Why doesn’t Spider-Man proclaim in its ads that it’s in its “Second Smash Year!”? Or does management feel that it can’t use that line until June, which will be the first anniversary of its opening?
On the other end of the spectrum, have you seen the ads for Encores’ Merrily We Roll Along? “Two weeks only!” they proclaim. That’s just an example of history repeating itself.
It was the month that the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close debuted. My buddy Ken Kantor thinks that everyone should know – just in case anyone doesn’t – that this is not a bio-pic of Ethel Merman and her penchant for walking to the footlights and planting herself center stage.
It was the month that Hello, Dolly! celebrated its 48th anniversary. While listening to all three cast albums, something occurred to me during Herman’s lyric “Things look almost twice as well when they’re slightly blurry.” Do you think that years later, when Herman was watching the first rushes from the film version of his Mame, that he uttered this to the cinematographer to suggest a different camera approach for Lucille Ball?
While seeing the film My Week with Marilyn, something occurred to me for the first time, something that I could have thought of decades ago. When Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller, she was essentially Marilyn Miller. That was not only the name of a big Broadway star in the ‘20s, but also the person who actually “invented” the name Marilyn. It simply didn’t exist until Marilyn Miller came along.
It was the month in which I gave some thought to Lajos Egri’s marvelous book, The Art of Dramatic Writing. In it, he tells that some people who have disabilities decide they’ll not be defeated by them, while some are terribly affected by them. This occurred to me because I saw The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Richard III on successive nights. Norm Lewis’ Porgy was much better adjusted to having leg problems than Kevin Spacey’s Richard was (although, to be fair, Richard has a hump, too.)
I felt so much for Lewis, while he dragged his twisted leg around the stage. But Spacey actually made his disability a more daunting one; he actually positioned one leg as if he were almost en pointe, letting a little tip-toe’s worth of pressure being the only rest he gave his injured leg on stage. Think of a high-heeled shoe that hasn’t got the heel attached; Spacey kept the tip of his shoe on the floor as if the heel were still there. But it wasn’t.
The shows? After all the sturm und drang surrounding The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, I found it sit-throughable. I came; I watched; I went home. Even the show curtain seemed to be apologizing for the controversial new title, for it simply said Porgy and Bess.
Yes, it’s a diminished version of a great opera, but the intention was to make a Porgy and Bess Lite, so I guess they succeeded. Everyone, including Ms. McDonald, was fine, although I questioned why director Diane Paulus gave Bess a big facial scar. Wouldn’t that keep men from wanting to be with her? I suspect many males in Catfish Row aren’t terribly sensitive to women, and would simply write off a scarred woman as damaged goods.
Did Shakespeare write the first black comic character in dramatic history? Richard III is a snarling, sniveling rat, a Phil Silvers gone utterly malevolent, although Spacey also looks a little like Bob Fosse – another non-saint. And yet we find ourselves laughing at Richard because he’s so audacious. Spacey’s entrance seems as if he’s just crawled from under a rock. After Hastings is killed and clearly dead, Richard still stabs him a few extra times, just to be on the safe side. But I’ve never seen an actor shove another one so that the poor soul lands flat on his back on the floor as Spacey forcefully does here. It’s gasp-inducing. Spacey does everything but stand on his head. (Oh, wait: he does that, too – at least in that he’s hanged from his feet on a cable.)
The play is beautifully directed by Sam Mendes, who’s created glorious stage pictures in between two sets of 22 ordinary-looking doors. In short, it’s also the finest Richard III I’ve seen in the last 40 years, dating back to Pacino’s not-nearly-as-good take on the character. Usually shows at BAM are there for only a few days. How wonderful that Richard III is staying around until March.
Attending a Wednesday matinee of The Road to Mecca reminded me of the poem Ogden Nash wrote about the people who attend these performances mid-week shows at two o’clock. In “Wednesday Matinee,” Nash complained about the too-pungent smell of perfume, candy-wrapper ripping, people in the wrong seats, too-vivid entrance applause and a terrible lack of attention to the stage. But here at the American Airlines Theatre, I thought of another that would rankle Nash, and I don’t mean cell phones. I’m talking about the person who’s rented the infrared hearing system but isn’t sure how to work it; as a result, he provides squeaks and squeals for the first 10 minutes of the show.
Not surprising it happened at Roundabout, which has always drawn its fair share of seniors. That’s why choosing Athol Fugard’s play was a smart one: the audience could identify with Miss Helen, whose late-in-life independence is threatened by a so-called concerned Rev. Byleveld, who wants to be put her in an old-age home. We, however, want a separation between church and state.
The plays starts with Miss Helen being visited by a much younger Elsa Barlow. Must be her daughter, right? Why else would a young woman be visiting such an old one. Ah, but that’s Fugard’s point: Miss Helen must be an extraordinary person to have a young friend. This is not a daughter who dutifully must visit on holidays and birthdays; this is a young woman who wants to spend time with her friend.
In William Goldman’s 1969 tome The Season, he points out that the most sought-after women on Broadway were then “the Harris girls – Julie, Barbara and Rosemary.” Well, Julie can’t perform any longer and Barbara won’t, but here’s the 84-year-old Rosemary still creating magic.
She’s playing a character unlike any I’ve seen her do: a still-on-the-go elfin senior who has her hands in her sweater pockets while scurrying around her apartment. More importantly, she still believes in “trying to make the good a little bit more than the bad.” Rosemary Harris does substantially more than that.
Last month’s brainteaser was “Tell what these people have in common: P. J. Benjamin, Ashley Brown, Gloria De Haven, Al Freeman, Jr., Johnny Johnston, Maria Karnilova, Larry Marshall, Laurence Naismith, Laurence Naismith (there’s a reason he’s named twice), Christopher Plummer, Martin Short, Constance Towers and Melissa Van Der Schyff.”
And here’s the answer: All of these performers appeared in Broadway musicals playing roles that won Oscars for the actors in their earlier film incarnations: P. J. Benjamin (Charlie, Charlie and Algernon; Cliff Robertson, Charly); Ashley Brown (Mary, Mary Poppins; Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins); Gloria De Haven (Diane, Seventh Heaven; Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven); Al Freeman, Jr. (Homer, Look to the Lilies; Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field); Johnny Johnston (Johnny, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); Maria Karnilova (Hortense, Zorba; Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek); Larry Marshall (Hamlet, Rockabye Hamlet; Laurence Olivier, Hamlet); Laurence Naismith (Gwyllim, A Time for Singing; Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley); Laurence Naismith (Kris Kringle, Here’s Love; Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street); Christopher Plummer (Cyrano, Cyrano; Jose Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac); Martin Short (Elliot, The Goodbye Girl; Richard Dreyfus, The Goodbye Girl); Constance Towers (Anastasia, Anya; Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia); Melissa Van Der Schyff (Blanche Barrow, Bonnie & Clyde; Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde).
Thom Snode was the first to figure it out, followed by Jay Aubrey Jones, Irene Stankard, Michael Dale, Jack Lechner, Martin Oppenheimer, Tony Janicki, Susan Berlin, Steve Rosenthal, Joseph Miller, Ian Ewing and almost Ira Rappaport.
This month’s brainteaser: These 10 musicals, all of which made it to Broadway, are adapted from plays. It’s your job to figure out why I placed them in this order: Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen; Wonderful Town; Let It Ride! (or Banjo Eyes); Seesaw; Sherry!; I Remember Mama; Seventh Heaven; High Spirits; Mame and I Do! I Do! You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia