"UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS"

Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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LEGENDS OF "WEST SIDE STORY"

Sixty years ago this evening, West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. Even with such craftsmen as Arthur Laurents writing the book; music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the most essential contributor was its director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. It's not for nothing there was also the additional "Conceived by" credit that Robbins insisted upon (much to Laurents's dismay). The idea of a balletic update of Romeo and Juliet, set amidst warring gangs of 1950s Upper West Side, was one Robbins had mulled over for nearly ten years. What these artists came up with was historic. And today, on the occasion of its anniversary, I thought it would be fun to raise

ONE NAKED INDIVIDUAL

A week ago, I posted a birthday tribute to the director and theatre scholar Harold Clurman. Also deserving of a similar celebration, is his longtime friend and contemporary Cheryl Crawford, born within the same week (one year and six days later). These theatre artists shared two of the most distinguished Broadway careers of the mid-twentieth century. And, as one of the earliest of women producers, Crawford's list of achievements were the envy of many who came after her, be they male or female. Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford (photo by Arnold Weissberger). Crawford left her distinct mark in establishing and running such landmark theatrical institutions as the Group Theatre; Eva Le Gallienn

A MAJESTIC VIEW FROM UP THE CHEAP SEATS: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

With today marking the anniversary of the opening of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, fifty-three years ago, I thought I would share the following excerpt from my book Up in the Cheap Seats, a Historical Memoir of Broadway, which explains only a portion of why this musical will always hold a special place in my heart: My Great-Aunt Helen introduced me to the lights of Broadway when, in 1967, she took me to see my first Broadway musical, I Do! I Do!, which starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. I was only eleven-and-a-half, and after that evening, in poker terms I was “all in.” I couldn’t wait for the chance to see another show. I would have happily depended on the kindness of strangers. I

A DELICATE BALANCE

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, a play that earned him the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, opened on Broadway fifty-one years ago this evening. Besides Robert E. Sherwood, whose works are rarely (if ever) revived today, Albee is the only other playwright to have collected three Pulitzers for drama. Of course Eugene O'Neill must be included as a three-timer, though he actually holds the record with four. By all rights, Albee should be tied with O'Neill, as his first Broadway play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was the top vote-getter in 1963 and therefore the official recommendation of the Pulitzer jury that year. Then something strange happened: higher-ups at Columbia University, a

HAROLD

"I disapprove of much, but I enjoy almost everything." So said Harold Clurman, the "author, teacher, lecturer, commentator and conversationalist," as the New York Times wrote about him in a 1979 article published to mark a significant occasion in his life and career: the opening of an Off-Broadway theatre on W 42nd Street bearing his name. Such was his influence, that when it was eventually torn down a few years later to make way for a collective of theatres that were bigger and better, no one dared attempt to steal the honor away from its namesake. A new playhouse now lays claim to being called the Harold Clurman, which is right and just. This Renaissance man was the very definition of the

STAR POWER

I have been getting a strong response to the columns I've posted all week about certain Broadway shows that I saw during my teenage theatregoing years in the early 1970s, some of which are included in my memoir, Up in the Cheap Seats. Delving a bit deeper, I thought I should write about something I didn't cover in the book: when Katharine Hepburn portrayed Coco Chanel, the fabled French fashion designer in her first musical, aptly titled Coco. Taking on a brand new challenge at age sixty-two was par for the course when you consider her long and remarkable career. She always threw herself fearlessly into everything she did with a ferocious commitment that defined her as an actress. Katharine

ONE-NIGHT WONDERS

In yesterday's column I wrote of certain Broadway shows so troubled that they folded during their preview period, before even having the chance to open. There also are a number that closed right then and there on their opening night, always a sad thing. It happened a lot more at the height of my teenage theatregoing years, in the early 1970s, than it does today. Now, fifty years later, skyrocketing budgets make the risks to investors greater with each passing season and well-placed caution is essential before heading full throttle for Broadway. But back in the day, when costs were at least ten times lower, I saw many a show that really had no business ever coming in. In the 1969-70 season, I

PITIFUL PREVIEWS

In an on-line article published last week, Playbill listed twenty-two Broadway musicals that closed in one night over a period of the past fifty years. Of the twenty-two mentioned, I saw six of them—and all were at the height of my teenage theatre going years between 1969 and 1973, the period covered by my book Up in the Cheap Seats. This was a time when it was a far more common occurrence for shows to close after one performance. Sad as it must have been for everyone involved in shows that meet such premature ends, famous failures like these are fun to discuss for those who saw them. I should know—I've been talking about them for decades. The ignominious distinction of seeing a show that op

SOMETHING'S COMING

When I was a kid and infatuated with the theatre, I had only one lifeline that connected me to Broadway from my home on Long Island: the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. And there was no Sunday to which I looked more forward than the one in September that featured the full-page ads for the upcoming season. Yesterday, just as it has reliably done for me these past fifty years, the issue did not disappoint. Not only was there newly minted artwork on display, but all of it was put forth in bold colors, not like the black and white images from the 1970s. Looking through the paper yesterday, the kid in me came roaring back to life the same way it does every Fourth of July when

DOLLY'S BIG DAY!

On this date in 1970, close to seven years past its opening night, Hello, Dolly! became the longest running musical in Broadway history. Of course this milestone has now been surpassed many times (Phantom of the Opera has been at the Majestic for the past twenty-eight years), but in light of its recent smash hit Broadway revival, I thought it might be fun to look back and appreciate what it all meant forty-seven years ago. Ethel Merman as Dolly and Jack Goode as Horace in Hello, Dolly! (1970) I consider myself lucky indeed that as a teenager I got to see this impeccable production twice; once with Dolly #5 (Pearl Bailey) and again with Dolly #7 (Ethel Merman). Unfortunately, I was too young

"THE GREATEST ACTOR AMERICA HAS PRODUCED."

"The greatest actor America has produced." That is what the New York Times wrote on December 28, 1871 in the obituary of James Henry Hackett, a man who these 146 years later no longer holds claim to that honor. It's hard to imagine a modern obit closing with a final sentence like the one for Hackett, exclaiming that "a thrill of sadness will go through the City when the news is told that James Hackett has ceased to be." This for a member of a profession that, at the time, had actors commonly turned away at many of the finer hotels and eating establishments across the country. So who was James Hackett to deserve this special dispensation? And how did it come to pass that Abraham Lincoln took

HOT SEPTEMBER

Picnic is William Inge's beautiful slice-of-life drama which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Two years later, it was made into a hit film starring William Holden and Kim Novak and, has forever after never managed to go out of fashion. It's been revived on Broadway twice (most recently in 2013), which is a bit surprising, considering that its status over the years has gone from being something contemporary to a period piece. But the sexual repression of the 1950s is still a subject that draws directors and actors to plays of this ilk (like much of Tennessee Williams). Picnic is aided immeasurably by Inge's ability to write characters from which subtext can be endlessly explored. It's an old s

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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