McCASLAND TAKES ON TALLULAH, TENNESSEE, LAURETTE AND BILLIE
Many of those interested in theater have had their Tony acceptance speeches ready for years if not decades. Steven Carl McCasland can match his passion for Broadway with the best of them (“I saw Patti LuPone do GYPSY 13 times”), but he isn’t dreaming of winning and spinning a Tony on national TV.
“What I want to do,” he says, “is own a community theater and live over it. I wouldn’t care if I had to share space with the wardrobe department.”
Even the most modest of community theaters cost a pretty penny – millions of them, in fact -- so such a purchase will have to be in the 27-year-old’s future. In the meantime he’s been making a living by coaching performers on how to audition, playing piano at Marie’s Crisis and, through his Beautiful Soup Theater, staging musicals (from A DOLL’S LIFE to RAGS) and plays (LILIOM to MOOSE MURDERS).
Apparently doing one play at a time has become less challenging, because here he is, staging two of his plays in rep: WHAT WAS LOST, about Tennessee Williams and Laurette Taylor during THE GLASS MENAGERIE days, and SHADES OF BLUE, which is subtitled THE DECLINE AND FALL OF LADY DAY.
Of course we already have a “play” about LADY DAY on Broadway. Thus, in the spring McCasland experienced what so many writers have endured: their thunder is stolen by a production that opened first.
“No, I wasn’t happy when I heard it was happening,” he says, “especially because it came out of nowhere.” Indeed, LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL was an unexpected booking; as its director Lonny Price told me, if BRONX BOMBERS had lasted even a week longer at Circle in the Square, there wouldn’t have been time to mount the show, and Ms. McDonald would still be tied in Tonys with Ms. Harris and Ms. Lansbury.
So the fate of BRONX BOMBERS -- which wasn’t even as wan as the fate of the actual Bronx Bombers this season – wound up impacting McCasland’s Billie Holiday show.
“Well, yes and no,” he says. “My play explores the rumored love affair between Billie Holiday and Tallulah Bankhead. The letter I found – I love doing research -- that Billie wrote to Tallulah inspired me. Tallulah was worried that Billie would include it in her memoir.”
Unlike what’s going on uptown, McCasland’s play will include six other characters, including Holiday’s husband Louis McKay and her manager Joe Glaser (who was also characterized in SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF).
WHAT WAS LOST starts on July 22, 1939, at Laurette Taylor’s last performance of OUTWARD BOUND and goes through her legendary and still-discussed performance of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. “She’d felt lost for 11 years,” he says, “after the death of her husband J. Hartley Manners, who wrote PEG O’ MY HEART, her biggest hit until THE GLASS MENAGERIE.”
Tennessee Williams takes quite a journey in this play, too. Says McCasland, “He goes from ‘Poor Laurette can’t remember any of her lines’ to his visit to her dressing room when he isn’t even certain if he’s talking to the real Laurette or Amanda Wingfield. That’s how much she inhabited her character.”
McCasland says his great interest in the theatrical past began when he “got lost in the stacks” of the Half Hollow Hills in his hometown of Dix Hills, New York in the early ‘90s. One of those stacks included CDs of original cast albums.
“APPLAUSE was the first one I took out, because I loved the artwork,” he says. “In fact, even now when I run into an LP of the show, I still love the logo so much that I buy the record. I have six,” he says, with a smile that ranks somewhere between proud and embarrassed.
Lauren Bacall on APPLAUSE inspired him to listen to her on WOMAN OF THE YEAR. “I’m very much diva-driven,” he explains. “I know I would have eventually got around to hearing all of Kander and Ebb, but Liza’s being in FLORA, THE RED MENACE made it happen sooner. And the more I listened, the more impressed I became with show music. I even loved CATS, which my parents hated, but on the other hand, they love ROCK OF AGES, which I walked out of at intermission.”
That’s the extent to which McCasland will criticize his parents, for he’s still very grateful that they took him on community theater auditions. “Well,” he says, “I had made them sit through my one-man version of JEKYLL & HYDE’S ‘Murder, Murder’ a number of times, so they knew they had to do something with me.”
Although McCasland also took on A DOLL’S LIFE and made it a revisal, he stresses that “I didn’t write a single word of it. Phyllis Newman,” he says, citing co-author Adolph Green’s widow, “gave me four versions, and I culled a script from all of them. For RAGS, I actually had five versions from which I could pick and choose. One of the songs I used was so obscure that (lyricist) Stephen Schwartz told me that he didn’t remember writing it. On opening night, (composer) Charles Strouse led the standing ovation.”
McCasland did admit that his Beautiful Soup Theater -- “a name that comes from ALICE IN WONDERLAND” – did stumble a bit with his 2013 production of MOOSE MURDERS, the notorious flop that had opened and closed on Washington’s actual birthday in 1983. “(Playwright) Arthur Bicknell wanted to rewrite it,” he says. “But that wasn’t what we wanted to produce. We let him do it and I think he made it worse. Considering that some of our box office proceeds went to benefit GLSEN -- The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network – I felt bad that the critics decided to write reviews that out-panned Frank Rich’s original.”
(“Those of us who have witnessed the play,” wrote Rich in his first paragraph on Feb. 23, 1983, “will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions in the noble traditional of the survivors of the Titanic.”)
Still, McCasland plans on looking forward – although he will allow himself one nostalgic moment. “I was very influenced by Noel Ruiz – N-O-E-L, R-U-I-Z,” he spells out, making certain that his interviewer wouldn’t make a spelling mistake or, even worse, not mention his mentor. “This was at the CM Performing Arts Center, which was an influential and safe place for me. I was ‘out’ there long before I was ‘out’ at home. I hope whatever I do in my life will reflect well on Noel.”
So perhaps Steven Carl McCasland will someday have the chance to do that at his own community theater. But if he keeps writing, directing and producing in New York, he just might have to settle for a Tony or two.
WHAT WAS LOST and SHADES OF BLUE play in rep between August 27-Sept. 6 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre at 312 West 36th Street. Tickets are $18. Visit www.showclix.com/event/3850811.
— Peter Filichia