Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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SENIOR TRIP: FORTY YEARS OF FRIENDSHIPS

From the blurb on the back of its plastic VHS tape box: “A busload of fun-loving high school seniors is on its way to New York City — so watch out New York! The venerable Mickey Rooney and teenage heartthrob Scott Baio star in this freewheeling adventure that this senior class — and New York City — will not soon forget.”


Image of the VHS cassette of Senior Trip (1981).


Heads up: this column isn’t about a piece of theatre, although being in an off-Broadway play that ran only a week is the catalyst for all that followed. Forty years ago this month, I filmed a CBS-TV movie called Senior Trip, shot on location all over New York City (no sets were built). And with April ending today, I couldn’t let the month go by without a shout out on this significant anniversary to all the friends I made then, many of whom are still part of my life today.


It was a heady time. I had just turned twenty-four years old and was a struggling actor living on my own in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side off Central Park West. My rent (don’t laugh) was $250 a month (I said don’t laugh). Seriously, I worried how I was going to pay it. My day job paid $100 a week, meaning more than two weeks of paychecks went towards the rent, which is pretty much the same ratio in 2021. But the month of March had been a good one for me, financially and personally. For a brief moment, I felt as if I had the world by the tail as I was appearing in my first off-Broadway play, The Buddy System, at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Bleecker Street, the historic home of such great productions as The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards. I loved going to work; my first time employed in New York as a working actor.


But The Buddy System was no Iceman Cometh. As I mentioned, it closed in a week. We opened on a Monday night and after unanimously poor reviews, limped on through the following Sunday with no one in the audience. But during previews, my then-agent (doing what a good agent is supposed to do) personally brought Howard Feuer to the show. A well respected casting director, Howard thought I was right for a TV movie he was prepping. A short time after we closed, I got the call to audition for Kenneth Johnson, a writer-director from L.A. whose credits at that time included monster hits such as The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman, both of which he created. This was before Google, so had I known this before meeting him, I might have been a little intimidated. But no worries. Ken made me feel so relaxed as he did something that maybe one other director has done in my entire career: he read opposite me playing all the other parts. It allowed for us to really connect in the room and he later told me that after I left, he turned to Howard Feuer and said, “That’s our guy. Don’t bother to read anyone else today.” Howard told him they had a dozen other actors scheduled and Ken said, “Have them read for something else.” He was that sure. And I was the first one to read the part of Bob, a teenager with dreams of Broadway in his head.


Ken was right. Without knowing me, it was a perfect fit. In fact, the scene I read was the brash teenager performing in the back of the bus, something I used to do all the time when I was a kid. As Robert Mitchum used to write on the pages of his scripts (when the moment called for it), N.A.R. — No Acting Required.


The plot of Senior Trip dealt with a group of high schoolers who travel from Youngstown, Ohio for a class senior trip to New York City. We meet them on the bus getting a bit of their backstories and, once they hit Manhattan, the adventures begin. My character was teamed with another aspiring performer, a singer named Judy. And what good fortune that I should have been paired with a nineteen-year-old who had only recently arrived in New York from Chicago to begin her career: Liz Callaway, future Tony nominee and singer extraordinaire. Liz (who turned twenty while we filmed Senior Trip) already had another job booked for the fall, as she was going to be part of the ensemble of Merrily We Roll Along, which everyone believed at the time would be the next masterpiece from Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince (that story would require a column all its own). And, coincidentally — but maybe not considering the level of young talent available back in 1981 — Senior Trip had two other original cast members of Merrily in the back of the bus: Jim Weissenbach, who many theatergoers that caught Merrily in its tumultuous preview period saw play the show’s leading role of Franklin Shephard. Jim and I had become good friends during the filming and I got to see him play Frank twice before he was replaced by his understudy. I’ll never forget the early morning phone call from him when he told me the story of Prince letting him go as gently as possible, considering the high stakes involved.


Another good friend I took from Senior Trip (and another future Merrilycast member) was the very young Jason Alexander, not yet twenty-one. We took to one another instantly, so much so, I attended his wedding a short time later (he was unable to attend mine as he was in deep rehearsals for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1988, for which he would go on to win a Tony award). And how about this? Jim Weissenbach, who left the acting world after Merrily, became Jason’s agent, responsible for booking him on a new TV series; one that Jim and I sat in the audience for when its pilot was filmed. Yes, Jim and I were present when Jason got his first laugh as George Costanza on Seinfeld.


“Hey old friend, are you okay old friend?” Jim Weissenbach, Liz Callaway, Jason Alexander and me backstage at a concert Liz performed at UCLA (2011).