Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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MOVIN' ON UP

I’ve been in Los Angeles this past week and, while driving around town, I kept seeing banners for an upcoming limited engagement of Candide at the L.A. Opera, starring Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole.

My first thought was, “Isn’t Christine Ebersole a little old for Cunegonde?” But of course, it only took a few seconds for me to realize that this ever-youthful actress would be playing the part of “Old Lady.” Yes, that is how the role has been billed since it was first created by Irra Petina in the 1956 original Broadway production (and for which she received a Tony nomination). Tony nominations also came to June Gable for a 1974 revival, as well as to Andrea Martin in 1997, proof positive it’s as good a scene-stealing role as they come. I’ve been privileged over the years to have seen other "Old Ladies," such as Nancy Dussault, who absolutely killed it in a 1995 Center Theatre Group production in Los Angeles, as well as the great Linda Lavin at New York City Opera just last year. I have no doubt Christine Ebersole will be hilarious (as well as sing it to perfection) once performances begin on January 27th (and if you’re in the vicinity of downtown L.A., and interested in attending, there are only going to be six of them).

Various "Old Ladies" in Candide: Top, Linda Lavin 2017; June Gable (1974),

Irra Petina (1956), Andrea Martin (1993).

As I continued to pass these banners, catching my eye with their bright canary yellow background, it got me thinking more and more about how some actors have matured into different roles over the years, sometimes doing so in the same shows they had done in their youth. Were these parts they had once dreamed of doing? Who knows? I actually don’t know if Christine Ebersole ever played Cunegonde once upon a time (though it would make perfect sense that she did). If so, did she wonder if she would one day get a shot at playing “Old Lady?” Did a similar notion ever though go through the mind of young Bernadette Peters back in 1960 when she was one of the Torreadorables in a touring production of the original company of Gypsy? Was she planning then the Rose she eventually brought to Broadway some forty-three years later?

In the world of classical theatre, Shakespearean roles are probably more in the rifle sites of most actors. Classicists often go out of their way to take on the great ones, once they have paid their apprenticeship in smaller ones. Sir Michael Redgrave was once Laertes to Olivier's Hamlet, then years later made a triumph of the Prince of Denmark on the London stage himself. In one famous and auspicious example, the Australian actress Zoe Caldwell was set to play Medea in the early 1980s and her husband, its producer Robert Whitehead, came up with the idea to have a fellow Aussie, Dame Judith Anderson, play the Nurse opposite Caldwell—the same Judith Anderson who had made a tremendous Medea some forty years prior (and received one of the earliest Tony Awards for it). At eighty-five, and living in semi-retirement in Carmel, Caldwell was terrified when they met: "There's no way I can do the play with Judith there," Caldwell told the Washington Post in 1982. But "over a couple of margaritas," Anderson finally blurted out: "Who on earth could you get who could play the nurse better than I can?" And that sealed the deal.

And so it came that Broadway was treated to these two great women, collaborating on an approach to the play that made for a very exciting night in the theatre (I saw it—and it was thrilling).

Zoe Caldwell and Judith Anderson in Medea (1983).

In 2014, Terrence Mann took a vacation while appearing as King Charlemagne in the hit revival of Pippin, and his replacement was ... John Rubinstein, the actor who first played Pippin forty-one years earlier in 1973. So here was Rubinstein finally playing his own father on Broadway—probably something he never gave a thought to while cavorting about the stage of the Imperial Theatre back then (right next door to the Music Box, which is where incidentally he finally got to sing the "other" part in "War is a Science").

In 1990, Robert Cuccioli played Nathan Rothschild in an off-Broadway revival of the 1971 Bock & Harnick musical The Rothschilds. So I have to wonder, if while learning his songs, did he secretly covet those of the actor playing his father, Mayer? And if so, how funny that Cuccioli should have gotten his wish when he was cast as the patriarch in a reworked version of the musical, titled Rothschilds and Sons, when it played the York Theatre in 2015.

And what of Robert Goulet, who had his very first success on Broadway as the young Lancelot in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot in 1960? At twenty-seven, he brought a virile handsomeness and highly disciplined singing voice to the role. Thirty-three years later, he returned to Broadway in Camelot, this time as the older King Arthur (now aged sixty), looking back on his kingdom and how it all went to pieces. His casting provided audiences who had seen the original with a chance to revisit a show that held not only memories of its iconic first production, but provided more than a touch of nostalgia in seeing its once youthful Lancelot, now a more mature King Arthur.

There are many more examples, I'm sure. These are just the ones that are coming quickly to my mind. And though not as famous a name as any that I've listed, I have personally gone though a "three stages of man" acting trajectory with regard to one particular show: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. At sixteen, boyish ingenue that I was, I found myself cast as Hero in a community theatre production in my home town of Great Neck, New York. Two years later, as a wise-old college-bound freshman, I played the second banana Hysterium in that same musical in a summer stock production in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Then two summers ago, some forty-one years later, I returned to that very same barn playhouse (the Priscilla Beach Theatre) and trotted out on stage to play the cameo role of Erronious, (the befuddled old man) in that same, great musical.

Perhaps the only way I can top that is if someone offers me Old Lady in a future production of Candide. If it's out there, call my agent. I'm ready.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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