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Herbal Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Filichia weighs in on New York City's new Clear Indoor Air Act, which prohibits onstage smoking. logo
Elisabeth Shue smokes a cigarette in last season’s Burn This
(Photo © Rahav Segev)
New York City's Clear Indoor Air Act stipulates that tobacco can no longer be smoked on a New York stage. From now on, every performer who's supposed to be smoking must use herbal cigarettes.

So what's the big deal? Seems to me that for years now, whenever anyone on, off, or off-off Broadway has lit up, I've smelled the distinct aroma that comes from herbals. Only if those were also banned from the stage would shows have a problem in seeming realistic. Or maybe not: I don't know about you, but I've seen several shows where someone at a dinner table picks up a pitcher of tea, pours, and nothing comes out but the pourer pretends that something has; so do the performers, who act as if something is now in their glasses and sip away. Yet I've never heard anyone complain about this lack of realism.

With herbal cigarettes, smoke will still waft into the air. The only real difference is that rows AA through H in the orchestra will know from the distinct smell that no male performer up there is a real Marlboro man. So what if the Jets -- who smoke from their "first cigarette" to their (here's an interesting phrase when you put it in context) "last dying day" -- only do it herbally? We'll still think they're tough guys.

By the way, I love sitting behind teens who are new to the theater when an herbal cigarette's aroma comes their way. One inevitably looks at the other in shock and says, "They're smoking pot up there!" I have to admit: The first time I encountered an herbal cigarette, that's what I thought was happening, too, for there is a distinct similarity to the two odors. But that's not pot those actors are smoking -- or so we're told, anyway. (Whatever the case, the scene in Company where Bobby, David, and Jenny smoke marijuana sure smells real when herbals are used.)

Now that tobacco's been officially banned, will we never see another production of Tobacco Road? (We probably never will, anyway; that play may have been Broadway's longest-runner ever, 1939-1946, but even back then it was thought to stink.) Will Promenade's nifty first-act number "The Cigarette Song" be re-titled "The Herbal Cigarette Song?" Will "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" from Always...Patsy Cline add an "Herbal" to its title, too?

Those of us who remember television before 1972 can still recall cigarette companies' ad campaigns ("It's what's up front that counts") or their jingles ("Winston tastes good like a -- clap, clap -- cigarette should"). At least two Broadway composers I know of, Richard Adler and Mitch Leigh, composed such ditties: Adler wrote one for Kent (and has told me on many, many occasions how much he now regrets doing so) while Mitch Leigh came up with a samba-like tune for Benson and Hedges that so caught the public's fancy that it was titled "The Disadvantages of You" and released as a single.

Many a baby boomer has wistfully said to me over the past few years, "Remember when cigarettes used to be seen in every drug store and condoms were behind the counter? Now it's just the opposite." For that matter, back in the late '70s and early '80s, what is now the home of Primary Stages on West 45th Street was known as the No Smoking Playhouse; the mere fact that it was so named showed how prevalent smoking was in theater lobbies. I daresay that the only line in Thornton Wilder's Our Town that has dated at all is the one that ends the first act, when the Stage Manager says that those who want to smoke can now go out and do so.

Through the decades, many shows used cigarettes in their plots and now suffer for it. In Mary, Mary, the 1960 smash-hit that's still Broadway's eighth longest running non-musical, one of the things that the recently divorced Bob and Mary find they still have in common is their zest for smoking. At one point, each is desperate to find a cigarette, and when they finally do, they light up and purr -- to the astonishment of Bob's fiancée, Tiffany. That she doesn't understand their ardor is one of the reasons why Bob knows that he and she really aren't right for each other. There haven't been many productions of Mary, Mary in recent years -- which is too bad, for it's otherwise quite witty -- and I think that the lead characters' obsession with cigarettes is going to prevent many in the future.

The new law forbids onstage
smoking in NYC theaters
The Seven-Year Itch -- Broadway's 11th longest running non-musical when it closed in 1955 -- had audiences back then feeling sorry for poor Richard Sherman, whose wife Helen made him give up cigarettes. Now we might be on her side, because we'd think she's right in making him break the habit. Still, playwright George Axelrod did have a great idea on how to end his play: Richard fantasizes that Helen catches him being adulterous and that she has him executed before a firing squad, allowing him a blindfold but NOT a final cigarette.

Agnes of God has a chain smoker in Dr. Martha Livingstone, and while she doesn't seem sorry about her habit, she's a character we don't need to like. So we'll probably see a few more productions of John Pielmeier's 1982 hit. What I remember about this one, though, is that Lee Remick originally had the role of Martha but left the cast in Boston because, she said, she couldn't stand smoking so much. Most web sites I searched said that Remick died of lung cancer nine years later, and one has to wonder if she already had it when doing Agnes of God. I also ponder how much damage Elizabeth Ashley did to herself when she replaced Remick in the long-running drama; ditto Diahann Carroll, who took over for her.

Martha Livingstone may not have wanted to quit smoking, but Daisy Gamble sure did in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, albeit mostly to please her boyfriend Warren. As you may recall, she smoked so much that she didn't just have a yellow stain or two on her fingers but had yellow fingers. I don't know if there'll ever be a revamped version of Clear Day (Wendy Wasserstein was working on one for a while), but if there is, I'll be interested in seeing whether or not the chain smoking plot point is retained. If it is, will audiences care for Daisy because she's trying to quit, or will they scorn her for taking up the evil habit in the first place?

"Strong tobacco, cigarette smoke. Such a dirty habit, makes you damn near choke. Fills your lungs with poison, makes your brain go numb," sang a young kid in Golden Boy before deciding, "Gimme Some," as the song is titled. Eventually, Sammy Davis, who did the duet with the kid, told him, "Give me that cigarette -- you're too old to smoke." That was a nice turn of the usual phrase, "You're too young to smoke." Now, we all agree: Mature people should know better.

In Sail Away -- which you can hear anew thanks to the recent, heavenly reissue of the London cast album by Fynsworth Alley -- you'll find Elaine Stritch asking in "Useful Phrases" (one of Noël Coward's most inspired songs), "Do you mind if I smoke?" She pauses slightly after she says it and that makes me wonder if, in future productions, the chorus or even the audience will call out, "Yes!"

"Yes!" also to the new Clean Indoor Air Act. Nice to know that those signs that have cropped up over the last few years -- "Warning: Cigarettes will be smoked during this performance" -- are already obsolete.


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

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