THE BEATLES, BROADWAY & MY BIRTHDAY
You know the milestone, right? Of course you do.
You know the milestone, right? Of course you do.
When in September 1956, a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at the Phoenix Theatre, a young actor took to the stage making his Broadway debut. True, he was only part of the ensemble, and even at that, no more than a supernumerary — “enumerated among the regular components of a group,” as Meriam-Webster specifies the term. Meaning that the 26-year-old John Cullum’s appearance was more about filling space onstage than anything else. Now, with a career that has spanned nearly sixty-five years, there’s no doubt that this actor has enriched every production he’s been featured in, no matter what size the part.
After a book is published, a writer gets immediate feedback from reviews, which is important for sales and not much else. However, if one is lucky (as I have been), and reviews come in from regular folk — some by letter in the mail (handwritten!), that's where the real treasures lie. When someone writes that the book was a pleasurable experience for them, it means the world as that was my sole intention in writing it. It makes me feel (as the great Lina Lamont once said) my hard work "ain't been in vain for nuthin'."
Sidney Poiter, born February 20, 1927, was one of the most important film actors of the twentieth century. Not only did he deliver memorable performances, breaking wide open opportunities for other actors of color, he also brought an expansion of people's conception of what African-Americans could accomplish. That he was also at the forefront of the civil rights movement only makes him a role model for anyone in society, let alone in the arts. Here's just a touch of his backstory and a highlight of one of his finest accomplishments, the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Called “the most original of all of us’’ by George Gershwin, composer Harold Arlen was a master of the blues and jazzy rhythms of Harlem and the south. Songs like “Blues in the Night,” “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic,’ “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive’’ and ‘’The Man that Got Away," are only five of the five hundred to which he is credited. So how did Hyman Arluck, the Jewish son of a cantor in Buffalo, New York come to be one of the most important contributors to the Great American Songbook? Read on in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Possessing one of the most indelible personas marking Hollywood's Golden Age, Humphrey Bogart's unique charisma continues to persist in our collective conscience as many as sixty-four years after his death. While smoking an endless chain of cigarettes, he effortlessly romanced the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, whom he starred opposite when she was nineteen and would marry a year later. Movie star that he was, like many of his cinematic contemporaries (Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, to name a few), he began his creative life on stage, appearing in seventeen Broadway shows between 1922 and 1935. Here are some stories about those mostly forgotten thirteen years in this edition of "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Joe Allen was a unique and indelible part of the Broadway theatre community by way of the restaurants he owned and the people he served for more than fifty years, many of whom were devoted to the oasis his watering holes provided. This tribute is direct from the chapter in my book Up in the Cheap Seats about a 1972 musical called Dude, and titled “The Bomb.” This had to do with the coincidence that Joe Allen could easily have pulled off the moniker of “the Dude ” (he was very cool) and his establishment is, in modern parlance, “the bomb.”
When it was announced in 1945 that Spencer Tracy was heading to the Broadway stage for the first time in fifteen years after great success as a film star in Hollywood, the news was greeted with tremendous excitement and anticipation for his return. What followed was not only disappointing for all concerned, but a story that could only be told many years after Tracy's death, such were the powerful ways of publicists to reframe and fictionalize what really went on. Thanks to author James Curtis's excellent research from his 2011 book Spencer Tracy: A Biography, among other sources, here are some glimpses behind the scenes of The Rugged Path that still tell a fascinating tale.
Born 117 years ago today, Cary Grant is far from a forgotten figure. His excellent work as an actor could easily have faded from popular culture like many film stars of Hollywood's Golden Age , but in Grant's case, his effortless style has proved timeless. He was also a far better actor than he was given credit for because he made it all look so damn easy. Audiences took it for granted he'd be great in everything he did, as he proved in the seventy-six feature films he appeared in. He left behind an extraordinary legacy, especially when you consider he only spent thirty-four years in the movie business.
No, that's not who I mean.
Ah, The Wiz. A very significant show in the annals of theatre history. Premiering forty-six years ago tonight on Broadway (to decidedly mixed reviews), it had a wild ride to seven Tony Awards and a run of more than 1,600 performances. It makes for a fantastic story.
I'm taking the opportunity to acknowledge the anniversary of the passing of Jason Robards, who died twenty years ago today, by posting this tribute I wrote two years ago. It's the last in a trilogy to this great actor, which you can access here: Part I and Part II.
I've been thinking about writing something on plays or musicals set around and about Christmas and in so doing, one in particular stuck out in my memory more than any other. What's funny is that when I saw it on stage in 1991, it was a hot January summer afternoon in Los Angeles. And for those one hundred minutes, I was magically transported to the week of Christmas 1975 in New York City (aided immeasurably by David Mitchell's wonderful Upper East Side apartment design set at United Nations Plaza, complete with a view of the East River and a giant Christmas tree). When I walked out of the Henry Fonda Theatre, immediately blinded by the sun-drenched street on Hollywood Boulevard, it hit me that what I had seen was something I possibly would never see the likes of again. And over the past thirty years, it came to be, well... true.
“For me, my background is poetry, and that’s the foundation on which I approach my plays: the sound of the word, the idea of taking concepts and pressing them into 14 or 22 lines and making a whole, complete statement about something.” - August Wilson, 1987
It’s December 19th again, which means it must be acknowledged that 63 years ago Meredith Willson’s The Music Man opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre (okay, I wrote about it on its 59th and 60th anniversaries as well, so sue me!). Though by no means the greatest musical ever written, it does count as my all-time favorite. How so? Let me count the ways.
In a column yesterday, I emphasized the first half of Richard Kiley's career pre-Man of La Mancha, prior to the role with which he would forever be identified. Roles, to be more precise, as the musical required him to play both the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous creation, Don Quixote, who himself is really Alonso Quixano, a nobleman touched in the head. Between 1965 and 1977, Kiley gave more than 2,000 performances in La Mancha, all while continuing to create new stage work, distinguish himself in film and television, and become a prolific and in-demand narrator of documentaries. Here's part two of my appreciation in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
In March of 1953, on the opening night of a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, the thirty-one-year-old Richard Kiley made an auspicious Broadway debut by dropping out of the sky of an aircraft and crashing through the roof of a conservatory. Theatrical immortality was to come a dozen years later when he created the role of Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. The much in-demand actor (two Tonys and three Emmys) worked nearly non-stop for decades until his death in 1999 at the age of seventy-six. Here's his story in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Due to the positive response to Tuesday's column on Ethel Shutta and the history of her performance of "Broadway Baby" from Follies, it seemed appropriate to explore another Weissman Girl's big number with Mary McCarty's powerful rendition of "Who's That Woman?" Even after close to fifty years, Michael Bennett's remarkable staging of it is still considered one of the best of all time. Stick around till the end (where a special treat awaits you) in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Today marks the 124th birthday of the actress/singer/dancer Ethel Shutta (pronounced Shuh-tay), born in 1896, and immortalized as the person who introduced the Stephen Sondheim favorite “Broadway Baby,” in the 1971 musical Follies. She was seventy-four-years-old on its opening night; the oldest member of the company. Enjoy this stroll down memory lane in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
When a dramatic production fails or flops it's called a turkey, although that vernacular is mainly confined to the U.S. and Canada. In Britain, when a show is a bomb, they call it... a bomb.