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January 15, 2016


As I mentioned in my column of Sept. 19, every now and then throughout this 2015-2016 season I’ll take a 50th anniversary look at Jack Gaver’s book SEASON IN SEASON OUT, which detailed the 58 productions during the 1965-1966 Broadway season.

Times have changed, of course since Gaver – a theater critic for United Press International (a rival to Associated Press) wrote the book. For example, he reports that Peter Shaffer’s THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN was then “the most costly non-musical ever offered on stage.” The price: $200,000. Today that wouldn’t be enough to mount a modest off-Broadway play.

Gaver said the show “appealed to the first line of New York City playgoers -- those who like ‘the better things.’ This audience is not inexhaustible.”

No – and that’s why it’s been exhausted.

Robert Burr, one of Christopher Plummer’s standbys in the show, was prepared for its failure. “There has always been a job for me at a frozen food warehouse in the Bronx,” he said. Gaver let us know he said it without an ounce of self-pity, and really seemed to see it as a viable career option. Given that Burr only had six more Broadway shows in the next 16 years – and that one closed on opening night, another couldn’t make it past a week and the longest of which ran a little fewer than four months – maybe he eventually took the warehouse job.

As of November, Gaver noted that “the season hadn’t provided a potential challenger to the long-run record of LIFE WITH FATHER.” He could have said that at any time for the rest of the season – or points beyond. CACTUS FLOWER would turn out to be 1965-66’s longest-running play, thanks to its 1,234 performances. Alas, that’s only 38% of FATHER’S 3,224 performances. Since then, the closest non-musical challenger to the Lindsay-and-Crouse smash has been GEMINI, which amassed 1,819 performances between 1977 and 1981. Even so, that’s only a 56% assault on the record.

I’m more sure that no non-musical will ever break FATHER’S record than I am that Porgy will never, ever be able to find Bess. Put it this way: CACTUS FLOWER finished as the 12th longest-running play in Broadway history at a time when A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was the 12th longest-running book musical at 964 performances. Today, CACTUS FLOWER has only slipped to 16th place while FORUM has plunged to 73rd. That’s proof positive that plays simply don’t run as long anymore; that’s not why tourists come to Broadway. They arrive ready to see musicals, which is why they of course last longer.

I have a tendency to doubt Gaver’s statement that “The 1965-66 season was the first time that three shows – POSTMARK ZERO, MATING DANCE and XMAS IN LAS VEGAS – opened and closed the same week.” Wouldn’t you assume that in the early, pre-talkie ‘20s, -- including the 1927-28 season when almost 300 Broadway shows opened – that plenty of Saturday nights saw the shuttering of three shows that had opened that same week?

XMAS IN LAS VEGAS later showed up as one of five plays anthologized in Marilyn Stasio’s BROADWAY’S BEAUTIFUL LOSERS. She liked it more than I did – and so did Gaver, who wrote, “I’m still going to keep (its author) Jack Richardson on my ‘promising playwrights’ list.” Considering that Richardson never again made it to Broadway – and that this was his SECOND straight Broadway outing to run a mere FOUR performances -- we must wonder at what point Gaver erased him from his list.

And what did Gaver have to say about THE ZULU AND THE ZAYDA? “If you hold an opening night program for this play, don’t believe the line at the top that says ‘Premiere performance, Nov. 9, 1965.’ That was the night of the long blackout when electric power was out all over the Northeast for almost twelve hours.”

This brings to mind JANE EYRE. Take out your original cast album CD and you’ll see in the booklet “JANE EYRE opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Dec. 3, 2000.” Just as ZAYDA’s program was printed too early, JANE EYRE’s booklet was released in haste before management decided to wait a week and open on Dec. 10.

When talking about SKYSCRAPER, Gaver concentrates on what was quite the scandal back then. Noted journalist Dorothy Kilgallen attended the first preview and disliked it so much that she didn’t keep that fact from her readers in her Journal American column.

Kilgallen felt free to say that SKYSCRAPER had “no music to speak of” and that it was a “turkey.” She even dismissed its star Julie Harris as “not a musical comedy performer” when she could have given the two-time Tony-winning dramatic actress credit for attempting something new.

What made Kilgallen’s 297-word pan all the more surprising is that she blithely admitted that she had only seen the show’s first act. Granted, Act One of most musicals tend to be better than Act Two, but Kilgallen’s early exit gave her less ammunition to criticize the show.

Kilgallen’s “review” of SKYSCRAPER was the only one she’d ever read. On Monday, Nov. 8, 1965, she died under mysterious circumstances. That Saturday, SKYSCRAPER opened to reviews that were much kinder than expected. Were the critics overly accommodating to mitigate Kilgallen’s journalistic hubris? Did the critics expect to see a show as bad as Kilgallen had alleged, and their seeing even a slightly better one caused them to over-praise?

“SKYSCRAPER is a joyous, boisterous, brash, fast-moving musical” – Taubman, Times. So said the inch-high headline on the full-page ad that Feuer and Martin placed on page 55 of the morning edition of the Times on Nov. 16, 1965. Enthusiastic quotations from a dozen other critics followed.

The irony is that only six pages away in the same edition was the report from the state’s medical examiner that Kilgallen had died “from the reaction of a combination of alcohol and barbiturates.”

Some say she was murdered because she knew too much about the Kennedy assassination. Her son-in-law at the time was Larry Grossman, who was three-and-a-half years away from making his Broadway composing debut with MINNIE’S BOYS. He doesn’t like talking about this incident.

SKYSCRAPER was alive, however. “Mail orders now accepted for the next 15 months,” the full-page ad confidently said in in half-inch boldface print. But it wasn’t a good enough musical to last even half that long.

Gaver also used his SKYSCRAPER chapter to discuss “the preview period” as “an ever-growing factor” that “seems here to stay.” Yes, to say the least. SKYSCRAPER did 22 previews – more than any other production that season, but many shows have subsequently given many more, including MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, LEGS DIAMOND, NICK & NORA and need I add SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK?

Of course Gaver, like so many of us, preferred the out-of-town tryout -- which, in fact, SKYSCRAPER also had: four weeks in Detroit. The Philly, Boston and Baltimo’ break-in served to keep bad news (and reviews) from Manhattanites. As he wrote, “No New York playgoer, except someone in the business, is going to know what the out-of-town critics thought.”

Today a high-profile first preview can sometimes spur an attendee to go on-line on his laptop and post his opinion of the first act during intermission. So here’s another profound change in the last 50 years: the idea of spilling the beans after – or even during – a first preview no long seems as scandalous.

But the biggest change of the mid-‘60s all that certainly hasn’t changed back in 50 years is one that rankled Gaver even then: “A preview ticket should sell for no more than half the regular price.”

Amen, brother.

         — Peter Filichia



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