Theater News

The Royal Couple of Broadway

Robert Whitehead and Zoe Caldwell

Robert Whitehead
Robert Whitehead

How on earth can one attempt to sum up the brilliant dual careers of Robert Whitehead and Zoe Caldwell? Between them, they’ve won seven Tony Awards and given Broadway a staggering list of memorable productions and performances. His debut as a producer came in 1947 with Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Medea, starring Judith Anderson and directed by John Gielgud. From there, he went on to present plays by Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth), William Inge (Bus Stop), Eugene O’Neill (A Touch of the Poet), Tennessee Williams (Orpheus Descending), and numerous works by Arthur Miller, including the original productions of A View From the Bridge, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, The Price, and Broken Glass. He was awarded Tonys for Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (Best Play of 1962), Death of a Salesman (Best Revival of 1984), and Terrence McNally’s Master Class (Best Play of 1996).

Zoe Caldwell
Zoe Caldwell

Caldwell’s credits as an actress are no less impressive. The Australian-born leading lady has won Tonys every time she was nominated, one for Best Featured Actress (in Tennessee Williams’ Slapstick Tragedy, 1966) and three for Best Actress (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968; Medea, 1982; and Master Class, 1996). She began her career at Stratford-on-Avon, then moved on to play Cleopatra and other classic roles at Canada’s Stratford Festival. She played Ophelia at the Guthrie, Saint Joan in Australia, and finally settled in America after her first Tony win.

Married since 1968 to Whitehead, Caldwell has collaborated with her husband many times. He directed her in Medea (with Judith Anderson as the Nurse) and William Luce’s Lillian, and produced Master Class and Caldwell’s own production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, starring their close friend Jason Robards and Judith Ivey. Caldwell’s directorial credits also include Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, and Vita & Virginia with Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins. She and Whitehead have two grown sons.

Whew! No wonder I felt a bit nervous about interviewing these legends by telephone from their home outside New York City. But they couldn’t have been nicer or easier to talk to. At 84, Whitehead remains deeply interested in the theater and its future; an award named for him is presented every year to a promising producer by the Commercial Theatre Institute. “We’re theater people,” Caldwell says in her distinctively seductive voice. “We see an inordinate amount of theater and we spend a lot of time talking about things that are of interest to us. I suppose, if we were plumbers, we’d talk about the new fixtures.”

With seven Tonys on the shelf, the couple has seen the awards ceremony change from a quiet, local event to a network TV extravaganza. “It was more of a family affair,” Whitehead says of the old days. (His first nomination came in 1956 for producing Bus Stop, which lost Best Play to The Diary of Anne Frank.) “It was an award that everybody respected and enjoyed. As soon as the nationwide broadcasts started, it became more commercialized; it became a television show more than a family meeting.”

Caldwell remembers wearing “an afternoon frock” to her first ceremony at the Rainbow Room in 1966. “Ginger Rogers gave all the awards; I don’t think they served liquor because everyone had a show that night. I was bowled over to win.” The Jean Brodie year, the actress remembers discovering stray black maribou feathers from her Henri Bendel outfit stuck under her arms. The award for Medea was special because it honored a performance directed by her husband. But it was Caldwell’s ability to talk really fast that distinguished her acceptance speech for Master Class.

“You’re only given 30 seconds,” she notes, “and I think that’s right. I don’t think everybody should feel free to chat on and on. But the people working on a play love hearing their names, so I always try to get in as many names as possible.” After the nominations were announced, Caldwell, the odd-on favorite to win for her tremendous performance as Maria Callas, listed everyone she wanted to mention and practiced saying the names faster and faster. “I don’t like pieces of paper on stage, so I memorized my list and then raced through it. Some people thought that was so unattractive, but I got all the names in.”

Interjects Whitehead, “CBS was unhappy that you stood up there and said nothing but names.” Of course, that was the disastrous year in which live and badly edited taped speeches were blended into an unwatchable stew, so CBS should have thanked Caldwell for watching the clock–which allowed McNally to get a word in when Master Class won Best Play. “Exactly!” she says, when reminded that the playwright had been cut off the year before, when Love! Valour! Compassion! won.


In any case, the couple has fond Tony memories–and equally fond memories of working together. “The only time I felt it might be a tiny problem was when we were doing Medea,” reveals Whitehead, “because I was sort of using the fact that our two sons were exactly the right age to be killed by Medea. I kept drawing upon Zoe’s relationship with the boys for a certain emotion she had to find in the play. I worried about using such a personal thing in a way that might overlap into our lives. As a matter of fact, it didn’t–and I don’t think Zoe really noticed what I was doing.”

“I really wasn’t aware of that,” she says at once, adding lightly, “I was just trying to keep the audience awake.”

“You were drawing upon it,” he insists. “She was terribly moving in the final scene, where Medea is in the midst of the decision [to kill her children]. Judith Anderson had an animal-like terror, but she didn’t have the same emotional heartbreak that Zoe had. Judith was like a tigress, but Zoe was able to find that moment of pure agony, and I think that had something to do with the fact that she had the boys. She used it, obviously.”

“But I surely wasn’t talking about it,” she says firmly, closing the subject.

Family, both at home and in the theater, is obviously paramount to Caldwell. During the run of Master Class, musical director David Loud–who played the on-stage pianist–praised Caldwell as “incredibly generous and supportive and inspiring.” He added: “I find that, in any production, the tone for how people are going to behave is set at the top, and she creates an atmosphere where people want to do their best every minute.” Audra McDonald expressed similar sentiments last fall before opening in the Medea-like Marie Christine, saying, “Zoe doesn’t give acting notes per se; she just offers 100 percent support.”

Explains Caldwell, “I cannot remember a line of any play I have done, but when I am involved in something, the people in the company are the most important people in my life at the time. That’s why you can’t do it for too long: Your husband notices it, your children notice it, the dogs notice it. You’ve got to be able to cut off and stop acting and be a proper person. For me, it was absolutely essential that I have a total life outside the theater, with a husband and kids and a home.”

Observes Whitehead, “The energy Zoe gives at work, her sensitivity, feeds the energy she gives to the family.” Asked to share something people might be surprised to know about Caldwell, Whitehead replies, “Well, I think most people know that she is dedicated and involved in the theater in a deeply personal way. What they don’t realize is that her tenacity to do something in the garden is just as compulsive as in the theater.”

Whitehead pooh-poohs talk of himself as the last of the gentlemen producers who followed their taste and gave Broadway enduring plays that are already being revived. “It does take a certain kind of chutzpah to put yourself on the line,” he allows. “Plays require a very personal relationship on the part of the producer, and don’t seem as financially viable on paper [as musicals or revivals]. The volume of writing has diminished enormously in the last 20 years but, strangely enough, there seems to be a feeling that audiences want more theater again. So I think you’ll find more producers emerging.”

“You know,” Whitehead adds of Broadway’s so-called glory days, “in a strange way, the plays were responsible for the whole character of the theater. What we call the great musicals largely came from texts that had been plays; they were an outgrowth of the theater. The discussions and arguments that took place within plays found their way into the lyrics and the staging of musicals. That’s when all of the theater was at its best.”

Assessing her husband’s strengths as a producer, Caldwell says, “He’s always chosen things that he truly admires. They might not be the ones that are going to make the most money–he’s let slide though his fingers some really extraordinary plays and musicals that could have made us very wealthy.” Whitehead interjects, “That was my stupidity!” Caldwell continues, serenely, “He’s truly umbilically bound to whatever production he does; he’s there every moment during rehearsal, and he comes many nights of the week once the play is on.”

Though the couple has no plans for a new Broadway production, Whitehead assures us, “Zoe will be back. There’s nobody around now–and there never were that many with such an enormous range. She has a spontaneous and ridiculous sense of comedy and also the power to reach the tragic qualities necessary to serve the great plays.”

Caldwell says simply, “I’m not concerned with money or prestige, only whether [a play] is something I truly want to explore. The challenge is to find something and feel that I have no idea if I can do it. But there are marvelous things around, and I will be back. I’m not retired!”