Theatre yesterday and today



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September 24, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

In the predominately male world of the New York theatre, beginning as far back as 1933, Cheryl Crawford broke new ground over a fifty-three year period as a female theatrical producer. She worked with some of the greatest artists there have ever been and made significant contributions to some of the most important Broadway productions in the middle to late 20th century. Here's a bit of biography by way of today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."

Having recently posted a salute to the director and theatre scholar Harold Clurman, his longtime friend and contemporary Cheryl Crawford — born within the same week (one year and six days later) — is also most deserving of a tribute. As one of the earliest of women producers, Crawford’s list of achievements was the envy of many who came after her, be they male or female.

Cheryl Crawford (inset).

​​Crawford left her distinct mark in establishing and running such landmark theatrical institutions as the Group Theatre; Eva Le Gallienne’s American Repertory Theatre; the American National Theatre (ANTA) and the Actors Studio. Though perhaps those institutions might not mean as much today, they were essential to the growth of the American theatre as we know it today. That she was an internal part of that while also maintaining a sterling reputation independently producing plays and musicals, was extraordinary. Her credits include One Touch of Venus, with its lush score by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash; a vehicle once meant for Marlene Dietrich that provided Mary Martin with her first solo Broadway success. An early proponent of the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Crawford produced both Paint Your Wagon and Brigadoon, as well as four by Tennessee Williams: The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Period of Adustment and Sweet Bird of Youth. One of her first efforts was Awake and Sing, the Clifford Odets’s saga of a Jewish family, and one of her last — forty years later — was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl, the production that inspired Barbra Streisand to direct and star in her 1983 film adaptation.

Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus (1943).

​Calling this column “One Naked Individual” is an echo of Crawford’s winningly titled 1977 autobiography, drawn from an incident in early childhood. As the story goes, Crawford skipped kindergarten, where she would have properly learned the Pledge of Allegiance and, when upon entering first grade, had no knowledge of it. So, with the class assembled to recite it, she mistakenly took the passage “One nation, under God, indivisible …” and heard it as “One naked individual.” It’s a fitting story, since hearing and seeing things differently were the earmarks of Crawford’s oeuvre. And bearing herself nakedly had just about everything to do with the unfamiliar ground she tread among men unaccustomed (or unwilling) to hear out a woman with strong opinions. At the time Crawford struck out on her own in the 1930s, there were practically no independent women producers on Broadway.

Born September 24, 1902, Crawford grew up in Akron, Ohio and received a degree in drama from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Though determined to find her place in the theatre, she had no idea what that place might be. This set off a trial and error period where Crawford worked as an actress, in casting, and as an assistant stage manager. She was fortunate to find a job at the Theatre Guild, the first-class producing organization responsible for presenting the plays of George Bernard Shaw (and later Eugene O’Neill). This is where she met two other ambitious young talents finding their footing: Clurman and Lee Strasberg, who as a triumvirate, would later form the Group Theatre, the progenitor of the most socially relevant theatre of the 1930s. While at the Guild, one of Crawford’s jobs was as a play reader, and it was in that capacity she discovered an ability to differentiate a good play from a bad one. And thus, a career as a producer was launched.

Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).