Theatre yesterday and today



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Today’s birthday boys: Stephen Sondheim & Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Every year when March rolls around, I’m still surprised by the number of so many of my favorite theatre artists who share my birthday month. It feels special to be in the company of some extraordinary fellow members of the Pisces and Aries persuasion. Since the month began, I’ve already written about John Cullum and John Kander, and in the past I’ve written about John Garfield, Alan Arkin, Diane Wiest and others. Here are a few more.

To begin with, on this particular date — March 22 — what are the odds that Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were each born? Though eighteen years apart, with Sondheim born during the Great Depression in 1930, and Lloyd Webber, a baby-boomer, born in 1948, this fact has not gone unnoticed by devoted theatre goers. It seems silly that an unforced rivalry between the two of them seems to have been thrust upon them over the years, ever since Follies and Jesus Christ Superstar opened in the same Broadway season of 1972 (neither won the Tony for Best Musical, for as many are well aware, it went to the rock musicalization of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona). A year ago, on the occasion of Sondheim’s 90th, the pair had some fun saluting one another and even managed a message about hand washing (this having been the very beginning of the pandemic):

March marks the birthdays of dozens of theatre veterans. To name a few more: The British actor Michael Redgrave(1908), who last played Broadway in 1961 (a bit before my time); Carl Reiner (1922), who appeared as a performer on Broadway in two post-war revues (WWII, that is), but also wrote and directed a couple of plays himself; Hal Linden(1931), who first started his New York Theatre career in 1956 in Bells Are Ringing, when he stood by for that show’s male lead, Sydney Chaplin; Victor Garber (1949), a Canadian, started out as a folk singer, but after playing Jesus in Godspellin Toronto (1972), was launched as a theatre actor who numbers four Tony nominations among his lengthy Broadway credits; Chip Zien (1947), who has distinguished himself in a baker’s dozen’s worth of Broadway shows, including his indelible performance as… well, the Baker in Into the Woods; Glenn Close (1947), the winner of three Leading Actress Tonys (one for a musical and two for drama — the only woman to achieve that honor), continues to work on stage as recently as 2018 playing the woman who gave birth to Saint Joan in Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid; William Hurt (1950) has one Broadway show to his credit (Hurlyburly), but fifteen plays Off-Broadway when he was the most promising young leading man in the 1970s and early ’80s; and Holly Hunter (1958), who only did two Broadway plays in the early days of her career, both by Beth Henley (one being the Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart). Maybe she’s just waiting for Ms. Henley to write her another? Karl Malden (1912), who created the role of Mitch in the original Broadway cast of 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Richard Easton (1933), a Tony winner for Best Actor in 2001 for Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. Easton even made his Broadway debut in the same year as a fellow birthday boy: Easton in a production of Measure For Measure and Sondheim with West Side Story in 1957.

As a means to celebrate, here are a few quick stories from their lives in the theatre, as told by the artists themselves:

Interviewing Hal Linden for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he hit upon something that made him yearn for days gone by, when he explained how once upon a time every New Yorker seemingly knew what was going on in the theatre:

Hal Linden: “Let me tell you the most wonderful story. I used to pick up the 104 bus on 8th Avenue to head home after the theatre when I was doing The Rothschilds, and often I’d see William Daniels waiting at the same stop. He was in 1776, which was also on 46th Street. Well, one night on the bus we both sit down across from a lady that I have always said looked like she came out of a Hoff cartoon. You remember Hoff cartoons? They always had very fleshy ladies in them.’

“I yield to the Speaker of the House.”

“Anyway, this woman was in some kind of house dress, sort of in her fifties. She had two large shopping bags at her feet. And she’s right opposite us. And as soon as we sit down, this one says to one seated next to (who looks just like her), ‘Well, Sally… we’re honored by the presence of Mr. Adams and Mr. Rothschild.’ Can you imagine? But that’s what it was like back then. Everyone in New York knew everyone else’s business.”