Time and Again
Readers respond to Filichia's ''Time Machine'' column with their own wish lists of historic performances they'd love to have seen.
"After having just listened to [the CD of] the recent benefit performance of Dreamgirls," wrote Mr. Martinek, "I s-o-o-o wish that I had seen it on Broadway. And I had an opportunity to! I was in New York, determined to see my first Broadway show. At the time, I had a slight crush on Lauren Bacall (don't ask), so I chose Woman of the Year. Now, how I wished I'd seen Dreamgirls!!!! I can only imagine how fabulous it must have been, and I'm sure YOU could tell me." Actually, I did see Dreamgirls during its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston in November, 1981, and it was not fabulous. That surprised me, for so many of my friends in Boston had already been to see the show and all had raved about this new star, Jennifer Holliday. Well, she wasn't much the night I attended--but I'd later find out why. Not long after the New York opening, there were plenty of stories about how Holliday had warred with director-choreographer Michael Bennett and enacted her revenge by walking through the show. I assure you that the performance I caught was one of those.
Contemplating the use of his own Time Machine, 20-year-old Roger Calderon also opted for Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls but went on to mention some specific, lightning-in-a-bottle performances of shows: "Opening night of Nine (right at the deadline of Tony eligibility) to see Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, and most notably, Anita Morris singing 'A Call From the Vatican,' as well as the night that 'Before the Parade Passes By' was added to Hello, Dolly!" Both of those reminded me of the opening night of My One and Only at the St. James. The word from Boston had been that the show was totally unsalvageable, so it was really something to see it triumph that night, looking like it had never been in a lick of trouble. How well I remember the curtain call where Tommy Tune and Twiggy were standing center stage, hugging each other and smiling broadly as waves of applause enveloped them. They must have found it so hard to believe that this was really happening after all the chaos that had happened in Boston.
Andrew Thomas: "I would have liked to have seen the first performance of A Chorus Line to see the audience react to the first view of one of the greatest theatrical experiences of all time." I recall what my pal Sheila Bowe, who did attend that very first preview, later said of it: "About 15 minutes into the show, I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God. This amazing and historic thing is happening and I'm one of the first to know about it!'"
Meish Goldish chose another moment in the history of that same long-runner. His wish? "Take me back to the record-breaking performance of A Chorus Line where past-performer multiples of each character appeared on stage. I'll bet that looked pretty amazing! (Were you there?)" To Meish: Indeed, I was there, albeit at the matinee dress rehearsal. But those of us who saw it in the afternoon got an extra-special bonus that the evening attendees did not: After we cheered like crazy for "One," Michael Bennett came on stage and asked if we'd like to see that number again, as they wanted to tape it for a TV broadcast later that night. Needless to say, we all let him know that we could spare the time.
Andrew Thomas would have liked to have been at "one or two moments in the past where an unknown understudy stepped forward to fill in for a missing star and became a star her/himself." Andrew, I guess the closest I came to that was seeing Judy Kaye's understudy go on in On the Twentieth Century. That's the night I learned Christine Ebersole's name. (Speaking of Ebersole: Vera Charles, who I'm going to guess is a pseudonym, wrote, "I'd like to see Christine Ebersole's audition, if she gave one, for 42nd Street. Boy, was I ever disappointed in HER!" V.C. also would like to go back and watch "that recent scene at the Brooks Atkinson when LuPone was screaming like a banshee, rather than 'singing' like one, after that Noises Off fight about the audience contributing to AIDS." Hmmm...maybe this is the real Vera Charles, after all!)
Also on the wish list of Andrew Thomas: "Moose Murders, but only because I have a dark side that enjoys train wrecks. I Hate Hamlet the night of the breakdown (where Nicol Williamson went after Evan Handler with a sword). Mary Martin singing 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy.' Any Ziegfeld show live, instead of the unreal Hollywood presentations on stages that could never exist in real life. But, oh yes--Streisand in Funny Girl." Much has been made of how Streisand walked through performances of that show as the run continued. This may very well be true, but at the July matinee I saw in 1965--more than 500 performances into the run--the star delivered an accomplished Fanny Brice. I will admit, however, that she didn't do all of "I'm the Greatest Star," choosing to eliminate the section that begins "Who is the pip with pizzazz?"
Joe Meagor wrote: "This question takes no thought for me to answer. I don't know how many dozens of times I have pictured myself on March 31, 1943, in the audience for the opening night of Oklahoma! The beginning of the show still stuns me, but in 1943 it undoubtedly would have been a shocker, so I wonder: Would I have been thrilled or would I have been too shocked to be positive? Would I have missed the scantily clad chorus girls and the 'chorus boys in very tight pants?' Or would I have been thrilled beyond measure to have such a pastoral opening?" Meagor then went on to mention the performance that most readers cited: "On October 14, 1930, I would like to have been at the opening of Girl Crazy--not just because it is a fun show but also to have experienced Ethel Merman's Broadway debut, first when she sang 'Sam and Delilah' and then that rousing Act I finale of 'I Got Rhythm.' Plus, I would have the added benefit of seeing George Gershwin conducting the orchestra--or, at least, George Gershwin's back as he conducted the orchestra."
Robert Armin: "I would most like to have seen Vera-Ellen dance in Connecticut Yankee, just before she gave up the theater for Hollywood. Watching her dance on film is such a joy that I would love to have seen her on stage at the height of her talents....I saw Merman in Call Me Madam, so I'm not so hungry for Gypsy--in which I saw Giselle McKenzie, of all people. But I would like to have seen Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorce or The Band Wagon and Jessie Matthews in The Lady Comes Across before she ditched the show and ran back to England...although her mental health was so shaky at the time, she wouldn't have been at her best." (Ethan Mordden has a great account of Jessie's nervous breakdown in his excellent book about the musicals of the '40sBeautiful Mornin'.)
"Snazzy" Sasanow wrote: "Obviously, Breakfast at Tiffany's with Mary Tyler Moore and Dr. Kildare." The irony was that I got this message on the night I came home from the kickoff party for Bernadette Peters' Rodgers & Hammerstein's CD--where, in the midst of reaching for another drink, I turned around and found myself face-to-face with Mary Tyler Moore. I couldn't think of anything to say but "I saw Holly Golightly in Boston," citing the musical by its original name. Moore gave me a very plastic smile and said, "Did you." Not "Did you?" as a question but "Did you" as a terse statement, made in a voice that I never heard happy-go-lucky Mary Richards ever use. Well, hey, let the punishment fit the crime; I shouldn't have brought it up in the first place!
Some opted for more rarefied theater. Cecelia R. Martori: "I would have given anything to see Olivier or Gielgud on stage...or poor John Barrymore before he sold his soul to the movie gods." Dennis C. Dougherty echoed this sentiment: "While your first choice--that historic performance of The Cradle Will Rock--was the first thing that came to my mind [as well], I'd like to have seen John Barrymore's Hamlet (on one of the good nights)."
Marcastle wrote, "I'd see Zoe Caldwell do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the things I most regret not seeing." Good choice, sir! When I met Ms. Caldwell during her Master Class days, I told her, "As Maria Callas, you gave the second-best performance I've ever seen an actress give on a stage." I worried that the grand lady would take umbrage at my thus suggesting that someone had done better, but she listened with interest and I do think I redeemed myself by adding: "The first-best performance I ever saw was you as Jean Brodie. Now, I don't mean to imply that you've lost anything in the ensuing years; it's just that, ever since I saw you in Brodie, I've expected you to be brilliant." Believe me, friends, even the way she sat down when she was called to the principal's office was extraordinary.
Aman1016 mentioned "the opening night of Carrie out of sheer morbid curiosity." (I can't report on that. But I sure can say that, at the preview of Carrie that I attended, I thought I was seeing an audience hit--not a critical success, mind you, but a show that would go over with the public. And, if people had been given the chance, I think many would have responded to it.) Aman concluded by wishing to go back "to where it all started for me: Friday November 3, 1989, Les Miz at the Providence Performing Arts Center."
I know what he means. Many times, I've thought about returning to the Mark Hellinger Theatre on July 26, 1961 to see My Fair Lady, my very first show. Looking back now, I worry that the show might have been in dreadful shape, given that it was winding down after five full years on Broadway. But it would be fascinating to see what I'd think today of what was the greatest entertainment experience I'd had in my 15 years of life.