June 22, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
As a starting point for many of these columns, I often do a search for what happened on this date in theatre history as inspiration. The results vary — feast or famine — mostly in between. But today is a feast; a veritable smorgasbord of talent. Take a look at some of the these people born on June 22nd, so uniquely individual (and brilliant) in their achievements, that the listing of their names is enough:
With theatre being the main focus of my writings, I could easily write about the infinite influence Joseph Papp had on the New York theatre scene (which resonated as loudly as ever with Oskar Eustis’s Central Park production of Julius Caesar that made headlines last week, something which certainly would have certainly have made the Public Theatre’s founder smile), or Gower Champion (also born on this date), whose impact is felt nightly at the Shubert Theatre by way of the recreation of the dances he created more than fifty years ago for the original Hello, Dolly!, which he also directed.
I saw Meryl Streep in her first and second Broadway plays more than three and-a-half decades ago, in revivals of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells” (superb) and Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotten (unforgettable). Though they were in 1975 and 1976 respectively, I can recall my epiphany of “who is that?” as clear as if it were yesterday. Actually, the Williams play was a one-act on a double-bill with Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays, and it wasn’t until midway through the second play that I made the connection that the thin, straight-backed, dark haired professional woman who appeared in the Miller, was the same woman who had minutes earlier been babyish, blowsy and big-chested in the Williams. A chameleon even then.
But allow me to shine a light on two actors born on June 22nd, whose careers in the theatre were just that: careers in the theatre. One a lowbrow Jewish comic who excelled at surly old-timers even when he was young. And the other (as if to the manor born), who has played distinguished men of one stripe or another throughout a sixty year career that is still active.
That patrician actor is John Cunningham, born in 1932, and who was the one and only actor to succeed William Daniels as John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776. I saw him many times in it, and can attest to the fierce energy he brought to the part, straddling beautifully the difficult blend of that character’s limited charm and unlimited intellect.
Cunningham was also one of the earliest to replace Jerry Orbach as El Gallo in the famed Off-Broadway production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks, and was a favorite of perennial director Harold Prince, who first utilized his talents during the long run of Cabaret, when he succeeded Bert Convy as Cliff Bradshaw. This led to Cunningham creating the role of Nikos in Kander and Ebb’s Zorba, as well as Peter in Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical, Company. Later, upon maturing out of juvenile leading men, he became the perfect actor of a certain age to play opposite many great actresses, such as Glenda Jackson, in British playwright Andrew Davies’s Rose; Jane Alexander in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig; and most memorably, Stockard Channing in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
When I interviewed Cunningham for Up in the Cheap Seats, our conversation covered many of the shows he did, expressing how beyond grateful he was for those experiences. He did mention one regret (common to many actors) that he had perhaps been born in the wrong generation, as actors of his particular background did become somewhat less in demand than they were in the Broadway musical’s hey day of the 1930s-1950s. He also expressed a lovely (if liberal) sentiment when we discussed Howard Da Silva, with whom he became “great friends” when they played together in 1776: “I was once at a party at his house in Ossining, and I couldn’t believe the number of old left-wingers he had visiting. I said to myself, ‘This is where I would be.’ No doubt about it … I would definitely have been one of them if I came up at that time.”
Born thirty years earlier than Cunningham in 1902, was David Burns (or Davey, to all who knew him). He grew up on Mott Street in Chinatown and became an actor while still a teenager. His first Broadway show was in 1923’s Polly Preferred, making such a name for himself that he was invited to do the show in England. Finding gainful employment on stage and in films there, he didn’t return to Broadway for eight years. It was lucky for the American theatre he was lured back, and though his first show was a failure, a comedy entitled Wonder Boy, his second was the hit Irving Berlin-Moss Hart, revue Face the Music. Burns received glowing notices and from then on, became a steady fixture upon the New York stage for the next four decades.
He created the role of Banjo in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s iconic The Man Who Came to Dinner, had significant roles in Billion Dollar Baby, Out of this World, Two’s Company and A Hole in the Head, and won the first of his two Tony Awards when he created the part of Mayor Shinn in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.
Winning a Tony for a musical is usually when you get to perform some great songs, but the Mayor of River City doesn’t participate in any or sing a single note. So you’ve got to be really funny to win a Tony for it —and without any film of Burns playing the part, one is only left to imagine the raspy sound of his voice and the comic delivery with which he must have had audiences in stitches. His second Tony was for creating the role of Senex, that dirty old man in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Again, no film survives, and the 1962 cast album (unfortunately) conveys little of the free-wheeling, kinetic energy for which the show was renowned. However, I do own an audiotape, recorded through the theatre’s sound system of that insanely hilarious original cast and hearing the live laugher makes it clear that as funny as Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine and Raymond Walburn were … none so masterfully displayed their comedic art as Burns.
Hard to believe, but Burns wasn’t even Tony nominated for what might have been his most famous creation on Broadway: that of Horace Vandergelder in 1964’s Hello, Dolly! The photos pretty much say it all … he must have made for a terrific foil to the different Dollys he played opposite. He stayed in the show for three of the seven years of the show’s record-breaking run.
In what would be the final review of his career (in the 1970 musical Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen), Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times: “Whatever you think of the show, I challenge you not to adore Mr. Burns.” This was indeed the sort of thing that informed the tidal wave of love Burns rode his entire career, one that was cut short by a heart attack while he was out of town with a new musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70 in 1971. The fact that he died on stage minutes after performing his big number in the show, “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” was not lost on those who knew him. What better way to go out than get your applause and then lie down behind the on sofa right on the set and shuffle off this mortal coil? The night this occurred in Philadelphia, his fellow cast members (all of whom were roughly in their late sixties and early seventies) knew something was up immediately. The curtain came down and it marked the last time anyone ever saw the great Davey Burns on stage.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book