It was the month that we had The Sixth Annual Broadway Beauty Pageant, with the immensely talented Andrew Chappelle from Mamma Mia! taking the crown. But Andrew’s such a nice young man that I could also see him winning a Broadway Inner Beauty Pageant.
Hey! There’s an idea! The Broadway Inner Beauty Pageant! I wouldn’t eliminate anyone for having outer beauty, mind you – and all my nominees that I’m about to name have it. But if we were to concentrate on Broadway luminaries who have inner beauty, it would be a tough race among (in alphabetical order) Nancy Anderson, Zoe Caldwell, Michael Cerveris, Jason Danieley, Gregg Edelman, Jarod Emick, Jack Klugman, Jane Krakowski, Baayork Lee, Marin Mazzie, Anne Meara, John Mahoney, Estelle Parsons, Lee Roy Reams, Chita Rivera, Mary Rodgers and Jerry Stiller. (Well, at least all of them have always been extraordinarily lovely to me.)
It was the month that I saw the best Death of a Salesman of the seven I’ve seen since 1969. The only actory, phony moment came from Finn Wittrock as Happy in his first scene with Biff when they discuss going into business together. After his initial enthusiasm, the way he turned his head and mewed “The only thing is, how much can you make out there?” was designed to get a cheap laugh. Other than that, the prize committees should give as many trophies as possible to Messrs. Hoffman and Garfield, and especially Ms. Emond.
It was the month that Smash got renewed, which is very good for Broadway. Wonder how many teens and twentysomethings who are now watching the show – about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical – are aware that the real 1983 Marilyn musical starred someone with whom they are quite familiar. Would they ever believe that the actress whom they came to know as Ms. Darbus – Alyson Reed – in High School Musical was Marilyn in that failed musical?
Talked to Mike Reid, the former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle who’s written the music and co-written the book for In This House, a new (and okay) musical now at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey. When I asked where he played college football, he said Penn State. He saw my eyebrows rise. “Jerry Sandusky,” he offered, “was a much-admired man.” And he said no more. Read between the lines as little or as much as you like.
When characters in The Lady from Dubuque – excuse me, Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque – turned to the audience and spoke aloud, I thought of Strange Interlude, where O’Neill used this device. How fitting, for there has been a most strange interlude for this play: almost a third-of-a-century. Why does it look so much better now? Because we’ve had many plays as fancifully strange in the interlude? The production I remember from the Morosco seemed plodding (on a very similar set, by the way). Of course, it didn’t have the amazing Laila Robins playing a dying woman who turns to cruelty, and the always wondrous Jane Alexander, who turns her towards death.
It was a bad month for Mike Daisey, who first went through ecstasy and now agony over his Steve Jobs play. Funny, when I saw the show, I assumed that he was picking up that little towel and wiping his brow so much because we overweight people – well, sometimes, if you pardon the word, we sweat. But now we have to wonder if Daisey was mopping his brow the way liars tend to do when they’re nervous from not telling the truth.
It was the month I saw two little shows that hope to be big ones. Both deserve to continue. Bernadette Robinson’s one-woman show Chance Encounters had her imitating Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. All right, so Robinson is a wonderful impressionist, but we’ve seen plenty of them before and will again. So what playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has smartly conceived is a show where these five famous women meet five non-famous ones. The voices, both in speech and song, are pin-point perfect for the celebs, but the Australian dynamo is so distinct and consistent with accents and voices that you’re equally as interested in the uncommon women as others. Garland greets a ladies’ room attendant a few minutes after she finishes her 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Holiday meets a woman desperate to interview her, to prove to the Times that she can write features. When Robinson took on Maria Callas, I feared for her aria. No worry; she’s actually done operatic roles. In fact, if Robinson wants to add Judy Holliday to her repertoire, she can – because the ladies’ room attendant had her precise voice.
Robert Askins’ Hand to God amazes in a much different way. We’re in the bowels of a Lutheran church, where some of the faithful are planning a pageant. Each participant will have a sock puppet on his right hand, leaving the left hand to maneuver the two long poles attached to the puppet to make various gestures and expressions.
Jason, however, has some supreme issues with the Supreme Being and seems quite unbalanced – especially when he lets his hand puppet Tyrone do the talking for him. But that doesn’t stop fellow puppeteer Jessica from loving him. This leads to one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen in more than 50 years of theatergoing: Steven Boyer’s Jason and Jessica Hill’s Jessica carry on a mundane conversation while simultaneously manipulating their hand puppets into having the raunchy sex that Kate and Princeton wouldn’t remotely have considered even after dozens of dates. They make the cast of Avenue Q seem like Sisters Berthe, Sophia, Margaretta and the Mother Abbess. How these two amazing performers can concentrate on puppeteering while chatting matter-of-factly is beyond belief – except that they’re achieving it. I can’t put my hand to God and say for sure that Hand to God will soon play Broadway, but don’t be surprised if it lands there.
Went to see Aesop’s Fables, the children’s show that Ted Mann was working on when he died. His beloved Circle in the Square Theatre played host to the musical, which was a field trip for local kindergarten and first grade classes. You’ve never seen so many missing baby teeth in an audience, for the kids were smiling and laughing throughout the show. And here’s a sign of the times: the kids laughed at a joke about “a reality TV show on Fox,” but when a cast member sang some riffs from “The Sound of Music,” they offered not even a smirk of recognition.
Mann started his career by reviving Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which had previously bombed on Broadway, in one of the earliest-ever off-Broadway productions. People cameth, spurring an interest in O’Neill. Now audiences wanted to see that play that O‘Neill made his wife promise wouldn’t be seen until 25 years after his death. This Iceman Cometh made the widow change her mind. She could have snared $25,000 to $50,000 for the rights, but because Mann and his Circle in the Square had done so well by her husband, she gave him the rights to it for nothing.
That was in August, 1956, and the play opened on Broadway in November of that year. The following spring, it won both the 1956-1957 Tony and Pulitzer. And that started me wondering what would have happened had Carlotta O’Neill withheld the play until Nov. 27, 1978 – a quarter century after O’Neill’s death. What would have won the 1956-1957 Tony: Separate Tables, The Potting Shed or The Waltz of the Toreadors? More to the point, what would have won the Pulitzer, given that all three of those were foreign plays? And would the fourth Tony slot have gone to another foreign entry -- Waiting for Godot – or to the only two American plays of any pedigree, Auntie Mame or A Visit to a Small Planet? Whatever the case, I smell a “No award” from the Pulitzer committee.
And if Long Day’s had been produced in the 1978-1979 season, wouldn’t it have beaten The Elephant Man as Best Play, have denied Bedroom Farce a nomination and have easily bested Buried Child for the Pulitzer? As we all know, timing is everything.
Michael Shayne, Joseph Miller, Jay Aubrey Jones and Ian Ewing were (in that order) the only ones to get last month’s brainteaser. It was “Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray have two things in common. One: they co-starred in a revue called Two on the Aisle; you can still hear both of them on the original cast album. You’re asked to find the second commonality, which Lahr shares with quite a few men and Gray with a couple of women. What is it?”
Many guessed that Lahr and Gray had the shortest-ever runs for Tony-winners heading a musical. No; Christopher Plummer had a shorter run as Cyrano. My favorite answer came from Peter Alfano: “Both were bald.”
What I was looking for is that they won Tonys for leading roles in a musical -- he for Foxy and she for Carnival in Flanders – but they didn’t get into studios to record their songs on an original cast album. The “quite a few” with whom Lahr shares that distinction: Paul Hartman, Ray Bolger, Phil Silvers and the Billy Elliot boys. The “couple” for Gray: Nanette Fabray and Grace Hartman.
But give the ever-enterprising David Kanter credit. He pointed out that Tony-winners Lahr and Gray had four letters in their last names, as did “quite a few” Best Actor in a Musical Tony-winners -- Alda, Rose, Dale, Tune, Lane, Butz, Szot – and “a couple of” Best Actress in A Musical Tony-winners: Seal and Daly. Which nobody can deny.
As for this month’s brainteaser, what do these five songs have in common? Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Blues,” Styne and Harburg’s “He’s a Genius,” Cole Porter’s “No Lover,” Lerner and Loewe’s “I Am on My Way” and Adler and Ross’ “Six Months out of Every Year.” You know where to find me. — Peter Filichia