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November 6, 2015

We Can Always Go Back to Before

As I mentioned in my column of Sept. 19, every now and then throughout this 2015-2016 season I’ll take a 50th anniversary look at Jack Gaver’s book SEASON IN SEASON OUT, which detailed the 58 productions of the 1965-1966 season.

Times have changed, of course. When Gaver – a theater critic for United Press International (a rival to Associated Press) -- stated that a certain performer was “probably the most popular singer-actor-comedian in the British theater,” would you have guessed that he was talking about Harry Seacombe? Hardcore fans of the OLIVER! film might know who he is, for he was its Mr. Bumble. Chances are that you missed his Bioernstjerne Bjoernson in the SONG OF NORWAY film, as did most everyone else on the planet. (TERRIBLE movie!)

But some theater fans of a certain age who have good retentive brainpower will recall that Seacombe was the leading man who had the title role of PICKWICK. Gaver notes that the show’s Broadway premiere “occurred during a strike that had closed all New York newspapers except for the Post and the Herald-Tribune.” Note the use of the word “all.” Yup, there were six at the time.

PICKWICK’s producer was David Merrick, whom some will remember from his antics on SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING and LOOK BACK IN ANGER. He’d also have a memorable to-do later in that 1965-1966 season, but we’ll hold that one until February.

But does anyone know or remember Merrick’s contretemps with Peter Bull, a character actor whom you can see as the Russian ambassador in DR. STRANGELOVE or General Bellowes in DR. DOLITTLE? PICKWICK ran 694 performances in London, but only 56 performances here, so cast member Bull wrote a letter to the editor of Variety and claimed that Merrick didn’t try hard enough to make the show a hit and that its run might well have rivaled the London stint had the producer cared about it. Merrick of course denied the charges, but they’re pretty detailed and believable in the way that Bull tells the story. Besides, Seacombe, Roy Castle and Charlotte Rae were all nominated for performance Tonys six long months later, so how bad could PICKWICK have been?

Otis Guernsey, then in his second semester of editing the BEST PLAYS series, included William Goodhart’s GENERATION as one of the season’s ten finest scripts. It was the story of a staid father who’s appalled not only that his grown daughter and her husband are living in a sty -- “Cats make good ratters,” she blithely tells him – but also that she wants to deliver her baby at home by natural childbirth while Dad wants her in a hospital.

Doesn’t sound so good, does it? But GENERATION had already paid back its angels their entire investment before the play had even opened at the (now-razed) Morosco. In fact, although GENERATION was budgeted at $100,000, it came in for $70,000 because of smart producing, not to mention sold-out tryouts thanks to the actor playing the father: Henry Fonda.

Gaver reported that there was “no money from a movie sale,” but there would be after his book went to press. The GENERATION movie was a bomb, and I defy you to find it on VHS for any reasonable fee; also look under A TIME FOR CARING, which it was called in some markets.

When Gaver detailed a four-performance flop called A MINOR MIRACLE, he centered on star Dennis King, formerly a star of operettas. “You simply have to have heard of such songs as ‘Indian Love Call’ and ‘Rose Marie,’” Gaver insisted. I’m sure that’s no longer true, but isn’t it interesting that Gaver gives it as a given. (And try saying that three times quickly.)

Of DRAT! THE CAT! – a much underrated musical – Gaver carped that “The exclamation point has become an albatross. It gets tagged onto too many shows.” Seven years ago, I did a survey of all the musicals that had made it to Broadway since OKLAHOMA! and found that out of 760, only 37 had had exclamation points – a mere 4.8%.

The show opened on a Sunday, which prompted Gaver to complain about having to work on “the proverbial day of rest – and how a critic needs rest.” Oh, please! My father was a plumber! THAT was work. Gaver also went on to carp “The weekend openings can play havoc with a critic’s social life.”

“Social life!” Why do you think critics are given a PAIR of tickets?

By the way, Gaver described DRAT! THE CAT! star Elliott Gould as “the husband of powerhouse Barbra Streisand.” Yes, that too did pass by the end of 1971.

In panning Joe Orton’s first New York outing, Gaver predicted that “it seems unlikely that anyone is going to be inspired to turn ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE into a melodic frolic” – meaning a musical – “and give it a second career.” No, but despite the caustic play’s 13-performance run, it’s had no fewer than three off-Broadway revivals in each of the previous three decades. Even on the community theater level, there’ll be productions this month in Phoenix and Bethesda, Maryland. ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE -- about a man and woman who are sexually intoxicated by their male boarder -- has lived longer than Orton, although, to be fair, he died prematurely through no fault of his own.

Far more enthusiastic was Gaver over another British import: THE RIGHT HONOURABLE GENTLEMEN, calling it “a sturdy property that should do well for the playwright in one way or another for years to come.” The story of an adulterous scandal that brought down a British official may well have seemed old new after the Profumo affair of two years earlier; if you want to know more about that, Andrew Lloyd Webber can help you by way of his STEPHEN WARD. Whatever the case, Gaver’s prediction of the play’s redemption has not remotely come to pass.

But Gaver rather liked THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS – about a psychiatrist who’s written a book on how to deal with teenagers but can’t cope with his rebellious teen daughter. The other critics didn’t, but that didn’t stop the play from becoming the tenth-longest-running comedy of the decade. You can see its film version, which gets a “BOMB” rating from Leonard Maltin.

“The Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center,” as it was then called (because it did offer different plays during the week) was again having a hard time of it in its third season. Debuting with DANTON’S DEATH – a 19th century German play about the French Revolution – didn’t start a line, let alone a stampede, at the box office. But the theater’s new powers-that-be caused a controversy with a program insert that likened Robespierre, Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-tung to then warmongering President Lyndon B. Johnson. Such a missive was not well received during the first two previews, so it wasn’t included in the playbills for the other eight previews or the regular run of 46 poorly attended performances.

This was a big blow to new producers Herbert Blau, who’d directed, and Jules Irving, who’d seen to it that his wife Priscilla Pointer would be in the production. After the two-year failure of the Lincoln Center team of Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead, theatergoers were wishing, hoping and praying that the new duo would turn out to be dynamic.

Alas, no. Not that awards mean everything, but they don’t mean nothing – and not ONE of the 32 productions that Blau and Irving mounted in their eight-year tenure got as much as a single Tony nomination, let alone an award.

Could it be that they asked not to be considered for Tonys? I can’t find anything that says so, but if you know something I don’t, do tell.

I can tell you this much: DANTON’S DEATH had a fan in the daughter born to Irving and Pointer twelve years earlier. Pre-teen Amy Irving, later Oscar-nominated for YENTL, told me a few years ago that she’d watched many, many performances of Georg Buchner’s play from the Vivian Beaumont’s wings. To prove it, she recited verbatim one of the play’s long speeches. If you see her around town, ask her to do it for you. I bet she will.

         — Peter Filichia



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