So many times, when I'm at an opening night or a critics' preview, I think how the actors up there are working so hard with their talent, hearts, and minds to impress those of us who write reviews. But what happens at a performance that takes place long after the critics have left? Do actors still work as feverishly? Or do they start coasting on automatic pilot?
I remember taking my young son to a performance of Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan in 1980, six months after the reviewers came, raved, and went. I found that Duncan was even more energized than she was on opening night, and inspired the cast to be at its best, too. At the curtain call, she looked directly into the eyes of so many kids in the first few rows and said, "Thank you for coming!" over and over again. All this at a performance that, you should pardon the expression, "didn't count." Now, that's a pro.
On the other hand, I remember being at the 10th -- not 100th, now, but 10th -- performance of A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine, which I had so adored at a critic's preview, and finding a cast that already seemed bored. Granted, it could have just been an off-night. But could it have been that they'd gotten their good reviews and, now, they felt as if they could rest on their laurels?
As someone who witnessed one of Jennifer Holliday's now-notorious performances when she walked through Dreamgirls in Boston, I know that anything can happen -- or not happen -- on an average afternoon. But how would 42nd Street be now that it's nearing its 600th performance?
There are some cast members whom I assumed would be rarin' to go: Tom Wopat, the new Julian Marsh, has been on the scene for only two months. Beth Leavel, the original understudy to Christine Ebersole as Dorothy Brock, has taken over the role that won her predecessor a Tony, so I guessed that she would be up to showing what she could do. And while there's a new Mac, Abner Dillon, and -- not surprisingly -- Oscar (cabaret star Billy Stritch must have felt wasted in that tiny role), so many others who were in the show on that May 2, 2001 opening night are still on hand: Michael Arnold (Andy), David Elder (Billy), Jonathan Freeman (Bert), Mylinda Hull (Annie), Richard Muenz (Pat), Mary Testa (Maggie) -- and, oh yes, Kate Levering, this production's original Peggy Sawyer, who got a Tony nomination for her performance. She, of course, hasn't been there for the long haul but recently returned after trying her wings in Thou Shalt Not and other projects. Would she regard her 42nd Street re-entry with a deafeated, "Well, here I am again" demeanor or a "Hey, I'm happy to have the job" attitude? I've seen plenty of returnees who've acted as if coming back to a show was a disgrace.
I took my place in an orchestra section that was almost full, underneath a mezzanine that we'll judge as half full rather than half empty and a virtually people-less balcony. That the program cover was still in color was, I hoped, an indication of the production's freshness; after all, almost every show that starts out with a color-covered program soon devolves into black-and-white. It occurred to me, as I scanned the audience, that at least some of these people had had to pay more than attendees who saw the original cast: 42nd Street is yet another Broadway show that now asks $100 for its top ticket. Is it worth it?
I soon saw that the sets are in great shape (unlike On the Twentieth's Century's train, which dazzled on opening night but sure looked worse for wear by the closing afternoon). Actually, it's amazing that there is any scenery left on that stage, considering how much of it Beth Leavel chews as Dorothy Brock. This is one Dorothy who's more of a Wicked Witch of the West, for Leavel snarls her way through the role without any subtlety. But here's the thing: The audience ate up everything she did. So while this performance wouldn't please too many critics or first-nighters, it did appear to be exactly what a 600th performance audience wanted -- nay, expected -- as the personification of an impossible star. If I were director Mark Bramble or choreographer Randy Skinner, I'd tell her not to change a thing. (Incidentally, when Leavel sings "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "About a Quarter to Nine," she drops all the mugging and mannerisms, and becomes quite the sincere performer. No wonder that Levering looks at her with such admiration then.)
Levering deserves some admiration, too. By no means is she walking through the role -- which she of course couldn't literally do, not with all the tap-dancing required. She's an expert tap dancer in the same league as Gregory Hines or Savion Glover, and when she's asked to do a high kick, Levering virtually pummels her forehead with her leg. No question that the lady is glad to be back. She's certainly giving the audience its money's worth, as is the ensemble behind her. I carefully watched the chorus members who were in the second or third rows of the numbers. Did any of them communicate, "Hey, no one's looking at me, the hell with it, let me just get through this?" By no means. Each and every one gave upwards of 110% and I couldn't tell the nine newcomers from the 27 old-timers.
Wopat does his job well, though I could sense a bit of frustration on his part that he's not allowed to sing as much as he'd like. Here's a man who wants to carry a show, and this part doesn't allow that. So at the end, when he's on-stage alone and gets to reprise "42nd Street," he really let his powerful butch voice boom out over the auditorium. (By the way, it's ironic that this actor, who made his name in TV but has left it in favor of Broadway, is now playing a role originated by an actor -- Jerry Orbach -- who made his name on Broadway but has left it in favor of TV.)
I wonder if they know that, given that the audience at the performance I attended didn't applaud them -- at all. Not a single handclap. The plain truth is that 42nd Street is still in good shape but the audiences who are coming to it are not. When the high kicks came in "Lullaby of Broadway," there was no applause whatsoever! Granted, there was a good bit at the end of the number, but the few cheers were rather wan ones. There was a bit of applause during Levering's "With Plenty of Money and You," but not much. And in "We're in the Money," only when the cast's arms started shooting out as they danced on the dimes did the audience begrudgingly give applause. More often, when a few people started applauding during numbers, they could not coax the others to join them -- so the clappers suddenly stopped, seeming embarrassed that they even started.
By the second act, I knew I wouldn't be hearing applause after one of my favorite lines -- when Julian Marsh tells Peggy Sawyer, "Think of musical comedy, the two most glorious words in the English language!" That line got ample acknowledgment the first time I attended a critics' preview, as the pros and fans assembled just had to let then-Julian Michael Cumpsty know that they certainly agreed with the sentiment of the line. But people who wait 600 performances or so to get to a show just don't know that "musical comedy" are, indeed, the most glorious words in the English language. (I know that isn't fair to the out-of-towner who adores theater but can only make it to New York once or twice a year, and I don't include him or her in my criticism.)
As I suspected, the line went unheralded. But what really shocked me is that there wasn't a smidgen of applause for the show's most famous line: Julian's point-blank command to Peggy, "You're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star!" Worst of all, after the big "42nd Street" production number, a lot of people didn't applaud because they were already on their way out of the theater! They'd seen most of the show, now it was time to get a head start on whatever else they were doing. What must that feel like to a cast who's just worked its butts off? And, for all we hear about how standing ovations are common these days, only about 3.2% of the crowd actually got up at show's end.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]