In the press room for the 2003 Tonys, the talk was about everything but the awards at hand.
Others were looking to me for answers to the "Broadway University Final Exam" that I bestowed on readers last Friday. I told them they had to be kidding me, for I was sure that each and every one who read the column could answer each and every question with a snap of his finger. (By the way, that brings up another question: What Broadway musical opened with a song called "With a Snap of My Finger?")
I also had reporters searching through their brains after I posed to them a question that Jere Williams, one of my brighter readers, asked me: "What was the first major revival of a show you saw after having seen the original company? How long into your theatergoing life did it take this phenomenon to occur?" All promised they'd have the answer by next year's festivities in the Tony press room, and all re-directed the question to me. Frankly, I did have to do painstaking research to answer Jere. The first Broadway revival I ever saw of a show I had seen on Broadway was My Fair Lady, which I first caught in 1961 at the Hellinger and then in 1976 at the St. James. (Truth to tell, it wasn't much different; the physical production was quite similar.) But given that I didn't see the first Fair Lady with its first cast, I guess that doesn't count. I guarantee you the answer would have been A Funny Thing, whose original production I saw in 1962 at the Alvin and whose revival I would have definitely seen with Phil Silvers at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1972 if I'd been living in New York and not in Boston. (It closed before I could get to town.) I was surprised to realize that the answer was The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, which I saw in its Boston tryout in 1965 and then in 1972 in a small "house" production at Harvard University. I loved the score on both occasions -- always will -- but, the second time around, I didn't like the book as much as I once had. (In terms of first-class revivals, my answer is Sweet Charity, which I first saw on opening night at the Palace -- January 29, 1966 -- and then caught a little more than two decades later at the Minskoff. It was terrific both times.)
In the press room, I endlessly told a story that I overheard last week while attending a performance at the Celtic Theatre Company in South Orange, New Jersey. James McGlone, the charming man who founded this company almost a quarter-century ago, was bouncing his little 5-year old grandson Joseph on his knee. "Pop-pop, you own the Celtic Theatre Company, don't you?" asked the lad with unbridled pride. The elder McGlone, a marvelously meek man, chose to put it a different way: "We all own it," he said with his trademark modesty. That prompted the kid to bolt up in excitement and say with glee, "I DO?!"
I also told about my recent conversation with Betty Comden, regarding Decca Broadway's recent reissue of the original cast album of her Fade Out-Fade In. I asked the lady what she thought of Betty Hutton, who did the role for one week in the summer of '64 when Carol Burnett was first indisposed. (Burnett would later be second indisposed and third indisposed, but that's another story -- and yet another one still after that.) What did Comden have to say about Hutton? After a long pause, she said in a begging-for-mercy voice, "Don't make me answer that question."
I also asked Comden if she had given any thought to taking over Burnett's role for that week. She acted surprised that I'd even thought of it, which prompted me to say, "Well, there was that week when you stepped in for Imogene Coca and played Mrs. Primrose in On the Twentieth Century." She seemed extraordinarily pleased that I remembered but said in answer to my Fade Out-Fade In question, "No one connected with the show gave it a thought, including me." I'll admit frankly that Comden wouldn't have been a name to draw in John Q. Theatergoer -- but Hutton didn't do any business, either.
All right, I did talk about the Tonys in the press room at one point but only to brag about one of my readers, Mr. Lucas McMahon, who had written to give his own opinion of what the 2002-2003 ceremony should include: A tribute to Adolph Green with a medley of his songs performed by Betty Comden, Phyllis Newman, Dick Latessa, Leslie Uggams, John Cullum, Carol Lawrence, Carol Burnett, Lauren Bacall, and Len Cariou; a tribute to Al Hirschfeld, in which many a Broadway legend would hold a board facing the opposite way of the audience, before turning the board to show the drawing Hirschfeld had created of each. And while McMahon has nothing against Hugh Jackman, he would have preferred to see Harvey Fierstein as host and suggested that the actor sing "Small World" with Bernadette Peters -- with Harvey as Rose, of course. He also dreamed up a moment where Fierstein would have a chance meeting with Dame Edna. Not bad ideas, right? But here's the kicker. I met McMahon a few weeks ago and found that he is 13 years old. Imagine what he's going to grow up to be! I mean, I've never heard a voice so young utter the words "Nederlander" and "Jujamcyn."
I was flattered when so many reporters mentioned to me that they enjoyed my Broadway-slanted Tom Swifties of a few weeks ago. (Do you know what a Tom Swifty is? It's a pun that centers on the adverb, such as "'You should go clean the lawn,' Tom said rakishly" or -- to use one of my examples -- "'So what that I didn't get the male lead in Once Upon a Mattress?'" Tom said dauntlessly.) I repeated some of those that my readers had submitted: "'I adore that Sondheim musical about Fosca and Georgio,' Tom said passionately." "'I do so love an F. Murray Abraham musical!' Tom said triumphantly." "'So how does Drood end?' Tom asked mysteriously." "'I still have fond memories of my breakthrough role,' Jennifer Holliday said dreamily." "'I never want to hear Patti LuPone sing the role of Eva Duarte again,'" Tom said inevitably. And there was a nice two-parter in "'I caught Flaherty & Ahrens' first show in its original run,' Tom said luckily" -- immediately followed by "'Me, too, but I didn't like it,'" his friend said stiffly." But my favorite came from Ed Weissman, who contributed "'I am not the man who came to Diener,'" Tom said unmarred.
Speaking of Joan Diener and her husband (and frequent director) Albert Marre, I told a few reporters about the conversation I'd recently had with Gerianne Raphael, who was Fermina in the original cast of Man of La Mancha. She told me that Marre had a problem after the scene in which Aldonza was beaten and raped, because Diener needed time to deal with the bruises make-up. "Originally," Raphael said, "there was a scene where Richard Kiley drank urine from a chalice, but he told Albie he absolutely refused to do the scene."
She didn't elaborate beyond that, for we were really there to talk about A Delicate Arrangement, the new play she's opening at TheatreFest in Montclair, New Jersey. But if I know Man of La Mancha, I'm sure that the scene was yet another stirring, enriching, uplifting example of Don Quixote's wonderful, charming, life-affirming, never-say-die optimism that would have brought a song to all of our hearts after he drank the stuff and claimed that he had just enjoyed a delicious and robust Madeira wine.