Marilyn Cooper died Wednesday night, 22 April. She was 74 and was living at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J. A journeyman character actress, Cooper played on Broadway and Off-Broadway in the chorus and the ensemble, in featured roles and as a replacement for leads over 25 years, always laboring in semi-obscurity, recognized only for her talent, seldom her name--she was never famous. Until one night. In 1981, Cooper was cast in Woman of the Year as Jan Donovan, the second wife of the first husband of the show’s lead character, Tess Harding (played by Lauren Bacall). On opening night, Sunday, 29 March 1981, Marilyn Cooper walked away with the whole damn show--right from under Bacall’s nose! As The New York Times put it in her obituary on Saturday, she did it in “just a few minutes of showstopping hilarity” for which she ultimately won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. As it happens, I saw that production in July 1981, and here’s what I wrote about it all, including Cooper’s moment in the spotlight:
Those of us who remember the original Ring Lardner, Jr.-Michael Kanin film of Woman of the Year (and who with a television doesn’t) remember it as one of a string of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicles, in which the billing was shared equally, and with a certain equity in screen time and character weight. The new musical stage version written by Peter Stone with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb is, however, very much a one-star vehicle. Lauren Bacall is handed center stage and a spot light for the opening (and title) number and she never relinquishes either. We know we are in for a treat, and a class act it is, too.
The story of the film remains basically unchanged: Tess Harding (Bacall), now a savvy Barbara Walters-type TV interviewer, and Sam Craig (Harry Guardino), a newspaper cartoonist, publicly disagree, meet, fall in love, marry, clash, separate and, to no one’s surprise, get back together. Except for up-dating and the change in professions, the only other real changes are in the form of minor omissions. The result does not suffer in the least from such judicious cutting.
Bacall is, of course, magnificent, a true star of the first magnitude, and she owns the stage at the Palace Theater. Though her acting is better than her singing or dancing, her personality and charisma are far better than all three, and I loved it. There is, however, another “star” of’ this production. Special credit and high praise must be given to the team who created Woman of the Year, Tony Walton’s sets are resourcefully appropriate, ranging from the stark elegance of Tess Harding’s apartment to the seedy comfort of the cartoonists’ hangout, The Inkpot, with its Sardis-like wall of caricatures. I especially liked the moment in scene two when Tess’s TV studio and Sam’s workshop are juxtaposed, with Tess “appearing” on a huge TV screen in Sam’s office. And while we’re in Sam’s studio, I have to mention Michael Sporn’s inspired animation of Sam’s creation, Katz, the social-commenting cat. I wish he had not disappeared so soon in the first act: he was a perfect foil for Sam and the Quintessential New Yorker. Most of all, I found the musical numbers, staged by Tony Charmoli, marvelously insidious: they snuck up on me before I knew it. I was particularly engaged by “Happy in the Morning,” a number in Act II where Russian dancer Alexi (a delightfully mercurial Eivind Harum) advises Tess on love and life while the “corps de ballet” is behind him, doing their barre. Soon they are exercising in time to the song, and then, without the slightest hitch, they are in the midst of an energetic production number.
What is so remarkable about these accomplishments is that each one has been blended by director Robert Moore into a confection of intricate control and selection. The result is a whole far more effective than the sum of all its wonderfully clever parts. For this restraint alone, Moore should be congratulated and heartily thanked, but he has far more than mere technical control. He has brought together an ensemble of players unquestionably fit to back up his star. It has been a long time since I have seen a cast so evenly talented, so painstakingly assembled and so obviously lovingly directed as this one: Guardino could not be more human and secure as Craig, and his rendition of the ballad “Sometimes A Day Goes By” is as warm as ever a love song can be; Grace Keagy and Roderick Cook are both self-important and protective as Bacall’s maid and personal secretary. But among all this high-level evenness, there is a show-stopper, and it belongs to Marilyn Cooper as the current wife of Tess’s ex. In “The Grass Is Always Greener,” when Miss Cooper asks “what’s so wonderful” about her middle-class life as compared to Tess’s glamorous adventures, we have no doubt what that life entails. She is, in one shot, an Erma Bombeck-cum-Julia Childs-cum-Heloise. Whom better for poor Tess to ask how to keep a husband?
If there is anything wrong with Woman of the Year, aside from occasional difficulty hearing some of Guardino’s and Bacall’s spoken dialogue, it is that it is over too soon. Tess Harding may be the Woman of the Year, but Woman of the Year is the play of the season.
Cooper went on tour with Woman with Bacall following its Broadway run and then on a national tour with Barbara Eden (Jeannie of I Dream of . . . .) in 1984. She continued to act until 1998 (2000 on TV and in movies), but there was never another moment like the one in Woman.
[Several of the people named in my 28-year-old report have left the stage permanently. Robert Moore, the director of Woman of the Year, died in 1984; Roderick Cook in 1990; Harry Guardino in 1995; Peter Stone in 2003; and Fred Ebb in 2004.]