On this day June 15, 2000, as the century was drawing to a close, a new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth opened at the Music Box Theatre. It was roughly the 40th Broadway production since 1900 of this very popular play with a notoriously troubled history. It has plagued producers, directors and actors alike going as far back as Shakespeare’s time. As appealing as the tragedy is on the page, many have become justifiably gun-shy over the years when it comes to taking on the Thane of Cawdor, his willful wife and his path from mighty warrior to common murderer.
Just ask Kelsey Grammer. Agreeing to star in this limited engagement, the classically trained actor was at the height of his successful TV series Frasier back in 2000, having just completed the 7th of what would be 11 seasons. Grammer already had three leading actor Emmys for playing Dr. Frasier Crane and nothing to prove to New York audiences as to his theatre cred. He had already appeared as a very fine Cassio in the James Earl Jones-Christopher Plummer Othello that was on Broadway in 1982, and had worked as a young actor at the New York Shakespeare Festival and regionally in many classical roles. In fact, it wasn’t even Grammer’s first Broadway Macbeth: He appeared at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the small role of Lennox (and understudied Macbeth) fresh out of the Julliard School across the street. This was a production helmed by Sarah Caldwell, a classical conductor and director of operas, who had never staged anything over than an opera. Brendan Gill in the New Yorker called it “something of a disaster,” and he wasn’t the only critic to say so. The Macbeth was Philip Anglim, whose career went off the rails after never finding its way back on track. Having triumphed as The Elephant Man in 1979, after this 1981 appearance, Anglim never returned to Broadway.
There have been so many bad things happen during productions of Macbeth that many believe it to be a cursed play. Books have been written chronicling its calamities, such as the one that claims that on its opening night in 1606 the actor playing Lady Macbeth became so ill that Shakespeare himself had to take on the role and it being so poorly received that no production was done for another fifty years—none of which is probably based in any kind of fact.
But in the whole truth department, Charlton Heston did receive serious burns on his legs in an accident that occurred on stage while playing Macbeth. And with so many tall tales that have been written up, most (if not all) should be taken with a grain of salt. Such as the reported incidents revolving around a wartime production in England that starred John Gielgud that included one Witch dying of a heart attack during the final rehearsal; another Witch collapsing and dying on stage during a performance; and the set designer’s committing suicide (I’m guessing totally unrelated).
The unwritten law of the theatre is that Macbeth is so toxic that even mentioning the play by name backstage while a show is in rehearsal or performance is so much of a jinx that the only antidote for whoever muttered the word is for that person to exit whatever room they are in, spin in a circle and spit over their shoulder before reentering. This is why if one absolutely must mention the play by name, it is always to be referred to when in a theatre as “the Scottish play.” Everyone I know honors this rule. Theatre folk don’t take their superstitions lightly.
So how did Kelsey Grammer fare with his Macbeth? Unfortunately, reviews were so bad its limited engagement quickly became more limited. It folded after ten days.
"Out, out, brief candle!"