I'd Like to Propose a Toast
Filichia raises a glass of elderberry wine to a few deserving people before heading off to Cincinnati.
The award is named in honor of playwright Joseph Kesselring, author of Arsenic and Old Lace. That, you'll recall, is the classic comedy in which Abby and Martha Brewster felt long before Mrs. Meers that it's sad to be all alone in the world, so they helped forlorn drifters by mercy-killing them with a glass of poisoned elderberry wine. At the Kesselring ceremony each year, club president O. Aldon James, Jr. gives us all a glass of real elderberry wine -- unpoisoned, of course -- so we can toast Mr. Kesselring for funding the award.
But Bridget Carpenter isn't the only person I'd like to toast these days. I'll be happy to raise a glass of elderberry wine in honor of Margo Martindale, who impressed me most in the cast of the current Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For weeks, I'd been hearing how wonderful Ned Beatty was as Big Daddy, and indeed he is -- but so is Martindale as Big Mama. She's sensational as the dutiful wife of a powerful magnate, whom she still loves even though he doesn't treat her fairly or lovingly. In the grand Southern tradition, she stands by her man, and I'll stand by my opinion that she's the finest element of the production.
I'll raise a glass also to Mel Miller, the man who founded Musicals Tonight in 1998 and who is still in business, offering staged readings of neglected tuners. If not for Miller, we'd never have had the chance to see such obscurities as Chee-Chee, That's the Ticket, and Foxy. He's currently doing his 23rd show, Love from Judy, which had a two-year-plus run in London from 1952-1954 but never made it to our shores -- until now. How fascinating to see a musical, first produced 25 years before Annie, that deals with an orphan girl who's rescued by a woman named Grace. But our orphan here is 18-year-old Judy Abbott, undoubtedly named for the daughter of George Abbott, who mentored Love from Judy composer Hugh Martin through five shows in the '40s. Judy is played with perfect insouciance by Vanessa Lemonides, about whom I'd heard great things before I saw her deliver on the promises. She's one reason why I'd like to toast Miller, for he's launching many youngsters on musical theater careers by giving them their first jobs. He's even scheduled evenings where Broadway understudies perform the songs that they seldom, if ever, get to do on the Main Stem. The next one is coming December 7 before Miller starts to prepare for readings of Gershwin's Primrose, Porter's Gay Divorce, Kern's Have a Heart, and Rodgers and Hart's The Girl Friend. Good for him!
I'd like to raise a glass to the Genesius Guild, the organization devoted to creating new theater. They gave out their own awards, the Genies, last week to producer Ted Snowdon and director Rob Marshall. In introducing the former, Jonathan Tolins -- whose The Twilight of the Golds and The Last Sunday in June were co-presented by Snowdon -- told a story about each. He recalled the closing performance of Golds: "Ted was there and didn't split like some other producers did. The show was going over and Ted said to me, 'Listen to that! We're speaking the language of the people! That's why the critics hate us!' That's my kind of producer, one who takes it harder than I do." For Last Sunday, Tolins mentioned that, during rehearsals, he showed up at Snowdon's apartment, where the producer showed him a version of the play's last scene that he had written himself. "This is what's known as a playwright's nightmare," said Tolins, "but I have to admit that I stole two of his lines for my script!"
Tommy Tune introduced Marshall by saying that an award named Genie was quite appropriate for the honoree because it took genie-like work to make the movie musical genre magical again, as Marshall had done with Chicago. "I mean, you saw Evita," Tune said drolly. Marshall then got up and recalled how, at 23, he was in The Rink and was therefore able to visit Chita and Liza's dressing rooms. "I didn't know a dressing room could have a full bar," he noted. Wouldn't it have been something if each of those bars included a bottle of elderberry wine and if the great ladies had toasted Marshall in 1984 with a prediction that he'd have a great future?
Finally, I'd like to raise a glass in memory of Dorothy Loudon, who died last week. I first saw Loudon in the '60s on the old Garry Moore TV variety show, where she could be a hot vamp in one number and an adorable chorine in the next. I also admired her as Ellen, the sex-starved wife in Luv. But, of course, it was Annie that made her famous.
I saw Annie in its tryout production at Goodspeed in 1976, with Maggie Task as Miss Hannigan, and I must confess that I have virtually no memory of her work. Then Loudon took over the part. My pal Jeanne Nicolosi and I saw Annie's second Broadway performance and I still remember Jeanne saying afterwards, "I had a great time but the show would only be half as good without Loudon." I thought she was dead wrong, that Annie was a terrific show on its own terms; but I've since seen a dozen productions, some of which have sported other Tony winners as Miss Hannigan, and I've come to the conclusion that Jeanne was right. Loudon was superb in her smallest moments -- listening to a soap opera on the radio and identifying with the heroine's plight of being unmarried at an advanced age -- as well as in her larger ones, swirling around the stage in "Easy Street" and seeming genuinely crazy but somehow not overly scary in "Little Girls."
I'd already known what Loudon could do for a show for I had seen her in Boston in Lolita, My Love (1971) at the Saturday matinee just before the show closed that night. Loudon was Lolita's mother, who goes after her new boarder Humbert Humbert tooth and nail in the hope that he'll marry her, unaware of his lust for her daughter. En route, Loudon sang "Sur les Quais," a show-stopping seduction number. Lolita's plot demanded that Loudon's character die at the end of the first act, and I still remember standing in the lobby during intermission and overhearing one young man say to another, "Well, there's no reason to go back now that she's dead." His friend optimistically replied, "But she could return in a flashback." The other guy raised his eyebrows, smiled, and said eagerly: "Let's go back." Both did just that. I was sorry for them -- and for everyone else -- that Loudon didn't return in Act II.
I told this story in 2001 to the audience at the Theatre World Awards before I introduced Ms. Loudon as a presenter. Whenever she was one of the 12 who gave out trophies, she was always the highlight, wonderfully self-deprecating about how she looked forward to these awards because it was the only time she got out anymore. It's sad that she pretty much saw herself as someone who'd been forgotten. When I called her in 2002 and asked her to present a Theatre World Award, she tried talking me out of it. "Get someone who's working, Peter," she said with sadness in her voice. I insisted that we wanted her and she finally agreed. I was glad, partly because I knew she'd steal the show and partly because I'd dreamed up the perfect introduction for her. But I didn't get to deliver it: Two days before the awards, she left a message on my machine saying that she'd had an emergency and had to bow out. I'll admit that I thought she had cold feet and was making an excuse, but I was greatly saddened when I later learned that her child had died.
Last season, when I heard that Loudon had been cast in Dinner at Eight, I was happy that she'd be working and that she'd feel right about presenting an award. But then, of course, her illness kicked in and she had to leave the production. I looked forward to her recovering so that I could give that introduction: "A long-running show is considered to be one that runs 500 performances. Now, how many performers have been in the original cast of a long-running play as well as a long-running musical? Well, Judy Holliday did it, and so did Lauren Bacall and Matthew Broderick. But the only other person who did it, for playing Dottie Otley in Noises Off and Miss Hannigan in Annie, is here tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Dorothy Loudon."
On second thought, maybe that's not such a good introduction, for it doesn't say much about Loudon the person. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd introduce her by saying that I'd run into her at not one, not two, but three separate parties over the years, right at the beginning of each event before the other guests arrived. I'd be chatting with her -- and then, respectively Fred Ebb, Leslie Uggams, and Tom Bosley showed. I didn't know any of those people back then and Dorothy could have been like most other celebrities in situations like this: When a V.I.P. arrives, dump the parvenu to whom you've been talking. Not Dorothy Loudon, who introduced me and kept me in each conversation until dinner was served. That's the lady I wish you all could have known and the one to whom I'll raise high a generous glass of elderberry wine.