Theatre yesterday and today



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After a book is published, a writer gets immediate feedback from reviews, which is important for sales and not much else. However, if one is lucky (as I have been), and reviews come in from regular folk — some by letter in the mail (handwritten!), that’s where the real treasures lie. When someone writes that the book was a pleasurable experience for them, it means the world as that was my sole intention in writing it. It makes me feel (as the great Lina Lamont once said) my hard work “ain’t been in vain for nuthin’.”

Pardon the egocentric nature of this piece, but since this has been such a dark year for theatre, I thought it appropriate to shine a light on celebrating it being four years ago today that Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway was published. In the years since, I’ve also experienced the continued pleasure of going to my mailbox, as I did recently, and receiving a letter like the one I got from Daniel Bolton of Braintree, Massachusetts, who wrote: “In an effort to maintain a connection to theatre and the Broadway world amidst this ‘drought,’ I have been RE-reading your book. I’ve been enjoying (again) a chapter a day. You tell a darn good story! What a treat it is.”

That sort of thing NEVER gets old. ☺️

The fact that my blog (which I began nearly five years ago) is titled “Theatre Yesterday and Today” proved to have unexpected foresight. Had it been titled “Theatre Today” I would have been in a bit of trouble, but by continuing to write about the theatre’s past, it’s a way (much like my book) for people to cope with its miserable present. Like every other chronic theatregoer, my life was upended on March 13th when theatre shut down, not only here in New York City, but in nearly every spot around the country and the world. My last time in a theatre was on March 12th when I was fortunate to catch Jagged Little Pill, doubly so in that I wasn’t seated in the first two rows, as most of the show’s company came down with Covid (and all made full recoveries, I’m happy to report).

For the purposes of this column, I’m taking the opportunity to play catch-up with some of what’s happened over the past four years, which include the book’s paperback version that came out in early 2018. I was able to correct four typos (courtesy of some especially eagled-eyed readers, one of whom was Tony Award winner Reed Birney), but also to exclusively include a “bonus” chapter, due to my publisher asking me to make cuts for purposes of length. Luckily, after the hardcover edition came out, a consensus formed independently that the book’s biggest criticism was it felt too short, which is how the chapter “The Professional” on the stage career of the actor Robert Ryan found its way back into the book. *

Robert Ryan as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night,

illustration by Jeff York.

It was Robert Ryan who first made me aware that an actor could excel equally in comedy as well as tragedy. This came about from seeing him play Walter Burns in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page in 1969, as well as play the doomed James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1971. When I saw those productions at the ages of twelve and fourteen respectively, the concept had not even occurred to me of such a thing being possible until I saw it with my own eyes. The fact that in many people’s minds Ryan was an actor generally known for his film portrayals of tough guys (especially sadistic ones), it gave me pleasure to write stories of what a fine humanitarian he was in real life and how he contributed in significant ways to a number of important causes like civil rights and progressive education. After it was published in the paperback, I heard from people who knew Ryan personally and being told I got it “just right” was the best possible review.

And speaking of reviews, one thing about a paperback is that you get the chance to include some of the nice things that were written about it since its hardcover publication. That’s how the quote prominently displayed on the cover came to be when Nathan Lane wrote me a beautiful note on what the book meant to him — us being about the same age and beginning our theatergoing at much the same time, he from New Jersey and me from Long Island. I was deeply touched. When I asked him permission to use one line from it for the cover, he said, “Whatever helps, Ron.”