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Down Memory Lane

Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Richard Easton, and Robert Morse recall the memorable 1957-58 Broadway season.

Broadway's 1957-58 season was star-studded to say the very least: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit; Katharine Cornell in The First Born; Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (in which Joan Plowright -- the future Lady Olivier -- played his daughter); Helen Hayes and Richard Burton in Time Remembered; Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft in Two for the Seesaw; and Lena Horne as resident of Jamaica yearning to live in New York.

But 50 years later, the season is best remembered not for any one performer, but for the debut of West Side Story, the masterwork musical written by composer Leonard Bernstein and two Broadway newcomers, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Arthur Laurents, with direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The show bowed at the Winter Garden on September 26, 1957 -- and changed theatrical history.

The late Larry Kert had tried out for several roles in the musical -- which was briefly called Gangway! -- as an ensemble member, a Jet, a Shark, Riff, and even Bernardo. Then Sondheim heard him sing in an industrial show and asked Kert why he hadn't auditioned for the leading role of Tony. Replied Kert: "Because I read that Leonard Bernstein is looking for a tall, blond Polish tenor." If that was true, Bernstein later changed his mind and Kert got the part.

His co-star Carol Lawrence told me a while back that on her thirteenth (and final) callback. "Jerry told Larry to go offstage, so he couldn't hear. Then he told me to hide. He said that Larry would sing 'Maria,' and, if he could find me, we'd do the balcony scene. There was a little iron platform that jutted out from a brick wall [onstage]. I climbed a rickety ladder and knelt on all fours. Larry sang, but he didn't see me. I whispered, 'Tony.' He whipped around and leapt -- like Spider Man. We clung to each other and did the whole balcony scene. And Lenny said, 'That was the most mesmerizing auditions I've ever seen. You've got it!'"

Laurents once wrote that he created the role of Anita for Kert's sister, singer Anita Ellis. But Ellis couldn't dance, which is how the now-legendary Chita Rivera nabbed the role that made her a star. Rivera once told me she was initially skeptical about the show's success. "There were dead bodies [at the end], so I asked: 'Do you think it will work?' That's why I'm dancing and not directing."

On Tony Award night, however, West Side Story lost the Best Musical prize to Meredith Willson's The Music Man. Tony-winning Best Actor Robert Preston created a memorable star turn as con-man Harold Hill, while Barbara Cook, who played the lovely Marian the Librarian, won the Tony as Best Featured Actress. Among the year's other Tony winners were Hayes and Bancroft; Ralph Bellamy and Henry Jones for Sunrise at Campobello (which was named Best Play); and Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter, co-stars in New Girl in Town, who tied for Best Actress in a Musical.

Richard Easton wouldn't win a Tony for another 44 years -- for Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love -- but he was in two plays that memorable season. Easton made his Broadway debut as Mr. Harcourt in a revival of William Wycherley's comedy The Country Wife opposite Julie Harris, and later co-starred with movie idol Tyrone Power in a short-lived revival of George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah.

"Julie was marvelous; I adored her," Easton told me last month. She was also the consummate professional. "There was a scene in which actor Ernest Thesiger had to get angry with his wife [played by Pamela Brown], and he yelled, 'You libidinous lady!'" Easton recalls. "One night, when he said 'libidinous,' his false teeth fell out into a hat he was holding. He reached in and replaced them, but everyone [onstage] was paralyzed with laughter -- except Julie, who hadn't seen it happen. She wasn't a giggler anyway. She maintained total sense."

As for Power, Easton remembers his graciousness. "I joined the company during its pre-Broadway tour in Washington, D.C. I walked in the stage door and he said, 'Ah, you must be Richard Easton. I'm Tyrone Power.' I said, 'I know!' Ty was just wonderful -- terribly nice, very vulnerable, an enchanting man! He had suppers and parties after performances, and always told the most marvelous stories."

Robert Morse in Mad Men
(© AMC)
Another still-working star is Tony winner Robert Morse, who can be seen in the new AMC-TV series Mad Men. He had a featured role in Say, Darling, "a play with music" co-written by Abe Burrows, Richard Bissell, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. The show, which was based on Bissell's novel about having an earlier book turned into The Pajama Game, was directed by Burrows and starred David Wayne and Vivian Blaine. Morse, in only his second Broadway show, played young producer Ted Snow, a character reportedly based on Hal Prince -- and he earned his first Tony nomination in the process.

"Ted was loosely based on Hal," claims Morse, who I spoke with recently. "I didn't know Hal at the time, only through the eyes of the creative team. I didn't think he would ever forgive me. But he did; he even cast me as Cap' Andy in Show Boat years later in Toronto."

Morse says he had a wonderful time in Say, Darling. "We had great character actors like Horace McMahon and Jerry Cowan. Elliott Gould was in the chorus," he notes. "There was some resentment from the stars [concerning his scene-stealing performance], but it wasn't serious. It was a great opportunity for me to be a comic -- and out of that show, Abe cast me in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

In his autobiography, Honest Abe, Burrows recalled Morse's audition: "When Jule Styne saw my head beginning to shake negatively, he whispered to me, 'I saw the kid in The Matchmaker. He's really great.' Betty and Adolph whispered I took another long look at this kid." Added Burrows, "Morse eventually stole the show."