IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …
August 18, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It takes so many important elements to come together when creating a Broadway show that it’s a near miracle when they do. Working on The Producers in Plymouth, MA these past eight weeks, where I’ve been directing a summer stock production, has made me feel the utmost appreciation for the smoothest of rides that Mel Brooks and Company have provided us all. Co-book writer Thomas Meehan, director and choreographer Susan Stroman, and its star Nathan Lane all contributed vital comedic touches that truly make the show sing. But what if The Producers hadn’t come together as it did? What if for unforeseen reasons and circumstances it was a disaster in its out of town Chicago engagement, and rather than limp into town, closed on the road, crushing everyone’s dreams of Broadway success? Would that have been the end? No one can say for sure, but the odds are that it would have been “curtains,” as the old saying goes. Shows that fail in their first productions rarely get a second chance at a do-over.
However, there have been occasions when a something is aborted its first time out, then later revived (sometimes really later). Like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, it is possible for a corpse-like show to be brought back from the dead (although dark magic doesn’t really play much part in it). Hard work is what saves the day, and here are some stories of plays and musicals that can take their rightful place among the tiny percentage of shows that were successfully resuscitated, magically or not.
In my theatregoing lifetime I can think of no better example than the 1993 musical made out of the celebrated novel and film Kiss of the Spider Woman. Terrence McNally provided the libretto, basing it on Manuel Puig’s book, and the Academy Award nominated screenplay by Leonard Shrader for the 1985 film. Its score was by John Kander and Fred Ebb; it starred Chita Rivera, and had no less than Harold Prince at the helm. Its first workshop was part of an experiment dubbed New Musicals, whose goal it was to create, develop, and provide a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years, at the Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York at Purchase. It seemed like a good idea at the time: to work in some hoped-for anonymity a mere thirty miles from the hustle and bustle of Times Square.
But that was not what happened.
Broadway veterans John Rubinstein, Kevin Gray and Lauren Mitchell starred in the Purchase production. Safely believing they were appearing in a workshop, the actors and creative team were confident of being immune to the prying eyes of New York critics. Not so. Even though New Musicals went out of its way to not invite any critics, Frank Rich of the New York Times (as well as a few others) felt it was their right to see it and write about it. Defending his choice when he looked back at the shows he reviewed as the Times critic in his 1998 book Hot Seat, Rich wrote that he didn’t feel bad about doing so because the show was “a for-profit venture with Broadway prices that did not advertise itself as a work in progress.” Rich’s pan subsequently served a devastating blow to Spider Woman’s Broadway prospects.
What with being written off by the New York critics, how would the Spider Woman team ever get a fair sake at a second trial, when its already been found guilty by a not-so-grand jury?
Enter Garth Drabinsky, the flamboyant Canadian theatrical producer, who had a brief rise and spectacular fall on Broadway, in that his real-life accounting resembled oh-too-closely the set of fictional books that appear in the musical of The Producers“ — “Show to the I.R.S.” and “Never Show to the I.R.S.” With an influx of cash, Drabinsky mounted Spider Woman in Toronto two years later, recasting the three leads with Chita Rivera, Anthony Crivello and the Canadian star Brent Carver. Well-received, he then took the show to London, where it ran two years and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.
Finally, three years after its first performance at Purchase, Spider Woman opened on Broadway to not only good reviews and good business, but a win of six Tonys: Best Musical, awards for all three of its leads, McNally’s book, and Kander and Ebb’s score (tied with The Who’s Tommy). It ran for two years. A very happy ending, but only after years of painstaking work to get it right, and that much desired (and often never realized) second chance (and third and fourth).
Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for literature, is still a Broadway staple sixty-three years after his death, with many of his plays coming back time and again. A Moon for the Misbegotten, is not only one of his best, but one of his most popular, as proven by its having had a total of four Broadway revivals, putting it the same league as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But would you be surprised to learn that its first production closed out of town?
That’s right. In 1947, the esteemed Theatre Guild, which had been producing O’Neill’s plays since the 1920s, mounted a production in Columbus, Ohio, which was then booked to go on to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis before opening on Broadway. It was rough going. The review in the Detroit Times led with a headline (in red ink, no less) that stated: “O’NEILL PLAY CLOSED FOR OBSCENITY.” Local censors were demanding that “whore” be changed to “tart”; “bastard” to “louse” and “a pig of a woman” to “a cow” (That last one is a genuine head scratcher). Variety called it “a psychopathic Tobacco Road,” which must have really made O’Neill slap his head in despair.
A Moon for the Misbegotten never made it past St. Louis and wouldn’t make it to Broadway until ten years later (and four years after O’Neill’s death) where it only managed a disappointing sixty-eight performances. Dismissed by critics as a lesser work by the master, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times summed it up when he called it “an uneventful play that lacks the elemental power of an O’Neill drama.”
It was later produced in 1960 in Spoletto, Italy at its famous theatre festival there, and also Off-Broadway at the Circle-in-the-Square Theater, where O’Neill had gotten a new lease on life a few years earlier with a revival of The Iceman Cometh directed by Jose Quintero, who was quickly becoming the foremost interpreter of his plays. And it was Quintero who helped get Moon back to Broadway in 1973 in the production that cemented its reputation with career-best performances from Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. Nothing about the play changed as there were no rewrites (the playwright was long dead). It was simply a matter of audiences (and critics) catching up with the piece when performed by actors who were born to play the two leads (notoriously difficult to cast). This historic production was thankfully filmed for television and though it is no longer in print (DVD’s go on Ebay for between $75 and $100), you should check your local library to see if one might be available to borrow. It is well worth watching as it captures a moment in time when actors the likes of Robards and Dewhurst roamed amongst us mortals.
I had a third and fourth example to write about, but unfortunately, I’m past 1,200 words. So I’m going to bring this to a close. For more tales of resurrection, please check in tomorrow.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book