Theatre yesterday and today



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For most people in the arts, it’s often impossible to site the moment when a creative endeavor begins: a concrete date, secured by an event that marks a true beginning. But when I decided to write a book about my theatre exploits as a little kid going to the theatre, I also knew I was going to interview as many famous artists of the period as I could and interpolate their own stories into my narrative. Thus the hybrid that has become Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway was born, which I’m finally happy to announce will be available in January from Griffith Moon Publishing.

The very first conversation (of the more than one hundred I would eventually conduct for the book), took place four years ago today. And since the show that meant the most to me out of the 200 I saw in the four-year period the book covers was the musical 1776, it made the most sense to seek out its star, William Daniels. It was his performance as John Adams in that show which caused a head-slapping moment of recognition that stunned my twelve-year-old self. I knew wanted to become an actor more than anything in the world and seeing someone like Daniels — not that tall, nor possessing the greatest singing voice in the world either — solidified my thinking “Hey, I can do that!” Already possessed of the knowledge that I would never be a conventional leading man, here was a thoroughly unconventional actor giving a star performance of such astonishing power and believability it filled me with a confidence I have carried with me all these years still. It is not for nothing, author and theatre historian, Peter Filichia, claims that “having seen between 80% and 90% of the Broadway musicals produced in the last half-century, I still rank William Daniels’s performance as the best I have ever seen a male lead give in a musical.”

William Daniels as John Adams and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin in 1776 (1969)

Though I’m a long way from seeing anywhere near the plays and musicals Filichia has, I agree that the ferocity and commitment Daniels brought to the role was epic. His whole being was infused with that of the character; drawing you in so that you believed this was John Adams coming back to tell his version of these events. Barely offstage, his energy and drive propelled the entire show.

As the forty-one year old Adams, Daniels — then aged forty-two himself — played the role for two of the show’s three-year-run on Broadway, as well as recreating it for the 1972 film version, thereby preserving his Adams for posterity, and now a television staple every July the way A Christmas Carol is in December.

On November 29, 2012, when I met up him on a rainy Thursday in Los Angeles, Daniels was a healthy and hearty eighty-five and had just guest starred on a five-episode arc of Grey’s Anatomy, essentially revising the character of Dr. Mark Craig from St. Elsewhere, the role that earned him two consecutive Best Actor Emmys in the 80s. And at the diner where we conducted our conversation, patrons were coming up to him to congratulate him, as the episodes had only recently aired. And although he did his best to make me feel relaxed, I have to confess that I was nervous about our encounter. This would not only be the first interview for my book, but the first interview I had formally initiated in my life. And though our paths crossed a few times by way of mutual friends over the three decades I’d lived in L.A., we were essentially strangers.

Of course, he couldn’t have been more gregarious or more forthcoming about his long career. Strong of his opinions and decent to a fault, we talked for almost two hours. I was especially interested in 1776, but stories about his time as an assistant to Jerome Robbins on Gypsy took me totally by surprise, as well as had me leaning forward so I wouldn’t miss one word while going over what was, at that point, a seventy-five-year career!

Of the dozens Daniels told to me that morning four years ago today, and with little room for more than one of them, here’s my favorite:

WD: I had a stage mother like Madame Rose in Gypsy. She sent me over to a producer’s office because she heard they were looking for boys. (a beat) I had never been in a play, I had never seen a play. Not anywhere. We were a song and dance team, my sisters and I, on radio and later on television.

RF: How many, two?

WD: Yes, two. We were a trio. I went over there and the secretary asked, “Did your agent send you?” I said, “No.” She said, “You don’t have an appointment?” I said, “No.” She said, “You’re here for the tour?” I had no idea what that meant. I said, “Uh huh.” So she said, “Wait a minute.” And she goes in to Oscar Serlin, the producer, and said something like there’s this kid out there that looks like he can understudy the two older boys in the road company. So he said, “Bring him in.” Then he asked me, “Have you done anything on Broadway?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Toured in anything?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Have you done anything in school? High school?” I said, “No, sir. I’m a song and dance man.” So he looked at me and started to laugh and said, “You remind me of me when I came to New York.”

RF: And how old were you?

WD: Fifteen. So he said, “Go to the theatre tonight with your folks and we’ll have tickets waiting for you so you can see the play.” And that’s how I got hired to be in Life With Father — on Broadway —before I’d ever seen a play.”

Although to me he will always be John Adams, there are millions who adored him (whether they knew it was him or not) as the voice of the car in the NBC series Knight Rider, opposite David Hasselhoff. And let’s not forget a generation that grew up with him as the irascible Mr. Feeney on the ABC series Boy Meets World in the 90s (a role he slipped back into for the sequel that aired on the Disney Channel in 2014, Girl Meets World).

Daniels as Mr. Feeney of Boy Meets World fame.

And how wonderful (and appropriate) that the current phenomena known as Hamilton (playing at the exact same theatre where 1776 opened on Broadway) finds a brief moment to pay homage to not just John Adams, but specifically 1776’s John Adams. For when Hamilton himself shouts out “Sit Down, John,” Lin-Manuel Miranda is personally saluting another groundbreaking musical of nearly a half-century ago.

And when Daniels took in the show this year, a photo was snapped backstage that warmed my heart, as I’m sure it did this wonderful actor’s legion of fans.

Lin & Bill (2016)

Though he is unaware of why today is special to me, I can’t help but say “Happy Anniversary, Bill.”

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming in January from Griffith Moon Publishing: