July 15, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Thirty-seven years ago tonight, a twenty-six year old actor made an auspicious Broadway debut. Cast as a slightly crazed young playwright in a revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the Circle in the Square Theatre, this New Jersey native has since appeared in more than twenty other Broadway shows (many of them musicals) and fifteen Off-Broadway dramas and comedies. In that time he’s fit in numerous films (sensational in The Birdcage); TV sitcoms (nominated for six Primetime Emmy Awards), dramas and mini-series (F. Lee Bailey in The People v. O.J. Simpson); on-camera commercials and voiceover work including Timon the Meerkat in the first Lion King … as well as lending his talents to theatre projects as a writer and producer. It should come as no big surprise that I’m writing about Nathan Lane, who received his third Tony Award last year as Roy Cohn in Angels in America, and is one of the most in-demand actors on the New York stage today. The theatre would be a much poorer place if he ever chose to take a sabbatical. Lucky for us, he rarely does, having just starred this past season in Taylor Mac’s wildly controversial (and rather brilliant) Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.
Most reading this will be familiar with his major work: Nathan Detroit in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls; Pseudulous in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Tony Award #1), and as Max Bialistock in The Producers (Tony #2), the mega-hit Broadway wouldn’t see for another fourteen years until Hamilton came along. There’s a lot to cover for a career that’s still going so strong, but for the purposes of this column, I want to concentrate on what Lane was up to before he first hit Broadway: the eight years spent hoping for a part as good, and a reception as welcome, as the one he got for Present Laughter.
Born Joseph Lane on February 3, 1956 in Jersey City, his upbringing had many ups and downs. Mostly downs, which he reiterated not too long ago in an article for Backstage Magazine (quoted in full here): “I came from an Irish Catholic family — alcoholic father, bipolar mother. It was tough. There were some tough times,” he says, again gently steering the conversation away from details. (Upon coming out to his mother, she said she’d prefer him dead.) “I’m sure that’s part of what drove me into the arms of show business. It was an escape.”
It was upon joining Actors Equity in his early twenties that he discovered there already was a Joseph Lane. Changing it to Nathan was a tip of the hat to a favorite part, one he had already played at age twenty-one at a dinner theatre in Meadowbrook, New Jersey. There was no way at the time he could have envisioned playing the role one day on Broadway, or that it would be such a smash hit that it would catapult him to the top tier of Broadway talents and change his life from then on. For in those early days of his career, Lane labored by way of any job he could get, grateful for all of them. Even when he played the part of a numeral in a children’s theatre production titled Go Metric!, you can picture him playing the part with humor and showmanship. He plied his trade in summer stock, dinner theatre and (in his own words) “Off Off Off Off Broadway.” He was also a standup, and even teamed up from 1979 to 1982 with fellow comedian Patrick Stack, playing nightclubs. Clearly, even before he made his Broadway debut at twenty-six, he had paid his dues.
But it was another ten years between Present Laughter and the revival of Guys and Dolls, until Lane would be able to start calling the shots in his own career. During that decade, he appeared in some famous Broadway bombs, among them The Wind in the Willows (he played “Toad”) and Merlin (the “magical” musical) which starred Doug Henning, a famed magician of the day, of whom Lane drolly said, “He made the audiences disappear.”
But Lane always managed to stand out in whatever he did, in spite of his surroundings. One genuine success he got to play in was the the 1989 Manhattan Theatre Club production of Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata, which then moved to an open-ended Off-Broadway run. I caught up with it when it came to Los Angeles (where I was living at the time), and was so moved by what I saw that I wrote Nathan a note (I guess I can refer to him as Nathan from here on in, as in full disclosure, I’ve known him since we both pounded the pavement looking for work in our early days as actors). He responded and he came over for a dinner with my then-wife that lasted until two in the morning.
It was that performance as Mendy in Lisbon Traviata that made critics realize that Nathan had a lot more to offer than just being funny. And it was also a collaboration which made McNally realize he had something of a muse in Nathan, which resulted in many more plays they would work on together, including McNally’s Tony Award winning Best Play Love! Valour! Compassion, and It’s Only a Play, which in 2015, reunited Nathan with Matthew Broderick once again for a very successful run.
But Present Laughter remains an extraordinary benchmark in Nathan’s now forty-plus year career in the theatre. Recently, at this year’s Theatre World Awards, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award (oh, had a LOT to say about how THAT made him feel!), he brought up what Present Laughter meant to him, especially when he revealed what George C. Scott asked him a few years later. Not one who ever had an easy time of things, Scott squinted in that tough guy manner at Nathan and asked him point black: “Do you still love it?” And Nathan replied, “Yes, I still do.”
Choked up, in front of hundreds of people gathered at the Neil Simon Theatre last month (I was there), it was evident that Nathans’s feeling about a great man who had taken a chance on a young neophyte still meant so much to him. It paved the way for a truly unique career on the stage, and tonight marks its anniversary. To quote from a play that Nathan is rumored to be toying with getting around to at some point, “Attention. Attention must be paid to such a man.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here on Medium, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.