Theatre yesterday and today



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The late actor Charles Durning was born on this date. He won a Tony Award, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and worked as an actor right up to his death in 2012, just shy of his ninetieth birthday (his last two films were released posthumously). Though he accomplished a great deal in his life, none of it came easy. He has one of the most fascinating biographies of any actor I know, and today is as good a day as any to tell some stories and celebrate his legacy. Charles Durning (1928-2012). Born in 1923 in Highland Falls, N.Y., Durning was the ninth of ten children. Five of his sisters died of smallpox or scarlet fever in childhood (three of them within two weeks), and his father, who h


How many actors have one word associated with a performance that instantly conjures an image of them in their most iconic role? Certainly "Stella!" as cried by Marlon Brando would fit the bill, as does Al Pacino shouting "Attica!" There are others, but the list is short. One I would like to add is "Refund!" ... and if it instantly brings up Paul Dooley's epic reading of that line, in his role as the dad in 1979's Academy Award winning Breaking Away, then I rest my case. Today being Paul's 90th birthday, this still-working actor (one of the best in the biz), is getting a full-on tribute from me both as a fan—and as a friend. For the simple truth is, I love and adore him. Paul Dooley (2010). I


A New York Times obituary, published on February 18, 1976, told the story of a gentleman of the theatre with a legacy of extraordinary versatility. Of course by 1976, this actor-songwriter-producer and director hadn't been heard from since 1958, when he left the lights of Broadway and a world he'd called home since his debut there in 1919 in The Velvet Lady (at the New Amsterdam Theatre, today home to Disney's Aladdin). It would be easy to conjecture that by the time of his death, such a man had been forgotten, but that was not the case. Responsible in 1945 for bringing Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie to Broadway, and for resurrecting (if briefly) the career of the actress Laurette


When I began writing these “Theatre Yesterday and Today” columns back in June 2016, I wasn’t sure I could sustain the commitment, or for that matter, find enough theatre stuff to write about. But today with my 300th post over these past nineteen months, not only does the process continue to get me started every morning (aided and abetted by strong coffee), but it has educated me in ways I never thought possible, sometimes on subjects that have nothing to do with the theatre — a definite plus. I’ve now written 300 essays of at least a 1,000 words each over the past 635 days, which translates to about one every other day. It’s been a lot of work, but all of it’s made me a better writer. When I


On Valentines Day, 1972, a little show called Grease slid its way into the Eden Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street (first built in 1925 as the Yiddish Arts Theatre, still standing as a movie theatre called the Village East Cinema). The makeshift musical was brought in by way of Chicago, where two young New York producers, Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox, came to see it at the suggestion of a college friend of Waissman's. What they saw, performed in a basement, was something raw, but also energetic and perhaps most importantly—a whole lot of fun! They knew it needed work (a musical score, for one), but were so enthused at how the audience was reacting, that they grabbed the rights to pr


When I was a kid back in the 1960s and 70s, my school district in the town of Great Neck on Long Island always allowed the day off for Lincoln's birthday. Whatever weekday February 12th fell on, we kids got to stay home and quietly contemplate our martyred President (or at least that was the general idea). Then ten days later, on February 22nd, we would get another day off, this one for Washington's birthday, a means in which to honor our nation's founding father. It was also during these formative teenage years of mine that the U.S. government first instituted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an Act of Congress that amended the federal holiday to provide three-day weekends (mostly to federal


John Mahoney (1940-2018) died yesterday, succumbing to throat cancer, at the age of seventy-seven. I will never forget my first time coming across this wonderful actor in 1985, upon his New York stage debut in Lyle Kessler's Orphans, imported from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. This was still early in the days of this company's particular brand of viscerally charged theatre, having first broken upon the New York theatre scene in 1982 with their rediscovery of Sam Shepard's True West (starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinese), a play critics had dismissed a few years earlier in its initial Off-Broadway production. Though not a founding member of Steppenwolf, Mahoney was one of its earliest "fi


When it comes to a full and secure knowledge of the Broadway musical, you can probably separate the amateurs from the professionals when you bring up 1946's Lute Song, starring Mary Martin. It was her first show after the hit Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash-S.J Perelman musical One Touch of Venus, in which she played her first leading role, successfully crowning her Broadway's newest musical star. Her return vehicle, nearly one year to the date of Venus's closing, was an odd one (to say the least). As described by biographer Ronald L. Davis in Mary Martin, Broadway legend, the part was that of "a young Chinese bride who begs to save her husband's parents from starvation and sells her hair to give them


This is a repeat of a column, written on this date last year, and updated to honor the marking of the 80th anniversary of one of my favorite American plays. On February 4, 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town opened on Broadway and middle schools and high schools across America haven’t been the same ever since. I don’t say that to be funny, but even without statistics to back it up, at one time or another in the ensuing eighty years, surely most every school has done this play. It’s an attractive property, not only due to many of its roles being age-appropriate, but also for its not needing any scenery or little in the way of costumes. Hopefully, the drama teachers that choose it recognize that


One of the greatest composers to work with both equal distinction on the Broadway stage and during the Golden Age of Hollywood, was Burton Levy. Better known as Burton Lane, his professional moniker, it's not a name as well known as some of his friends and fellow tunesmiths of the era like Harold Arlen or Johnny Mercer. Nor does he hold the stature of the stable of lyricists with whom he collaborated, such as Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner. Frank Loesser or E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who was the person responsible for guiding Lane towards the biggest Broadway hit of both their careers, 1947's Finian's Rainbow, the first show to be awarded the Best Musical Tony. Lane's choosiness with projects and pa

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