ONE NAKED INDIVIDUAL
September 25, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
A week ago, I posted a birthday tribute to the director and theatre scholar Harold Clurman. Also deserving of a similar celebration, is his longtime friend and contemporary Cheryl Crawford, born within the same week (one year and six days later). These theatre artists shared two of the most distinguished Broadway careers of the mid-twentieth century. And, as one of the earliest of women producers, Crawford’s list of achievements were the envy of many who came after her, be they male or female.
Crawford left her distinct mark in establishing and running such landmark theatrical institutions as the Group Theatre; Eva Le Gallienne’s American Repertory Theatre; the American National Theatre (ANTA) and the Actors Studio. This was in addition to independently producing many plays and musicals, such as One Touch of Venus, with its lush score by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash; a vehicle once meant for Marlene Dietrich that provided Mary Martin with her first solo Broadway success. An early proponent of the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Crawford produced both Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, as well as four Tennessee Williams plays, includingThe Rose Tattoo and Sweet Bird of Youth. One of her first efforts was Awake and Sing, the Clifford Odets’s saga of a Jewish family, and one of her last — forty years later — was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl, the production that inspired Barbra Streisand to direct and star in her 1983 film adaptation.
Calling this column “One Naked Individual” is an echo of Crawford’s winningly titled 1977 autobiography, drawn from an incident in early childhood. As the story goes, Crawford skipped kindergarten, where she would have properly learned the Pledge of Allegiance and, when upon entering first grade, had no knowledge of it. So with the class assembled to recite it, she mistakenly took the passage “One nation, under God, indivisible …” and heard it as “One naked individual.” It’s a fitting story, since hearing and seeing things differently were the earmarks of Crawford’s oeuvre. And bearing herself nakedly had just about everything to do with the unfamiliar ground she tread among men unaccustomed (or unwilling) to hear out a woman of strong opinions. At the time Crawford struck out on her own in the late 1930s, there were practically no independent women producers on Broadway.
Born September 24, 1902, Crawford grew up in Akron, Ohio and received a degree in drama from Smith College. Though determined to find her place in the theatre, she had no idea what that place might be. This set off a trial and error period where Crawford worked as an actress, in casting and as an assistant stage manager. She was fortunate to find a job at the Theatre Guild, the first class producing organization charged with presenting the plays of George Bernard Shaw (and later Eugene O’Neill). This is where she met two other ambitious young talents finding their footing: Clurman and Lee Strasberg, who as a triumvirate, would later form the Group Theatre, the progenitor of the most socially relevant theatre of the 1930s. While at the Guild, one of Crawford’s jobs was that of a play reader, and it was in that capacity she discovered an ability to differentiate a good play from a bad one. And so a career as a producer was launched.
Crawford’s years with the Group allowed her to work with the leading lights of what was then a new and progressive theatre: playwrights like Odets, Sidney Kingsley and Irwin Shaw, as well as directors Clurman, Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. When the Group disbanded, she helped create the American Repertory Theatre, the actress/manager Eva Gallienne’s second effort (after her first try with her own Civic Rep) to build a New York company of actors to rival that of England’s best rep companies. But Crawford’s most lasting legacy (via institutions), was her founding and running the Actors Studio, which many mistakenly believe was started by Lee Strasberg. Though his name later became synonymous with it, due to his being its most illustrious teacher, it was actually begun by Crawford, Kazan and Robert Lewis.
Hardly everything she touched turned to gold. Yes, Crawford did have fine instincts, and worked well with playwrights and directors, but she could also be ruthlessly honest in saying no, even to good friends. She loved musicals, and one she got behind early was Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s attempt at updating Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary musical setting. After a year of working together, here’s how West Side Story nearly bit the dust, as told by Sondheim in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat:
“[Cheryl] decided to drop us, on the grounds that the script hadn’t sufficiently explored the causes of juvenile delinquency. She announced it to us casually in her office one afternoon in May, disregarding the fact that rehearsals were to begin in July and that we wouldn’t be able to postpone them since Lenny was obligated to take charge of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in September, and in Israel, meaning he would then be lost to us forever. Stunned and discouraged, we left Cheryl’s office to regroup over a drink at the nearest watering hole, which turned out to be the cocktail lounge at the legendarily theatrical Algonquin Hotel, only to suffer another blow: the management refused us entry because Arthur wasn’t wearing a tie.”
Jerome Robbins’s version of why Crawford pulled out, and very possibly the truth, is contained in one sentence: “She couldn’t raise the money.”
We all know the story ends well, with Sondheim himself enlisting his friend Harold Prince, who signed on to co-produce with his then-partner Robert Griffith. Thus West Side Story became the first of the many groundbreaking Sondheim-Prince collaborations — partially thanks to Cheryl Crawford.
I include that story to illustrate that all producers by nature of the job description are risk takers, who must not only measure the cost of a production in dollars and cents, but in terms of their reputation. It comes with the territory. Crawford was fallible (i.e. human), and throughout her long career, proved her courage over and over again. In 1942, she personally made it her mission that Porgy and Bess get the proper production it deserved, having initially failed in its original 1935 Broadway production. Bringing it back to Broadway seven years after it was rejected by the critics, had those same souls waking up to its genius. It was too late for George Gershwin to appreciate, as he died just two years after its premiere, but due to Crawford’s tenacity, the rehabilitation of Porgy and Bess allowed for its current status as a mainstay of world theatre and opera.
That’s the sort of producer Cheryl Crawford was: one who took solitary stands and paved the way for other brave naked individuals like herself.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.