Theatre yesterday and today



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With the Broadhurst Theatre's current marquee boasting its newest tenant, the all-star revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's glorious The Front Page, it's time to celebrate the anniversary of this beautiful theatre's opening. On this date in 1927, the George Broadhurst (as it was officially christened) hosted its first show, George Bernard Shaw's comedy Misalliance in its the New York premiere.

Who was George Broadhurst? Folks, even I had to look him up. He was a Brit born in 1866 who became wealthy in America as a playwright, producer and director. He built the theatre with the Shuberts and co-owned it until his death in 1952. He had his name associated with close to forty Broadway shows in his lifetime (he even wrote lyrics on occasion), but none of them are done anymore as most were inconsequential comedies or moody melodramas unworthy of reviving. The titles give an indication of what they might have been like as an evening's entertainment: The Wrong Mr. Wright, A Fool and His Money, The Crimson Alibi and What Happened to Jones.

George H. Broadhurst's What Happened to Jones (1917)

The first time I ever entered the Broadhurst was to see Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam in the summer of 1969, paying $2.50 for the last row in the mezzanine. Few people may recall, but not only was Allen its author, but he starred in the play as well. Hard to believe that he put in the time and did eight shows a week for close to a year, but he did. One would hope he was enjoying himself (as we have all come to be familiar with his well-known inability to experience a whole lot of pleasure), but co-starring with his friend Tony Roberts (who had starred in Allen's previous play Don't Drink the Water a few years earlier) and Diane Keaton, whom he met when she was cast, had to have been a help.

Interesting story about that. When I interviewed Joseph Hardy, the play's director, for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he offered to tell me about how Diane Keaton came to make her Broadway debut in the play:

Joe Hardy: I knew Diane when she was a student out in California. I saw her at Orange Coast College, where one of my college professors was teaching, as Maria in The Sound of Music (she was wonderful). So a few years later I went to see Hair on Broadway and there she was! And it was while we had been reading everyone for the part opposite Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam and no one had been right for it. I went backstage to see her and I said, “Do you remember me?” and she said, “Oh yes, Mr. Hardy.” And I said, I'm doing this play and I would like you to come and audition for it tomorrow at the St. James Theatre at 2:30. Now I’m going to give you my script, so please don’t lose it. It’s the only one I have.” So she showed up the next day and Alan Shayne, the casting director, threw a big fit. “Who is she? Where did she come from? Who’s her agent?” I said, “Shut up, Alan!” And Diane came out and she started reading and about three minutes in, the producer David Merrick (who had been sitting behind me), stood up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hire her.” Then I said to Woody, “Go on up and read with her.” And he said, “I can’t do that. I don’t know her.” I started laughing and told him to get up on that fucking stage and read! I had to push him down the aisle and our wonderful stage manager, reached down into the orchestra and pulled him up on stage. And that was it. The two of them together—magic.

Over the years, I've had incredible afternoons and evenings at the Broadhurst. Known as a theatre that can easily house a musical (Cabaret opened there in 1966), it's great for plays as well. With a capacity of only 1,156, compared with the other three popular theatres on 44th Street (the St. James, Shubert and Majestic) it seats hundreds less. It's where as a teenager I saw flop musicals like Cry For Us All and 70, Girls, 70 (not without their charms and with very talented casts) and such plays as George Furth's Twigs, which won Sada Thompson a much-deserved Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Play. It was where I saw Jack Albertson and Sam Levene kill it as Willy Clark and Al Lewis in the original Sunshine Boys. And later, both George C. Scott and Robert Preston when they took on the leading roles in Larry Gelbart's hilarious Sly Fox. That was a lesson in acting I'll never forget. Seeing Scott was a revelation, as I had never seen him be funny on stage before. He was, in a word, hysterical. When it was announced that his successor was going to be Robert Preston, well... I knew I had to see it again. Of course they played it very differently and both were just great. I have always loved what Walter Kerr wrote in his review when he went back to see Preston: "It would take a very brave man to say that Robert Preston played Sly Fox better than George C. Scott did. I am a very brave man. Robert Preston played Sly Fox better than George C. Scott did."

Other great performances I've seen on the Broadhurst stage include a number of personal favorites: Ian McKellan in Amadeus, Peter Gallagher in Long Day's Journey Into Night, Linda Lavin in Broadway Bound, Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and the entire cast of The History Boys.

But when it comes to seeing plays and musicals at the Broadhurst, as I'm sure will be the case when I soon attend The Front Page, the place has got me at "hello."

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