How to Succeed in Busy-ness
Filichia gossips with Tovah Feldshuh, confers with fellow critics, and says 'Bravo!' to Jerry Herman.
Good Lord, it's been a busy few days! First, I moderated a panel for the Friars' Club. With me were press agent Bill Schelble, critic Howard Kissel, talk-show maven Joe Franklin, actress Tovah Feldshuh, and composer Charles Strouse. Topic: Gossip. So I asked Schelble if Maggie Smith was as difficult as I've heard. He said definitely not but then mentioned that, when he worked with her, she refused to do this talk show and that interview -- which rather proved my point. I asked Feldshuh if anything unexpected had ever happened to her on stage and she mentioned that, just last week, a playgoer had an attack while Tovah was doing Golda's Balcony. On a lighter note, she recalled when she was in Cyrano in 1974 and Arnold Soboloff's mustache fell off mid-performance. He put it back on and snarled to the audience, "That damned disease I have!"
Strouse said that Sammy Davis demanded that Peter Coe be fired as director of Golden Boy when the show was in Boston. Joe Franklin mentioned that Rosemary Clooney would never speak to him again after he said how good her ex-husband José Ferrer was in Man of La Mancha and that Jerry Lewis punched him in the mouth when he asked him about Dean Martin. Maybe Franklin should pick his comments more carefully.
There was an uneasy moment when producer Carol Ostrow asked Kissel if he ever had to face the people he panned. He mentioned that he was doing that right now, for he nixed Strouse's Charley and Algernon -- to which Strouse unassumingly said, "You were wrong on that one." But they moved on. Strouse did surprise me with one Bye Bye Birdie fact. Given that director Gower Champion always gave his shows such wonderful window dressing, I just assumed that it was his vision to stage "The Telephone Hour" on that Mondrian-like structure, but Strouse said that the idea came from lyricist Lee Adams.
After the panel, I rushed to meet a young man named Seth Duerr. He'd read my recent column on the Marymount Manhattan College musical theater department's production of The Human Comedy and e-mailed to say that the drama department's upcoming production of The Winter's Tale should get some press, too. "Our school produces graduates who get plentiful work at major classical ensembles," he wrote. "Over 30 students in the last four years have done everything from ensemble work to leads with the Old Globe, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Shenandoah Shakespeare."
So I met with Seth and he talked non-stop for an hour about the Bard. If there's another 21-year-old on the planet who knows more about Shakespeare, I'd sure like to shake his hand. During the summers, Seth operates his own Off-Off-Broadway Shakespeare troupe called York Shakespeare and has produced, directed, and played the title role in eight Shakespeares in the last two years. Not bad for a kid who started out by portraying Tevye in middle school. "But musical theater really prepares you for Shakespeare," he insists. "It helps you get ready for his verse."
I just had to call his teacher and director, Elizabeth Swain, to say how impressed I was with Seth. She agreed that he's quite knowledgeable and stressed, "He's very talented, too." (He must be; why else would she cast him as Leontes?) She also mourned how few people pay attention to college theater, which got me on my soapbox. I first encountered Stockard Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, Christopher Reeve, and Geena Davis when they were undergrads, and I hold those memories still. College football and basketball get lots of ink because they're training grounds for the pros, but let's not forget that college theater yields the stars of tomorrow. Spend a sawbuck to see The Winter's Tale at Marymount, 221 East 71st Street, April 9-13. Call 212-774-0760.
The next day, I was at the musical theater conference that Hofstra was hosting, serving on a panel of critics that included Arlene Epstein (Nassau Herald), Doug Watt (News), Michael Riedel (Post), Bruce Weber (Times), and Linda Winer (Newsday). We were asked if we preferred reviewing a preview the day after we see a show or running back to the office and doing it right after the final curtain. Weber said that a show takes years to produce, months to cast, and weeks to rehearse -- so why shouldn't a critic get some time to think about what he'll write? Watt vehemently objected, and not only said that he preferred to write right away but also that he used to barrel up the aisles and didn't care if he knocked over someone while getting out. I, who appreciate the extra time, mentioned that by my not having to rush out, "No theatergoers are harmed in the writing of my review."
Watt also complained about the quality of shows today, which is the type of thing I hate. As I said to those assembled, "I've been hearing how bad theater has been since I was a kid. There was always someone who said, 'Today's shows stink. Now Floradora -- ah, there was a show!'" Weber then complained that producers often take his quotes and add exclamation points when he didn't put them there. I had that happen when I reviewed Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree and had my tongue in cheek when I referred to it as "the third jewel of the Nunsense triple crown." The ad stated, "The third jewel of the Nunsense triple crown!" I called the press agent and made him purge the punctuation.
We were supposed to talk for 90 minutes but there had been some sort of screw-up with the panel that was to be before us, featuring the three authors of Avenue Q. Now they were to follow us, so we abdicated after 50 minutes and let them have the rest. Hey, why shouldn't the crowd have the chance to hear real talents instead of mere critics? Avenue Q is, after all, the most delightful, charming, and innovative show to emerge in a long time, and I am counting the days like a kid looking forward to Christmas until its cast album arrives. What bouncy and bright tunes! (Yes, keep the exclamation point on that quotation.)
The next day, I was asked to tape a sequence for a Jerry Herman tribute that Bravo! is planning. Here was my contribution: "I have been collecting original cast albums for the past 42 years and I daresay I have every one ever issued -- and a few that haven't been, too. I've listened to all of them at least once, and if I had to list my 10 favorite show songs of all time, two of those would belong to Jerry Herman: 'Put on Your Sunday Clothes' from Hello, Dolly! and 'Look What Happened to Mabel' from Mack & Mabel." And I meant every word. That said, I couldn't go to the Mack & Mabel concert on Monday night for I'd already accepted an invitation to the Bubbling Brown Sugar concert at the Houseman. It was in honor of the late Rosetta LeNoire, who started the Amas Musical Theatre back in 1968. Whenever I attended and liked one of her shows, I'd go up to her and say "I had a ball!" in honor of her being in the 1965 musical of the same name. She always cackled in glee. I'm looking forward to hearing her do "The Neighborhood Song" on I Had a Ball's upcoming CD release from Decca Broadway.
And while we're on that label: Before I went to the concert, I polished my liner notes for the company's upcoming release of Fade Out-Fade In. I wrote something I vividly remember reading in the papers in 1964, when the show was still on Broadway -- that for a scene where an Oscar was required, Jule Styne, the show's composer, loaned the production the statuette he won for writing "Three Coins in the Fountain." A few days later, Decca Broadway honcho Brian Drutman called to say that Margaret Styne, the composer's widow, had read the notes and said she couldn't imagine her husband taking such a liberty with such precious property. Actually, that made sense to me, but I doff my hat to Fade Out-Fade In's press agent for whipping up the tale just to get his show in the columns.
As for that Amas benefit: How wonderful to see Vivian Reed looking not a day older that she did that night in 1975 when I saw her do the show at the National Theatre in Washington. No one then knew that Bubbling Brown Sugar was going anywhere else, but it came to Broadway and stayed for two years. I remember my feelings of joy when I saw it -- "Ah, so this is what Harlem was like!" -- but I didn't know that that was precisely the intention of LeNoire and bookwriter Loften Mitchell until I read about Bubbling in David Sheward's It's a Hit: "The show aimed to reveal Harlem as a place of glamour and excitement, rather than the ghetto prevalent in media images." Well done, folks.
Maurice Hines told how, in 1934, his grandmother urged LeNoire to audition for Africana -- "and she got the part my grandmother expected," he said. Cicely Tyson mentioned how her own mother wasn't enthusiastic about her going into show business but Le Noire encouraged her. Then Tyson presented the "First Annual Rosie Award" to Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. Dee said she had many fond memories of LeNoire because they lived in the same Harlem apartment building. Davis bluntly stated, "The woman is dead, but just her name brings all these people together." I was glad to be one of them, as exhausted as I was from those event-packed few days.