Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday I wrote about my great affection for the actor John McMartin, who passed away on July 6th. In September 2013 I was fortunate enough to sit with him for two hours and discuss his long career in film, television and of course the theatre, for my upcoming book Up in the Cheap Seats.

Funny, that even with some wonderful roles in film, McMartin had a hard time relaxing into them: "I’ve never enjoyed working in film or television. I can’t watch myself on film. I don’t like the way I walk, talk, look. I’ve never been comfortable because of all the setting up that needs to be done every day with the lights, and so forth. Once it’s all right with them, then you do it. But the feeling of being on stage is great because you’re in control—and you don’t have to look at yourself! If something doesn’t work one night, you change it and fix it the next."

I carefully reminded McMartin that he was able to do some exceptionally fine work on sitcoms, which were all done in front of a live audience and he smiled. “Well, those were the best times I had.” I had to share my particular fondness with him for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show he had done where, in the first act, he played a highly competent, straight-laced lawyer who helps Mary set up her defense when she is about to stand trial for not revealing a news source. Then in the second act, he completely falls apart because Mary hasn’t fallen in love for him the way he has with her. The rejection sends him on an all-night bender. When he arrives plastered in court the next morning, McMartin offers a graceful physicality once the domain of the great silent-film actors. With every diminishing attempt to stay in control, he gets more and more funny.

Not one to easily accept a compliment when I mentioned it, McMartin shrugged it off, though he did make the comment under his breath: “There was a Cheers and a Frasier. I thought those were well-written.” Which was his way of saying they turned out well and were good experiences for him.

Again, his work on stage was a horse of a different color. There are really no words to describe just how great McMartin was in Follies. The role of Ben Stone feels so specifically tailored to him, the fact he was a last-minute replacement doesn't make sense, but it's true. An actor backed out after a table-reading of the script a few weeks before rehearsals began. McMartin also had the disadvantage of being the sole lead for whom the audience held no nostalgic association, something the rest of the casting significantly hinged upon. The company was a who’s who of “who’s that?”—former stars of the stage and screen, many of whom had been out of the spotlight for years.

For a glimpse of the effortless style McMartin brought to Follies, there is the televised 80th birthday concert for Stephen Sondheim from 2010, where he sings “The Road You Didn’t Take.” Some forty years after its original production, filmed live at Lincoln Center, the performance by a significantly more mature McMartin (eighty-one at the time) is proof of how an actor can convey in song a complexity of ideas worthy of a Shakespeare soliloquy. If you doubt it, check it out here via this YouTube clip and see what true art looks like, provided by both McMartin and Sondheim:

In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes McMartin in Follies as “thrilling.” When I spoke with him, he told me, “I think my favorite three performances in musicals were, off-hand, Alfred Drake in Kismet, Alan Alda in The Apple Tree and John McMartin in Follies.” When I asked Sondheim to elaborate on that, he refused. “No, I can’t elaborate,” he stammered. “I can’t … you can’t describe those …” and his voice trailed off.

I understood what he was getting at. For someone like Sondheim, an artist for whom words have the ability to cut deeply into his soul, great performances can be evaluated but they cannot be quantified when they touch or move you in some profound way.

And yet in spite of fans like Sondheim, McMartin told me, "I don’t consider myself a singer. I did a musical, The Boy Friend, and I wasn’t supposed to be in it. But they fired the guy. I didn’t think that’s where I was going to go—in musicals. But you go where it takes you. The next thing I did after Little Mary Sunshine was The Conquering Hero."

"The beauty of doing all those shows in stock was that later it helped me feel more secure on stage. I didn’t have all that trembling. I tremble now when I audition for a television show. I mean, I’m 200 years old, what the hell is that? But musicals created a certain ease."

Good for him. I enjoy being in a musical, but they secretly terrify me (and I know I'm not the only one). Even with that lesson lost on me, the things I learned from McMartin will last a lifetime, especially due to the first play I ever saw him in: a revival of Molière’s Don Juan in 1972. He absolutely slayed me as Sganarelle, and it is still fresh in my mind after all these years. McMartin’s hilarious and poignant turn as the groveling and conniving servant was a sight to behold. Nothing was more striking than the finish, when Sganarelle, abandoned and alone; a haunted figure, spoke one last monologue. His wide eyes welling with tears and, in a strangled voice, bemoans his fate. With Don Juan’s arrest he would be cast out with no job and no money. “My wages,” he repeated several times as the lights slowly faded to black. “My wages …”

When I talked about this production with the Tony Award winning actor John Glover, he agreed that McMartin was spectacular. He should know: he was in it. I quoted the last lines of the play to Glover: “My wages, my wages”, and told him how I would never forget the way McMartin cried and the look in his eyes. Glover looked at me, smiled, and said gently, “That’s because you feel he loves you.”

And I loved him. RIP, Jack.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.