Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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SOMETHING'S COMING

When I was a kid and infatuated with the theatre, I had only one lifeline that connected me to Broadway from my home on Long Island: the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. And there was no Sunday to which I looked more forward than the one in September that featured the full-page ads for the upcoming season. Yesterday, just as it has reliably done for me these past fifty years, the issue did not disappoint. Not only was there newly minted artwork on display, but all of it was put forth in bold colors, not like the black and white images from the 1970s. Looking through the paper yesterday, the kid in me came roaring back to life the same way it does every Fourth of July when I look up to the sky and see fireworks ablaze, reacting without any editing of my childlike "oohs" and "ahhhs."

Now all we have to do is wait seven months for this Carousel to open.

Of course, the ads no longer hold the elements of surprise they once did. Living in the digital information age, all the shows in yesterday's paper have already been announced prior to Sunday's publication. As a kid I had no access to press releases, all of which are available now on a minute-by-minute basis at various theatre-related websites. So back then it was a double whammy to not only see the artwork in the Times, but to discover for the first time that a Richard Kiley or a Jerry Orbach would be appearing in a new play or musical. The next thing I would do would be to check out the prices, and sometimes (if I sensed the show was going to be a tough ticket), follow the instructions to fill out a "mail order form" and send away for tickets.

In 1970, one show I knew I had to immediately order tickets for was when I saw the first ad for Danny Kaye in the cleverly titled Two By Two. This was to be a musical version of Clifford Odets's play The Flowering Peach, about Noah and his family (and the ark, of course). Not only was this an "event" marking Kaye's starring in a musical after nearly thirty years away from Broadway, but it was also due to its producer and composer being the one and only Richard Rodgers, who was still a name to be reckoned with, even though he hadn't written a show in five years. Do I Hear a Waltz?, his previous show, a not-so-fun 1965 collaboration with Stephen Sondheim (his former partner Oscar Hammerstein's protege) had only run six months. Rodgers desperately wanted to be a player again and Two By Two must have felt a surefire a thing on paper, and anticipation for it was enormous, as was the advance sale.

Even at thirteen years old, I knew I had to fill out my mail order quickly and make sure to list three alternate dates (as required) and to enclose a check or money order and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. I didn't have my own checking account, and I really didn't know what a money order was or how to obtain one, so my mother provided the check, all the while bemoaning that it cost ten cents in those days for each one she had to write.

Having already been doing this for the better part of a year, I knew to ask for the less popular Wednesday matinee, rather than Saturday, as it would offer better seats. Being a full-time student, this still left me with the task of finding an appropriate Wednesday I knew I would be off from school. I was happy when my $3.00 seat arrived in the mail for the December 30th performance, even if it meant I had a three-month wait to see the show.

When it opened on November 10, 1970, the reviews were mixed. They generally raved over Kaye (although not everyone did), but it turned out that the show had a very rocky time out on the road prior to New York. There was trouble with the book and score, which comes with most musicals out of town, though some manage to overcome that (Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof are the first two that come to mind). But there was something else that had to be dealt with when it came to Two By Two and that was the behavior of its star. Danny Kaye was beloved as an entertainer, but he was a miserable human being. Rarely happy, he became virulently unhappy with the show, and the reviews only served to make him angrier than he already was. There are legendary stories of his misbehavior, and they only got worse when he and the entire company found themselves trapped in a show they all knew wasn't truly pleasing its audience. It's a terrible situation that even the most disciplined actors have a hard time making the best of. But when you're undisciplined as Kaye was, and you don't care about the audiences, then you inflict the pain you are feeling on your fellow cast members and the crew. The audience might not have been the wiser, but I can guarantee that Kaye gave it his all on opening night, and then once the verdict came in, he simply gave up. Sure, he showed up ... but he was present only in body, not in spirit.

Due to its advance, Two By Two ran for ten months; agony for all involved. Especially when three months into the run, Kaye accidentally slipped on stage and tore a ligament in his leg. After missing thirteen performances, causing a surge of refunds at the box office, he came back using both a wheelchair and crutches. The accident actually worked to the advantage of the ticket sales for awhile, generating publicity with gossip columnists writing about Kaye's supposedly funny "antics" and aroused new interest in a show that was struggling, in spite of its advance. I was fortunate to have seen Kaye play it straight, as I attended it six weeks after it opened. (For the record, I didn't care much for the show and even dissed Kaye in my review: "He is Danny Kaye throughout the show which isn't that bad, but not all that good.")

While in his plaster cast, Kaye was basically holding the company hostage to his whims and jokes, which included such hilarity as using his crutch to lift up the skirt of Madeline Kahn, early in her career as a member of the eight-person cast. For his part, Kaye justified his behavior by telling the press "People like it better now than they did before."

Get it?

I'm doubtful that a story such as this one will plague any of the dozen or more shows listed in yesterday's New York Times that are on their way this season. But you never know. If Denzel Washington breaks a leg and is forced to play The Iceman Cometh on crutches, he might have to play Hickey in a cast. If it happens, something tells me we won't see him in a corny ad like this.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.com. Feel free to comment or email me anytime at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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