Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE FIRST HUNDRED DAYS (PART 2)

Yesterday I wrote about how the current Republican occupants of the White House were marking their first hundred days and how it started me thinking about my first hundred days of theatre going as an eleven year-old kid. It was on February 1 1969 that I came into Manhattan for the first time without adult supervision to see a Broadway show—and thus began a journey that would wind up encompassing 200 shows in four years. And now fifty years later, I’ve put these stories in a book.

Coming in every Saturday afternoon, my first hundred days covered ten weeks and ten shows — alphabetically from Cop-Out (playwright John Guare’s Broadway debut) to Zorba (John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joseph Stein’s musical of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel and film, Zorba the Greek). I also managed to catch such now-classic shows as Hello, Dolly! and Hair, still in their original long runs. Hair had been running less than a year (it would eventually run for more than four), and so I got to see James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the original stars and co-writers of its book and lyrics. But with Dolly!, I saw an entirely new company, since producer, David Merrick had done an extraordinary switch midway through its then-historic seven year-run that helped reverse a three year-old show back into a newborn babe.

Pearl Bailey as Dolly (1967) and Bette Midler (2017).

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here’s how it happened: Dolly! had opened in 1964 to rave reviews, a record-breaking ten Tony Awards and sell-out houses. After its first Dolly, Carol Channing, completed a two-year run, she took it out on a national tour, succeeded on Broadway by former movie stars like Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye and Betty Grable — nostalgic choices that helped keep the show of interest to the tourist trade. Mary Martin created the role in London and others such as Eve Arden, Yvonne DeCarlo, Susan Hayward and Dorothy Lamour popped up in various productions. Then in 1967, Merrick had the idea to send out a Dolly! company that consisted entirely of African-American actors. Some thought this progressive; some regressive. It was a time of tremendous racial unrest in the U.S., and choosing Washington D.C. to begin with was a bit dicey. But Merrick’s choice to portray the meddlesome Dolly — Pearl Bailey — was an inspired one. She loved the idea of opening the show at a theatre where as a child she would have been forbidden to enter through the front door. And with her superb comic timing and keen musicality, Bailey was a sensation. It didn’t take long for Merrick to do the obvious and bring her and the entire company to Broadway in November 1967. Heralding the arrival with a full page ad in the Times, it announced: The Event of the Century!” It wasn’t far off the mark. The unsinkable Pearl Bailey became the 5th Dolly Gallagher Levi and made the show the toughest ticket in town all over again.

When I saw the show, Bailey had been playing the part for more than two years, but you would never have known it. She was sly, wicked, forceful, sexy and hilarious. Opposite her in the role of Horace Vandergelder, was the jazzy and delightful Cab Calloway. And I will never forget when after the curtain came down for what I thought would be the final time, it rose back up and Bailey held her hand up for everyone to quiet down. Then she performed another show — bits and pieces from her nightclub act — even getting Calloway to do a little of his scat “Hi-De-Ho” signature song, which brought down the house. Of course, years later I was to learn that even if this was something the audience adored, most of the Dolly! company, forced to remain on stage and watch this display eight times a week, didn’t have as good a time. Essentially captive prisoners, they were missing trains to get home to their families or losing valuable rest time between a matinee and evening performance. But Bailey was the boss, and in the tradition of Al Jolson (who would do the exact same thing after his Broadway appearances in the twenties and thirties), there was nothing that anyone could do about it.

While researching my book, I interviewed the theatre critic and essayist John Lahr. Lahr grew up in New York, attending the theatre as early as the mid-1940s, and he asked me if I had seen Pearl Bailey as Dolly. When I told him I had, he shared that he thought it was the greatest performance he had ever seen someone give in a musical. High praise indeed.

Of Hair, all I can say is that I had the best time. Famous for its full frontal nudity (not lost on a kid that just turned twelve), it was so much more than that particular gimmick. Of course, I had something to say about that in my review:

“See the show because there’s plenty to see.” I guess from a twelve year-old this sort of humor is not only sophomoric, but pre-sophomoric.

The original Broadway cast of Hair (1968).

Hair had an incredibly exciting score, totally different from any other Broadway show that had come before it and thus a brand new era in the theatre was launched. As it would turn out, the overwhelming majority of rock musicals that followed were failures. Still, as if overnight, a musical like Hello, Dolly! became quaint and old-fashioned (even though it was quaint and old-fashioned to begin with). It’s as if a road block sign went up on 45th Street that declared “STOP! JERRY HERMAN NO LONGER WELCOME!”

And it was true. With Sondheim’s Company on the horizon, the American musical songbook was set for a collision course with the old hit parade. Musicals were never the same. It was the beginning of my good (or bad timing), with a view of the whole crash from “up in the cheap seats.”

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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