadway, she excelled in larger-than-life supporting roles that usually win Tonys for those who created them. But Susan Johnson wasn't so lucky. In fact, she an especially bad run of luck as it turned out—not only with the shows she did (most of which were unsuccessful), but also in her private life. She was born ninety years ago today and lived till the age of seventy-five, though we were cheated of seeing her play roles as she matured due to her decision t


Turner Classic Movie's annual July 4th airing of the 1972 film version of 1776 has come and gone, and with it the always illuminating on line chat room discussions on whether or not this musical got a fair shake in its transition from stage to screen. This is something I'm not prepared to weigh in on due to A) my affection for the show—from Peter Stone's brilliant book/screenplay and Sherman Edwards's music, both merry and thought provoking— to B) my personal relationships and connections to certain cast members, as well as to the play and film's director, Peter H. Hunt. Plus with my having paid a dozen times to see the original Broadway production as a teenager during its three-year run, "f


The caricature below by Jeff York, drawn exclusively for an illustration in my book Up in the Cheap Seats, features the stars of the original Broadway cast of 1776, William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This trio is known primarily by their performances in the 1972 film version which airs tonight in honor of the 4th of July (as it always does) on Turner Classic Movies. So good in these roles, Daniels, Da Silva and Howard have made it impossible to picture anyone else. Having created the parts as members of the original Broadway cast, you would think that they would have had all that time during the show's long run to hone their


For anyone who follows, or even stumbles upon these columns, "summer stock" is a familiar term that might conjure up feelings of nostalgia: old-time plays and musicals performed at venues in idyllic settings crucial to their success. Its name is a combination of reusing stock scenery and costumes and performing exclusively in seasonal weather out of old barns or under ourdoor tents designed for temporary use. It's not for nothing the rather dimwitted and beleaguered lead character in Mel Brooks's The Producers cries out: "I am Max Bialistock! The first producer ever to do summer stock—in the winter!" Gene Kelly in an old barn theatre dancing on newspapers in MGM's Summer Stock (1950). But if

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