Theatre yesterday and today



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The theatre lost one of its most treasured artists yesterday. Martha Swope, who produced “hundreds of thousands of images of performers in action,” according to her obituary in the New York Times, died at the age of eighty-eight in New York.
Martha Swope in 2012 (photo Fred R. Conrad/New York Times)

With the proliferation of cameras on cellphones, taking a photograph these days seems about the easiest thing in the world to do. Point and shoot, right? But even with how sophisticated things have gotten, have you tried recently to get a decent shot of your kid in a school play? How often does it result in the shot you intended? Isn’t there always a blurred arm or one actor in a quartet whose eyes are shut? Okay, you’re an amateur and Ms. Swope was a professional, so for someone of her experience that part probably wasn’t so hard. But how about taking the photos when the light is forever shifting? More importantly, focusing in a split-second in near darkness to encapsulate what a particular actor is discovering in that moment onstage in front of a live audience. Well, that was Martha Swope’s genius. As but one example, this photo of Angela Lansbury that perfectly illustrates Mrs. Lovett in the original 1978 production of Sweeney Todd:

Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett progenitor of “The Worst Pies in London.”

Having begun her professional career in 1957, auspiciously with West Side Story, twenty years later Swope was personally responsible for 60 to 70 percent of all Broadway photography. And though she retired in 1994 after her nearly forty year spot at the top, it took ten years for the Tony Awards to get around to what had been a glaring omission for decades: a special Tony Award given to her for “Excellence in Theatre.”

Five years ago, an exhibition was curated for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “Martha Swope: In Rehearsal,” exclusively concentrated on her rehearsal photography, a genre all its own. It should be noted that Swope first intended to become a dancer upon arriving in New York City from where she grew up and went to college in Texas. While in a dance class with the great director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, there to loosen up and prepare for his upcoming West Side Story, he observed that Swope (uncommonly for a dancer) had a Brownie camera in the room at the ready at all times. Himself an amateur photographer, he wound up offering her not only the use of his darkroom but, after seeing her work, the chance to photograph his new show in rehearsal. Like in a movie (or a Broadway play) one of her images found its way into Life magazine and a new career was hers to do with what she wished. Lucky for us.

The former dancer in Swope allowed for her extraordinary intuitive sense of movement to inform her work . But one photo of hers has always stuck with me. It is among my very favorites and features no movement at all. If you love theatre and have ever been fortunate to be a part of a rehearsal room (it doesn’t have to be Broadway) the photo is so relatable. It is of a creative team watching what they are putting forth into the world; their faces filled with self-doubt of what it is they now must own. That this show they are observing turned out to be West Side Story is beside the point, though it does add something to the story, doesn’t it? What’s said beyond the actual photo is what makes it a great photo — which, after all, was Ms. Swope’s stock-in-trade.

Left to right: Robert Griffith, Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.

Having bequeathed her entire body of work to the Lincoln Center archive, Swope's photos are easily viewable on line.

I suggest you take a leisurely stroll through as much of it as you can, not only for the depth and beauty she was able to convey through her meticulous craft, but for her eyewitness account of nearly all of Broadway history in the latter part of the 20th century.

And what an eye!

A very young Michael Bennett on the streets of New York.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.