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A Broadway Time Machine

If you had the chance to travel back in time to one major Broadway event, which would you choose? logo

Marc Blitzstein
"Where would you go?" So goes the tag line in ads for the film remake of The Time Machine that opened wide this weekend. And it's a rare theater aficionado who hasn't asked himself this question on more than one occasion.

I'm sure that many of you who, like me, didn't see Merman in Gypsy, Lucy in Wildcat, or Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing would come aboard when I set the Time Machine for the correct times for those shows. I'd expect you to join me, too, at the closings of Merman in Dolly! and everyone in Follies or to see any performance of Phil Silvers in Top Banana or Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark. (On second thought, for the last-named show, wouldn't we most like to see the famous first night of the Boston tryout, when Danny Kaye had just wowed the house by doing "Tchaikowsky" and Lawrence had to go out and trump his ace? Did she ever, with "The Saga of Jenny.")

Another Boston tryout we should attend is the very first performance of Harvey, the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his pookah (read: six-foot rabbit) whom only he can see. These days, most everyone who sees Harvey in his high school or community theater knows full well that Harvey is a rabbit. But think about that world premiere, when an audience first saw Elwood talking to this invisible being and opening doors for him; they had to have assumed the guy was dealing with a person. So, a couple of scenes later, when Elwood's sister told a doctor at an asylum that Harvey was a rabbit, the house must have erupted in laughter that has never been eclipsed by any other audience who's known in advance that Harvey belonged to the species known as sylvilagus robustus.

Let's also attend the first preview of We Interrupt This Program, the 1975 effort by Norman Krasna, a playwright who usually gave us boulevard comedies (from Dear Ruth to Sunday in New York). Apparently, We Interrupt This Program also began as a carefree little farce...and then a group of armed thugs burst into the theater and held the audience hostage until one of their friends was released from prison. What must have it been like that first night, when audience members had to wonder if this was part of the show or, God forbid, real? Come to think of it, let's instead go to the final performance of the play, which occurred only four days after it opened; by then, word must have gotten out that the "criminals" were only acting, so how could they keep the audience from rebelling? Wouldn't you love to see a little theater-party lady swatting away some big guy's rifle and telling him, "Go ahead! Shoot me! You think I'm afraid of you?!" (By the way: Holland Taylor, who'd be in Moose Murders eight years later, was in this one, too!)

I saw Barbra Streisand once in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and twice in Funny Girl, but I sure would have liked to have seen her in the Off-Broadway show she did before that: Another Evening with Harry Stoones, which opened on October 21, 1961 and closed on October 21, 1961. (Incidentally, Diana Sands, later a Tony nominee for The Owl and the Pussycat was in Stoones; so was Dom DeLuise.) I wonder if I would have said that night, "Gee, this Streisand kid is really something?" (Probably. I sure said it after I saw her in the Boston tryout of Wholesale.)

It's tempting to want to attend performances that hold historical resonance, but I'm not sure if I would opt for Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was assassinated. Or that Chicago performance of Camelot that Alan Jay Lerner mentions in his memoir: the one that occured on the night of November 29, 1963, after T.H. White's interview with Jacqueline Kennedy ran in Life magazine. Lerner says he later heard that a woman started sobbing at "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot," and that the crying spread to the entire house. But I would have liked to have been there the night that Orson Welles was supposed to do King Lear but broke his leg and, instead, sat in a wheelchair and chatted with the audience (there's a reference to this on the Mr. Wonderful cast album). And I would have enjoyed seeing the performances that New York never got to see but Philadelphia did: Zero Mostel in The Merchant and David Burns in 70-Girls-70, before each died. And different types of disasters, such as Jean Arthur's final performance of The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake in 1967. A friend who was there told me that Arthur broke character and the fourth wall to tell the audience that she was leaving show business and giving away all her worldly possessions.

I'm not even sure I'd want to be at 42nd Street's opening night to hear David Merrick's curtain speech telling the world that the show's director-choreographer, Gower Champion, had died earlier that day. But speaking of 42nd Street: When I attended a performance of the show in Sydney, Australia, I noticed in the lower lobby a poster of a show that sounded like it'd be so much fun: Dame Edna Everage in Isn't It Pathetic at His Age? Now that's a title...and a show I'd like to see.

I'd hope that a Time Machine could make trips outside the continent, too. Given that Zoe Caldwell gave the best performance I ever saw an actress give in a play when she did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie here, I would have liked to have seen the play in the West End with Vanessa Redgrave, who preceded her in the role. I'd also like to go back and see 1776 in London. How did lines like "Fat George," "The king is a tyrant," and "We say to hell with Great Britain!" go over there? (Apparently, not well; 1776 closed very quickly in the West End.)

Shall we set our Wayback Machine way back to catch the world premiere of Oedipus in Greece or Hamlet at the Globe? While I'd like to see Burbage, Kean, and all the other greats as Hamlet, I would just as much like to catch Hamlet in one of those delightfully notorious productions on Second Avenue, where the Yiddish artists played free 'n' easy with the Great Dane.

There are so many others: The workshops for Scandal, the musical that Michael Bennett never lived to finish; that notorious NYU production of South Pacific directed by Anne Bogart, set in a psycho ward where many patients thought they were Nellie or Emile. But, most of all, take me back to Manhattan on June 16, 1937, to the Maxine Elliott Theatre, where the doors have been padlocked and the audience is wondering whether or not they'll see The Cradle Will Rock. Let me see Jean Rosenthal circling the block in the truck that has the piano in it as she wonders where she'll land and where Marc Blitzstein's new musical will open. Afford me the opportunity to join the 800 people who walked 20 blocks uptown to the Venice Theatre to see this magnificent new work unveiled. And, if you don't know what I'm talking about, do rent the movie Cradle Will Rock.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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