March 22, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Lately it feels like every day I wake up and think about writing this column, I find out that it’s the birthday of one of my favorite theatre artists. March is also my birthday month, and I seem to be in the company of some extraordinary fellow members of the Pisces persuasion. Since the month began, I’ve already written about the actors John Cullum and John Garfield, the composer John Kander and the producer Robert Whitehead.
Two days ago on March 20th, it was the birthdays of six theatre veterans: The British actor Michael Redgrave (1908), who last played Broadway in 1961 (a bit before my time); Carl Reiner (1922), who appeared as performer on Broadway in two post-war revues (WWII, that is), but also wrote and directed a couple of plays himself; Hal Linden (1931), who first started his New York Theatre career in 1956 in Bells Are Ringing, when he stood by for that show’s male lead, Sydney Chaplin; Chip Zien (1947), who has distinguished himself in a dozen Broadway shows, including his indelible performance as the Baker in Into the Woods; William Hurt (1950); has one Broadway show to his credit (Hurlyburly), but fifteen plays Off-Broadway when he was the most promising young leading man in the 1970s and early ’80s; and Holly Hunter (1958), who only did two plays in the early days of her career, both by Beth Henley (one being the Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart). Maybe she’s just waiting for Ms. Henley to write her another?
And on this particular date — March 22 — what are the odds that Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were each born? Though eighteen years apart, with Sondheim born during the Great Depression in 1930, and Lloyd Webber, a baby-boomer, born in 1948, this fact has not gone unnoticed by devoted theatre goers. It seems silly that an unforced rivalry between the two of them seems to have been thrust upon them over the years, ever since Follies and Jesus Christ Superstar opened in the same Broadway season of 1972.
March 22nd is also the birthday of Karl Malden, who created the role of Mitch in the original Broadway cast of 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Richard Eason, was born today as well in 1933, a Tony winner for Best Actor in 2001 for Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. Easton and Sondheim not only share a birthday, but made their Broadway debuts in the same year: Easton in a production of Measure For Measure and Sondheim with West Side Story.
A few quick stories that come to mind about this illustrious group of theatre veterans:
Interviewing Hal Linden for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he hit upon something that made him yearn for days gone by, when he explained how once upon a time every New Yorker seemingly knew what was going on in the theatre:
Hal Linden: “Let me tell you the most wonderful story. I used to pick up the 104 bus on 8th Avenue to head home after the theatre when I was doing The Rothschilds, and often I’d see William Daniels waiting at the same stop. He was in 1776, which was also on 46th Street. Well, one night on the bus we both sit down across from a lady that I have always said looked like she came out of a Hoff cartoon. You remember Hoff cartoons? They always had very fleshy ladies in them.’
“Anyway, this woman was in some kind of house dress, sort of in her fifties. She had two large shopping bags at her feet. And she’s right opposite us. And as soon as we sit down, this one says to one seated next to (who looks just like her), ‘Well, Sally… we’re honored by the presence of Mr. Adams and Mr. Rothschild.’ Can you imagine? But that’s what it was like back then. Everyone in New York knew everyone else’s business.”
During the years when I was attending every Broadway show that came to town for the average cost of $3 a ticket, I stumbled one Saturday night into a comedy that was in previews called Tough to Get Help. It was directed by Carl Reiner and written by a thirty-four year old novice playwright named Steve Gordon. In 1972, he had no professional writing credits and the play closed in one night. But a mere nine years later, having worked in television and with one film he wrote made in 1978, Only a Hero, Gordon pulled off the double-duty of writing and directing Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli. Gordon was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar (losing to Chariots of Fire) but the film made him responsible for the highest grossing comedy of 1981, making him a rock star. Then he collapsed and died of a massive heart attack eights months after the Academy Awards ceremony. It was a sad loss.
Tough to Get Help, Gordon’s first play was an attempt at satire that fell flat (it closed on its opening night). My plot synopsis (written when I was fifteen) summed it up this way: “Clifford Grant, a phony liberal, is put to the test when his two black household servants, whom he treats as equals — so long as they don’t drink out of the same glass as he does — goes all out for them when their son comes home for a stay in the Grant household — only to discover he’s been radicalized as a Black Panther!”
I also wrote of Tough to Get Help that “If you think that’s a long plot, you should have seen the play, which goes from bad to lousy.” I offer the caveat that I only saw the second preview (of what would be a 3 1/2 week preview period that had the play’s star, Jack Cassidy, replaced by his standby, Dick O’Neill). It was a mess. But it did afford me the chance to see Cassidy, who only appeared in one more short-lived Broadway show, Murder Among Friends, in 1976. By 1977, he had died tragically in a fire. He was forty-nine (and was born on March 5th, one day after me). More March madness.
With the month of March not yet over, I hope you’ll look forward (as do I, since I haven’t written them yet) tributes to Alan Arkin (1934), Dianne Weist (1948) and on the final day of this month, March 31st, the 90th birthday of one of my all-time favorites, William Daniels.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/