A Season to Remember!
Polly Bergen, Ruby Dee, Harvey Evans, Elaine Stritch, and Pat Suzuki recall the 1958-1959 Broadway season.
Actually, those great ladies were just a few of the stars who graced the Great White Way that season. Among the many other marquee names were Christopher Plummer in J.B., Gertrude Berg in A Majority of One, Lynn Fontanne in The Visit, Claudette Colbert in The Marriage-Go-Round, Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jason Robards in The Disenchanted.
Not to mention that there was also the one-and-only Elaine Stritch in Goldilocks. While Stritch had already appeared in eight Broadway shows, including Pal Joey and Bus Stop, the silent-screen musical spoof was her first Broadway starring role. "It was a ghastly experience," Stritch once told me. "But it was worth it. Noel Coward saw me in it [and wrote Sail Away for her]. Everything happens for a reason, right?"
On a much happier note, Redhead earned star Gwen Verdon her fourth (and final) Tony Award, for what she once confided was her "favorite and most physically demanding role." The Albert Hague-Dorothy Fields musical also contained Verdon's favorite onstage moment of all time. "It was when Richard Kiley, just before an exit, took several puffs on a cigar, and I'd walk into that cloud of smoke."
One of the season's short-lived shows was First Impressions, a musical version of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, in which Polly Bergen took over the lead role of Elizabeth Bennett three weeks before opening. "I replaced Gisele MacKenzie and had to learn the score very fast," she told me. "Farley Granger [who played Mr. Darcy] and Hermione Gingold [who played Mrs. Bennett] were not singers, so I carried the vocal load of the show. It was a vicious dog-eat-dog atmosphere."
The action took place in the early 19th Century, causing one critic to snipe that "Polly Bergen is about as period as Mickey Mantle." She had the critique framed and hung above her desk. "I learn more from bad reviews than good ones. Everything was rushed; the last thing I gave any thought to was that it took place in 1813! It was a horrific experience, and I thought that was what Broadway was. But it's really the medium I love."
Another high-profile musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, marked the Broadway bow of Pat Suzuki. She was asked to audition for the role of sexy Linda Low "because Richard Rodgers saw me on The Jack Paar Show," she recalls. The show's pre-Broadway run wasn't an easy one; among other things, Larry Blyden -- whom she calls "a persnickety guy" -- replaced Larry Storch as Sammy Fong during the Boston tryout. (Blyden was married to the show's choreographer, Carol Haney).
And her opening night in Boston was traumatic. "I had to do a striptease for the first-act curtain. My folks were in the audience, and I was embarrassed. When the curtain came down, I burst into tears," she says. "And Richard Rodgers said to me: 'What's wrong? That was terrific!'"
In addition to winning a Theatre World Award, Suzuki came away with very fond memories of many of the show's participants. "Some people say Richard Rodgers was a tough man, but he was very nice to me," she notes. "Gene Kelly, our director, was a sweetie. He had such an incredible face; it was pure joy when he smiled. And Anita Ellis [who sang 'Fan Tan Fannie' and was one of Suzuki's understudies] was so sophisticated, especially to this dummy. She was brilliant and a very special person."
Perhaps no show that season, however, was as important in theatrical history as Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which featured Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, Claudia McNeil as his strong-willed mother Lena, and Diana Sands as his headstrong sister Beneatha. The show, about a hardworking Chicago family with dreams of moving up in life, earned four Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.
Ruby Dee, who played Walter's downtrodden wife, Ruth, recalled her reaction to being in the show. "I call Ruth the ironing-board part. I was onstage, ironing -- watching the action," Dee told me. "I had so wanted to play Beneatha, but Lloyd Richards, our director, said to me 'Ruth's a very difficult part. I need somebody with so-and-so-and-so.' He didn't say, 'I want somebody younger.'"