Theatre yesterday and today



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April 30, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Having written many appreciations these past few years of theatrical greats after they have shuffled off this mortal coil, the one I undertake today on the esteemed director and lighting designer Peter H. Hunt is a difficult one. You see, Peter was my good friend with whom I shared many hours as he entertained me chapter and verse (and in exquisite detail) about his long life in the theatre, especially as it related to his directing the original Broadway production of 1776. He died on Monday at age eighty-one after a battle with Parkinson’s disease and, though I knew it was coming, I am deeply saddened by his passing.

Peter H. Hunt (1938–2020) at home in Los Angeles.

It’s an open secret that my affection for 1776 is a profound one. I wrote about it in a solo chapter in Up in the Cheap Seats, and it is to this day the show I paid to see more than any other (thirteen times). When I undertook the interview process for my book to get as many backstories as I could, it was my friend Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson) who facilitated an introduction. After connecting through email, Peter invited me to his house way up at the top of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. I will never forget arriving there on July 25, 2013 (it had to be in July, right?) and ringing the doorbell. I could never have imagined that very soon thereafter this would become a regular trip I’d make over and over again.

But before launching into all this, let me briefly tell you a bit about Peter Hunt career-wise, for those unfamiliar with his accomplishments.

Having a keen interest in theatre as a teenager, and like so many who have come before and after him, Peter entertained thoughts of becoming an actor. He performed in plays both at Hotchkiss, the prominent prep school in Connecticut which he attended, and at Yale, where he did his undergraduate work. While at Yale, one of his teachers invited him to be an apprentice electrician at a summer theatre he had recently founded — the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. The teacher was Nikos Psacharopoulos, a wildly charismatic director/producer who would eventually spend every summer of his life as Artistic Director at WTF, beginning in 1955 until his death in 1989. His replacement? Peter Hunt, who ran it from 1989–95. Prolific to the max, Peter contributed to more than 200 productions at WTF as designer, director, and actor. “I wouldn’t be anything like the artist I am today without the faith Nikos put in me and the opportunities he gave me,” Peter told me. “To cap it off, there was the gift of his friendship, which began the day we met and lasted until the day he died.”

Ken Howard as J. Pierrepont Finch and Austin Pendleton as Bud Frump

in How to Succeed

directed by Peter Hunt at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1968).

When Peter went onto the Yale School of Drama for his graduate degree, a number of factors helped make the decision for him. “Dad said I’m not paying for it if you’re going to act. So, I wasn’t allowed to major in theatre. I majored in history of art, which was a blessing in disguise. Also, the Vietnam draft was rearing its ugly head, so staying in school was my way out. Never took a course in directing. I acted and lit while at Yale.”

Also, while in New Haven (and through a connection of his father’s) he got the chance to assist Abe Feder, then lighting Camelot during its out of town tryout in 1960. “Lighting design drew me into the theatre in an even more powerful way than acting.” Years later, it meant a great deal to him to hire Feder before his retirement in 1979, and light both Scratch and Goodtime Charley, which Peter directed on Broadway.

Lighting also became an entrée into directing for Peter when he got his break with a production of The Fantasticks at Hartford Stage in Connecticut (the twenty-six-year-old Frank Langella played “the old actor”). And as mentioned, Nikos gave him opportunities at Williamstown to do every sort of play and musical — from Shakespeare to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—while still moonlighting as a lighting designer. It wasn’t until 1968 that he got the chance to direct a musical in New York, mainly due to its being authored by his good friend from Yale, Austin Pendleton. But Booth, which told the story of Edwin Booth, the great 19th century actor and his father Junius, had a brief limited run at Lincoln Center, and if it weren’t for one guy seeing it, Peter might never have had such an auspicious start on Broadway. By chance, the legendary director/choreographer Jerome Robbins liked Booth, and who, after turning down (more than once) a new musical his friend Stuart Ostrow was