Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Bedside Reader"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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Monday, 28 September, '98: "The Ultimate Bedside Reader"

Myrna and Harvey Frommer, who teach at Dartmouth and specialize in oral history have written "an oral history of the Great White Way" called IT HAPPENED ON BROADWAY that may be having its publication date while you are reading this. They are also nudges who bombarded the mirror with press-releases for nearly a year. I don't think they were nervous --- after all, they've already been through this with IT HAPPENED books on BROOKLYN and on THE CATSKILLS --- so maybe they're just proud. Their press-releases were unconvincingly over-long strings of hype and superlatives though, so I resisted, (The mirror covers New England after all, not them Sothron carpet-baggers) until first they sent me a rave review, and then a bound-galley, and you know what? The damn thing is good! Whenever it really is published it'll cost $35.00, but if you put it by your bedside, as I did, you will not regret a sleepless night until you've read all the 300 pages. But I won't bore you with opinions, or superlatives. I'll just quote some passages:

"There are other neighborhoods in New York City and in cities all across America where audiences are being seated, where curtains are rising and performers are poised to play their roles. But here is the apex, the acme, the one singular sensation: BROADWAY.
...
"A hundred Broadway babies, bards, balladeers, and boulevardiers whose dreams and defeats, trials and triumphs are woven together into this memoir: each of them, once upon a time, fell in love with the theater and through these pages remembers the journey propelled by that love. Bringing the reader through the stage door, into a world of dressing rooms and rehearsal halls, flywings and projection booths, around pianos in angels' living rooms and conference tables in producers' offices, they reimagine the auditions, readings, rehearsals, openings, runs, closings, and lived-for moments of glory under the bright lights, center stage.
"All the world may be a stage, but there's only one Broadway."
===Myrna & Harvey in their introduction

HAL HOLBROOK: Theater was mainstream, riding a wave of tradition that was vital and essential to the entire entertainment process in the United States.
We had actors who lived in the theater. That was all they did. We had playwrights who were writing good plays, sometimes astonishing ones. In 1947 and 1948, I cxame into town and saw "A Streetcar named Desire" and "Death of A Salesman". I saw "King Lear" for the first time at the old National Theater. I saw Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, the Lunts, Louis Calhern.
MANNY AZENBERG: Olivier, Scofield, Gielgud, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates... HARVEY SABINSON: Tennessee Williams, Wiliam Inge, Arthur Miller, Kaufman and Hart. There was Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser --- great shows every year.
MERLE DEBUSKEY: You had continuing producers; it was their life. Kermit Bloomgarten would produce a play every year or two. SABINSON: There was a hard-core audience that had to see everything in a season
FREDDIE GERSHON: Going to the theater was an event. It was very carriage-trade.
MORTON GOTTLEIB: I loved the glamor; I don't mean just the dressing up, but the whole feel of how lucky you were to see a Broadway show.

TONY WALTON: Jerome Robbins had named names during the McCarthy era. Jack Gilford's wife, Madeline, was one. Zero Mostel was another.
CHARLES DURNING: Zero Mostel didn't work for ten years. He told me he went from making a thousand dollars to one hundred a week. "What kind of secrets was I giving away," he'd ask, "acting secrets?" WALTON: Zero Mostel and JAck Gilford were cast for "A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum". George Abbott had become th3e director, and I was doing the set and costumes. We were floundering out of town, and absolute disaster. When we opened in Washington, George Abbott gave an interview saying "I think we could save the sucker if we threw out all the songs."
Steve Sondheim made a big pitch to Hal Prince to bring Jerry Robbins back in. ... Hal phoned Zero to ask whether he would be prepared to work with Jerry Robbins.
"Are you asking me to eat with him?"
"I'm just asking you to work with him."
"Of course I'll work with him," Zero said. "We of the left do not blacklist."
...
But when Jerry first came in, we were all terrified. He was already a daunting figure. This was --- after all --- well after "West Side Story". We stood on the stage of the National Theater in Washington. Jerry Robbins ran the gauntlet, shaking everyone's hands. When he finally got to Zero, everyone held their breath. The tension was palpable.
Then Zero boomed out, "Hiya, loose-lips."
And everyone burst out laughing --- including Jerry.

CHARLES DURNING: "A Chorus Line" is an actor's play about actors. When that girl starts singing "What I Did for Love" it has nothing to do with sex. It's the love of the theater --- the horror, the heartbreak, the disappointments. We've all had our share.
When I saw "A Chorus Line", and I saw it several times, I broke down and cried. My wife does not understand why; she hasn't gone through what I haved. RONNIE LEE: The curtain went down, the lights came on. Everyone had left the theater, and I was still sitting there weeping. My wife was holding me in her arms
I was remembering the cattle calls. Hundreds came. They'd teach you one step, everybody would do it, and they'd eliminate. Then they;d teach you another step, perhaps two steps, and eliminate again. They would eliminate for size, for looks, for color, you name it. What we did for love --- "A Chorus Line" really caught it.

CAROL CHANNING: It wasn't until a year or two ago that I learned Ethel Merman was offered the original role of Dolly and turned it down. All I knew was that Mr. Merrick told me he was going to have a musical version of "The Matchmaker" written for me. Thornton Wilder told me he wrote "The Matchmaker" about a woman he knew who had sandy hair like mine. "She was a tall, handsome figure of a woman, like you," he said to me. "You even look like her."

LEE ROY REAMS: Everyone thinks to be in the theater you have to have such an ego. I think you have to have a lack of ego to be up there. You're constantly receiving rejection, constantly being judged and criticized. To succeed, you have to be passionate about your work. And it's that commitment that makes us so verbal and indulgent in the craft.

ROBERT WHITEHEAD: Strangeley enough, when the musical theater was at its most exciting and most expressive of us as a country, our theater had a kind of world influence. A lot of plays were being done, and out of them grew the great musicals. But then the volume of productions went down, down, down, until there was practically nothing. And when the serious plays began to disapperaqr, the great American musicals began to disappear. One fed off the other.

HOWARD KISSEL: The Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and the like fulfill many people's idea of what an evening in the theater is supposed to be: spectacle, constantly changing panoramas, theater as movie. The average person doesn't know that something should happen to him while he's watching a play. He gets beautiful stage pictures and he thinks he's gotten his money's worth.

ELAINE STRITCH: As I am in the autumn of my life, I am finally able to say that it is the work that satisfies. It is in the moment. A movie star doesn't hear a "Bravo" from the seventh row. I have gone back and forth from musical theater to straight plays. One year I did Noel Coward's "Sail Away" and the next year I did "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I went straight from "Showboat" to "A Delicate Balance". It's a kick for me to do everything.
Still, I must admit that preparing for a play is such a difficult adventure that every time I wonder why in God's name I choose to do this. It's my version of nine months of a difficult pregnancy: morning sickness and evening tears, misunderstandings, a long, long trip.

FOSTER HIRSCH: The 1996 revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" made me hopeful. Here was a revival of a great play originally produced about thirty years earlier that got wonderful reviews and a decent run. It's a very demanding play, with lots of dialog that requires you to listen in a way we're not used to listening in this era of spectacle shows. Its success means there is still a desire for that kind of theater. The glitter can come back.
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