"UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS"

Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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MR. PAUL MUNI: ACTOR

September 23, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler Paul Muni was an actor of stage and screen who reigned supreme as a star of the first magnitude in the 1930s. Warner Bros even signed him to a seven-year contract and billed him with a certain awe as “Mr. Paul Muni.” No one else was ever afforded that honor during the heyday of motion pictures, but mainly due to the fact he only made 22 films, his name means little now compared to that of contemporaries such as Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart. But Muni was a singular talent, with a wonderful backstory, and is the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.” Paul Muni (1895–1967), as the title role in “The Life of Emile Zol

HAROLD CLURMAN: A LIFE OF THEATRE

September 21, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler “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 West 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, the name stayed intact. Unfortunately, this past year, just before the pandemic shutdown, it was decided that all the theatres in this comple

UNHAPPY STAR OR: WHEN HENRY FONDA SAID "YES," INSTEAD OF "NO."

In 1957, the creative team behind a new two-character play were thrilled when they discovered a relatively unknown actress to play their female lead: the twenty-six-year-old Anne Bancroft. Then, securing Henry Fonda as the other fifty percent of the cast — an actor thirty years into a remarkable stage and screen career — left everyone feeling doubly blessed to have landed “a star.” But as the playwright himself chronicled in a book he wrote about the experience, Two for the Seesaw was anything but a happy road to Broadway, even though it ended in major success. Read about it in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.” Inside books written about the theatre by its participants are most often gr

CYRANO: A LIGHTNING ROD FOR ACTORS

September 16, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac first saw stage light in Paris in 1897. Based somewhat on a real-life figure, this fictionalized characterization makes wholly believable its story of a man who thinks he is unworthy of the love of a great beauty due to self-perceived ugliness with regard to an oversized nose (“‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!”). As drama, the play has never lost its contemporariness, for who among us hasn’t been convinced at one time or another that some physical defect marked us as undesirable? The plot involves Cyrano selflessly becoming the conduit who enables his friend C

MOMENTS (courtesy of Stephen Sondheim)

The wordplay of Stephen Sondheim is the gift that keeps on giving. Take a moment to look at “Moments in the Woods,” a song of brilliant language, deep insight, bountiful wit and, as always, true to its character, in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.” “Oh, if life were made of moments, Even now and then a bad one—! But if life were only moments, Then you’d never know you had one.” These lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim for the character of the Baker’s Wife (she and her husband are never referred to by their proper names) are from the 1987 Broadway musical in Into the Woods and remain imprinted on my mind ever since the first time I heard them. That was a year before it came to New Y

IN THE SHADOW OF 9/11

September 11, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler Nineteen years ago, close to 3,000 people died in a terrorist attack, the worst fatalities on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Coincidentally, 9/11/2020 marks six months to the day that live theatre shut down due to COVID-19, not only here in New York, but across the country and most areas of the world. My report on these duel days of mourning in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today." Blue beams suggesting the Twin Towers shoot into the night sky, for the annual 9/11 "Tribute in Light." On March 11th, 2020 I took my seat at a Wednesday matinee of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, a new musical based on her

ZERO

When Zero Mostel died in 1977, I had a visceral and emotional response to his passing. I loved his crazy and seemingly unlimited talents and miss his one-of-a-kind performances to this day. Here’s a tribute in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.” On a beautiful September day forty-three years ago, I was driving in a Toyota Hatchback with Larry Horowitz, my then-college roommate. SUNY Purchase, where we both attended (he as a visual artist and I as an actor), had a later-than-usual start than other schools and we were on a ten-day trip through New England before we had to report to campus. We had just spent time with a friend of mine in Maine, who had a cottage on a lake and who was always

KAZAN

September 7, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler He directed twenty-one actors to Academy Award nominations and nine wins; he won two, and one honorary Oscar. He was nominated for seven Tony Awards as well, winning three. He co-founded the Actors Studio. He was Elia Kazan, the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.” September 7, 1909 marks the birthdate of Elia Kazan, probably the most influential director of the twentieth century. Canny, charismatic and controversial, the diverse list of plays and films he worked on run the gamut. He worked side by side with so many great writers that his influence on their work cannot be underestimated. Here’s a sampling of just som

WHEN SHAKESPEARE MET JAZZ

September 4, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler Only the most devoted of theatre fans will have heard about a long-forgotten musical that opened eighty-one years ago at the long-gone Center Theatre. Located at 6th Avenue and West 49th Street, across from Radio City Music Hall, the Center seated 3,700 people, which for a little perspective was twice the capacity of the current largest theatre on Broadway — the Gershwin — where Wicked has played since 2003. The Center was so big it didn’t play home to many Broadway shows, 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 Nigh

THE STAR POWER OF KATHARINE HEPBURN

Curiously, when the Connecticut Yankee, Katharine Hepburn, chose to portray the fabled French fashion designer Coco Chanel, it didn’t turn as many heads as it did ask the basic question on everyone’s minds: can she even sing? Well, ever since Rex Harrison was cast as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, there have been many famous names who decided that if they didn’t sound exactly like a nightingale in Berkeley Square, then maybe they could get away with talk-singing and warbling more like a New York City pigeon? But if Hepburn was known for anything throughout her career (which began on Broadway in 1928) it was her fearlessness. Always throwing herself into the deep end of the pool (a

HOT SEPTEMBER

September 1, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler 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 it’s had numerous productions the world over ever since. It’s been revived on Broadway twice (most recently in 2013), with its status over the years morphing from 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) and in the case of Picnic, it is aided immeasurably by Inge’s ability to write characters from which subtext can be e

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