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 August 31 , 2012

August Leftovers  

Whatever anyone thinks of the current production of Into the Woods, isn’t “Delacorte” one of the most beautiful words in the English language?

I liked Into the Woods’ performers, but the finest performances I saw this month came from Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, two young actors in two one-acters: Pinter’s The Lover and Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, courtesy of their theater company The Seeing Place. I was so impressed at their naturalness; these kids weren’t acting but had just happened to become the characters, that’s all. I look forward to seeing more at The Seeing Place.

I felt so bad for Adam Levi. Some time ago he was working for Playbill Vault, and came across a 1956 Broadway flop: Arch Oboler’s Night of the Auk. “It closed in a week,” he said, “but look at the names attached: Kermit Bloomgarden produced. Sidney Lumet directed. Christopher Plummer and Claude Rains starred. I had to learn more about the play!”

Turns out that it was published, and Levi found a copy. Said Levi, “It was subtitled ‘A free-prose play’ because it was actually in free verse. It was set on a spaceship and was a cautionary tale about capitalism and science.”

Only one problem: the show was lengthy. “It must have been three-and-a-half hours long when produced,” said Levi. “So I got in touch with Oboler’s son Steven who said we could cut it. So I got Michael Ross Albert, who co-founded with me and Kaitlyn Samuel a theater company called Outside Inside, and he cut it down to little more than an hour.”

I was intrigued, and went to the Players Theatre to see it. I’m telling you, the show was over the moment that the cast came on in spacesuits. The youngish audience roared with laughter at the quaint notion of space travel; every line that was supposed to be taken seriously was ridiculed.

I can’t tell if Night of the Auk was good, bad or ugly, but it didn’t have a chance with a generation that didn’t grow up when space travel was the apex of national pride and a genuine obsession. To these twentysomethings who weren’t there when the country stopped and stared at their TVs at every launch, Night of the Auk was a sci-fi spoof. It’s still looking for its redemption.

The cliché is that deaths tend to come in threes, and it happened this month to us. At least Gore Vidal went out knowing that he had a genuine Broadway hit (meaning it was paying back its investors): The Best Man, of course. Wonder if someone will dust off a comedy he wrote in the ‘50s which was simply called A Drawing Room Comedy.

My buddy Larry Fineberg had optioned it for Broadway in the late ‘60s after David Merrick had dropped it. The plot involved the cardiac arrest of a character whose life was then judged by those around him. I recall that a hospital worker went to the sound system and asked on the microphone, “Will Jesus Christ please come to the mezzanine?” Indeed He did.

Fineberg said he encountered resistance to the play by many of the “acceptable” Broadway directors and then tried Tom O’Horgan, who was just about to start rehearsals for Jesus Christ Superstar. (My, Jesus’ name is showing up a lot in conjunction with this project, isn’t it?) Vidal and O’Horgan hit it off, but potential investors in the play, did not. To my knowledge, it’s never been produced. Maybe someone will do it now?

Merrick also played a part in the life of another pioneer who died this month: Phyllis Diller, whom I knew a bit. True story: when Merrick died, I called her to get a quotation for an obituary. Although in the past she had “joked” that if she’d ever needed a heart transplant, she’d want Merrick’s – because it hadn’t been used – she was very appreciative that Merrick had cast her as the penultimate Mrs. Levi in his Broadway smash Hello, Dolly! “And I played it straight,” she told me – an observation I’ve heard from many who saw her do it. The wild laugh that she used to punctuate every one of her jokes? Not as Dolly, so I’m told.

Anyway, I got off the phone and moments later my girlfriend called. I told her I’d just spoken to Diller. “Oh!” said my girlfriend, who’s a literary agent. “Give me her number! Maybe she’d like to write her memoir.” In fact, Diller did, and that’s how Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse got rolling. So in a way, David Merrick was responsible for giving her that “work” too.

Diller’s quip on Merrick was quite good, but it’s not my favorite of her jokes. The best was one she said on Laugh-In in the early ‘70s: “I flew an airline so cheap that instead of showing you a movie they put on a high school play.”

And of course I was sorry to see that Marvin Hamlisch died. I did a sit-down with him at the Friars Club some years ago. When we talked about his 1979 hit They’re Playing Our Song, I asked if he had been blinded by love for by his girlfriend-lyricist Carole Bayer Sager – for he allowed imperfect rhymes from her that he certainly didn’t get from Ed Kleban in A Chorus Line.

Hamlisch admitted that he had been, and segued into telling how he’d been talking to Neil Simon about musicalizing The Gingerbread Lady – “but I’d spend so much time complaining about Carole’s being a – a – ”

When he couldn’t come up with the word he wanted, I suggested, “Free spirit?” – to which he immediately snorted, “No, she wasn’t free at all. She was expensive. She was a rich spirit.”

He must have complained to Simon qute a bit, for one day he showed up for a work session and Simon handed him a sheaf of pages about a composer named Vernon Gersh and Sonia Walsk who were having the toughest time professionally and personally. And that’s how They’re Playing Our Song was born.

Onto other matters: I once turned on the TV and found myself in the middle of Johnny Got His Gun, the film about a man who had lost both arms and both legs in a war. Suddenly I thought, “Or did he buy four items at Colony -- where everything cost an arm and a leg?”

That brings us to an upcoming death: Colony at 49th and Broadway. Perhaps it needed to charge exorbitantly to stay in business at what must be a very expensive corner. But Colony wasn’t the place where we ever went to buy anything, but to kill time before a show. Had the store been reasonably priced, we’d have kept it in business.

In my July Leftovers, I mentioned that I went to the doctor and while there asked him if he ever went to the theater only to hear that he – a doctor, mind you – said that he couldn’t afford it. That spurred Laura Frankos – author of The Broadway Musical Quiz Book – to e-mail me a story from the other end of the spectrum: “I was doing the grocery shopping in an old t-shirt I’d won in a theater trivia contest and the cashier, who appeared to be about 21, wondered what the shirt meant. When I told her, she said, ‘Oh, the theater. That’s on my bucket list -- to go to a show at a theatre someday.’”

Speaking of Laura, she was one who got last month’s brainteaser: “These musicals were listed in this order for a certain reason. Could you infer why? Mame; 70, Girls, 70; Her First Roman; Man of La Mancha; Nine; I Do! I Do!; Oklahoma!; The Human Comedy; Ernest in Love; Jane Eyre; Half a Sixpence; Carousel; Hello, Dolly!; Hazel Flagg; Cats; My Fair Lady; Ballroom; All in Love; Whoop-up; Seesaw; Honk!; Foxy; Henry, Sweet Henry; Xanadu; Damn Yankees and Zorba.”

Rob Witherwax was the first to get it, followed by Jeff Vellenga, Ed Weissman, Tim Dunleavy, Jack Lechner, Brigadude, Thom Snode, David Kanter, David H. Cohen, AnyaToes, Ian Ewing, Jacob Shoesmith-Fox, Joseph Miller, Jonathan Klein, Andrew Milner and Laura.

The answer was that the musicals were in alphabetical order based on their source material: Auntie Mame; Breath of Spring; Caesar and Cleopatra; Don Quixote; 8 ½; The Fourposter; Green Grow the Lilacs; The Human Comedy; The Importance of Being Earnest; Jane Eyre; Kipps; Liliom; The Matchmaker; Nothing Sacred; Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; Pygmalion; Queen of the Stardust Ballroom; The Rivals; Stay Away, Joe; Two for the Seesaw; The Ugly Duckling; Volpone; The World of Henry Orient; Xanadu; The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and Zorba the Greek.

This month’s brainteaser: Oscar-winners have had a checkered Broadway history, but few as strange as this great actress. She had a mere five Broadway credits to her name, and only one of them was for acting – when she took over the lead in a household-name hit that was quite unlike the role for which she won her Academy Award. Otherwise, she co-produced one of the most famous plays of the last 40 years as well as two one-person shows, one of which was successful enough to warrant a return engagement. Who was she?

         — Peter Filichia


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