The death of Kathleen Freeman last Thursday, August 23, from lung cancer created an extraordinary outpouring of sympathy from the theater community. The lights of several Broadway theaters--including those of the Eugene O'Neill, where Freeman had been appearing in her Tony-nominated role of Jeanette Burmeister in The Full Monty--were dimmed on the following evening to mark the passing of the veteran actress who, throughout her remarkable career, had amassed highly impressive credits in theater (Deathtrap, Annie, Woman of the Year), film (everything from Singin' in the Rain to The Fly to both Blues Brothers flicks) and television (shows far too numerous to mention). The lady had reportedly been offered and had accepted the role of Aunt Eller in the upcoming Oklahoma! revival, and it's a great loss that none of us will get to experience that performance.
"She walked into our rehearsal hall 10 days late and lit up the room and the subsequent production of The Full Monty," said that show's director, Jack O'Brien, of Freeman. "She did nothing in her life more complicated than make everyone happy every time she opened her mouth. She was the perfect definition of the consummate pro, and she played the last year of her life to full houses and standing ovations. It seems like the appropriate curtain." Some members of the audience at the first performance of The Full Monty following the announcement of Freeman's death reported that Jason Danieley had an understandably hard time getting through "You Walk With Me," the song that his character Malcolm MacGregor sings at the funeral of his mother.
Freeman's age at the time of her death was variously listed as 78 or 82, depending on the source. But though the exact number of years she spent on this earth is questionable, there's no doubt that she fit O'Brien's description of her as "the consummate pro." In this regard, several observers have pointed out that her death may represent something even more sorrowful than the passing of a great entertainer and a beloved human being. Freeman had been closed-mouthed about her lung cancer, keeping up with her schedule at The Full Monty in spite of that grave illness; in fact, she played two performances of the musical on Saturday, August 18, just five days before her death. This kind of unconditional love for show business stands in marked contrast to the attitude of certain members of a much younger generation of stage performers who consider the demands of an eight-performance week far too rigorous and, therefore, do not take that schedule seriously. A related issue is that, perhaps due to a lack of solid training, some of today's actors and singers evidently aren't up to the physical challenges of eight a week. (Click here to read "The Show May Go On," a TheaterMania feature article on this subject that was published in January 2000.) The aggregate number of absences for the above reasons, plus those that truly cannot be avoided due to serious illness or emergency, have created a situation wherein theatergoers are beginning to consider themselves lucky not to find at least one understudy or standby listed for any Broadway performance.
Some people today honestly feel that "the show must go on" is a quaint old concept that should be retired. Freeman was not one of those people. As more and more of her kind are lost to the theater world, it seems that a special type of love and dedication is being lost as well. A reliable source tells me that a certain musical theater ingénue unashamedly announces to one and all that she does not feel it reasonable or necessary to perform eight times a week--which may, at least in part, have been what caused her to lose one of the plum roles of the 2001-2002 Broadway season. Let's hope that her point of view remains more an aberration than the norm. And let's express our appreciation of those younger performers who are, in fact, proudly carrying on the noble tradition exemplified by Kathleen Freeman and others of her breed.