“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease,” wrote playwright and director Moss Hart in his iconic autobiography 1959 Act One, offering in one sentence an apt encapsulation on the dangers of a career in show business. And though it could be argued that Hart was being somewhat facetious, I tend to doubt it. For those obsessed with the theatre, it is a disease. But as Tevye the Dairyman cleverly retorts when told by Motel the Tailor that money is a curse: “Then may the good Lord strike me with it — and may I never recover!”
Moss Hart: playwright, director and novelist (1904–1961).
People ask me how I keep the flames of passion from extinguishing after so many nights at the theatre and the answer is simple: there’s always the chance for a one-of-a-kind experience, which is what live theatre is all about. It always brings to mind a story told by the journalist James Wolcott of his going to see movies with his friend and fellow critic Pauline Kael. Though known as a notoriously tough customer, just before the lights would go down in the theatre, Kael would take Wolcott’s hand and whisper, “Let us pray.”
I believe that whatever god Kael was appealing to was in the hope for a transcendent experience, which is the reason any of us go to a play, film or concert in the first place, isn’t it? For me, there’s no room for becoming jaded. Sure, I can sometimes have a bad run where it seems everything is a disappointment, but I’m rarely sorry I went (unless it was ungodly expensive). Yes, there are times something is truly terrible and painful to sit through, but frankly it doesn’t happen all that much to me: testimony to the quality of theatre here in New York, both on and off-Broadway. Of course, with everything suspended these past seven months, I yearn as much as anyone to get back to reveling in the level of talent consistently on display, seemingly everywhere you turn.
And when you have easy proximity to seeing theatre in New York, as I do, you get to see plays and musicals when they’re fresh. Either before they open, when kinks are still being ironed out in previews, or right after opening when audiences haven’t been told the jokes or plot twists or had a chance to hear the score prior to the release of a cast album. It taps into that unbridled joy of discovering something for yourself before others give their stamp of approval. Also, there’s always the chance to see something that doesn’t run very long, putting you in somewhat rarified company. As but one example, the 2016 musical Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed played only 100 performances, yet I managed to see three of them (yes, I loved it).
Busy, yet beautiful: the poster for Shuffle Along (2016).
Naturally, the question on mine and all my friends’ minds is: when will theatre be back and what will it be like upon its return? Will ticket prices go up or go down? What is it going to take to make it economically feasible for producers to present shows with the high running costs of a Moulin Rouge if audiences are shy about sitting packed together in a typical Broadway house even after a much hoped for vaccine arrives? What will become of the insane premium ticket pricing which made it possible, prior to the shut down, to go to the box office and buy an $850 seat for Hamilton or Bruce Springsteen’s limited run? Are those days over?
Many, many questions… none of which anyone holds the answers.
Moss Hart’s metaphor of theatre as a disease takes on new meaning these days, doesn’t it; with Covid-19, a genuine disease, potentially being its fatal blow? There are some who felt we were heading towards a certain kind of extinction pre-lockdown already, what with the infection of high costs preventing many of its most dedicated acolytes from attending on a regular basis. To that point I’ll say one thing: because I often work as a director of college-age kids massively in love with the theatre, there’s little to be done to dampen their enthusiasm for both seeing shows and being in them. And it is that enthusiasm I attempt to build upon by way of teaching them as much history as I can, since it’s important for them to be aware of how even the most innovative shows owe so much to what came before, as Dear Evan Hansen did to Next to Normal, or as Next to Normal did to Rent (not for nothing all three were directed by the same intelligent, guiding force as Michael Grief).
In a recent discussion about Broadway and its potential as an endangered species, I brought up how it was ever thus: that for nearly a hundred years the theatre has been referred to as “the Fabulous Invalid.” Meaning that no matter how many times you kick a certain something to the curb, there is always the chance it will rise again through sheer force of the good will it generates even in the worst of times. And how great is it that the phrase was fully utilized to express that very sentiment nearly eighty years ago by none other than … yes, you got it: Moss Hart. It was he and his longtime partner George S. Kaufman, who wrote a 1938 Broadway comedy titled The Fabulous Invalid, a thinly-veiled version of how the New Amsterdam, the greatest Broadway theatre of its day, came to fall on hard times when it was converted into a movie house ten years into the Great Depression, no longer able to book extravaganzas like The Ziegfeld Follies, for which it had become famous.
Playbill for The Fabulous Invalid (1938).
Interesting, too, that the musical had the New Amsterdam Theatre at the center of its plot, since its ceasing to be a legitimate theatre would last for almost sixty years until Disney put millions into renovating its magnificent Beau Arts structure with “splashes of Art Nouveau touches” as it would be coined. Upon its opening in 1903, the New York Timesdescribed the New Amsterdam as “The House Beautiful,” a nickname that, due to its restoration, remains true today. Not only did Disney return an architectural gem to Broadway, but 42nd Street itself, when it reopened with a little musical called The Lion King (the highest grossing musical of all time).
Interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre in all its glory.
And even though Kaufman and Hart’s The Fabulous Invalid’s sole claim to fame was its title (it closed in sixty-five performances), as Ira Gershwin once wrote, “The melody lingers on.” Appropriately enough, the words were to his brother George’s music for a song titled “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Please follow me here\and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.