CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE BROADWAY KIND
June 6, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Last night, the 73rd annual Theatre World Awards were handed out at the Imperial Theatre. In a tradition stretching back to 1944, a dozen actors, chosen by a select committee were honored for their New York stage debuts over the course of a season. Now “debut” can be a flexible distinction, as sometimes the definition has proven a nebulous thing over the years. Situations where a genuine newcomer of twenty-one winds up sharing their honor with a veteran actor like Bryan Cranston or Tom Hanks is not uncommon. But so what? It’s a lively party, with most of its charms stemming from it being all about the theatre, with no concessions to a television audience viewing the ceremony, and no time limits on speeches, happily eliminating the need for an orchestra (what orchestra? it’s a piano player), and the playing off of someone getting the hook like at the Tonys. Every presenter and winner comments on how the evening pays tribute not to a selected few, but to the entire Broadway community as a whole. And it’s something palpable you can feel in the room.
The absolute highlight last night, was when towards the end of the evening, Glenn Close was given a richly deserved Lifetime Achievement award. Having opened on Broadway this season recreating the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (simultaneously celebrating her 70th birthday), the reviews she received are possibly the best of her career. And in an evening of warm, moving and sometimes hilarious speeches, Close managed the hat trick of providing all three emotions with what was a spontaneous outpouring of memory and insight into her forty-three years in the profession.
Introduced by the Tony Award winning legend Len Cariou, who described himself as a longtime friend, Close engaged him in a long embrace before stepping to the podium and admitting with a laugh to the audience, “He used to be my boyfriend.” She then told what it was like being on Broadway in the musical Barnum while Cariou was thrilling audiences nightly six blocks north wielding his razor as the original Sweeney Todd, and her heading over to catch his final bloody scenes. It was then she recalled in great detail one extraordinary afternoon a few years earlier, when she was called upon by the director Harold Prince to step in for an actress who was teetering on the edge — in more ways than one.
Without ever once mentioning the woman she replaced by name, Close took us back to the afternoon of November 11, 1974 when she was set to make her New York stage debut (and thus eligible for a Theatre World Award) in a revival of the restoration comedy Love for Love. It was a rare Saturday night opening (unheard of anymore), and the company of actors had to do a matinee that day. And throughout a rocky out of town and preview period, Prince had grown increasingly disappointed in his leading actress (a Brit named Mary Ure), which led to his asking Glenn Close prior to the matinee on a mere few hours notice, if she could be ready to possibly go on that evening without ever having had a single understudy rehearsal. He would know more after Ms. Ure performed the matinee, but Prince was inclined to do the unthinkable and pull the actress out of opening night in front of the critics and go with Close — an unknown quantity (in more ways than one).
As she told it last night: “I didn’t even think Hal knew who I was!,” such was the size of Close’s role in the Congreve play. But being a smart actress, being asked to understudy had her prepping from Day One. She watched all the rehearsals with a keen eye, never expecting to go on, but making sure that in the unlikely chance she would have to that she would be ready. What’s the old expression? “Luck is what happens what preparation meets opportunity?” In this case, Glen Close made her own luck.
Now here’s the spot that while listening to the story as it unfolded last night, I began to supplement Close’s version with the version Harold Prince told me when I interviewed him four years ago. And here it is from his perspective:
“I walked backstage. Mary had told me she was a money player, ‘darling.’ Beautiful, sweet, lovely girl, and so talented, but she did not learn her lines. I had David Dukes and all these brilliant … you can look at the cast list … John McMartin, all of them — and she never fed anybody the appropriate cue. So I warned her. Well, we went from Philadelphia and finally got to New York, and she still didn’t know her lines. So after the matinee I went backstage, into Mary’s dressing room and she’s looking into the mirror. I observed something I had never observed before, which was a line of pills all the way around the mirror, right in front of it, and a photograph of two women: Herself and Vivien Leigh — the dark-haired and blonde beauty standing side by side, and I thought, ‘Oh my god — she’s Vivien Leigh! This girl is just a younger-generation Vivien Leigh, she’s got real problems…’
So I said ‘Mary, you’re not going on tonight.’ She looked at me not comprehending. ‘What are you saying?’ I told her, ‘I can’t. I can’t do it to the rest of the company. I know it’s going to hurt … but it’s not fair to all these actors. This is a repertory company, not a commercial Broadway production.’ So she left the theatre, and I said, ‘Now get Glenn Close and we will rehearse for an hour.’ I had never rehearsed her before.”
Knowing all of that from Prince, what I next learned from Glenn Close gave the story a deeper meaning.
Having been told by Prince to wait his instructions after the matinee, Close was in her fourth floor walk-up dressing room when just after the curtain fell an announcement came over the speaker system: “Miss Close, please report to wardrobe.” So down she went into the basement whereupon she met with Prince and was handed over Mary Ure’s wig and costume, still wet with her perspiration from the matinee performance. After being put through her paces with what little time there was, the other actors stepping in with blocking tips and instructions, Close reported to the star dressing room, now void of all traces of Mary Ure. “She had many children and now the walls had no framed photos and the makeup table was empty.” All she inherited was a barren room and Ms. Ure’s dresser, a gentleman she recalled by name. And when a short while later, a note was delivered, Close told us “It was from her. She wrote that there was a tradition in the British theatre to welcome the person who was taking over and that she was British and she wanted to say ‘Be strong. Be brave.’” That was the entire message — and Close took it to heart. And with the enormous empathy and compassion in the telling of it, my heart went out to both actresses.
What neither Close nor Prince mention is the heartbreaking end for Mary Ure. Less than six months after an opening night that never was, another one, this time in London, played out to a tragic finish. On April 2, 1975, the morning after the premiere of play she was starring in titled The Exorcism had opened, Ure was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. She was forty-two years old.
That this part of the story went unmentioned last evening was the right and proper thing. But getting the full version of the events (and those that followed) make for a haunting glimpse behind the scenes of the ups and downs of a life in the theatre.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=84&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book