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 November 16, 2012

It Says Here in These Books …

Before you know it, there’ll be only 12 days to Christmas and not plenty of time to do your Christmas shopping. What to get your literate friends who still enjoy having shelves in their apartments lined with genuine books? Here are three you might bestow on the theatrically inclined.

What are the plays that have had the most significant influence on society? The Diary of Anne Frank, to be certain, and A Raisin in the Sun as well. But David Rothenberg’s memoir reminds us that a far-lesser known play has had plenty of impact.

It was John Herbert’s 1967 prison-drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which had a 382-performance off-Broadway run at the now semi-defunct Actors’ Playhouse. Rothenberg was both its press representative and co-producer. Needless to say, he didn’t get rich from it; Fortune and Men’s Eyes didn’t run as long as Anne Frank or A Raisin in the Sun, and it obviously played to smaller houses, given its 170-seat capacity. But it and Rothenberg gave birth to The Fortune Society, an organization that helped convicts who’d “paid their debt to society” get back into ordinary life.

Ordinary life was often extraordinarily difficult for men and women who’d had every decision made for them for years or even decades. “When you got out of jail,” Rothenberg says, “you only got $40 and a baloney sandwich.”

Rothenberg’s friend Alvin Ailey soon offered two free tickets to one of his productions. But guidance was needed, too, and that’s where The Fortune Society came in – and continues to come in. It offers much more than tea and sympathy, and it wouldn’t have happened if Herbert’s play hadn’t opened Rothenberg’s eyes to the atrocities committed in prison.

Hence, Rothenberg called his memoir Fortune in My Eyes. He certainly spends some time talking about his show-biz days, when Lainie Kazan was, he insists, “statuesque” and Stephen Boyd decided not to play Marc Antony in the 1963 film of Cleopatra – allowing Richard Burton to take his place, which led to a big difference in many marriages. He says that Mary Martin was “all surface kindness” and he’s still reeling from the fact that after shepherding Joan Fontaine around Maine for two solid weeks, she didn’t remember who he was when he saw her a scant month later.

And yet, even those with an insatiable zest for show-biz stories will find that the journeys of ex-prisoners make for far more potent reading. Tales of a cop who came out when few were admitting their sexuality and a New York Times that was ever-so-reluctant to touch any gay issues are part of the story, too. Rothenberg tells it well, and all will be fortunate to have Fortune in My Eyes on their bookshelves.

At the same time that Rothenberg worked in his trenches, Ron Bruguiere was entrenched in his. On Broadway, Bruguiere was a four-star manager: business, company, general and house. And, oh, does he remember what he saw in his book Collision.

“Carol Channing’s co-star was discharged early in the run for enjoying too much applause,” he reports, not long before he suffered the same fate by Channing’s then-husband Charles Lowe; he wasn’t applauding forcefully enough for the star.

Bruguiere’s eyes witnessed moments the rest of us would like to have seen: James Baldwin’s explosion when director Frank Corsaro wouldn’t allow his play Blues for Mr. Charlie to be five hours long. What Bruguiere tells about The Three Sisters Broadway revival in 1964 brings to mind Max Bialystock’s question about actors: “Have you ever eaten with one?”

He had a fly-on-the-wall view not only Streisand’s audition for Funny Girl, but also her reaction to the favorable review of the performance Lainie Kazan gave when she went on as Fanny Brice. He saw Melba Moore’s then-husband stand in the wings at the end of every Act One of Hair, robe in hand, ready to cover her nakedness as soon as she came off-stage. How well he describes the look on Richard Rodgers’ face when a Music Theater of Lincoln Center board member suggested Glen Campbell for Curly and Bobbie Gentry for Laurey.

Some of the facts that Bruguiere divulges may be new to you. Hair had an on-staff astrologer and tarot card reader. Find out what one-performance flop Mike Nichols show-doctored and what Martin Luther King bio-play Aretha Franklin came close to doing. Hear all about the Arthur Cantor production of Deborah Kerr in Souvenir, a play co-written by George Axelrod and (not incidentally) Kerr’s husband Peter Viertel.

And of course there are all those elbow-rubs with the stars. Dinner with Maggie Smith turned out to be disappointing (as well as costly). Pretending to be sexually straight backfired with her. And then there was the luminary who told him, “Nobodies don’t have the privilege to contact the privileged.”

Bruguiere tells a good deal of his off-stage exploits and what comes of too much coke and liquor. You’ll be more interested in the pages that have italicized words – meaning titles of shows. The collisions that went on between the creators of those are much more intriguing.

On page 143 of Mel Atkey’s A Million Miles from Broadway, there’s the sentence that encapsulates the thrust of the book: “The Drowsy Chaperone was a love letter to the American musical, but as one Japanese director observed, that letter was definitely postmarked Toronto.” By lumping the United States, Japan and Canada in a comment about one musical, Atkey’s premise is well-substantiated: there is much musical theater beyond Broadway and London.

The author points out that once – but not now -- many countries had inferiority complexes about their musicals; if shows weren’t American, they couldn’t be worthy. “But we just weren’t good at it,” admits Australian Tony (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) Sheldon, when speaking of decades ago. He cites a ‘50s musical of Lola Montez that suffered because the creators were much too much influenced by Paint Your Wagon.

Times change. All right, Manning Clark’s History of Australia: The Musical doesn’t sound like a hit – and it wasn’t – but Atkey points out the merits of The Hatpin and laments its just-missed status. He points out why the Australian The Boy from Oz was a much darker and better show than what we got here. On the other hand, there was that Kookaburra production of Company in which the actress playing June (sorry – April) fell ill and had no understudy. As a result, the director dropped “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Barcelona.” Learn what happened when Sondheim heard about it.

See what Michael Kunze, co-author of Dance of the Vampires, really thought of the Broadway version. Why Mame inspired Anne of Green Gables to change two songs before its London premiere. How a Baker Street writer’s knowledge trickled down to help The Drowsy Chaperone.

If you thought that Evita was forbidden in Argentina, Atkey clarifies the real reason why B.A. has yet to see it. He does tell why Sarafina! was heavily criticized in South Africa and why the The King and I is banned in Thailand. (Did you know that Anna’s original surname was actually Owens, but she added the Leon to the front of it because it was husband Tom’s middle name? Atkey does.)

Who’d expect that former rocker Cat Stevens was a groupie for the 1961 British musical King Kong? Or that the first American musical produced in Buenos Aires was retitled Simple y Maravilloso. (Can you translate or at least infer the title that it had had on Broadway?) As for that all-female Japanese Takarazuka troupe that does American musicals as unlikely as Kean and Ernest in Love, Atkey points out that no two women ever kiss for real on stage. In short, there’s never been a better book for the armchair-traveler-theatergoer.

But for very special friends, give Love Song, Ethan Mordden’s biography of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. It’s so wonderfully potent, it demands to have a column of all of its own. Tune in next Friday and find out why.

         — Peter Filichia


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