THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE
November 14, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“In George Furth’s Twigs, Sada Thompson does not simply give a stunning performance. She gives four of them.”
So wrote Walter Kerr in his Sunday New York Times review, published a few days after Twigs opened, forty-six years ago tonight. According to my meticulously kept records, I saw the matinee the day before its Sunday night opening, at the price of $3.00, seated in L 102 of the balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre (although it indicates I moved six rows down and sat in F 102 for the following three of its four acts). And though no Walter Kerr, (I was fourteen), I called Thompson “inimitable.” And she was.
At forty-four years-old, she had begun her career almost twenty years earlier, slowly building up Off-Broadway, regional theatre and Broadway credits, though she was still largely unknown. Her six Broadway shows consisted of four limited engagements; one musical that ran two weeks (Juno); and a play that closed on its opening night (Johnny No-Trump). But in the previous New York theatre season, Thompson’s luck changed, when she scored a personal triumph in the Off-Broadway production of Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play that took home that year’s Pulitzer Prize. And for her portrayal of a domineering chain-smoking, hard drinking mother of two girls, Thompson was awarded every Off-Broadway acting prize there was: the Obie, the Drama Desk, et. al. On the strength of her newfound status, along came the offer of George Furth’s Twigs, with its inherent challenge of four different roles in four one-act plays. Its director, on his first solo gig — and a non-musical one at that — was Michael Bennett, just coming off of Follies, for which he shared directing duties with Harold Prince. Bennett also created the incomparable choreography for that remarkable show.
For her portrayals of three daughters and their mother, Thompson not only received the reviews of her career, but a Tony as well. It was so good, I did that rare thing back in the days of my teenage theatregoing: I went twice. I attended the Actors Fund performance on a Sunday night, three months after I first saw it, this time paying $4.00 for the privilege. And for an added bonus, I got to see Gregory Peck in the audience.
By that time, in a display of clever producing, a big deal had been made of Thompson’s name being elevated above the title. And it really was a big deal back in the day (and would be today I suppose, although it’s rarely done anymore). Part of the decision must have had to with possible concerns over what Tony Award category Thompson would be relegated to that coming spring. Due to her initially being billed below the title, it could have conceivably resulted in a nomination in the Featured Actress category, which would have been unforgivable (a scandal, even), given that Thompson was without a doubt the star of the show; the only woman in the cast surrounded (and supported) by a seven men. Here’s the New York Times ad promoting the promotion; honoring her honor:
And as it clearly states, it is true that Johnny Carson loved the show. Here’s another ad that was taken out so that people would remember what the most popular star on television had already told his millions of viewers on the air:
However, there was some degree of irony in Thompson’s achieving this measure of stardom on Broadway: it wound up bringing her to Hollywood, where she successfully starred in the four-year run of the ABC drama series, Family, winning an Emmy Award for Best Actress in the show’s third season. From that time on, in the forty year time span between her triumph in Twigs and the time of her death in 2011, she only appeared on Broadway two more times in plays that couldn’t manage five week runs between them. But we should be grateful, as some of Thompson’s film and TV projects gave us some beautiful performances, perhaps none better than the title role she portrayed in Terrence McNally’s original teleplay, Andre’s Mother, which won McNally the Emmy for Best Writing of a TV Movie in 1990. I recently purchased a DVD of it, and it is well worth viewing for an emotionally-packed sixty minutes that will only leave you wanting more.
It’s a shame that there was no movie version of Twigs to have preserved Thompson’s delightful performance (or performances). There was a slightly bastardized TV version that aired in 1975, squeezed into a ninety-minute time slot with commercials. And as it was produced by Joe Hamilton, one can only assume the property was bought by CBS strictly as a vehicle for his wife, Carol Burnett, then one of the network’s biggest stars. On paper, she would seem an appropriate choice, but truth be told, she didn’t receive good notices and the whole thing kind of flopped. It’s never been put out on DVD, and for all I know, aired that one time and is now gone with the wind. And a second TV version was produced eight years later, when in 1972, Cloris Leachman took on all four roles. I have never seen it, and prior to this writing, even heard of it (it’s so obscure, it’s not listed on IMDB in Leachman’s credits).
There were many priceless bits of comedic business in Twigs, one so visually elaborate, I wouldn’t dare attempt to describe it. Suffice it to say, it involved a mishap with a chocolate cake that produced some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in a theatre. Another unforgettable moment in the play came by way of the character of Celia, a down-beaten housewife of the second play. As a former actress, Thompson got to warble a ditty from a long ago B-picture she once did, and to compose it, George Furth called upon his old friend (and partner from Company) to write it. In fact, some of the plays in Twigs were originally written for the evening of one-acts that Furth first envisioned for Company, before Prince’s suggestion that they might work better as the basis for the book to a musical. In Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim’s second volume of autobiography, he printed the sheet music for “Hollywood and Vine,” so I offer it here as one last reminder, that there was once a show called Twigs — one that made a star of “the inimitable” Sada Thompson.
If you enjoy these columns, check out 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.