September 11, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
There will always be an inherent sadness whenever the date 9/11 comes around. Not to suggest any measure of equivalency to the horrors of the terrorist act forever associated with it, but when I looked up theatre history for today, I was surprised to see we lost three extraordinary theatre artists on this same date within a fifteen-year span: Jessica Tandy (1994), Fred Ebb (2004), and Larry Gelbart (2009). How much did I love and admire these three? Let me count the ways.
First, I had the good fortune to meet all of them, beginning with Ms. Tandy, when I impulsively waited by the stage door for her and longtime stage partner (and husband) Hume Cronyn. It was after a matinee of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Gin Game, in which they were both glorious (it brought Tandy the second of her three Best Actress Tonys). Though Cronyn and Tandy performed together in ten Broadway shows, this was my first introduction to them as a team (although I’d seen each separately on a number of occasions). But on this Saturday afternoon I was so blown away that I had no choice but to try and meet them, the first time I had acted like a fan since I was a teenager. I was not throwing away my shot.
They exited together (of course), into the alley shared by three Broadway Theatres: the Golden, the Royale — now the Jacobs — and the Majestic. I was with a college friend and oddly enough we were the only two waiting. Cronyn had his pipe tucked in his teeth (something you would see in many photos taken of him) and Tandy was on his arm, looking absolutely gorgeous. We complimented them on their work and they were generous and attentive. Cronyn asked, “Are you both actors?” We nodded and he stared us down and said, “Lord help you,” to which Tandy affectionately smiled and gave us a look of “Don’t mind him.” We spoke for a few more minutes and then stepped aside and watched as they took the long walk down the corridor that would lead them out onto 45th Street.
As to just how committed they were to performing together, Hume Cronyn put it best in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview: “We played The Gin Game about 800 times [starting in 1978]. We did The Fourposter 600 times . We did Albee’s A Delicate Balance I think 400 times  and Noel Coward in Two Keys 400 times . In the days when we were most active, we had the example of Helen Hayes and Alfred [Lunt] and Lynn [Fontanne]. I don’t think I can make it sound significant or meaningful, but it was the thing one did, if you were lucky enough to have a success.”
That tradition unfortunately died with them both. 1986’s The Petition, by Brian Clark, was a minor piece, but as always, a major achievement for the pair. It was announced at the outset it would be their last show together and, with that in mind, I made it my business to be in attendance at the final performance. On that Sunday afternoon I was in the 8th row of the orchestra when they took their last bows as a couple on a Broadway stage. To say it was electrifying is an understatement. I will remember that curtain call for the rest of my life.
Fred Ebb, who with John Kander formed one of the longest-running partnerships in the American theatre, may have written his most clever and inventive lyrics for Chicago. Although its original Broadway production ran a little more than two years, its revival has now been with us longer than Cats, or that other kitty, The Lion King. Chicago’s lean and mean revival has been hanging around since 1996, with stagings all over the world that have made it one of the few billion-dollar musicals.
That 1996 revival was only scheduled for a one-week run at City Center’s Encores, which specializes in giving audiences the chance to see old musicals with full orchestras in bare-bones productions. The canny producers Barry and Fran Weissler saw it and made calls to inquire if they could get in on moving it to Broadway. They were stunned to hear that there was nothing to “get in on.” They were the only producers that made an offer… and the rest is history. And with only one show standing in its way, should The Phantom of the Opera ever close (which is questionable), Chicago might one day conceivably become the longest running show in Broadway history.
On October 23, 1996, when this Chicago played its first preview at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) I was present. The show was completely sold out, as the buzz from the Encores production was insane and tickets to one of its handful of performances were impossible to obtain. So this first preview was filled with those that had been waiting weeks to see what the fuss was about. I showed up alone hoping that someone had an extra ticket and was sprinting back and forth between the 46th Street and the TKTS booth on 47th, just in case the box office sent tickets over.
Then, as luck would have it, a few minutes before the curtain a woman and her daughter surrendered the hope that a third member of their party was showing up and sold me one of the best seats in the house. I paid them cash for the full value of the ticket, which in those days was $75 (more than twenty years ago, folks). I took my seat and listened to the buzz of the crowd hum in anticipation of the famous trumpet wail that begins the musical.
But at around 8:10 or so, the producer Barry Weissler, dressed in a smart tuxedo, came out and addressed the audience. I assumed it was some sort of welcome, or at the very least, an innocuous disclaimer that this was the first preview and it might have to be stopped for technical difficulties. But no. He was there to calmly inform us we had to exit the theatre immediately. “Nothing to be concerned with. Just your average, ordinary bomb scare.”
Which is how I found myself standing out in the street next to Fred Ebb, who like me, was all by himself. I asked him if he had ever experienced this with one of this shows and he said, “Yeah and it was Chicago. We had a bomb scare the first night back in 1975. Isn’t that weird?” Now I’ve never had this story contradicted or confirmed, but I’ve always chosen to believe that even if he didn’t have the dates right, he wasn’t making it up that this wasn’t the only bomb scare that Chicago ever had. And I love that a “bomb scare” turned out to be something that this production never had anything to worry about.
As for my meeting Larry Gelbart, it was short and sweet… and perfect. I had adored his writing from when at sixteen I played Hero in his theatrical masterpiece, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for which he co-wrote the book with Burt Shevelove. Then, as now, I marvel at the show’s low humor and immaculate construction, which Stephen Sondheim (somewhat prejudiced as he is the show’s composer) has called “the best farce ever written.” Gelbart then lent his extraordinary wit in adapting M*A*S*H into one of the most successful shows in the history of television. The man was a true hero to me and the chance to meet him came about in Los Angeles when we were both in attendance at the Hollywood Bowl for Stephen Sondheim’s 70th birthday; a star-studded concert that featured the likes of Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou, Barbara Cook and Audra McDonald. It was also a star-studded audience, and it was my son (seventeen at the time), who spotted Gelbart walk past us wearing a sweater that (I swear) was a bright canary yellow. Jeremy nudged me and I took notice. Then, as luck and fate would have it, I noticed that Gelbart was making a beeline towards some friends of mine. Signaling to Jeremy this was our cue, we went over where we were happily greeted by my friends, who then politely said, “Do you know Larry Gelbart?” I reached out my hand and said, “No, but I have always wanted to meet you.” Without missing so much as a fraction of a beat, and with consummate timing, Gelbart said, “That’s why I came tonight.”
The man did not disappoint. None of these three ever did, really.
And yes, sometimes I do feel like Woody Allen’s Zelig.
This is a reworking of a column first posted on this date, 9/11/16.
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