22 September 2010

A Broadway Baby

On Sunday, 13 June, Vanity Fair and GQ contributing editor David Kamp reported in a New York Times “Cultural Studies” column that “the musical-theater idiom has regained its currency, and is enjoying what may be its greatest popularity among young people since the pre-rock era.” When I read that, it heartened me. According to Kamp, young teens and preteens, including boys, are going to theater in large numbers; kids in general accept their friends who go to theater more than previous generations; and applications for places like Stagedoor Manor, the summer theater camp in Loch Sheldrake in the Catskills, have increased (also among boys) by large numbers. If Kamp's right and this isn't just a bubble, that's really encouraging. One thing Kamp doesn't say, however, is whether there's any evidence that this increased interest in theater is occurring beyond the New York City area. Stagedoor Manor does report, according to Kamp’s article, that the rush of new campers is coming from all over the country and beyond. The column, "The Glee Generation," puts the responsibility for the rise in interest on the Disney TV movie High School Musical and on the TV series Glee for making it acceptable.

A new generation of young theatergoers would be a great development. As most people who have any interest in theater know, the audiences for live theater is aging and shrinking all over the country. It’s not just on Broadway, where ticket prices have climbed well into the three-figure range, that this problem is visible; and it’s not entirely because of the current economic downturn that people are staying away from theater—though that crisis has exacerbated the decrease. Live theater, in competition with movies, cable and broadcast TV, DVD’s, rock and pop concerts, the Internet, and iPods and other portable devices, has been losing audience for years, much to the concern of producers, theater owners, rep company artistic directors, and boards of directors. Every time a new presence in theater, especially musical theater, shows up, like Jonathan Larson with Rent in 1996 and Paul Simon with The Capeman in 1998, there’s hope across the theater world that maybe a new, youthful sound will bring young theatergoers into the half-empty houses and get them to line up at the ticket windows. We’ll never know what Larson might have accomplished after the immense success of the rock-oriented Rent because his tragic death the night before the Off-Broadway opening cut short any influence he might have had to bring along other new composers; and the failure of Capeman put an end to any draw Simon might have had to encourage other pop composers to give theater a try. Spring Awakening (2006) and the revival of Hair (2009), two other rock-infused hits, have brought spectators to the theater, but haven’t inspired imitators. Kamp, however, does note that Hair along with this year’s American Idiot have been among the biggest attractions for young theatergoers. These enthusiasts aren’t like the “bused-in tourists” of past seasons, Kamp observes, shepherded to the big musicals on the Great White Way because that’s what you do on vacation in New York City. These young spectators, he says, are “true believers for whom love of musicals brings happiness, transcendence, and, strangely enough, social acceptance” If Kamp is right, “We’re raising a generation of Broadway babies,” as he puts it.

The emphasis on the inclusion of boys in this new development is not only impressive—girls have always been more drawn to theater, as anyone who’s ever tried to cast a play in middle or high school can attest, and they are much more likely to be accepted by their non-theater friends if they are—but very encouraging as well. Not long ago, as recently as 2007, the Times reported that teen and tween girls were the target demographic of theater promoters who were campaigning to build new audiences. The enthusiasm of the girls alone, the producers saw, wasn’t enough to keep shows running into hit territory. If Kamp’s observations are correct, we may now be seeing the brothers of those girls following their sisters into the theater right behind them.

I don’t know if “The Glee Generation” is accurate or not—though I fervently hope it is. It doesn’t bother me at all that the young people Kamp’s encountered, who include his own 14-year-old daughter, are focusing on musicals right now. Anyone who’s ever bought a ticket for a Broadway show knows that the musicals are the most popular entertainments offered by the theater, followed by comedies. (Most theater spectators are entertainment seekers; true theater enthusiasts have always been a smaller proportion of the audience. I’d guess that the disparity is even greater for musicals.) If musicals are the hook that gets young people into the theater, it’s all good. My own interest in musicals when I was little expanded into a much broader interest in theater by high school. I suspect that that’s how it happens for most habitual theatergoers: we begin with the musicals—I even started with Gilbert and Sullivan—and move on to more challenging fare as our tastes and our intellects mature. It’s like drug addiction in a (benign) way: when we start, the light fare of musical theater satisfies our desires, but then we need more to accomplish what the musical used to do alone so we add the straight comedy, then the drama, then, finally, Off-Broadway and experimental theater. (Some traditionalists don’t ever get to that last stage, I think. But the line of progression is the same, even if it stops short.)

I grew up loving what used to be called musical comedy. If I didn't see them on stage when I was a kid, I saw the movies (as I did with Damn Yankees and Oklahoma!) or I listened to the albums, which my dad had from his youth. (Dad took my mom to the original Oklahoma! on one of their early dates. He had a collection of cast albums that went back to the ‘30s. Some were even 78’s! I still have his cast albums of Kiss Me Kate and Carousel, among others.) I literally grew up on that music—and when I was little, I knew (and could actually sing) all the words to all the songs. I’d actually come out of the theater singing the score. I saw all kinds of theater at home in Washington, including Shakespeare, but my first Broadway experiences, when I came to visit my grandparents, were musicals. Fiorello! was my very first show on Broadway; I saw My Fair Lady a little later, but it still had the original cast. When I was teaching upstate, a bus-and-truck tour of MFL came through and played at the college theater. All the theater students went, of course, and I met one of mine in the lobby during intermission. "It's really good, isn't it?" she said, adding, "Of course, she's no Audrey Hepburn." I chuckled to myself and responded, "Yes, and Hepburn was no Julie Andrews." I smiled, both at the student and to myself. To her, MFL was an old movie with Audrey Hepburn—using Marnie Nixon's voice—and Rex Harrison; to me, it will always be a Broadway experience with Julie Andrews and Harrison. Those great performances I saw as a boy have become enduring: Harold Hill is always Robert Preston, Maria von Trapp is always Mary Martin—not Andrews, by the way; besides Guinevere and Liza Doolittle, she's always Cinderella (from the original 1957 television broadcast)—Fiorello is always Tom Bosley, Don Quixote is always Richard Kiley, Pseudolus and Hysterium are always Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, J. Pierrepont Finch and Bud Frump are always Robert Morse and Charles Nelson Reilly, Fagin is always Clive Revill, Fanny Brice is always Barbra Streisand, Charity Hope Valentine is always Gwen Verdon; and, of course, Mrs. Lovett will always be Angela Lansbury. (I missed a few of the big ones: I didn't see West Side Story or Cabaret until the movies.)

Back in ’06, I watched Broadway: The Golden Age on PBS. It’s a 2003 documentary by Rick McKay in which he compiles many interviews, including archival footage, with the greats of Broadway theater going back to its . . . well, “Golden Age.” Some of the reminiscences of the stars' earliest introductions to theater and to Broadway and Times Square were very reminiscent of my own experiences at a similar age. When I used to come to New York City to visit one or another of my grandparents and before I ever went to a Broadway play, we'd go to Times Square. Both my parents were New Yorkers and their parents lived here when I was little, so we’d come to New York for visits. My mom’s dad liked Ruby Foo’s on West 52nd Street, and we also ate at Mamma Leone’s on West 48th, all in the Times Square area in those days. (Neither was especially good, but they were family-friendly and kind of a show themselves.) Just like the interviewees all said, it was a mesmerizing and indelible experience. The lights, the billboards, the theater marquees, the hokum (the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum!), the crowds—and that Camel sign with the smoke rings! (I always wondered how it did that.) It just wasn't quite Real. The Great White Way—you could tell why they called it that. In the '50s it hadn't gotten sleazy and dangerous yet, and it was like a bizarro Disneyland. The experience of seeing it for the first (and second and third) time at that age—I wasn’t 10 when I first went to Times Square with my parents or my grandparents—is hard to forget. In fact, it’s the kind of image that’s been immortalized many times, once, appropriately enough, in the “Times Square Ballet” from a Broadway musical from that legendary era, Comden and Green’s On the Town (1944). Frank Rich, a native Washingtonian like me (and about the same age, too), described what he called “that ecstatic baptism, that first glimpse of Broadway lights, of every Broadway theatergoer's youth” in an old review of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway:

For any child who ever fell in love with the Broadway musical, there was always that incredible moment of looking up to see the bright marquees of Times Square for the first time.

The moment occurs as Mr. Robbins's show ends. The three World War II sailors of ''On the Town,'' winding down from their dizzy 24-hour pass through the pleasures of New York, New York, come upon a dazzling, crowded skyscape of twinkling signs heralding the smash musicals Mr. Robbins staged between 1944 and his withdrawal from Broadway in 1964. Some of the theaters (the Adelphi, the New Century) are gone now; some of the shows are forgotten. But the awe that seizes those innocent young sailors of 1944 overwhelms the jaded Broadway audience of 1989, too . . . .

Like many of the theater greats in McKay’s documentary, I saw my first theater in my home town. Washington happened to be a minor stop on the pre-Broadway circuit—not New Haven or Philly, but we got some try-outs—and a major stop on the post-Broadway tour. Before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, Broadway shows played at the National, originally built in 1834 (the current building dates to 1885). (Ford's Theatre, which operates today as a booking house, was just a museum and historic site in my childhood; it didn't operate as a theater for over 100 years after Lincoln's assassination.) We also had some other theater, including visits by the D'Oyly Carte company and the American Savoyards (as I admitted, I loved G&S in those days) and we went to summer stock shows just like the ones the actors described in The Golden Age. I even saw Mary Martin and John Raitt do Annie Get Your Gun at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis one summer. (We almost always went there at least once during the summer back in the '50s. I still remember being astonished at a production of The Wizard of Oz there when, after a tornado generated by the techies, the lights came back up—and there was Dorothy's house on stage, on top of the Wicked Witch, her legs sticking out from under one side! It was impossible! How did that house get there? It was magic!) Then I saw my first shows on Broadway when I was about 10.

I was lucky enough to catch the end of what McKay called the Golden Age. I say that not so much to brag, but out of amazement that I saw some of it before it disappeared. The interviewees in the documentary all named some of the performances they saw that stayed with them or influenced their own later work. Almost all of them named Laurette Taylor’s 1945 turn as Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie, then they went on to list other seminal performances: Ethel Waters in Mamba's Daughters (1939); Marlon Brando in Truckline Café (1946), Candida (1946), and Streetcar (1947); Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding (1950); Kim Stanley in Bus Stop (1955) and A Far Country (1961); Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird (1959); and James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1968). Most of those were well before my time (except GWH), but I had a list of my own: the best individual performances I’d seen. Jones’s Jack Jefferson was on it; so was Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which I saw at the National where it premièred in 1962), Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity (1966), Stacy Keach in Indians (which I saw at Arena in D.C. where it began in 1969), Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII (1969), Ben Vereen in Pippin (1972), Virginia Capers in Raisin (1973), Jim Dale in Scapino! (1974), Henry Fonda in Clarence Darrow (1974), Anthony Hopkins in Equus (1974), Donald Sinden in London Assurance (1974), Meryl Streep in A Memory of Two Mondays/27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1976), Cronyn and Tandy together in The Gin Game (1977), and Pat Carroll in Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979). (I don’t keep the list anymore—it was only in my head anyway—but I’ve seen two or three recent performances that I’d add if I did.) In The Golden Age, when Tony Roberts, I believe, described the time he saw James Earl Jones in GWH, he was describing my own experience at that show. (I also saw GWH at the Arena, where it originated, before it transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre—now the Neil Simon.) I was flabbergasted.

I also had favorite actors whose stage work I just liked a lot, even if they didn’t fit on my List of Greats. I first saw Jerry Orbach in Carnival! (1961) with Anna Maria Alberghetti and he became a special favorite of mine. (Later, when I trained to become an actor, I often used the songs he sang in his shows in my voice classes.) Also in that cast was another favorite of mine: Kaye Ballard, who sang the maddest love song on any Broadway stage: “Always Always You.” Her character was a magician’s assistant and she sang of her devotion to him while in a box into which Marco the Magnificent was thrusting swords! An image like that tends to stick with you. Other favorites included Kay Medford, Stubby Kaye, and Howard da Silva—I tended to go for the character actors, it seems. They all had personalities that shone through in all their appearances and there are lines I can still hear them saying, like Kay Medford: “Don’t worry about the coat. Three mink stoles you’ll have when the train pulls out.” (That’s from 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie in which she played Albert Peterson’s mother, Mae. She was lying across railroad tracks at the time.)

I’ve seen some good and even great revivals, and the later actors offered terrific performances which I enjoyed, but like that MFL upstate, the originals I saw when I was little are permanently engraved in my memory. In a recent column, Times reviewer Charles Isherwood wrote, “You cherish some performances so strongly that you may not want to let any other memories get in the way,” but that hasn’t been my problem. I welcome new interpretations that may stand alongside my old memories—but those oldies will always remain the bellwether, though not a barricade. In 2004, I saw the revival of Camelot presented by Arena Stage. This production was more than creditable overall—there were even some neat casting and costuming coups—but I had the misfortune of having seen the real, true original in ’60 with Andrews, Burton, Goulet, and McDowall. Nothing can ever really compare to that no matter who does it, especially since I was still a kid—that impression of the big, Broadway show, with all those stars and that story (I had loved The Once and Future King), is absolutely ineradicable. I can't hear those songs without hearing the original voices. The same’s always so for MFL, Sound of Music, Music Man, and all the Golden Oldies that I got to see. (Cyril Ritchard is the voice I hear for Captain Hook, too, but I only saw the Mary Martin Peter Pan on TV when I was almost 14.) I also saw many plays in which the whole cast formed a remarkable ensemble (Hair, Moonchildren), and others in which the stand-out artists were the playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Six Degrees of Separation) or the director (The Wiz, The Black Rider); I remember those vividly, but never kept even a mental list of them.

During the week of 16 August this year, PBS broadcast the current, Tony Award‑winning revival of South Pacific on Live From Lincoln Center. Needless to say, I made a point of catching it. (I’d never seen this classic musical on stage until 2003 when I saw a production at Arena’s Fichandler Stage.) Now, I can't be very critical about those classic musicals—I love them too much from my childhood. They're like theatrical comfort food to me—I hardly see any faults. During an intermission interview with the daughters of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Alda, the evening’s host, admitted, “I’ve seen this production three times. I blubber every time, as soon as the orchestra starts . . . the overture.” Well, me too! As soon as the musicians sound their first note, I become just “as corny as Kansas in August.” There’s no help for me. Then in a conversation with director Bartlett Sherr and Lincoln Center Theatre artistic director Andre Gregory, Alda also remarked, “As beautiful as this is on the screen, to be in the room with them” is better. I know that’s true, but watching this show alone in my living room allowed me to indulge my almost uncontrollable impulse to sing along—something the Arena expressly admonished us not to do there, "no matter how hard you find it to resist”! This is one of the scores I learned from my dad’s cast albums (not from the 1958 film, which I didn’t see until some time later), so I was surprised to see that I still remembered most of the lyrics. Oh, I can’t carry the tunes anymore, especially the women’s songs—unlike when I was a boy soprano and could actually sing—but there I sat, croaking along with the women’s parts, the men’s parts, the leading roles, the character roles, the solos, the duets, the ensemble numbers. It made no difference—I was a one-man backers’ audition!

I often feel that some musicals are nearly perfect for what they are. I think South Pacific fits that description. Nothing seems artificial, the plot and book all fits without seeming forced or contrived, the dialogue is the right texture for the material (Fiddler is sentimental and poignant, How To is brassy and slangy), the songs all come out of the story and advance the drama one way or another, the lyrics are all suited both to the music and the moment. Everything just belongs. MFL was one of those, and WSS. Naturally, the Golden Oldies were, too. That’s why they’re classics. Of course, SoPac isn't just a classic musical, it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (which also won a Pulitzer), his memoir of Navy service in the New Hebrides during World War II, the play and its music show humans in conflict, not just war but other, inner tensions. One of these is prejudice and bigotry, a malady from which even the play’s heroine, Nellie Forbush, suffers. When I taught a 9th-grade English class one year and we read Raisin in the Sun, I wanted to talk some about the underlying theme, racism, and the Langston Hughes lines that gave the play its title: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” I brought to class a recording of “You’ve Got To Be Taught”; I figured my 15-year-old students wouldn’t be likely to have heard it before. They hadn’t, and the discussion, as much as I could coax 9th-graders to have one, was one of the best I had in that class. The idea that prejudice is learned not congenital was revelatory. That was in the late ‘80s. SoPac still had something to say almost 40 years after it premièred!

I started seeing non-musicals around high school (not including Shakespeare, a few productions of whose plays I saw as a child). The high school I went to before I went to Europe did the usual kind of school theater, but it was the beginning of my introduction to serious drama. We did Billy Budd and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, which I suppose was pretty adventurous for a prep school in the early ‘60s. Off-Broadway didn't come until college—the 1969 Negro Ensemble Company production of Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men at the St. Marks Playhouse in the East Village was my first Off-Broadway drama. (That was my first non-musical OB experience. Ten years earlier, my family went to the Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Avenue to see Little Mary Sunshine, Rick Besoyan’s delightful send-up of old-time operettas.) I’ve mentioned before that the university theater at Washington and Lee was an education for me (“Disappearing Theater,” 19 July), starting with Godot and moving on to Marat/Sade, America Hurrah, Pinter, Ionesco, Boris Vian, Euripides, and of course more Shakespeare. I still loved the old musicals—and the new ones; I saw Hair first in London then again in New York in 1969—but I stopped being wholly devoted to the musical once I got impelled into the wider world of theater. The wonderful thing about theater is that it keeps evolving and growing. That’s true of any art, of course, but theater is the one I know best and love most. I love seeing new ideas of what theater is or can be, experiments with the form. Even if they don’t work, they open up new paths. I didn’t take to Performance Art, or the Happening before that, but I was excited to see what they left for theater artists to take up, adopt, and adapt.

I suppose I’ve gone the long way around my point, but for me, it all began with the musical. If David Kamp has seen a true phenomenon and there are 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old boys and girls out there who are waiting outside the theater entrances for the doors to open on Rent, or American Idiot, or Hair, or Lion King, and they can’t wait till the next musical play opens, whether it’s Spider-Man, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or Unchain My Heart—well, I couldn’t be happier. The love of musical theater can lead to a more encompassing love of theater, and nothing could be better than that short of world peace! After all, that’s how it started for me because . . . I was a Broadway Baby.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Bosley died today, Tuesday, 19 October 2010. He was 83 and died of heart failure. Bosley, who's most famous as the father of teenager Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, on the popular TV series "Happy Days" (1974-84), for me will always be Fiorello LaGuardia in the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. Bosley didn't have a brilliant career--he complained that after appearing in "Fiorello!", he became so identified with the Mayor of New York, whom he resembled remarkably, he couldn't get cast as anyone else--but he was always a favorite of mine. I was a fan, even when he did silly parts on "The Dean Martin Comedy Hour" in the early '70s. Sadly, another piece of my youth has passed on.

    "Twilight descends," Mr. Bosley; "Everything ends--'Til tomorrow." Break a leg!