Theatre yesterday and today



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"Who remembers him?" is the last line of Stephen Sondheim's monumental "The Road You Didn't Take" that John McMartin sang when he originated the role of Ben Stone in Sondheim, James Goldman, Harold Prince and Michael Bennett's Follies. This marvelous actor who died a few days ago at the age of eighty-six, held a special place in my heart. Who remembers him? I know I always will and ... I know I'm not alone.

Of the five actors I chose to profile in my upcoming book, Up in the Cheap Seats, the first one I knew I would write about was John McMartin. Though many might know him from his work in film and television, most of his greatest performances were given on the stage. Sure, he is very funny on episodes of such classic TV fare as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Frasier and even as recently as last year on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (not just funny in that one, but hysterically funny). However, it was his work in the theatre where he felt most at home. He lived on the stage; he truly inhabited it when you saw him in anything from Shakespeare to French farce. And if you never got a chance to see him … well, you never got a chance to really see him. I am one of the lucky ones. For if there was anyone else I saw in more shows with more pleasure than John McMartin, I can’t name them.

The gift of being invited to his home by this gentle and gentlemanly actor to speak with him about his life in the theatre was an afternoon I will treasure forever. For when I was in my teens and dreaming of becoming an actor, he kept up the promise of a contract between us (one he never knew existed) by teaching me through his consistency in everything he did and to which I paid great attention.

My connection with him goes back to the beginning of when I started going to the theatre and runs deep. I saw him in many different plays and musicals and it was sometimes hard to find an actor “acting.” He just was. Add to that his high level of professionalism (performing with a broken arm as recently as 2014 on Broadway in All the Way) and you had in John McMartin a worthy hero of the stage.

Much as Robert Preston (another of my heroes) once did, McMartin excelled at everything: drama, high and low comedy, farce, classical theatre and musicals. Since his Off-Broadway debut in the operetta spoof Little Mary Sunshine (a big hit in its day at over 1,100 performances), McMartin rarely stopped working. He appeared in twenty-four Broadway plays and musicals and, if added to his Off-Broadway and regional theatre work, encompassed close to a hundred and fifty productions in fifty-seven years.

That is a life in the theatre.

Some additional McMartin stats: He was directed in four shows by Harold Prince and in three by Bob Fosse. Authors and composers who featured prominently on his résumé included Tom Stoppard, John Guare, Neil Simon, Luigi Pirandello, Georges Feydeau, Eugene O’Neill, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, Irwin Shaw, Molière, Mark Twain and two by Stephen Sondheim—all of them on Broadway.

Modestly, he told me: “I’ve been luckier than most actors. I have no complaints.” But it is we who were lucky to have had him on stage for nearly six decades.

When I discussed McMartin with Hal Prince, who hired him as often as he could, that it was my intention to devote a chapter to him, he said, “You should. He’s one of the great actors. His performance in Love for Love was the funniest thing I ever saw in my whole life. He was a conjurer; a goofy seer. He can do anything. I’m glad you have good taste.”

“But he’s so shy,” I said. He never talks about himself in print, or god forbid, on television.”

“He’s shy, but he’ll talk. You call Charlotte and say ‘Hal said—’ and then Jack will talk to you. I don’t know how much he’ll talk. You’ll see.”

The Charlotte to whom Prince referred is Charlotte Moore, the actress and artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City; its founder and guiding force since it opened its doors in 1988. She and McMartin met in 1972 during the time they were performing on Broadway in rep in The Great God Brown and Don Juan. They and were together until his death for forty-four years.

A year ago, after my talk with McMartin in September of 2013, I thought it time to meet with Charlotte and ask what her thoughts were on what made his acting so special.

"What kind of actor do I think Jack is? He’s a natural. He never had a lesson. The first time he appeared on stage he had never seen a play. He didn’t know what a play was and he was up there doing one. And he’s been at it ever since. When I’m cueing him, which is often, it never fails that I’m unsure if he’s just talking or whether I’m cueing him. I find that extraordinary, because I don’t know of anybody else who fools me like that. Even when we were in a play together and he would talk to me on stage, he would say something and I would be like, 'Wait a minute? Is that a line?' No, Jack tells the truth."

More on this truth teller, in his own words, tomorrow.

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