Theatre yesterday and today



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When the calendar page turns to April 1, the immediate thought for some is what sort of April Fool’s Day joke might they pull? For others, I imagine it’s a fear of being the victim of an April Fool’s joke put over on them. It’s all pretty sophomoric.But with my daily interests towards what a specific date might mean with regard to my adventures in the theatre with what goes on either offstage or onstage, I began to think about what the biggest April Fool’s joke was pulled on me as an audience member? It didn’t take long before the back bench of my memory aggressively pushed one show to the forefront: We Interrupt This Program …

To set the scene: the year was 1975, and the legendary Broadway producer Alexander Cohen (a man forever in search of the next new thing) had a script cross his desk that caught his attention. It’s author, Norman Krasna, was a successful playwright and screenwriter, with credits dating back to 1931. Most of his plays had hoary titles like Who Was That Lady I Saw You With or Love in E Flat, but he was a far better screenwriter who had won an Oscar in 1943 for Best Original Screenplay (beating out Lillian Hellman and Noel Coward!) for a film called Princess O’Rourke (I’ve never heard of it either). But now, forty-four years into his career, he had written a play with an intriguing up-to-the minute premise: what if a group of terrorists took an entire Broadway theatre hostage during the performance of a play? “I was in my London office when it came to me and I was all alone and I was arrested by it,” Cohen explained. “Terrorism as a subject just seemed perfect to me!”

All fine and good … except what is to prevent the audience from getting up and leaving if they don’t like what’s unfolding? Unless real guns are used, there isn’t any genuine threat. Did no one grasp just how insane this idea was for sustainability? And once the shock value of it was out in the open, would people pay money to come and be held hostage — to a bad play? — which for some, is the idea of a nightmare come true. Imagine being forced to sit through something with the doors bolted. Theatre of Cruelty takes on a while new meaning.

Cohen, one of the most colorful of men, was forever entertaining in his capacity as a producer. In fact, he even took his showmanship to another level when at the age of seventy-eight, he starred in a one-man show that he performed titled An Evening with Alexander H. Cohen. I recently viewed a tape of it that is available at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts, and this was his take on just a small part of what went on while getting We Interrupt This Program … on its feet:

“First there was the casting process. Meg Simon brought in all these really tough guys to audition, but few of them had the ability to frighten us. We were looking for people that could keep an audience from bolting out of their seats by their physical presence. One afternoon, a guy rushes out onto the stage of the Ambassador, where we were auditioning, and pulls a knife on Meg Simon! He grabs her and reads the part while holding a knife to her throat. No one knew who he was and we were terrified! When he ended his speech, he pushed her to the floor and ran up the aisle and out the back of the theatre!”

“And the schmuck didn’t leave his picture and resume!”

Producer Alexander H. Cohen (1970)

When I attended We Interrupt This Program …, I had already graduated high school and had only turned eighteen. I remember I got cheap orchestra seats because the play was in previews (it would only run a few days once the terrible reviews came out). I didn’t know what to expect, as Cohen was keeping the play’s plot under wraps, coyly describing it as “a whodunit staged in a Broadway theatre during an actual performance.” When I sat down in my seat, the Playbill cover had its own story to tell:

The Horror. The Horror.

The curtain went up on a tepid faux-Neil Simon comedy (or to be much more specific, a tepid and real-Norman Krasna comedy) with a married couple in their kitchen having breakfast and chatting in a leisurely way with little to nothing at stake. These two characters named Amanda and Sam, were played by the wonderful actors Holland Taylor and Brandon Maggart, who would go on to far more interesting work in the theatre and television in the years to come. Suddenly, armed men in camouflage outfits, dark sunglasses and guns broke through the back doors of the theatre and began shouting from the audience to the stage that everyone would be held hostage “until one of their friends was released from prison!”

In the book American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969–2000, the play is described thusly: “While ‘killing time’ waiting for their demands to be met, the gang pulled a priest and some others out of the audience and hassled them and even sang a few songs. Finally, one hardened member of the gang called his mother on the phone, and in a moment of weakness, the gang was overpowered by the police. First-nighters reported that the audience could not believe in any of the proceedings and that the evening was filled with unintentional laughs. All the reviews were scathing, and the Ambassador was kidnapped only seven times — losing $285,000, the most expensive non-musical flop of the season.”

I mean, even an eighteen-year-old like me knew this was totally bogus. I didn’t for one second feel as if I was in danger. The only surprise was that it became immediately clear that I wasn’t in for the story of Amanda and Sam anymore. (Yes, that was the last we saw of Holland Taylor and Brandon Maggart… and, as I recall, I don’t think they even took a curtain call. Did anyone? I think this was one of those rare shows that didn’t have one).

And guess what? I had no idea when I began writing this column that the actual opening night for We Interrupt This Program … was April 1, 1975. OMG!

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: