by larry stark

When the Board President of The Theatre Museum of Boston rescued a brick from what had been the oldest theatre building in the city, the movement to build a place in which to celebrate the rich theatrical history of Beantown was born. And on Wednesday afternoon, 21 July of this year they took another first step in providing content for that museum by preserving on television tape the first of a continuing series of interviews intending to provide An Oral History of Theater In Boston.

For two hours theater reviewer Larry Stark talked with Michael Murray --- currently the Director and Chair of Theatre Arts at Brandeis University --- who was Artistic Director of The Charles Playhouse for its first twelve years.

The original "Charles Street Theatre" was built on the second floor of a building on Charles Street by a group of actors fresh out of Boston University that included Edward Zang and Olympia Dukakis. Murray, then a grad student at B.U.'s theatre department directed one play there and went along with the company when they moved to bigger quarters at 74 Warrenton Street, just behind the Shubert Theatre in Boston's theatre district.

The move was sparked by a newly stage-struck lawyer named Frank Sugrue, who soon abandoned his new fire-extinguisher manufacturing firm to become the business manager of The Charles Playhouse. The new quarters was an abandoned night-club when the actors moved in, though it had started as a church and had been a synagog for a time. In the same building were an after-hours bar on the ground floor, and a gay bar in the basement.

Aside from the big Broadway houses, and several community theatres, The Charles was a new thing in Boston: a company committed to doing both classics and new works with Equity performers who would live and work here in the city.

Even the three-quarter deep-thrust stage, surrounded by audience on three sides, was innovative for the time.

Murray had been assistant director on an historic production of "The Iceman Cometh" in New York and decided to open the new theatre with his own four-hour staging of that classic O'Neill play. It became the theatrical event of the year.

The audience that sought out The Charles Playhouse was young, educated, and intelligent, and they were ready for new things like Pinter and Beckett, surprisngly new classics like Gogol's "The Inspector General" and Brecht's "Galileo" and strange things like Jean Anouilh's "Poor Bitos". They stayed with The Charles, and Murray still sees the familiar faces of dedicated theatre-goers when he attends plays today.

The Charles was always a precarious financial adventure, bailed out by loyal and enthusiastic supporters from time to time, but accumulating considerable debt. Most of the original founders needed payments rather than promises, and soon took jobs elsewhere. Eventually, after twelve years, Murray was told they would have to cut back in ways that would compromise artistic integrity, and he resigned as Artistic Director. He directed many shows in New York, and spent several years as Producing Director of the Cincinnatti Playhouse, before coming back to Boston. Sugrue and the Charles soldiered on for a few more years. Sugrue actually bought the building, and only recently sold it to Broadway in Boston, owners of the Colonial Theatre and Ye Wilbur Theatre. For several years nowThe Charles Playhouse has housed "Blue Man Group" and "Shear Madness" in what have become the longest-running shows in Boston's history.

But, as the conversation with Michael Murray attests, he and The Charles made history, and the pioneering work they did here left their mark on Boston theater as it is today.

The Theatre Museum of Boston, Inc., will continue making tapes of interviews with significant figures in the city's theatrical history, as well as working toward erection of a building where tapes and other memorabilia can be stored. People interested in The Oral History of Theater in Boston can help by buying tape for the next interview. People interested in A Theatre Museum of Boston can help by buying us another brick.
===larry stark, 21 July, 1999

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