Theatre yesterday and today



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I did a lot of plays in high school. I mean, a lot. Back in the mid-1970s, when budgets weren’t as tight as they are today, Great Neck South Senior High School on Long Island was ambitiousness personified. We put on a fall play, producing such overreaching dramas as Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., a modern retelling of the Book of Job and Marat/Sade, and Peter Weiss’s rumination on the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat when both were inmates in an insane asylum. Not exactly fluffy stuff. We then did a Christmas choral concert, often performing a short musical such as Peter and the Wolf. Come February we did children’s theatre like The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan, in their musical versions of course. Then in April, we insanely attempted large-scale operas (The Tales of Hoffman and Carmina Burana, if that can be believed) with a full school orchestra. Then would come the spring musical, always a big extravaganza like Kismet or South Pacific. As if that wasn’t enough, we would finish up with an end-of-the-year gala to raise extra money for the drama department. All in all, for someone as in love with the theatre as I was, this was a true gift. Such opportunities furthered my theatrical education immeasurably.

Last February, a group called the Educational Theatre Association released its annual survey of the most-produced musicals and plays at America's high schools for the previous year of 2014-2015. Perusing it recently, I blinked twice when I saw that for 77th time in the 78 years that the survey has been tallied, George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can't Take It With You placed on the list.

What makes this Pulitzer Prize winning comedy from 1936 so popular? Well, it does take place on one set, which is nice. And though it’s a large cast (more than twenty), that’s never a problem doing a school play in the way it is when it’s being produced on Broadway (paying all those actors is a considerable drawback). In a school play, when no one is being paid, not so much an issue. Even considering that, You Can't Take It With You has had three elegant and well-received revivals over the past 80 years since its original production. It never fails to captivate audiences with its down-to-earth sensibility and its wry humor—a beautiful combination.

Its first Broadway revival was in 1965, when Ellis Rabb, the actor-director and head of the APA-Phoenix Repertory Theatre, found himself in a bind. Attempting true rep in New York has always been a risky business, and though some of the shows that he and his first-rate team produced were well received, the company was facing a dire budget deficit. When they chose to do You Can’t Take It With You, it was no where close to a sure thing, but they hoped it might prove a crowd-pleaser. Under Rabb's inspired direction, it turned out to be exactly what they needed what it proved the largest hit they had ever had.

The next revival nearly twenty years later in 1983 was also directed by Rabb, though he rethought the show and recast it completely. It played the Paper Mill Playhouse for a limited run with an all-star cast and was so successful, that when producers wanted to bring it to Broadway none of the cast balked at continuing on. So these wonderful actors (all of whom took pay cuts) did the show for the sheer joy of performing it. Starring Jason Robards, Elizabeth Wilson, Colleen Dewhurst, James Coco and Maureen Anderman, it was superb. Luckily it was recorded for Showtime and preserved for posterity.

It had also been taped just a few years earlier for television in 1979 with another brilliant cast and broadcast on CBS in 1978. Art Carney, Jean Stapleton, Mildred Natwick, Barry Bostwick, Blythe Danner and Harry Morgan. Morgan himself moved up to the role of Grandpa Vanderhoff when it was made into a TV half-hour for syndication and ran for a year or so beginning in 1987. And there earlier than that, there were two TV movies produced in 1945 and 1947. My only guess at that was it was a much-need salve for the wounds after World War II.

And why not? The play portrays an eccentric family that lives life the way they want to live it. Not selfishly—not at all—but on their own terms. They are kind and considerate. Only they don’t want to be pushed around and told what to do, that's all. None more so than Grandpa who never once paid any income tax. He didn’t like the idea of it when it came into law and so he just paid no attention to it. The way Kaufman and Hart deal with this somewhat sensitive issue (when the play was first performed this was close to a communist's way of thinking), is by being funny. Many of the world’s problems can be solved with humor, which is part of the play’s direct message.

The film version made in 1938 is very different from the play. The screenwriter took liberties, mostly to bolster the roles of the ingénues, due to having cast James Stewart and Jean Arthur. But with Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington and a very youthful Ann Miller (who claimed to be seventeen when it was shot, but she was most probably older than that). It was directed by Frank Capra (he of “the Capra touch”) and the touch didn’t elude him as it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Personally, I prefer the play, as the film also enlarged the role of Mr. Kirby, played by Edward Arnold, which didn’t really gibe with keeping the play more about the Sycamore family instead.

Its most recent revival on Broadway in 2014 with James Earl Earl Jones, beautifully portraying Grandpa Vanderhoff, received glowing reviews and did nicely during its limited engagement. I attended its closing afternoon performance and I was transported back in time to when plays of this kind were if not common fare, certainly set the bar high for that sort of achievement.

It is my fervent wish that arts education makes a comeback sooner than later, and those responsible for school budgets reconsider how important it is to bring back the days when programs like the ones I was fortunate enough to enjoy were so much more commonplace. I ended up going into the profession, but I still retain high school friends who have nothing to do with the business, yet recall fondly their days doing these plays and musicals. There is no substitute for those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, even if you only partake once in your life. The memories stay forever, which is why I always urge anyone (at any age) to take part in a school or community theatre play just to know what it’s all about. And trust me, it provides a lifetime of memories.

Who says you can’t take it with you?

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