Theatre yesterday and today



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Only the most devoted of theatre fans will have heard about a long-forgotten musical that opened on this date in 1939 at the long-gone Center Theatre. Located at 6th Avenue and W. 49th Street, across from Radio City Music Hall, the Center seated 3,700 people, which for a little perspective is 1,800 more than the capacity of the Gershwin, where Wicked is now playing. The Center was so big it didn't play home to many Broadway musicals, but Swingin' the Dream was something special—and very ambitious for its time. It was a jazz-infused, fully integrated version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, updated to contemporary New Orleans. Among its performers were the immortal trumpeter Louis


Once upon a time, there was a type of Broadway comedy that commonly offered popular entertainment of the first order. These plays went for big laughs by upending the assembly-line, cookie-cutter, so-called normal complacency of middle to upper class homes. Though farce was the main form of comedy prior to World War II, after the 1940s, with servicemen returning home and adjusting to their new lives, a different wave of theatre prospered and flourished on Broadway, many set in proper living rooms for all of their three acts; shows with titles like like Time Out for Ginger, A Hole in the Head and The Marriage-Go-Round Then in 1961, a TV writer branched out with a Broadway play all his own. Pri


In my fifty years of theatre going, I have seen a number of out of town tryouts of Broadway plays and musicals. During the three decades I lived in Los Angeles, the city played host to a steady flow of shows that New York producers brought in. This was a smart choice, taking advantage of the solid subscription bases of some institutional theatres which had their homes there. Some shows I saw there were presented in great shape and went on to eventual critical acclaim (and Tony Awards), like Clybourne Park and The Drowsy Chaperone. Others like Durante, a 1989 musical based on the life of Jimmy "the Shnozzola" Durante, played the now-demolished Shubert Theatre in hopes of proving a launch to N


New York's City Center's Encores! is presenting its loyal audiences with an early Christmas present this week—a tender and touching production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's seventy-year old flight of fancy, Brigadoon. But if you want to see it you have to hurry; there are only a few performances left this weekend before, like the mythical town itself, it disappears on Sunday night, unlikely to return anytime soon. That Brigadoon is rarely done anymore is not without good reason. I wouldn't be surprised if its story creaked a bit even at its premiere in 1947. It's overly-sentimental, filled with stock characters, and though the score is beautiful, it's got a lot of filler in it. An


On November 16, 1908, Burgess Meredith was born—"Buzz" to all who knew him well. An actor with a ubiquitous presence throughout my childhood, I suppose anyone who grew up in the mid-1960s can imitate the "quack, quack, quack" he came up with for the villainous Penguin on Batman. Especially Jon Stewart, who brought it to The Daily Show for his Dick Cheney impression. Meredith could use that sandpapery voice of his to play things to the hilt, such as the crusty (but benign) Mickey in the first three Rocky films, or just as easily dial it down to a gentle smoothness, as he did when hawking products like Skippy Peanut Butter, Honda, Bullova Watches and United Airlines in his voluminous commercia


"In George Furth's Twigs, Sada Thompson does not simply give a stunning performance. She gives four of them." Sada Thompson, circa 1976, at the time of her hit TV series Family. So wrote Walter Kerr in his Sunday New York Times review, published a few days after Twigs opened, forty-six years ago tonight. According to my meticulously kept records, I saw the matinee the day before its Sunday night opening, at the price of $3.00, seated in L 102 of the balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre (although it indicates I moved six rows down and sat in F 102 for the following three of its four acts). And though no Walter Kerr, (I was fourteen), I called Thompson "inimitable." And she was. At forty-four ye


Of the forty current Broadway theatres, only five are located east of Broadway and 7th Avenue. The Cort on 48th, the Lyceum on 45th, the Belasco on 44th and, also on 44th, the Hudson (only recently reopened after a 49-year hiatus). Lastly, there's the Stephen Sondheim on 43rd, which occupies the space where a theatre called the Henry Miller once stood. Built in 1918, nearly a hundred years ago, the theatre is no longer standing—and this is where it gets a bit confusing—because in 2009 there was a gala re-opening of the Henry Miller Theatre. Here's the story: When I began my weekly trips into Manhattan as a teenager back in 1969, the Henry Miller was already a ghost of its former self. Named


I returned to see the current hit Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! on Sunday night. One reason was that having already seen Bette Midler, it was always my intention to see how Donna Murphy was interpreting the role, having now performed it every Tuesday night for the past six months, as well as for the few weeks vacation that Midler had scheduled as part of her unique Broadway contract. I chose to attend this added performance to the company's usual work-week due to its being a fund raiser for the Actors Fund, the 125-year-old charity which I'm proud to support in every way I can. On its website, the Actors Fund describes its mission as one that "fosters stability and resiliency, and provid


Seventy-eight years ago tonight, the play Life with Father opened at the now long-departed Empire Theatre. It was a mostly autobiographical comedy that depicted a turn-of-the-century New York City family, based on stories by Clarence Day, an author and cartoonist, who was an early and significant contributor to the New Yorker Magazine. The playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse adapted Day's book, which had been a great success when it was published in 1935. Previously, the team had written the librettos for musicals such as Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Hooray For What! But Life with Father proved to be their biggest hit, and that includes one of thei


In 1963, Terrence McNally first had his name in a Playbill when his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's The Lady of the Camellias opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. His most recent credit is the libretto for this past season's Anastasia, currently playing at the Broadhurst. Within that span of fifty-four years, he has earned the recognition of his peers as a master dramatist: four Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards, two Obies, and an Emmy. McNally is perhaps our greatest living playwright of a certain age. And that age would be seventy-nine today. Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, we (and McNally) are lucky he got out of there alive. As a young boy, he was putting on operas in his garage, which is som


For anyone who's ever seen James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (and who hasn't?), it's always a little startling late in the film to watch him sing and dance in a sequence depicting Cohan when he starred on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers & Larry Hart musical I'd Rather Be Right. Startling, because today's movie audiences are well aware that the character Cohan was playing—President Franklin Roosevelt—was a paraplegic. After all, the statue at the entrance to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. has him seated in his wheelchair. The Franklin Roosevelt statue, designed by Lawrence Halprin, in Washington, D.C. But this is now and that was then. While he wa


"If you wanna be a top banana, you gotta start at the bottom of the bunch." So goes Johnny Mercer's lyric to the title song of the 1951 Broadway musical that opened sixty-six years ago tonight. Starring Phil Silvers as an over-the-top television star, Top Banana was a big hit and ran for 305 performances. It's a part of Broadway's distant past, as it's never received a revival of note, mainly due to its being very much of its time (a thinly-veiled spoof of Milton Berle, when he was the undisputed king of television). But Top Banana has its small treasures, and in Silvers, it had one of the truly great musical theatre stars doing what he did best: making people laugh. Phil Silvers as Jerry Bi

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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