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September 18, 2015


Many of us know of William Goldman’s landmark work THE SEASON, which detailed every Broadway production of the 1967-68 semester. It’s easily the book I’ve read the most times.

And while I’ve found that plenty of Broadway babies know it, I’ve found that few are aware that Jack Gaver, once a theater critic for United Press International (a rival to Associated Press), wrote a similar book that referenced every production of the 1965-66 season.

SEASON IN SEASON OUT, published two years before Goldman’s book was brought out, is not nearly as wondrous as THE SEASON. Although Gaver was an engaging writer, he didn’t have as distinctive a voice as Goldman does. He wasn’t as thorough, either, for Goldman wrote 420 pages to Gaver’s 221.

Still, that’s quite a few pages, which is why I’ll be writing a column every month or so in conjunction with the month that SEASON IN SEASON OUT detailed. Of course, one of his lines in his introduction could serve any year in Broadway history: “The only good Broadway season is next season.”

(Yeah, I can’t wait to see the musicals of SPONGEBOB and HEE-HAW.)

“This ‘lousy season’ we’ve got now” – the single quotation marks are his -- “might look fairly respectable within a few years.” Yes, but they all do in retrospect. This one did have MAN OF LA MANCHA, CACTUS FLOWER, THE LION IN WINTER, MAME, THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, SWEET CHARITY, MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! and MARAT/SADE, whose full 24-word title I’m too lazy to replicate. The original production of OLIVER! came back to town for a few weeks, too and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU was a surprise hit for the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company.

In 1965-66, you could have seen Bea Arthur, Lauren Bacall, Anne Bancroft, Zoe Caldwell, Henry Fonda, Ruth Gordon, Hal Holbrook, Glenda Jackson, Van Johnson, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Richard Kiley, Angela Lansbury, Vivien Leigh, Sam Levene, Ray Milland, Christopher Plummer, Robert Preston, Tony Randall, Lee Remick, Ian Richardson, Thelma Ritter, Jason Robards, Jr., Gwen Verdon, and not one, not two but three great actresses surnamed Harris: Barbara, Julie and Rosemary.

Not bad; not bad at all.

Gaver admitted that when he discussed shows “in some cases, there may be no more than a hint as to the subject matter … and in a number of instances such restraint should qualify as a merciful omission.” In fact, few essays deal with why a show was good or bad; many times Gaver took each show as a jumping off point for what was otherwise on his mind.

In 50 years or so, it had to change, you know. Here’s what’s different: Gaver preferred 8:30 p.m. curtains “to have a proper dinner and appropriate libation.” Yes, but back then not nearly as many women had to get up and be at work by 9 a.m. or earlier. That’s why we now have the occasional 7 p.m. curtain on weeknights. It’s not just consideration on Broadway’s part; there’s a theory that people are more inclined to make it an early night during the week, and that incentive might well have them fill seats that would otherwise go empty.

Gaver also wrote, “The greatest pleasure to be gotten out of reading the opinion of a critic – any sort of critic – is disagreeing with him.” (Note: not “her.”) The Ginger Man Restaurant is no longer at Lincoln Center. Gaver praises its omelettes, although he does concede that those eating there after seeing a production at the nearby Vivian Beaumont “may not want to be confronted by any style of egg (for) you may just have seen one laid.”

Yes, Lincoln Center did get off to a terrible start. Gaver reported that the Beaumont, which opened that year, was “a home of repertory” and was “not geographically or artistically in the true Broadway orbit.” That’s changed in both cases. The Beaumont has indeed become another Broadway house that looks for shows that will run now and forever. Doing repertory – meaning two, three or more shows rotating each week – was long ago deemed non-cost-effective.

Now Lincoln Center Theater is in great shape, and one of Broadway’s greatest assets. What else has improved in 50 years? Gaver counted 34 theaters operating on Broadway; we now have 40. Oh, aside from The New Amsterdam reclamation, the theaters that have been built during that last 50 years haven’t been as glorious as one the ones that have been razed. But such destruction was happening in 1965-66, too; as Gaver wrote, “The Palace comes and the Ziegfeld goes after 40 years as the most beautiful playhouse in the city.”

Gaver noted that 1965-66 was “the season of the first on-stage bare-assed male.” He was Ian Richardson playing Marat in MARAT/SADE, although Gaver later conceded that the actor wearing “a male version of a stripper’s G-string.” (Indeed he was, as I could see from my sixth-row seat.) But notice that right now on Broadway, the closest we MAY have to a “bare-assed male” might come courtesy of SPRING AWAKENING, if the revival’s first-act finale is anything like the first production. Maybe nudity isn’t as important to Broadway was it was during the 7,273 performances amassed by two productions of OH! CALCUTTA! between 1969 and 1989.

Abbott Van Nostrand, then head honcho of Samuel French (his daughter Abbie is now) was quoted: “In the past 25 years, it has become increasingly difficult for a play to survive on Broadway.” So I did some math.

Gaver’s season sported 40 plays, including revivals and limited engagements, which had racked up 4,716 performances. That’s an average of 117.9 performances each.

Last season, we had 21 plays, including revivals and limited engagements – close enough to say half as many – that have amassed 2,488 performances (although HAND TO GOD and CURIOUS DOG continue to add to that total). Right now, that’s an average of 118.4 performances each.

So things are slightly better? No, not when the number of plays produced has been close-to-halved. What we don’t have today is the around-for-years play as CACTUS FLOWER was that season at 1,234 performances. But we also no longer see one-performance flops as MATING DANCE, ME AND THEE and FIRST ONE ASLEEP, WHISTLE were that season – each of which still managed to run longer than VENUS IS and THE OFFICE (the latter directed by Jerome Robbins), both of which closed during previews.

“The Broadway openings average two a week over the normal nine-month period,” wrote Gaver. That’s one every three-and-a-half days. We have no idea what this season will bring when all is said, done and sung, but if we look at October 2015, which is undoubtedly set in stone, there will be all of six openings, which is fewer than one every five days. That is, needless to say, not as good.

September 1965 gave us two openings; September 2015 will give us one (SPRING AWAKENING on the 27th). Ah, but for the 2015-16 season, we’re at the moment ahead of 1965-66, which only had one summer opening (that return of OLIVER!) while we’ve had four times as many: AN ACT OF GOD, PENN & TELLER, AMAZING GRACE and, of course, HAMILTON.

The two shows that did open in September 1965 were William Hanley’s MRS. DALLY and Ruth Gordon’s A VERY RICH WOMAN. The former was an expanded version of MRS. DALLY HAD A LOVER, a one-act play that had already played off-Broadway. Gaver defined off-Broadway success as “glory and no money,” which is what is still believed today.

So Hanley made MRS. DALLY a full-length play by having Mrs. Dally dally with her lover during the first act and face her husband in the second. Despite “a pre-Broadway tryout tour of summer stock theaters” (which of course doesn’t happen anymore) it lasted 53 performances. And yet, that was better than the 48 that it had amassed off-Broadway.

Gaver summarized A VERY RICH WOMAN as “An elderly rich Boston woman of iron whose heirs are afraid she is going to dissipate too much of the money they expect to get. The main trouble,” he added, “is that (Gordon) didn’t couch it in terms of an out-and-out farce.”

Oh, I don’t know. I’ll grant you, I turned on the TV one night and happened onto the last half-hour or so of ROSIE! the film version of A VERY RICH WOMAN. I was quite moved by seeing Rosalind Russell on the courtroom stand trying to convince the judge that she was still in compos mentis while testifying against the adult children she once loved.

In essence, 1965-66 could be called the season of THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS and “The Impossible Dream.” The former was “larded with a kind of prurient sex that the view networks are only starting to fool around with.” Yes, but they’ve certainly continued. Cable of course immediately raised or lowered the bar (depending on your outlook) for frank sexual situations and coarser language. So sex comedies as Broadway had always known them have pretty much disappeared.

And, of course, any discussion of Broadway a half-century ago is going to involve cost. Gaver observes “A playgoer thinks twice before laying down $7 to $12 for a ticket.” Agreeing with Gaver are Henry Fonda (“It’s quite a lot today”) and Peter Brook (“The prices are too high”). Fonda died in 1982, just as CATS was about to raise prices to an all-time high of $45, so he could have never imagined a world where THE BOOK OF MORMON would sell premium seats at $477. And given that Peter Brook is still alive but is now 90, we’d better keep this information from him if we want to keep him around.

         — Peter Filichia



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