Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ZERO

Thirty-nine years ago today I was driving in a car on a beautiful September day with Larry Horowitz, my college roommate. SUNY Purchase, where we both attended (he as a visual artist and I as an actor), had a later-than-usual start than other schools and we were on a ten-day trip through New England. We had just spent time with a friend of mine in Maine, who had a cottage on a lake and encouraged people to drop by. One of the guests while Larry and I visited was Doreen Wesker, whose husband, the acclaimed British playwright Arnold Wesker, was busy at work in Philadelphia on his newest play, The Merchant. It was trying out there before its scheduled opening on Broadway in a few weeks' time.

The Merchant starred one of my favorite actors, Zero Mostel. The great Zero Mostel. The one and only Zero Mostel. And it was directly after leaving Mrs. Wesker on the drive out of Maine that Larry and I stopped for gas. I picked up a newspaper and once back in the car and leafing through it, I was taken aback by a headline which read: "Zero Rests." I didn't know quite what that meant so I continued. The first line was something like "When Zero Mostel died last night of an an aortic aneurysm ..." and I had to stop reading. I couldn't believe my eyes. There was no one else like Zero, and at that moment, I knew we had lost someone irreplaceable; one of the entertainment world's true treasures. I was shocked and saddened by this news and I wasn't alone. Mostel was only sixty-two, and even with his volatile personality and larger than life status on stage and off, there was no one who doubted his talents, of which he had many. He was an outlandish comedian, a first-rate actor, a mime, an eccentric singer, a dancer of enormous grace for such a large man (at times he weighed 300 pounds), and he was a skilled and admired painter.

Mostel's three Tony Award winning roles: Fiddler, Rhinoceros and Forum

What made Mostel so special was his unique ability to find not only the high comedy in a role, but its pathos. It was certainly the defining aspect of his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which I would have loved to have seen as a small child back in 1964. I'm grateful it was committed for posterity as an album, since it features, to my mind at least, the single greatest performance given by an actor on an original cast recording.

At sixty-two, Mostel was seeking a revival of his fortunes with The Merchant. His career in film never amounted to anything better than his Max Bialistock in The Producers in 1968, while in the theatre he had reduced himself to being loaned out as a cash cow on the road, recreating his role in Fiddler and as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, whichever way the winds blew him. Wesker's play, a re-interpretation of Shylock that made him less the play's villain that he is in Shakespeare's version of the story, felt like the right fit for Mostel. The public thought so too, and the show had a substantial $200,000 advance, a lot of money in those days, especially for a straight play.

But when Zero died, The Merchant essentially died with it. The producers offered the role to everyone from Orson Welles to Richard Burton, but his shadow loomed so large no one was willing to follow Zero, even though he gave a total of one performance in Philadelphia before taking ill. The role finally went to his understudy, a lovely actor named Joseph Leon. With the Philadelphia engagement canceled, the show went back to New York for rehearsals, then played in Washington D.C. as previously arranged. Scheduled to open at the Imperial Theatre, it was decided that without a star as Shylock the better course of action was to slip into the Plymouth Theatre across the street, where 400 seats less to sell per performance made sense.

The Merchant's director was the brilliant yet famously ill-tempered John Dexter, who won Tony Awards for Equus and M Butterfly, both of which he guided to Best Play Tonys as well. Even without the star quality (and box office) Mostel offered, Dexter was happy with Leon's performance as Shylock and made certain that all talk of getting another actor ended in D.C. He told Wesker that "the sad truth was that had Zero been playing the role the play would never have sprung to such life. One of the problems of giving him notes was that I could never get him to stay still for long enough."

The play had a good audience response (and decent enough reviews in D.C.) and its Broadway preview performances also went well. According to its author, not only did Wesker think the show was going to be a hit, but so did Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, "the Shuberts," who were the show's producers. This led to the entire company being blindsided when the play was completely dismissed by the critics. The New York Times summed up the general consenus when it called it "intelligent but weak. The Merchant folded in a weekend.

Wesker, who died this past April at the age of eighty-three, wrote a book in 1999 about his experience with The Merchant. He titled it The Birth of Shylock & The Death of Zero Mostel and it's an excellent piece of writing, and for anyone who loves behind the scenes stories of a Broadway show (and Zero Mostel) this one's for you.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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