Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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LOST IN THE STARS

On this date forty-five years ago, I attended a Broadway show which provided me with a first-time experience that I have never forgotten. It was the 169th of the 200 plays I saw over a four-year period (yes, I kept meticulous track of all that), at a time when I obsessively saw everything I could as a young teenager. Most of this is covered in my new book Up in the Cheap Seats, only this particular story didn’t wind up in the final draft. Given I stumbled upon the fact that today marks its anniversary, I’m taking the opportunity to tell it.

Brock Peters in Lost in the Stars (1972)

It was on this night back in 1972 that I saw a Broadway revival of the musical Lost in the Stars, starring Brock Peters. It was based on the well-received and best selling anti-apartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, with a score by Kurt Weill. Having become world famous in his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on Threepenny Opera in the early 1930s, Weill went on to become one of the most popular composers of the 1940s, cut short only six months after the opening night of Lost in the Stars when he was dead of a heart attack at age fifty. It was a tragedy, for not only was he wildly prolific, but constantly in-demand, as this list of shows between 1941 and 1948 (with these talented partners) prove: Lady in the Dark (Ira Gershwin); One Touch of Venus (Ogden Nash); Street Scene (Langston Hughes) and Love Life (Alan Jay Lerner).

Lost in the Stars was a return for Weill to working with the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson, with whom he wrote the score to Knickerbocker Holiday — the musical that introduced the moving standard, “September Song.” When Lost in the Stars opened on October 30th, 1949, it was met with decidedly mixed reviews. Some critics thought it profound, while others found it soporific. Originally billed as “a Musical Tragedy,” the subject matter was dark and the music not at all typical Broadway fare (which was always par for the course with Weill). But its heart was in the right place, with its story depicting a South African minister, Stephen Kumalo, whose son is sentenced to death for the murder of a white man in the year directly following the newly instituted laws of apartheid.

While researching this piece, I read Alan Paton’s New York Times obituary, and this passage from his book had particular resonance for me: “We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog . . . and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo… Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.”

Anderson was able to capture some of Paton’s poetry with the lyrics he wrote to Weill’s haunting melodies. In particular, the title song, which went on to be covered by such singers as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn and Elvis Costello, but which in the context of the show, is about the minister’s crisis of faith. Anderson’s lyrics are particularly meaningful, as time has done nothing to diminish their complexity. I include it here in its entirety:

Before Lord God made the sea and the land He held all the stars in the palm of his hand And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand And one little star fell alone.

And the Lord God hunted through the wide night air For the little dark star in the wind down there And he stated and promised He’d take special care So it wouldn’t get lost again.

Now man don’t mind if the stars grow dim And the clouds blow over and darken him So long as the Lord God’s watching over him Keeping track how it all goes on

But I’ve been walking through the night, and the day Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey And sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away Forgetting his promise that we’ve heard him say And we’re lost out here in the stars. Little stars, big stars Blowing through the night And we’re lost out here in the stars. Little stars, big stars Blowing through the night. And we’re lost out here in the stars.

In the play’s final scene, Kumalo is alone on stage waiting for the toll of the bell at 4 p.m. that will tell him that his son has been hanged. At the moment Brock Peters let out a cry shouting “Absolom!” shock waves coursed through my system. He burst into tears, collapsing into his chair seated at a small table — and I lost it. Tears started streaming down my face and they wouldn’t stop. I had never responded like that to any of the 168 shows I’d seen before. I cried through the curtain call and as everyone exited the theatre, I remained in my seat, frozen. When I headed out onto 45th Street, I was still crying. Over the years, I have had some equally emotional responses to certain shows: David Rabe’s Streamers effected me in much the same way. And though I didn’t cry at the original production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, I was stunned into submission to the point where an usher had to politely ask me to leave. And with musicals, A Chorus Line and Sunday in the Park With George spring immediately to mind as those that get my waterworks flowing.

But you never forget your first time.

Jack Gwillim and Brock Peters as the two fathers at the heart of the play in the final scene.

Twenty years after I saw Lost in the Stars, I was living in Los Angeles and stopped to fill my car’s gas tank. Also pumping his own gas at the 76 station at the corner of La Cienega and Olympic Boulevards was Brock Peters. I approached him carefully and said, “Mr. Peters, I’m not here to tell you how much I loved you as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, although believe me, I do. What I want to tell you is that when I was fifteen I saw you in Lost in the Stars and your performance was one of the most moving I have ever seen.”

He stopped, shook my hand, and smiled. “That one was worth doing.”

As I drove away … all I could think was that it’s never too late to offer someone a heartfelt thank you.

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

https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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