Theatre yesterday and today



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Lately it feels like every day I wake up and think about writing this column, I find out that it’s the birthday of one of my favorite theatre artists. March is also my birthday month, and I seem to be in the company of some extraordinary fellow members of the Pisces persuasion. Since the month began, I’ve already written about the actors John Cullum and John Garfield, the composer John Kander and the producer Robert Whitehead.

Two days ago on March 20th, it was the birthdays of six theatre veterans: The British actor Michael Redgrave (1908), who last played Broadway in 1961 (a bit before my time); Carl Reiner (1922), who appeared as performer on Broadway in two post-war revues (WWII, that is), but also wrote and directed a couple of plays himself; Hal Linden (1931), who first started his New York Theatre career in 1956 in Bells Are Ringing, when he stood by for that show’s male lead, Sydney Chaplin; Chip Zien (1947), who has distinguished himself in a dozen Broadway shows, including his indelible performance as the Baker in Into the Woods; William Hurt (1950); has one Broadway show to his credit (Hurlyburly), but fifteen plays Off-Broadway when he was the most promising young leading man in the 1970s and early ’80s; and Holly Hunter (1958), who only did two plays in the early days of her career, both by Beth Henley (one being the Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart). Maybe she’s just waiting for Ms. Henley to write her another?

And on this particular date — March 22 — what are the odds that Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were each born? Though eighteen years apart, with Sondheim born during the Great Depression in 1930, and Lloyd Webber, a baby-boomer, born in 1948, this fact has not gone unnoticed by devoted theatre goers. It seems silly that an unforced rivalry between the two of them seems to have been thrust upon them over the years, ever since Follies and Jesus Christ Superstar opened in the same Broadway season of 1972.

Today’s birthday boys: Stephen Sondheim & Andrew Lloyd Webber

March 22nd is also the birthday of Karl Malden, who created the role of Mitch in the original Broadway cast of 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Richard Eason, was born today as well in 1933, a Tony winner for Best Actor in 2001 for Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. Easton and Sondheim not only share a birthday, but made their Broadway debuts in the same year: Easton in a production of Measure For Measure and Sondheim with West Side Story.

A few quick stories that come to mind about this illustrious group of theatre veterans:

Interviewing Hal Linden for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he hit upon something that made him yearn for days gone by, when he explained how once upon a time, every New Yorker seemingly knew what was going on in the theatre:

Hal Linden: “Let me tell you the most wonderful story. I used to pick up the 104 bus on 8th Avenue to head home after the theatre when I was doing The Rothschilds, and often I’d see William Daniels waiting at the same stop. He was in 1776, which was also on 46th Street. Well, one night on the bus we both sit down across from a lady that I have always said looked like she came out of a Hoff cartoon. You remember Hoff cartoons? They always had very fleshy ladies in them.’

“I yield to the Speaker of the House.”

“Anyway, this woman was in some kind of house dress, sort of in her fifties. She had two large shopping bags at her feet. And she’s right opposite us. And as soon as we sit down, this one says to one seated next to (who looks just like her), 'Well, Sally… we’re honored by the presence of Mr. Adams and Mr. Rothschild.' Can you imagine? But that’s what it was like back then. Everyone in New York knew everyone else’s business.”