Theatre yesterday and today



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You know the milestone, right? Of course you do.

Yeah, it’s my birthday today. I’m proud to have made it, too. It sure as hell seemed far away in 1967 when the song came out and I was only ten years-old, but here we are more than half-a-century later. 😌 And for the purposes of this column, in the way that some people like to see what the front page of the newspaper was like on the day of their birth, I’ll be taking a look at the Broadway ABC’s and see what shows were playing the day I entered this world (in Brooklyn — not all that far from Times Square). Needless to say, considering this was what is now fondly referred to as Broadway’s Golden Age, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Just look at some of the titles and actors among these twenty-eight shows: Auntie Mame, Bells Are Ringing, Damn Yankees, Inherit the Wind, Li’l Abner, Long Day’s Journey into Night, My Fair Lady, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Most Happy Fella, with stars like Rosalind Russell, Cyril Ritchard, Judy Holliday, Ethel Merman, Paul Muni, Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Gena Rowlands, Robert Preston, Ralph Richardson and Beatrice Lillie.

The Broadway ABC’s from the New York Times on March 4, 1957.

One of the first things that caught my attention is that my favorite actor, Robert Preston, was on Broadway — but not in The Music Man — which opened nine months later in December of 1957. At the time, he was appearing in a straight play, The Hidden River, which had opened to middling reviews in January and would close twelve days later on March 16th. Little could the unemployed Preston imagine that in a short time he’d be auditioning for the role of Professor Harold Hill which, by the time it opened in December, would be a Christmas present that would change his life forever forward at age thirty-nine.

Robert Preston and Gaby Rodgers in The Hidden River (1957).

The biggest holdover was Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind that was still starring Paul Muni, who created the role of Henry Drummond/Clarence Darrow two years earlier when it opened in 1955. Forced to leave four months into its run due to ill health (a cancerous tumor cost him his left eye), he triumphantly returned to the show three months later and went on to stay for more than a year. Both he and his co-star, Ed Begley, won every significant award as Actor and Supporting Actor back when there were other plaudits besides the Tonys.

Ad in the NY Times for Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind, March of 1957.

Another long running show was the musical hit Damn Yankees, which opened a month after Inherit the Wind in May of 1955. and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. Its stars, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, had each won Tonys for their performances as Lola and the Devil but had moved on by this point. Their roles were being played by Gretchen Wyler (a perennial standby and go-to gal in musicals) and Howard Caine, an actor most people of my generation and older would remember from numerous appearances on TV sitcoms, including six seasons as Gestapo Major Hochstetter on Hogan’s Heroes.