"UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS"

Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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FREDDIE

Fredric March was born 120 years old today, an actor whose final Broadway appearance was in 1962’s Gideon, by Paddy Chayefsky. Having once been a theatre mainstay, there are not many around anymore who can recall the sterling work March performed in a career that spanned thirty-eight years on the New York stage. But due to his work in more than eighty films between 1929 and 1973, his legacy is secure as one of the most indelible actors of the twentieth century. I was first exposed to him as a kid when I was obsessed with the1960 film version of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee stage play Inherit the Wind, which I would watch as often as I could on my parents' old black and white TV. I d

WHEN LIGHTNIN' STRUCK

Nearly a hundred years ago today, what was then the longest running show in the relatively young history of Broadway, had its closing performance. The play was called Lightnin' and at 1,291 performances entertained audiences continually for three years and one day. No show before it had ever managed so long a run. It was a big deal. It still is, since as of today, Lightnin' stands at #76 in the list of Broadway's longest running shows. The last straight play to run for three years (Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs), closed thirty-four years ago. So again, a big deal. The Playbill for the 1938 revival, featuring Fred Stone as Lightnin’ Bill Jones. Written by Frank Bacon (with an overhaul f

HAMLET

With only nine performances to go, and after a sold-out, two-month limited engagement, I got to see Hamlet last night at the Public Theatre. On the subway ride downtown, I got to reminiscing on all the Hamlets I have seen on stage over my fifty years of theatregoing. Oscar Isaac as Hamlet (2017). First in 1969, the angry and majestic Nicol Williamson (thirty-three at the time, but appearing ten years older due to already legendary years of drinking and carousing behind him). As he was not only my first Hamlet, but my first time seeing a Shakespeare play (I was twelve), that experience has stayed with me forever. My visit backstage with Williamson, chronicled in my book Up in the Cheap Seats,

DIANA SANDS

Today marks the birthday of the actress Diana Sands, who died far too young at the age of thirty-nine. A fine dramatic actress of both contemporary plays and the classics, she was an original cast member of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, a play that Frank Rich once noted "changed American theater forever." As part of a group of African-American talent that burst through in the 1950s and early '60s, she worked alongside James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Roscoe Lee Browne and Louis Gossett, all of whom broke new ground on and off Broadway. Devoting the bulk of her short, but vibrant career to the theatre, we are left with a smattering of film and television perf

... TRY, TRY AGAIN

Yesterday I wrote about two shows, one a play and one a musical, that initially failed, which then went on much later to far greater success. Even though you can always say "If at first you don't succeed ..." few shows ever get these much-sought after second chances. One tale worth telling is that of Terrence McNally's Broadway, Broadway, which closed out of town in Philadelphia in 1978. McNally was then (as he is now) a respected playwright of diverse dramas and comedies. Broadway, Broadway was a farcical one-set play that took place in the Upper East Side town house of a producer on the opening night of her latest show, which will turn out to be a flop in front of our eyes. Comedic mayhem

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED ...

It takes so many important elements to come together when creating a Broadway show that it's a near miracle when they do. Working on The Producers in Plymouth, MA these past eight weeks, where I've been directing a summer stock production, has made me feel the utmost appreciation for the smoothest of rides that Mel Brooks and Company have provided us all. Co-book writer Thomas Meehan, director and choreographer Susan Stroman, and its star Nathan Lane all contributed vital comedic touches that truly make the show sing. But what if The Producers hadn't come together as it did? What if for unforeseen reasons and circumstances it was a disaster in its out of town Chicago engagement, and rather t

SWEET ANITA

Proving that she is still going strong after fifty-seven years, the actress Anita Gillette is currently traipsing the boards on West 43rd Street doing what she does best: eight shows a week. An honest-to-God “Broadway Baby,” who made her official debut in 1960 as a replacement in the role of Thelma, one of Madam Rose’s Hollywood Blondes in the original company of Gypsy, she is a shining example of a working actor who has been steadily at it for nearly sixty years. Her performance as "Bee" in Bruce Norris's A Parallelogram (running through Sunday at the Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre) is one of her very best. Seemingly untouched by time, the natural musicality of her voice remains clarion

THE VOCABULARY OF BROADWAY

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 the essential building of my vocabulary. I know I’m not alone in my ability to trace back to how I learned the meaning of certain words due to hearing them for the first time as lyrics. 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), there were words I learned,

MURDER IS HARD

Thirty-six years ago tonight, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap played its 1,445th performance on Broadway, breaking the previously held record of Joseph Kesserling’s Arsenic and Old Lace as the longest running thriller. It can probably be debated whether Kesserling’s comedy is really a thriller, but Deathtrap was the real deal, prompting screams from the audience with its consistent shocks, twists and turns. It eventually ran for 1,793 performances, closing more than four years after it opened. There hasn’t been another straight play that has opened since which has run as long . That’s quite an achievement, but also an indictment when you consider that plays no longer have the staying power they once e

BARBARA COOK KNEW THE TERRITORY

Since Barbara Cook's death a few days ago, there has been an outpouring of affectionate tributes. Among those in her generation of theatrical luminaries, she was as deeply beloved as anyone, not only for the strengths of her talents, but for being a survivor. The theatre is not a profession for the weak-willed. It has the capacity to devour; without thought or care, chewing someone up and spitting them out. It comes with the territory. And to borrow a phrase from one of her most famous shows, Barbara Cook knew the territory. Barbara Cook (1927-2017). Yesterday, someone posted on Facebook asking me why I hadn't leaped into the fray to write about Cook immediately following her death earlier i

FINDING THE FUNNY, PART 2

I have a few additional thoughts that have come up while directing The Producers this summer, the hysterically funny musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. With comedy on my brain on a daily basis for over a month, it’s been a joy working in all the ways this musical’s wonderful story can be mined for every ounce of potential laughs it contains. Doing so has put me to mind of all the great clowns in the great shows I saw live on Broadway in the fifty years since I began going to the theatre.As Nathan Lane wrote last week in a heartfelt note to the cast on our opening night, "The Producers is like a museum of comedy, from very high to very low. Everything you need to know is in the original

ACTING LESSONS

Right now I am surrounded by a group of young actors I am directing, all of whom are either currently involved in a professional acting program or have recently graduated from one. In the current system, anyone exiting high school today has many more colleges and universities offering unique and exciting programs catering to the acting profession than I ever did back in 1975, the year I was pondering my prospects. Such programs today attract students who have made up their minds decisively to become actors by age eighteen, which was my mindset at that time as well. I attended one of the few conservatories back then, a fledgling one at SUNY Purchase (the fourth year of that school's existence

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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