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Age Is Nothing But a (Too-High) Number

Age is a touchy subject for some people in the theater, but Filichia tackles it head on. logo
The Tonys turned 58 last Sunday and I'll turn 58 next Sunday. There. I admit it. I said it and I'm glad. I'm very proud that I have never, ever lied about my age during my adult life. During my childhood? Why, of course; just like all of us, I made myself older. But I haven't done that for decades. And why do I mention my age? Because I recently received a phone call from an actress who was livid. In an article I'd written about her for the Star-Ledger, I included her how old she was. "You didn't tell me you were doing that," she said. "You just went ahead and printed it, which I thought was low and sneaky."

I informed her that it's not my policy to print people's ages; it's the newspaper's. "And," I added, "the reason I didn't ask you your age is because I knew I could find it on the Internet because you're reasonably famous. In fact, there's a strange kind of compliment there. Last week, I interviewed two guys who'd written their first musical together -- one that would debut in Montclair, New Jersey. I knew I had to ask them their ages because they aren't remotely famous and I wouldn't have been able to find that information anywhere else."

What's also interesting is that these two guys quickly and readily admitted how old they were. The bookwriter-lyricist didn't flinch when he told me "49" and the composer said "55" without batting an eye. But that's the experience I've had when interviewing. In all but one case, when I've been doing a story on a man, every one has immediately divulged his age. In the same time span, all but three women I've talked to have hesitated, refused, or flatly lied. When I interviewed Shirl Bernheim, who made a Paper Mill Playhouse appearance this winter in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, she quickly told me that she was 81 -- but every piece of research I did said that she is actually 83.

We're supposedly living in an era when men and women are equal but plenty of females I've talked to still have the mentality of their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers in preferring to stay mum about their ages. And here's a big point I want to make: I understand why. Marsha Mason made eight feature films in an eight-year span between 1973 and 1981, receiving Oscar nominations for four of them. She was then 31-39. But during the past 23 years, when she's been 40-63, she's done only just as many features. When I interviewed her this year during rehearsals for Wintertime, she fully admitted that the big roles dried up after she'd turned 40 so she semi-retired to New Mexico, where she's been growing herbs.

I know that the actress who chewed me out as noted above is worried that a similar fate awaits her. If show business were a kinder, gentler business, she probably wouldn't have minded that I listed her age. The irony is that, if I hadn't, people might have inferred it anyway for two reasons: 1) she's already had a Broadway career of nearly a quarter-century, and 2) her first name suggests that she was born in the late '50s. I guarantee you that her name isn't Brianna, Kayla, Lindsay, or Lindsey. Recently, my girlfriend Linda (who's 53) and I were in a souvenir shop where there were license plates with names on them. There was neither a Peter nor a Linda. I recalled that line I'd recently heard in Tennessee Williams's I Can't Imagine Tomorrow: "Time is a big broom sweeping us out of the way."

Mary Martin
So I do understand that this actress doesn't want to be swept out of the way and I can't blame her. But I don't think she has to worry so much because she's not in films or television -- her credits include only one movie and only one TV show (Law & Order, of course) -- and theater is much more protective of its older performers. Mary Martin was pushing 46 when she played the teenage postulant Maria in The Sound of Music. Even people in the first-row orchestra won't notice things that a camera close-up will.

The livid actress stated that I should have just refused to give her age when I was writing the piece. Oh, how I wish I'd thought of saying something then that only occurred to me an hour after I got off the phone! I should have said, "I am sure that, at some point in your career, you were told by a director to do something that you simply didn't want to do. But you didn't quit; you just did it. Well, similarly, my 'director' -- meaning my editor -- makes me do this."

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel that TheaterMania held about the upcoming Tonys. I was seated next to the young and bright Time Out critic Adam Feldman, who talked long and hard about how much he loved Caroline, or Change. When the time came for me to comment on the score, I shrugged and said, "It's often been said that no matter how old a woman gets, she dresses in the style that she wore at the height of her beauty. I guess I like show music written in the style of when I was at the height of discovering the medium: the '60s." Then -- jokingly, mind you, without a touch of malice -- Feldman made a remark about my age while putting a mock-caring arm around my shoulder, as if to say "God bless El Viejo here."

Just as I wished I'd made that editor-director parallel to the actress on the phone, I wish I'd thought then to say to Feldman, "Adam, did you see the original Follies? The original Marat/Sade? Did you get to see Streisand not only in Funny Girl but also in I Can Get It for You Wholesale? You have to be old to have had those experiences. So, as Joice Heth sang in Barnum, 'Thank God I'm old.'" But I didn't think fast enough to say it -- which, I guess, is a product of age.


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

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