For the Benefit of Mister Roberts
To help fund his large-cast productions, Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings puts together a large-cast benefit.
Whatever happened to that all-star production of Mister Roberts that Tom Selleck was supposed to head some seasons back? I'll bet I know: Selleck approached producer after producer, each of whom saw that the play has a cast of 30, and that was that.
When I was growing up and saw a list of Broadway's longest running plays, The Voice of the Turtle was near the head of the pack and I naturally assumed that it had opened to rave reviews. Not at all, I later learned; the 1943 production ran until 1948 mostly because it had three performers in its cast, and that made its running costs minimal. As David Sheward writes in It's a Hit, his excellent study of long-runners: "At the time, a play with only three characters was thought to be a little strange, and some theaters wouldn't rent their stages to such a show. Producers, feeling that audiences would want their money's worth, thought that such a small ensemble would hardly be worth the price of a ticket." (And what was the price of a ticket to a non-musical in those days? Maybe three bucks?)
But Turtle became the wave of the future, and now we rarely see a character-heavy play on Broadway. Dinner at Eight, with a cast of 25, is set to open in December at the Beaumont, but it's the exception. Where are Sailor, Beware, Tobacco Road, or Dead End? And that bothers Jack Cummings III quite a bit.
Cummings is the artistic director of The Transport Group, a company that's dedicated to resuscitating classic plays of the 20th century with large casts. What's more, he likes to cast non-traditionally -- and that doesn't mean a black man as Otto Frank or a white woman as Carmen Jones. Last February, Cummings staged an Our Town at the Connelly on East 4th Street in which George and Emily were played by Tim Ligon and Barbara Andreas -- performers who are much older than Thornton Wilder envisioned his two teenagers. Meanwhile, the Stage Manager was played by a teenager -- a girl, yet. "I love to non-traditionally cast in diffferent ways," says Cummings. "These days, directors can't discriminate on the basis of color or even sex, but they feel they can [in terms of] age and weight. Why?" How Cummings would love to do Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding or Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (each has 14 characters), Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke (17), or Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy (21). But how is he going to get the money?
By holding a benefit. While I've heard a number of good ideas for benefits in my time, I've encountered many more bad ones. Cummings, though, has one of the smartest: To get pros onstage and have them tell the story of how they got their big break. Of course, you want to hear people sing, too, so he had planned to do what everyone does -- namely, to pick a number of songs he likes and ask various performers around town to sing them on a given night. But his wife, Barbara Walsh (who has both literally and figuratively been part of a big cast, given that she did the musical Big), told him that he was on the wrong track. As Cummings relates, "She said that performers hate it when they're given something to sing. They want to do what they want, so they have control over what's happening and they can do something they know down pat -- so they won't have to worry about flubbing up. Singing something you know means you won't have to come to many rehearsals, either. And a lot of these people now have children and don't live in the city anymore."
Cummings tends to believe what Walsh has to say and has done so ever since he fell in love with her (at first sight, he says) seven years ago when he was assistant director on A, My Name Is Alice Revisited, in which Walsh was starring in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. So he decided to present a benefit incorporating her idea of giving any performer carte blanche to do what s/he wanted and his idea of having each tell the story of how s/he succeeded in show business by really being in the right place at the right time. He felicitiously titled the show Gimme a Break, rented the Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street, and asked 35 people to participate. (After all, a benefit for a theater that wants to do large-cast plays really has to have a large cast at its benefit.) Miraculously enough, 30 out of the 35 said yes; among them were Malcolm Gets, Kim Crosby, Chip Zien, Mary Testa -- and, of course, Brad Oscar, whose story of a big break is easy to infer.
This year, he's snagged Bryan Batt as host and such performers as Judy Blazer, Alan Campbell, Vicki Clark, Lewis Cleale, Brian d'Arcy James, John Dossett, Daisy Eagan, Harvey Evans, Alison Fraser, Boyd Gaines, James Hindman, Lauren Kennedy, Alix Korey, Liz Larsen, Sondra Lee, Karen Mason, Debra Monk, Dana Moore, Kerry O'Malley, Faith Prince, Sara Ramirez, Anne Runolfsson, Mary Stout -- and Barbara Walsh. Walsh will also appear in Transport's February production, Requiem for William. Never heard of it? That's because it's never been produced under that title, for it consists of seven one-act plays by William Inge. Before you can say, "But I'll bet none of them have big casts!" Cumming is planning something we haven't seen since who-knows-when: He'll have 26 different performers filling the plays' 26 roles. That's right: No one will double. In between the one-acts, there will be new songs to comment on the action, written by the likes of Michael John LaChiusa and Cheryl Stern.
Gimme a Break II takes place on Monday, October 28 at 7:30pm at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, New York City. Tickets are $75 each, but if you mention my name when calling -- I'm serious -- they're $55. Call 212-560-4372 or visit www.transport-group.org for further information.