Theatre yesterday and today



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With the upcoming publication of my book Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, I’ve begun doing interviews to promote it, and questions are being asked that are bringing up more memories than my four-years-plus of writing have conjured. Especially due to much of the book’s past taking place at a time of great social unrest in America.

I began my weekly visits into Times Square from my Long Island home just before I turned twelve in February 1969, about a month into the brand new presidency of Richard Nixon. Having run on a campaign slogan of “Bring Us Together,” that optimism hadn’t yet spread to most of America’s major inner cities, which were anything but congenial, especially with the Vietnam war ripping the country apart.I had hair down to my shoulders and flashing a peace sign to strangers as I walked up and down Broadway was a common occurrence. The war was never far from anyone’s minds, and a lot of the theatre I was seeing was reflecting the war at home on its stages. One of the very first musicals I ever saw all on my own was the original Hair, which though relatively innocuous by today’s standards, packed a powerful punch opening first during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and enduring almost the whole reign of Nixon. In fact, Hair closed exactly two weeks after the Watergate break-in.

With that in mind, something occurred at a Saturday matinee in 1970 that I will never forget, and that I hope never to experience again. The rage, impotence and frustration over the fissures in our society were crystalized for me in dramatic fashion when I attended the new Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical, Company.

The original cast of Company on Boris Aronson’s Tony winning set.

It may come as a surprise that Company’s reviews were more mixed than its status as a classic bear out; such is the case when a work of art is ahead of its time. Even so, I was eager to see it, having read everything about it between its opening night, April 26th, and when I had tickets for it thirteen days later on May 9th.

I mention the exact date because an incident that rocked the nation occurred in the Midwest five days prior. To place it in its proper historical context, on April 9th, President Nixon spoke to the nation in a televised address to explain why he was expanding the war in Vietnam by invading its bordering neighbor, Cambodia. Elected on the promise of ending his predecessor’s unpopular war, Nixon was now escalating it. With this announcement, draftees of age, mostly college students, who had been among the loudest and most visible war protesters, upped their efforts dramatically. Cities big and small were embroiled in demonstrations that were causing massive upheavals from coast to coast.

In Warren, Ohio, the National Guard was called in by that state’s governor when a protest got out of hand on the campus of Kent State University. A cluster of Guardsmen, with no direct orders, took it upon themselves to begin shooting into a crowd that was threatening them verbally and hurling rocks. In thirteen seconds, more than sixty shots were fired, which is all it took for four students to lose their lives and nine others to be injured. One young man was shot in the back, and one young woman (who wasn’t even part of the protests) was shot while on her way to class.

How could things have gotten so out of hand? Were we now engaged in a war at home in addition to one in Southeast Asia? Absolutely.

I was well aware of what had happened at Kent State that week. A photograph, which would win a Pulitzer Prize for John Filo, a photojournalism student at the school, was seen in newspapers all over the world. The photo shows a young woman screaming in agony over the body of a slain student lying on the ground. Regardless of politics, who could not empathize with the raw pain it depicted?

John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph

All of this is to set the scene at the curtain call the day I saw Company. After the bows, the show’s star, Dean Jones, stepped forward and with a hand gesture brought the applause down to a hush. He then politely addressed the audience: “In solidarity, we would like to ask that you all remain a moment, so that together, we may hold a minute’s silence for those who died at Kent State this week.”

Gasps were heard, as was a smattering of applause, even some “boos.” From up in the cheap seats at the top of the Alvin, the tension in the theatre was palpable. The Vietnam war was so divisive that even a request for peace in the recognition of the unnecessary deaths of four young people could be controversial. I was stunned. I watched with my jaw open as a sea of people headed for the exit doors. Some shouted expletives at the actors standing on stage in a line, holding hands, their heads bowed.

Four decades later, while interviewing Hal Prince for my book, I asked him whose idea this was. His response, considering his prowess as a strong-willed producer, made perfect sense:

HP: I was part of that decision. I said, “You should deal with Kent State today.”

RF: Can you believe people got up and left?

HP: I know the story, I was there.

RF: Did they do it at the evening performance as well?

HP: Just the day.

RF: It was really something. It proved to me how messed up things were.

HP: You needed proof things were messed up then? Please!

Company was a landmark in its day, but there was nothing political about it whatsoever. It definitely took place in 1970, which photos from the show can attest by way of its costumes created by D. D. Ryan, a fashion icon of her day and whose only Broadway show this one was. Anyone undertaking a production of Company today will find that it is tied to the 70s in a way that makes for updating it next-to-near impossible.

Dean Jones (Robert) in neckerchief and patterned pants circa 1970

In 1970, I could see a show like Company from “up in the cheap seats” for $2. Though I yearn for a price like that to come back, not so much in the way of fashion. As for the fashion of these times (clothing not optional), it seems hard to fathom that in spite of the turbulence going on in the world outside a theatre then that things at play today would give it quite the run for its money.

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