All this in response to a recent column wherein I talked about discovering Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Sara Gettelfinger and Norbert Leo Butz early in their careers and knowing that they had what it took to make the big time. I asked whom you discovered early and, my, how the e-mails flew in! It took me all this time to catalogue the best of them.
Some of you mentioned people I also saw and was impressed with early on but forgot to mention. (I must thank Paul Mendenhall for reminding me of Donna Murphy in Birds of Paradise.) And while I failed to see the charms of Bette Midler in one of her nightclub gigs, Fred Aronowitz sure caught her greatness when she portrayed Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof in 1967. "A wonderful girl with whom I fell in love," he wrote. "Theatrically, of course."
Twenty-two people said they too knew that Norbert Leo Butz would be a star by virtue of his Emcee in the road company of Cabaret. Eighteen wrote in to say that they'd discovered Kevin Kline in On the Twentieth Century in 1978, but Brigadude mentioned that he'd predicted great things for Kline more than a year earlier in Dance on a Country Grave. Not everyone made their finds in theaters: Wrote Chris Van Ness, "My only real pre-Broadway discovery was Mary Bond Davis, who sang at my wedding before she headed off to New York."
Chris Leavy: "After I discovered Liz Callaway in Baby, I had a crush on her so strong that I drove to New York (from Missouri) for opening night of The Three Musketeers. I met her this winter after a concert she did with Jason Graae, whom I discovered in 1980 as Henrik in A Little Night Music. "
Susan Berlin: "I must mention two Penn State classmates who made it to Broadway: Rick Lyon, puppetmaster of Avenue Q, and Ross Lehman, Hysterium to Whoopi Goldberg's Pseudolus. Coincidentally, they each played Finch in Pennsylvania productions of How to Succeed -- Ross in college, Rick in community theater."
Ellen Dweck: "I went to Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? simply because Hal Holbrook was in it, and I was a big fan from his Mark Twain Tonight! I brought my 13-year-old brother with me, and we sat in the first row because the theater wasn't at all crowded. Then a young man playing an emotionally disturbed resident of a juvenile facility caught my attention. He was so riveting that I couldn't take my eyes off him. I knew right then that Al Pacino was going to have a huge future, and my brother, who'd accompanied me grudgingly, said the same thing. While Holbrook was good as the kindly doc, Pacino's performance burned with such power and intensity, I thought he was going to spontaneously combust. Everything about that performance was memorable -- including the unsolicited bath that his saliva gave us as he projected all the way to the unfilled balcony."
Andrew Barrett: "I cast 11-year old Natalie Herschlag in an Off-Broadway showcase of a dreadful musical called Choices. We all loved her so much that we gave her a featured tap solo, which became one of the better parts of the evening. Shortly after this, she changed her name to Natalie Portman."
Brian Vinero: "On a New York visit, I was so blown away by The Secret Garden that when the national tour arrived in St. Paul, I stood in the rush line almost every day and saw it seven times. There was a beautiful woman playing nurse Aya, a relatively small role, but every time she was onstage I was drawn to her -- particularly during 'House Upon the Hill' where her amazing soprano stood out far above the rest of the ensemble. I ran into her in downtown St. Paul and I said 'Aya, you are amazing!' She was a bit taken aback and said, 'No one has ever recognized me before!' I said -- and I swear by the gods of theatre that this is true -- 'You are going to be a big star.' Her name at the time was Audra Ann McDonald, and I think she's still in the business."
Steve Rosenthal: "One of the first plays I ever saw was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds right before it closed, and the actress playing Tillie completely broke my heart. I still remember her speech at the end, when she battles her fears to win the first prize in her class for her science project. She had this weird first name, 'Swoosie.' Need I say more?"
Jay Kohn: "While in high school in Buffalo, I regularly attended (and ushered for) the Studio Arena Theatre. At the world premiere of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, there were powerhouse performances by Christopher Walken and Kathy Bates. After I moved to Washington DC, I saw A Matter of Gravity because of Katharine Hepburn, but Christopher Reeve in a small part is whom I remember more. "
Brandon Ivie: "I never saw the 2000 Off-Broadway revival of Godspell, but when I got the album, I was flabbergasted by the girl singing 'Bless The Lord.' I later saw Hairspray in Seattle and again was flabbergasted by an ensemble girl who did a reprise of 'Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now.' I didn't realize it was the same person -- Shoshana Bean. One day just before Hairspray was to open on Broadway, I sat down and wrote her a letter, and she responded with a signed headshot, a flyer for her cabaret act, a Hairspray key chain, and her e-mail address. I later met her after a performance where she played Tracy. I'm sure she loved the fact that an ensemble girl got a fan letter."
Former agent Richard Seff recalls seeing one of his future clients: "Chita O'Hara knocked me out in The Shoestring Revue. I got there early in previews, so when I asked her to be my client, she said 'Yes!' Many people thought I was nuts, advising me, 'She's a specialty act' or 'A Latin tomato can't be a star.' After she changed her last name to Rivera, she proved them wrong and proceeded to give me 20 years of joy until I retired as an agent in the early 1970s."
My favorite story, though, came from Steve Gurey: "I saw Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale on Friday, March 23, 1962, the night after it opened at the Shubert. I was 15, totally mesmerized, and told everyone that she would be a big star. That summer, I went with my parents to Kutsher's in the Catskills, and at the 'teen table,' there was a young girl, about 15, who bore a striking resemblance to my discovery. I asked her if anyone had ever told her that she looked like Barbra Streisand. 'I never heard of her,' she said. The following summer, we again went to Kutsher's, and there was the same girl at the same teen table. She didn't remember me, but I asked her again if anyone had ever told her that she looked like Barbra Streisand. She replied, 'Thousands of times.' "
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]