It might be expected that members of the original Broadway cast of Oklahoma! who have not yet shuffled off this mortal coil would be sunning themselves in Florida or taking it easy at the Actors’ Fund retirement home in Englewood, New Jersey. Well, maybe some extra bit of magic attached to that epochal Rodgers and Hammerstein show continues to work, because several of the show’s cast members certainly continue to work — in the theater, where they belong. Celeste Holm, the original Ado Annie, was just seen in the City Center Voices! reading of Arsenic and Old Lace. Joan Roberts, the original Laurey Williams, has a featured role in the upcoming Broadway revival of Follies.
And then there’s the most active Oklahoma! alum: George S. Irving, who went on from the chorus of that 1943 miracle to a few other Broadway shows you might have heard of, including Call Me Mister, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and two productions that featured unlikely singing stars, Tovarich (with Vivien Leigh) and I Remember Mama (fondly remembered by those who never miss a Liv Ullman musical). Irving won a Tony Award as Madame Lucy in Irene (with Debbie Reynolds), and appeared memorably in the On Your Toes revival with Lara Teeter, Natalia Makarova, and Dina Merrill. His finest offstage accomplishment may be his long, happy marriage to the great dancer-actress Maria Karnilova, who created the roles of Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Tessie Tura in Gypsy.
George S. still treads the boards frequently. Right now, you can catch him at the Paper Mill Playhouse in An Ideal Husband as the Earl of Caversham, disapproving father of the charismatic gadabout Lord Goring (played by Daniel McDonald). During a press preview of that show, Irving shared with TheaterMania some memories of a career that is apparently far from over.
THEATERMANIA: What’s most exciting about An Ideal Husband, Mr. Irving?
GSI: This show gets me back to Paper Mill, which I love. I think it’s a world-class theater. I’ve done a lot of shows with them: Fanny with José Ferrer, The Roar of the Greasepaint, My Fair Lady. And I played Fagin there in Oliver!
TM: I saw the Peter Hall production of An Ideal Husband on Broadway a few seasons ago, but I haven’t seen the recent film version, which I guess was a big hit.
GSI: Neither did I. But I did see the British production on Broadway; James Warwick, our director, played Sir Robert Chiltern.
TM: It’s always a pleasure to have you back on stage. What was your most recent show?
GSI: Well, I was in that anniversary one-nighter of The Threepenny Opera at the Lortel Theater. We had Charlotte Rae, Bea Arthur, Jo Sullivan, a nice orchestra. It was lovely.
TM: I was fortunate enough to secure a ticket to 70, Girls, 70 in the Musicals in Mufti series at the York Theatre last year. Talk about an all-star cast!
GSI: Charlotte was also in that, and Jane Powell and Jane Connell. And Mimi Hines; she was so good! We had a lot of fun.
TM: I know that you did some work at City Opera. You were in one of my favorite operas there, The Ballad of Baby Doe.
GSI: I did three performances of that in one season, as William Jennings Bryan. I did it with Beverly [Sills] and with Pat Brooks, who was wonderful in it. Baby Doe is such a great opera, I don’t know why it’s not always in the repertory.
TM: Well, they’re doing a new production this season.
GSI: Really? That’s great.
TM: Have you been involved in much non-musical theater?
GSI: In 1970, I think, I did a Gore Vidal play on Broadway called An Evening with Richard Nixon. It lasted only a week, but it was wonderful. I played Nixon, and everybody was in it — Kissinger, the whole gang. The critics didn’t like it. Also, when we opened, they had just resumed the bombing in North Vietnam and there were people protesting in the streets, stomping around and screaming. The drama was outside, not on stage. We got death threats, horrible letters that said we were going to be shot as we left the theater. The police came and shadowed me on my way home. It was funny: Right after that, I got Irene and, when we were in Washington, we got an extra lovely tour of the White House because Debbie [Reynolds] was a big pal of the Nixons!
TM: I’ve interviewed Debbie Reynolds, and she said that Irene was in quite a lot of trouble out of town.
GSI: In Toronto, it just fell apart. Sir John Gielgud was the director — brilliant man, but really out of his depth. Then they finally got Gower Champion, who broke all the bones of the show and put it together again. He was one of the few guys who knew how to put on a big musical — he, Jerry Robbins, and one or two others.
TM: You’ve worked with them all. You did Bells are Ringing with Robbins. On the cast album, you have that delightful announcer’s bit at the beginning: “Ladies and gentlemen, has this ever happened to you?”
GSI: [laughing] Jerry came to me in New Haven one day and said, “Here, I want you to look this over and then we’ll put it in.” I said, “When?” He said, “I don’t know.” So I looked at it, I learned it, and then one Saturday matinee — right before the show — he said, “Alright, we’re gonna put it in now.” No rehearsal whatsoever! He was a no-nonsense director.
TM: That bit is perfect for your voice. It’s just the right sound for a voiceover.
GSI: I did a lot of commercials. And, you know, I used to do kids’ cartoons. Whenever I do a show, the young people come up to me and say, “I know your voice. You were on Underdog!” I played several characters on that, and I was the announcer: “Tune in next week for another exciting episode of Underdog!” When I do it now for the young people, they all fall down laughing.
TM: I have to ask you about Oklahoma!
GSI: Well, we opened in New Haven and the reviews weren’t very good. Then we went on to Boston and they changed the name — it was Away We Go when we opened. I remember sitting on the staircase of the theater in Boston, and Robert Russell Bennett gave us our parts for the “Oklahoma!” song. There was another show in town, Dancing in the Streets, at the Shubert. Everybody thought that one would be the big hit in New York, but we were the smash and they went down the tubes. I remember opening night at the St. James: Joan Roberts was kind of a nervous lady, and she was sitting on the fire escape steps next to the stage door with a priest. I also recall that Howard [Da Silva] and Alfred [Drake] started an acting class there. They were both very good teachers.
TM: I read something fascinating — that the original cast of Oklahoma! was only together for the opening night performance. People started leaving immediately, for a variety of reasons. Some of the men were drafted, and Marc Platt [who played Dream Curly] had hurt himself…
GSI: Did Marc dance on opening night? I remember that he hurt his foot on that damn step that Agnes [de Mille] gave him… [Irving stands and demonstrates] Yes, people were drafted. I was drafted, three weeks after we opened! I got my notice, so I gave my notice, and they hired another guy. But then the draft board said, “We’re full up; we don’t need you right now.” There I was, without a job. I went up the road to Lady in the Dark because I heard they needed a chorus boy. I auditioned for Moss Hart, and I was hired. They rehearsed me and they built these beautiful costumes for me — tails, a top hat. The night I went into the show, the draft board said, “We want you now.” So I gave my notice to Lady in the Dark, and they were furious. The stage manager told me, “Don’t forget, we’ll be around after this war.” Isn’t that a shitty thing to say to a kid who’s going into the service!
TM: Do you get to see many of your old friends and colleagues these days?
GSI: Well, you know, Joan [Roberts] is in Follies. So is Betty Garrett, who was in Call Me Mister, my first show after I got out of the army. And Donald Saddler, who’s an old friend of ours; he was in Ballet Theater with my wife in 1940. They go way back! Anyway, they’re all in Follies for the Roundabout on Broadway. But did you see the Follies that Paper Mill did? I thought it was superb, and I don’t know why it didn’t come in to New York. I heard that [Follies book writer] James Goldman’s wife was the one who threw in the monkey wrench.
TM: Were you able to attend the Peter Gennaro memorial service?
GSI: No, I wasn’t able to.
TM: They showed a lengthy clip of the “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” number he did for the movie of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with your wife leading the dancers.
GSI: Really! Peter was a dear man. He lived in our neighborhood and we all used to have dinner together at the Duomo restaurant. He choreographed Irene and, when Gower came in, I remember that Gower was very respectful of Peter. He just let him do his own thing.
TM: Well, thanks for the memories, and here’s looking forward to An Ideal Husband.
GSI: It’s a superb Oscar Wilde play. Wilde was a genius, really. There’s such honesty in his work, and the social commentary is right on the nose. That’s why London loved his stuff; people recognized themselves in his plays. Of course, the ultimate social comment is how Wilde was destroyed. The same people who came to see his plays destroyed him, because he would not give in to those bastards. He died when he was, what, 45 or so? Jesus! He must have had some more plays in him. It’s sinful how they murdered him.