Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday I wrote about two shows, one a play and one a musical, that initially failed, which then went on much later to far greater success. Even though you can always say "If at first you don't succeed ..." few shows ever get these much-sought after second chances.

One tale worth telling is that of Terrence McNally's Broadway, Broadway, which closed out of town in Philadelphia in 1978. McNally was then (as he is now) a respected playwright of diverse dramas and comedies. Broadway, Broadway was a farcical one-set play that took place in the Upper East Side town house of a producer on the opening night of her latest show, which will turn out to be a flop in front of our eyes. Comedic mayhem ensues. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because the show would later appear on Broadway in 2014, where it was met with critical hurrahs and hoorays (and tremendous box office), retitled and recast as It's Only a Play.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This was one long and bumpy ride.

Terrence McNally.

Broadway, Broadway was directed by McNally's longtime collaborator, the actor-director Robert Drivas. The 1978 cast gathered was a really good one, led by Geraldine Page as the producer, James Coco as an actor who has abandoned New York for Hollywood, and Richard Backus as the playwright. Though there was an earlier production on Long Island, many kinks still needed to be ironed out, and the production fell short of the mark. Variety wrote: "Terrence McNally has offered a variation on 'the play-within-the-play' with 'the flop-within-the-flop.'" Others called it "a disaster," and "It's a 36-pound Butterball with all the trimmings" and "All Broadway, Broadway needs is a new script." And that was all it took for the play to cancel its scheduled opening at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and for it to fold in Philly (I vividly recall seeing the marquee when it was up and ready).

James Coco and Geraldine Page.

Four years later, and retitled It's Only a Play, a reworked and remounted version opened Off-Off-Broadway, this time directed by Paul Benedict, someone who McNally had previously cast in one of his best comedies, Bad Habits. The cast included British screen actress Frances Cuka and Paul Guilfoyle (later of TV’s CSI and The Good Fight). Happily, it was received a lot better than it was in Philadelphia. In fact, the response to the new version was so good it allowed for McNally to twist the arm of his very good friend James Coco, re-upping him by way of another rewrite (again four years later) to repeat his role. Thus It's Only a Play opened for a second time in New York at the old Manhattan Theatre Club space on East 73rd Street in an Off-Broadway production directed by John Tillinger. This had an even better critical reception, but since no one stepped forward with the financing to move it to Broadway house, it ended its limited run as scheduled in January, 1986. In addition to Coco, the cast included Christine Baranski as the producer and Joanna Gleason as the play-within-a-play's "star" actress.

But that didn't mark the end for it It's Only a Play. Six years later, Los Angeles audiences were treated to a 1992 production (yet again revised and again directed by Tillinger). The cast for this one was extraordinary with Charles Nelson Reilly taking on the Coco role, Dana Ivey as the producer, Željko Ivanek as the playwright, and Paul Benedict (who had directed production #2) as a theatre critic. In addition, the company boasted such comedic heavyweights as Eileen Brennan, Doris Roberts and a pre-Frasier David Hyde Pierce. I saw it and thought it was hilarious, if a little uneven.

Yes, there was still more work to be done—and McNally kept at it on and off for many years—finally leading to a Broadway production thirty-six years after Broadway, Broadway closed in Philadelphia. It's Only a Play opened in 2014 to great reviews for the play as well as its all-star cast, that included Nathan Lane in the Coco role, Matthew Broderick as the playwright, Megan Mullally as the producer, Stockard Channing as the actress, F. Murray Abraham as the critic, Rupert Gint as the director and in a career-making performance, Micah Stock as the coat check boy. Stock, just twenty-five at the time, managed to more than hold his own with this group of scene-stealers and, for his efforts, received the production's sole Tony nomination.

Rupert Gint, Micah Stock, F. Murray Abraham, Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing,

Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in It's Only a Play (2014).

I loved this production. It was non-stop hilarity from start to finish (and as clichéd as that sounds, I'm telling you it was true). A smash hit, it even survived Nathan Lane's leave-taking (due to his having to honor a previous commitment when the run was extended). The estimable Martin Short came in for a time to fill in, with Lane returning shortly before the show ended its near year-long run.

With the forty years between closing out of town and triumphing on Broadway, you would think It's Only a Play might be the record holder. Except that there was one that merited a forty-one year spread between failure and success. Paul Osborn, a popular playwright whose first show Broadway show opened in 1928, wrote his folksy comedy Morning's At Seven in 1939. The original production ran just five weeks with critics giving it the brush off, such as Brooks Atkinson, then the dean of critics at the New York Times who wrote, "If Mr. Osborn will do himself the favor of cutting twenty minutes out of his sketch book, Morning's at Seven may be enjoyed without tedious reservations." So disappointed in its reception, Osborn never had another original play produced on Broadway.

The full cast of Morning's at Seven (1939).

When it was revived in 1980, forty-one years later (and with no such cuts), Walter Kerr in the New York Times wrote "This seems to me a perfect production of a uniquely shaped play merry and mellow and just possibly a bit mad. It's enchanting." Not bad for a playwright whose name had not adorned a Broadway marquee for more than twenty years.

The fabulous foursome of 1980's Morning's at Seven:

Nancy Marchand, Elizabeth Wilson, Maureen O'Sullivan and Teresa Wright.

Not a word of Osborn's play was changed in the intervening years (unlike McNally's rewriting It's Only a Play dozens of times). The times just caught up with it, that's all. Fortunately, Osborn was still around in 1980 at age seventy-nine to reap the rewards (and awards). When it received the Best Revival Tony, Osborn said that it was nice to get it, "because I had really never even seen a Tony. I've had plays produced since 1929, so now I finally have one." Also awarded were Vivian Matalon (Best Director) and David Rounds (Best Featured Actor in a Play). The renewed attention on Osborn made for so much interest in his work that five years later he became the most produced playwright of the 1985-86 theatrical season. Not bad for a man in his eighties.

So what will be the next gem to be polished and buffed to a shine? The search is always on with producers combing the plays of yesteryear hoping to rediscover something that speaks to audiences today in a way it didn't (or couldn't) once upon a time. Already mentioned for a possible Broadway revival is a total overhaul of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus's pop opera Chess, a failure in its original 1988 staging. As it's a score that I find particularly exciting, I'm rooting for it to take on a whole new life and succeed with style and class.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon:–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book