Theatre yesterday and today



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As a starting point for many of these columns, I often do a search for what happened on this date in theatre history as inspiration. The results vary — feast or famine — mostly in between. But today is a feast; a veritable smorgasbord of talent. Take a look at some of the these people born on June 22nd, so uniquely individual (and brilliant) in their achievements, that the listing of their names is enough:

Gower Champion Katherine Dunham Cindi Lauper Joseph Papp Meryl Streep Mike Todd Billy Wilder

With theatre being the main focus of my writings, I could easily write about the infinite influence Joseph Papp had on the New York theatre scene (which resonated as loudly as ever with Oskar Eustis’s Central Park production of Julius Caesar that made headlines last week, something which certainly would have certainly have made the Public Theatre’s founder smile), or Gower Champion (also born on this date), whose impact is felt nightly at the Shubert Theatre by way of the recreation of the dances he created more than fifty years ago for the original Hello, Dolly!, which he also directed.

I saw Meryl Streep in her first and second Broadway plays more than three and-a-half decades ago, in revivals of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells” (superb) and Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotten (unforgettable). Though they were in 1975 and 1976 respectively, I can recall my epiphany of “who is that?” as clear as if it were yesterday. Actually, the Williams play was a one-act on a double-bill with Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays, and it wasn’t until midway through the second play that I made the connection that the thin, straight-backed, dark haired professional woman who appeared in the Miller, was the same woman who had minutes earlier been babyish, blowsy and big-chested in the Williams. A chameleon even then.

But allow me to shine a light on two actors born on June 22nd, whose careers in the theatre were just that: careers in the theatre. One a lowbrow Jewish comic who excelled at surly old-timers even when he was young. And the other (as if to the manor born), who has played distinguished men of one stripe or another throughout a sixty year career that is still active.

That patrician actor is John Cunningham, born in 1932, and who was the one and only actor to succeed William Daniels as John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776. I saw him many times in it, and can attest to the fierce energy he brought to the part, straddling beautifully the difficult blend of that character’s limited charm and unlimited intellect.

Brian Foley, Howard Da Silva and John Cunningham in 1776 (1971).

Cunningham was also one of the earliest to replace Jerry Orbach as El Gallo in the famed Off-Broadway production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks, and was a favorite of perennial director Harold Prince, who first utilized his talents during the long run of Cabaret, when he succeeded Bert Convy as Cliff Bradshaw. This led to Cunningham creating the role of Nikos in Kander and Ebb’s Zorba, as well as Peter in Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical, Company. Later, upon maturing out of juvenile leading men, he became the perfect actor of a certain age to play opposite many great actresses, such as Glenda Jackson, in British playwright Andrew Davies’s Rose; Jane Alexander in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig; and most memorably, Stockard Channing in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.

Courtney B. Vance (top), Stockard Channing and Cunningham in Six Degrees of Separation (1990).

When I interviewed Cunningham for Up in the Cheap Seats, our conversation covered many of the shows he did, expressing how beyond grateful he was for those experiences. He did mention one regret (common to many actors) that he had perhaps been born in the wrong generation, as actors of his particular background did become somewhat less in demand than they were in the Broadway musical’s hey day of the 1930s-1950s. He also expressed a lovely (if liberal) sentiment when we discussed Howard Da Silva, with whom he became “great friends” when they played together in 1776: “I was once at a party at his house in Ossining, and I couldn’t believe the number of old left-wingers he had visiting. I said to myself, ‘This is where I would be.’ No doubt about it … I would definitely have been one of them if I came up at that time.”

Born thirty years earlier than Cunningham in 1902, was David Burns (or Davey, to all who knew him). He grew up on Mott Street in Chinatown and became an actor while still a teenager. His first Broadway show was in 1923’s Polly Preferred, making such a name for himself that he was invited to do the show in England. Finding gainful employment on stage and in fil