Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS


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.”


It was great fun to send the book out to people (some friends, some strangers) and if they wrote something back, ask if they were amenable to my quoting them (like Nathan). That said, I couldn’t quite bring myself to pull one from a letter I received from Julie Andrews. Yes, THAT Julie Andrews! It meant so much that she took the time that I didn’t have the heart to bother her by writing her back again. However, I’ve decided to include it here because I’m guessing she wouldn’t really mind, basking as she is at the moment in the glow of her latest success as the unseen Narrator of Bridgerton.


As to what this means to me, suffice it to say I’m old enough to have seen Mary Poppins when it premiered at Radio City Music Hall, okay?

One of my biggest surprises was when I sent the book to Mark Hamill, who is a friend of a friend. I was told, “Send it to Hamill. He is a Broadway aficionado of the first rank.” I did not know that and followed my friend’s advice by sending it on. A very short time later, I received an email that truly blew my mind. This is the complete text from Mark Hamill:

“I just wanted to let you how much I enjoyed your book. As a theatre-buff, I’ve read countless books about Broadway, but yours is unique among them all. I can’t think of a single comparison, as it is from the perspective of a passionate theatre-goer who just happens to be a child! So good, I relished every word & tried to read it as s-l-o-w-l-y as possible, simply because I didn’t want it to end! As envious as I was of your access to the shows you wrote about, reading your recollections is simply the next best thing to actually seeing them 1st-hand that I could’ve ever hoped for, so thanks for that. I will recommend it highly to anyone who has the slightest interest in that particular ‘golden-age’ in the period you covered, when numerous all-time classics were running simultaneously. I intend to buy several copies as gifts, as it is one of my all-times faves, right along with The Season by William Goldman. You’re a lucky man, & we are lucky to have your priceless recollections of it all.

Congratulations on a job well done & many, many thanks for the memories.”

Yup. Luke Skywalker likes my book. And Star Wars was another movie I saw in its opening weekend when it came out, so…

Also, within a year of its publication, I turned the stories from the book into a cabaret show, “Up in the Cheap Seats with Ron Fassler & Friends” that I’ve done it in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, with talented pals singing songs from the shows I saw during the theatergoing era the book chronicles (the inimitable Robert Morse made a guest appearance at the L.A. show). It’s made for some fun experiences and I hope to get back to it when indoor entertainment returns. In the meantime, here’s a song I wrote to open the show, performed here at Feinstein’s/54 Below in January of 2017. The song is Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Once Upon a Time,” with new lyrics by yours truly.


Did the New York Times Book Review write me up? Did I get that piece on CBS Sunday Morning where I toured the theatre district and told my stories? Did Terry Gross interview me on Fresh Air? No. Honestly, that would have been great, maybe sold a few more books even, but the responses I continue to receive from people who love the theatre and who get what I was attempting to achieve by writing Up in the Cheap Seats has more than made up for it. One person who anonymously wrote a review on Amazon summed it up for me when they wrote: “I’ve given my own personal copy as a gift and another as a gift. I gave a copy to my local library. This is a wonderful memoir of growing up “Broadway.” A charming read for a guy from the Midwest who wishes he had the opportunity Mr. Fassler did growing up.”

And of course, if anyone reading this still hasn’t read it and would like to purchase a copy, Amazon will have to do till some of my favorite local book stores reopen (Drama Book Shop… please come back soon). Many thanks.

* Anyone in possession solely of the hard cover edition of Up in the Cheap Seats, and who would like me to email the Robert Ryan chapter, please contact me, and I will send it along. Email: Ron@ronfassler.org.