30 April 2013

William Goldman’s 'The Season'

by Kirk Woodward

[Here’s another contribution to ROT from Kirk Woodward.  He’s discussing the value of William Goldman’s 1969 study of the Broadway season, a book both Kirk and I have put great store in for decades.  No one has followed up on The Season the way Goldman analyzed it, show by show during 1967-68, and it remains the only such detailed study in print.  (The book is perennially reissued in paperback, so it’s still available in bookstores.)  Anyone interested in how the commercial theater works in the United States, from back stage to the front of the house to the producers’ offices, will find Goldman’s book astonishingly informative, and it’s written in a style that makes it readable even for the merely curious as well as the serious theater student.  I’ll let Kirk explain the rest of the book’s value.  Rick]

I’ve had one particular kind of conversation so many times that it’s starting to seem like some sort of déjà vu experience. It goes something like this: I say to someone who loves theater, “That reminds me of a chapter in William Goldman’s book The Season. Have you read it?” They tell me they’ve never heard of it. Crushed, I reply, “It’s the best book on Broadway ever written, one of the best on theater. I’ll give you my copy.” I do, and I never get it back.

You may not be particularly familiar with William Goldman’s name (or maybe you are), but you’re certainly familiar with some of his work. He has written the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men (1976),and Maverick (1994), among many other films.

He began as a novelist; in college I read and loved his first novel, The Temple of Gold (1957), with its stunning conclusion. Other novels include Boys and Girls Together (1964) and No Way to Treat a Lady (also 1964 – he was not happy with its cinematic adaptation by others), and he has turned a number of his novels into movies, including Marathon Man (1976) with its appalling dental torture scene, Magic (1978), and The Princess Bride (1987), one “magical fantasy” that really is magical.

He has also worked in theater over the years, and at the age of eighty-one in 2012, he was adapting Stephen King’s novel Misery for a stage production, as he had adapted it for the screen in 1990. (His brother James wrote the play The Lion in Winter and the book for the musical Follies.)
One of the remarkable aspects of Goldman’s remarkable career is that he has contributed to the culture not one but two widely quoted sayings. One, from All the President’s Men, is “Follow the money,” a line inferred in Woodward and Bernstein’s book but phrased that way by Goldman. The other, from his first book about the movies, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), says so much that there is to say about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

But before he wrote his first book about the movies, he wrote The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969), in which he does something no one had done before: he takes one entire Broadway season (1967-68), sees every show that season, organizes the shows under topics, and writes an insightful, educational, and absolutely delightful book about all of it. My temptation is simply to quote the whole thing, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

I will start by saying that some things have changed since 1969, most of them along lines he proposed (which is not to say his advice is the reason they happened). For example, in the book he can’t understand why Broadway shows aren’t advertised on TV. Eventually a few were – the first I recall was Ben Vereen dancing in the TV commercial for Pippin – and now any show that can afford it is likely to have a commercial running.

Similarly, homosexuality is no longer a veiled topic on Broadway. In The Season Goldman bewails the guarded way he has to use to write about gays and the theater. Those days have gone.

However, human nature is still human nature, and theater is a remarkably conservative art beneath changing fashions in playwriting and staging. Goldman brings many gifts in writing about the theater. He has something to say – his book is thoroughly researched, to the extent of including a study of audiences, commissioned by Goldman, by a polling company. And he says well what he has to say – his narrative gifts as a novelist and screenwriter are continually in evidence in The Season. His chapters are structured like dramas: they have beginnings, middles, and ends, propelled throughout by conflict and suspense. “Each and every Broadway show,” he says, correctly, “is in reality a little battle to the death.”

But supreme among his gifts, in my opinion, is his insufficiently recognized gift for social comedy. He has the eye of a Molière or a Ben Jonson for the contrast between behaviors and ideals, pretenses and realities, hypocrisies and truths, illusions and knowledge. He sees what people pretend to be, and what they are.

The season that Goldman chose to study was hardly a landmark in Broadway history. It had some high points: Joe Egg receives particular praise, and Plaza Suite obviously continues to be performed. None of his season’s musicals are performed much anymore except perhaps George M, but that show survives, if at all, on the strength of its Cohan songs. Most of the season didn’t represent anybody’s best work. As far as Goldman’s book is concerned, perhaps that was just as well. Works of brilliance might distort the picture. Goldman is able to look at the processes that make Broadway what it is, and let them justify themselves if they can.

As Goldman presents this wide ranging social comedy, each chapter has a strategy. He may build a chapter around a single show (Something Different), around a group of shows (for example: sex comedies, shows about rebellious youth), around social groupings (gays, Jews), around a job (producers, reviewers), around a business function (ticket sales, publicity). A single chapter might go like this: describe a moment in the life of a particular show; narrate the show’s recent production history; put it in the context of similar shows of the past; report on conversations with the author and director; describe a telling moment that takes place at intermission; watch the creative team in various moments of stress; draw some organized conclusions; and finish with a revealing anecdote.

As a result, aspect after aspect of Broadway come to life. Goldman knows how to get his ideas across. A few examples may suffice. Of Mike Nichols’ directing: “What Nichols did through this production [of The Little Foxes] was have the characters behave as if their subconscious were common knowledge. Now this is simply not what people do.” Of reviewers: “You get the dregs, the stage-struck but untalented neurotic who eventually drifts into criticism as a means of clinging peripherally to the arts.” On why rewrites of shows can be disastrous: “It’s as if you want to go north, due north, that’s the place, and off you start. But then there’s a change and then another . . . And then one morning you wake up, and the sun’s dead in your face, and you think, ‘East, huh?’ . . . And then you think, ‘Well, what the hell, at least I’m moving and . . . when you get right down to it, I’m a motion man.”

This last illustration points out one of Goldman’s most enjoyable strengths as a writer about Broadway, namely, his illustrations – often extended analogies that put whatever he’s writing about into perspective. About homosexuals, he imagines how Jews (like himself) would feel if treated the same way. About the ideas that musicals should be up-to-date, he writes, “Musical comedy is under no more obligation to reflect the music of its time than Mr. Balanchine is to put the New York City Ballet through an evening of the Frug [a dance current at the time].” About the immortal fame of certain current writers, he writes, “Want to know whom we named in the eighteenth century as the three greatest writers of all time? Catch this: Homer, Sophocles and Richardson. Richardson. You know, that great, great writer none of us could live without.” (Samuel Richardson was the author, in 1740, of Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. You may have read it . . . but probably not.)

Some of Goldman’s useful categorizations include: the Culture Hero (someone who all of a sudden is acknowledged, not just as a fine worker, but as one of the Great of the Greats, who can do no wrong – my current example: the South Park guys); the Snob Hit (the one show a season, usually from England, that everyone feels they should see, not because they’ll enjoy it, or possibly even understand it, but because it’s a duty to see it); the Three Theaters (the Musical Theater; the Popular Theater, which “wants to tell us either a truth that we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in;” and the Third Theater, which “wants to tell us something we don’t want to know”); the Muscle (the person who is the real power behind a production – the Muscle may be an actor, director, producer, anyone who has the last word); and the Kiss of Death production, where from the start nothing seems to go right, and the disasters mount up. The directions he leads his discussion of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party are masterful; but I hope readers will discover its delights for themselves.

The Season is Goldman’s only book on theater. Drawing on his experiences in the movies, he has also written three books on films. I’ve mentioned Adventures in the Screen Trade, and the others are Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000) and The Big Picture (2001, a collection of Goldman’s daring film journalism, with a nice punning title). These are all fine books, and Screen Trade is generally considered a classic and is widely quoted.

In his books on the movies Goldman continues to batter at the walls of hypocrisy, self-delusion, and fraud with the weapons of experience and common sense. Why do movies succeed, he asks? Because people want to see them. Why do films and filmmakers win awards – or not? Because that’s how the votes go. Nobody, that is to say, knows anything.

For me, though, I must say, The Season trumps the books on cinema, because The Season is so brilliant about, let’s call it by its name, hypocrisy, and Hollywood is famously beyond hypocrisy. It’s gone into hypocrisy as a possibility, and come out on the other side, with hypocrisy as its very nature. That Hollywood is venal, dishonest, corrupt doesn’t surprise anyone. What surprises us is when it’s anything else.

But Broadway is different. There’s something unique about Broadway. The Season tells us a lot about a flamboyant business, but it never forgets that the potential for genuinely fine work is always there, and it tells us even more about how we as human beings get through life . . . especially when there’s prestige and money on the line.

So in his books on film, Goldman has to up the New Journalistic tone, make his writing process even more explicit, express more opinions in more earthy ways. And he tells us a great deal we probably didn’t know about movies. But the insights on human nature in the film business seem familiar, playing on the familiar themes of greed, vanity, and hypocrisy, while his insights on human nature on Broadway continually surprise and delight.

And, as I said, he doesn’t lose sight of the most remarkable fact of all: that good work does sometimes get done. An example is The Season itself, a triumph of dramatic writing – in multiple senses – if there ever was one.


25 April 2013

'Cinderella': Impossible Things Are Happening (CBS-TV, 31 March 1957)

On 3 March, the Broadway première of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella opened at the Broadway Theatre near 53rd Street.  Over the years, there have been several stagings of the fantasy musical, including a holiday pantomime version at the London Coliseum in December 1958, the play’s first live staging, and a version presented by the New York City Opera in 1993, 1995, and 2003.  The U.S. premières of the musical were at the St. Louis Municipal Opera and the Kansas City Starlight Theatre in August and September 1961.  All of these, however, were altered from the original version written and composed by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers for live color television broadcast by the Columbia Broadcasting System on the night of Sunday, 31 March 1957.  Auspiciously, the performance was on the exact same date on which the team’s Oklahoma!, their first collaboration, had opened in 1943, 14 years before.  Subsequent telecasts (1965, again on CBS, and 1997 on ABC) were also changed, including adding songs from other Rodgers scores.  (The current Broadway première has replaced Hammerstein’s book with a new one by Douglas Carter Beane.)  But I saw the live performance, the only musical the great team of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote expressly for TV.  (The team also wrote one musical for film: 1945’s State Fair; remade in 1962 and produced on stage in 1996.)  Librettist and lyricist Hammerstein (b. 1895) died in 1960, and Rodgers (b. 1902), the composer, died in 1979.

I’m going to try to recreate my response to that long-ago broadcast, which I watched with my family in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on the set in our den.  But let me make two relevant points at the outset.  First, I was just 10 years old when the show was aired, though I had already seen a fair amount of theater, especially musicals, by that age.  I’d been going to plays with my parents for a number of years by then, including pre- and post-Broadway tours that came to Washington’s National Theatre and my first Broadway productions in New York City the year before, one of which was My Fair Lady (1956-62) which had made a star and a national phenomenon of Julie Andrews, the original Cinderella on TV, the actress for whom R&H had written the role.  Second, I’m working from a memory, firmly held I grant you, that’s 56 years old.  I didn’t keep a diary or make any notes of that experience, though my dad did buy the album which I still have.  (The cast album was recorded by CBS Masterworks on 18 March 1957, almost two weeks before the broadcast.  Because we didn’t have a stereo system in 1957, my copy is monaural, released on 25 March, though a stereophonic version was issued the following year.)  This is going to come, if it does at all, from my poor old mind (such as it is).  I can’t promise anything, but I’m going to give it a go.  First a little background, both historical and personal, however.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is part of a continuum of the marriage of television and theater, though it’s a step that’s never been duplicated precisely.  Commercial television began in 1941 on the station that would become WNBC in New York, but experimental broadcasts of television plays started in the 1920s and ’30s.  In 1928, The Queen's Messenger by J. Hartley Manners (which had débuted in London in 1899) was the first play aired (with sound broadcast over the radio), and the first teleplay, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs (a Sherlock Holmes mystery), was broadcast on the National Broadcasting Company network in 1937.  In 1939, The Donovan Affair by Owen Davis (Broadway, 1926) became TV’s first full-hour play, televised over NBC's experimental station in New York City.  In the ’50s, television adaptations of musicals (and straight plays) were broadcast fairly often, including 90-minute versions of Anything Goes (Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC, 1954), Annie Get Your Gun (NBC, 1957), Wonderful Town (CBS, 1958), and Kiss Me Kate (Hallmark Hall of Fame on NBC, 1958). 

The first broadcast of a Broadway play on television was the musical Peter Pan starring Mary Martin (which I also watched, at age 8—I already knew who Martin was from my father’s cast albums of such shows as South Pacific ).  NBC aired Peter Pan in 1955 (in color, although few commercially-available sets could receive color broadcasts; we didn’t have one until more than a decade later). Television, which was live like stage productions until the 1960s, continued to present plays, including established scripts such as No Time for Sergeants (ABC, 1955), in which Andy Griffith reprised his stage role, and Ibsen’s Doll’s House starring Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer with a stellar supporting cast (NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1959).  Also presented were original plays written expressly for television by writers such as Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1957), Gore Vidal (Visit to a Small Planet, 1960), and Paddy Chayefsky (Marty and The Bachelor Party, 1953).  By the time videotape and film became the media for creating television programs, live drama largely disappeared from the home screen, replaced by the made-for-television (and later -cable) movie.  As far as I know, CBS’s 1957 broadcast of Cinderella is the only original Broadway-style musical ever written for TV—not counting several musical series such as The Monkees in the ’60s and The Partridge Family in the ’70s, Cop Rock in 1990, and now Smash.  (Other musical shows, such as 2007’s Viva Laughlin on CBS and the current Glee on Fox haven’t focused on original songs.)   Though public television broadcasters still present plays, both originals and standards, commercial networks have only occasionally returned to theater for material: Once Upon a Mattress (CBS, 1964; NBC, 1972; ABC, 2005), Wedding Band (ABC, 1973), 6 Rms Riv Vu (CBS, 1974), Gypsy (CBS, 1993), The Piano Lesson (CBS, 1995), Bye Bye Birdie (ABC, 1995), On Golden Pond (live; CBS, 2001), The Lion in Winter (Showtime, 2003), The Music Man (ABC, 2003).

As I admitted publicly (in “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010), I was being weaned on not just theater at this early age, but the Broadway musical.  My dad had a collection of cast albums which we listened to all the time when I was growing up and I knew the lyrics to all the Broadway scores from shows staged long before I was even born.  (My parents were both native New Yorkers, though Mom’s family moved to New Jersey when she was little, and Dad went to the theater when he could as a boy and a young man.  One of his earliest dates with my mom was to the original production of Oklahoma! before he went overseas during World War II.)  I started with such fare as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore, which I saw in presentations by the American Savoyards and also by the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and then moved on to Broadway musicals on tour.  (I did also see some non-musical theater even at that young age.  I remember a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream presented at Washington‘s Carter Barron Amphitheater in Rock Creek Park.)  As a result of this early introduction to the Broadway musical, it has always been a special part of my life even as my theatrical tastes expanded.  The trade-off has been that I can’t ever shake those first experiences I had when I see later revivals.  For instance, I suppose it’s not hard to understand that for me, Peter Pan will always be Mary Martin—but from that presentation, Captain Hook is always Cyril Ritchard.  Well, when it comes to Cinderella, “Ella, the Girl of the Cinders” (that’s a cross-reference: it’s what Winifred the Woebegone—who, by the way, is always Imogene Coca, whom I saw on stage, or Carol Burnett, from TV versions and the album, to me—calls her in Once Upon a Mattress) is always Julie Andrews.

The TV broadcast of Cinderella was aired live because virtually all television was in those days.  (It took the time slot usually occupied by The Ed Sullivan Show, 8 p.m. Eastern Time, and the General Electric Theater that followed it.  Sullivan himself was so enthusiastic about the prospect of an original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on television that he promoted the broadcast on his show the week before the preemption by presenting R&H on the program with Hammerstein reciting the lyrics of “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” while Rodgers conducted the Sullivan Show orchestra.)  Cinderella was also broadcast in color, even though only 150,000 color sets had been sold that year (out of 41 million homes with TVs then).  CBS assembled 245 stations to carry the broadcast, the largest number ever to air a single program.  The broadcast ran an hour-and-a-half with six commercial breaks.  (The sponsors were Pepsi and Shulton, the makers of Old Spice.)  As I pointed out, my family didn’t have color TV in 1957, so we watched Cinderella in black and white.  (In fact, though the musical was telecast live in color in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain Time Zones, the West Coast saw a rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Pacific Time in black and white.  It was the first time a 90-minute video-taped program had been telecast.)  It made no difference to any of us because black-and-white was status quo normal in our house as it was in most American homes at the time, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because it was, after all, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Julie Andrews.  I don’t know about my eight-year-old brother, but none of the rest of us would have cared.  It was meant to be a one-night-only event, and we were psyched!  

Along with Julie Andrews, a slew of musical character actors co-starred in the broadcast, including husband-and-wife acting team Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney as the King and Queen, Ilka Chase as the Stepmother, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as the stepsisters Portia and Joy, and Edith (“Edie”) Adams, the wife of comic innovator Ernie Kovacs, as the Godmother.  Jon Cypher, who played Prince Charming  (renamed Christopher in later versions and Topher on Broadway), was the only real newcomer in the cast, “discovered by the authors and producer,” according to the album liner notes by the renowned George [B.] Dale, who wrote hundreds of CBS Masterworks notes and plot synopses.  Andrews (b. 1935), barely 21 years old, took a break from My Fair Lady, in which she was already a sensation from her first appearance, having burst onto the Broadway stage like a stick of dynamite, to rehearse and perform the live show.  She had made her Broadway début in The Boy Friend (1954-55).  Cypher (b. 1932) went on to star in several TV series (Knots Landing, 1982-83; Dynasty, 1983-87; Hill Street Blues, 1981-87; Santa Barbara, 1988-89; Major Dad, 1990-93) and guest-star on many more.  

It was a distinguished company, even though I wouldn’t have known most of their credits—but I would know their names forever after, and recognized them every time they appeared somewhere after that.  Lindsay (1889-1968) and Stickney (1896–1998) were both Broadway vets, including a three-year run together in Life with Father (1939-47), written by Lindsay and Russel Crouse; the pair followed that with Life with Mother (1948-49).  With dozens of credits on the stage, Cinderella was the couple’s first musical.  Chase (1900-78) was a dramatic actress (and popular quiz-show panelist), having appeared in over a dozen Broadway plays and scores of movies by the time she did Cinderella.  Ballard (b. 1924), who would go on to become one of my all-time favorite character actresses, had already starred in Broadway’s The Golden Apple (1954) and appeared on several variety shows, and Ghostley (1924–2007) had a handful of Broadway credits and had performed in a number of anthology TV shows, which were then very popular fare.  (Ghostley would go on to become a beloved character on many TV series, especially Bewitched, on which she appeared from 1966-72, and Ballard was The Incomparable Rosalie in Broadway’s Carnival!, 1961-63, and then starred opposite Eve Arden, best known as Our Miss Brooks, in the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, 1967-69.)  Adams (1927–2008) had starred on Broadway as Eileen in Wonderful Town (1953-54), the musicalization of My Sister Eileen, and as Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner (1956-58).  She also appeared on many variety shows, including those of Ernie Kovacs, whom she married in 1954 (he died in 1962), and eventually had her own show.  The director of the live broadcast, Ralph Nelson (1916-87), was experienced as a theater producer, stage manager, director, performer, and writer with considerable Broadway credits and as a film and television director, producer, and actor. 

One curiosity about Nelson is that he was married to Celeste Holm from 1936 to 1939.  Holm played the Fairy Godmother in the 1965 remake of Cinderella.  (Another favorite actress of mine because of, among other roles, Ado Annie in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma!, a performance I only knew from my dad’s cast album.  Holm was a guest in my parents’ apartment in Germany years after the first Cinderella—and shortly after the second.  She and her then-husband, Wesley Addy, had completed a State Department tour and, as Cultural Attaché at the embassy, my dad was her official host in Bonn so he and my mother held a reception for her—but all I knew was Ado Annie is in my house!  I was probably 18 or 19.)  In addition to director Nelson, working with a stage and TV crew of 80, the choreography was by Jonathan Lukas, who oversaw the dances of the principals and an additional ensemble of 48.  The sets (six large pieces) and costumes (115) were designed by William (1920-2000) and Jean (1921-93) Eckart; the lighting was conceived by Robert Barry (d. 2006, age 85).  Richard Rodgers’s friend Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) did the orchestrations of the score, which included just ten songs (in contrast to the usual 14 to 16 numbers in a standard two-hour stage production) and Alfredo Antonini (1901-83) conducted the 33-musician orchestra for the performance.  The producer of CBS’s Cinderella was Richard Lewine (1910–2005), then vice president in charge of color television at CBS and a longtime Broadway producer, composer, writer, lyricist, and musical director.

Over 107 million people watched the broadcast, over 24 million households, a number that represented 60 percent of the U.S. population at the time.  (Another 10 million may have watched outside the U.S., including pre-Castro Cuba.)  Jon Cypher recalls finding the streets of Manhattan deserted when he came out of the studio that night after the performance.  It would take 132 years of full houses at the Broadway Theatre (1761 seats), home of the Broadway première, to match that figure; I can’t even imagine how long it would take to make up 66 percent of today’s TV viewers.  (Two years earlier, the broadcast of Peter Pan brought in only 65 million viewers.  The Broadway audience for what was arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular hit, Oklahoma!, which played for over five years at the 1710-seat St. James Theatre, was only 4½ million.)  The broadcast, which cost CBS $376,000 (the equivalent of about $3 million today: more than double what a TV production normally cost in the ’50s and four times what producers had spent to open Oklahoma!), was shown in Alaska, Hawaii (neither of which were yet states), and Puerto Rico, plus over CBC in Canada.  The broadcast, as anyone might have guessed, was a huge success, with 1958 Emmy nominations for Julie Andrews as best actress in a single performance and Richard Rodgers for Best Musical Contribution for Television, though astonishingly, neither nominee won.  (My friend Kirk quipped later that “even Eric Bentley liked” Julie Andrews!  I'm sure that my memory of her Cinderella is heavily affected by the fact that I was already a fan of hers.  I hadn’t seen The Boy Friend, but have seen her performances in MFL; Camelot, 1960-63; and Victor / Victoria, 1995-97.)

Unfortunately, no one thought to preserve the live broadcast for posterity and no visual recording of it was kept.  Videotape, unavailable in color in the mid-’50s (which is why the West Coast saw the show in black and white), was just being developed then and wasn’t in wide use, but it was common practice to make a kinescope of important shows by filming them off of a TV monitor, but no one made one of Cinderella that March evening.  At the first dress rehearsal on 17 March 1957, however, a black-and-white kinescope was made—color kinescopes were not practical—more for the use of the director, producer, writing team, and tech crew in reviewing the final work than for public consumption, viewing by the cast, or even as a record of the performance.  Everyone assumed it had been discarded after the broadcast.  For nearly five decades, the original live performance of Julie Andrews and the others in the landmark musical television production of Cinderella was considered lost forever.  In 1965, a color version was taped with Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella and a supporting cast of film and TV actors (and Holm as the Fairy Godmother).  This pale, bowdlerized version was aired for several years and in 1997, the musical was adapted again and taped as a vehicle for young pop singer Brandy Norwood (with Bernadette Peters as the Stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen, and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother). 

Then in February 2002, entirely by accident, the three reels of the 16-millimeter rehearsal film were discovered at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, unviewed for 45 years.  They’d been stashed randomly in a closet for nearly half a century and forgotten.  (How can you forget an R&H musical starring Julie Andrews?)  The film was transferred to videotape and some of the surviving cast such as Julie Andrews, Kaye Ballard, and Edie Adams, who’d never seen their own creation, got their first chances to see it either in bootlegged copies or at screenings at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.  (The cast hadn’t been permitted to see rehearsal films lest it make them self-conscious.)  Then WNET (Channel 13) in New York City became the first to air the rediscovered and restored video on Friday, 3 December 2004, as part of Great Performances.  It went nationwide on PBS stations on Monday, 13 December.  (A DVD of the black-and-white kinescope was released the following day.)  It was only a rehearsal, with almost no effects—the “magic” that was performed was preceded only by Fourth-of-July sparklers waved in front of the camera—and the run-through had no breaks.  That first run-through was known to the cast and crew as “the New Haven Opening” because it was intended to resemble the out-of-town tryout of a legit show, and it was expected to simulate the final broadcast as closely as possible.  (The rehearsal the week before the telecast was called “the Boston Opening.”)  Changes, some of them major, were apparently made after the filmed run-through and several later rehearsals. 

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella came about through network competition and because R&H wanted to explore this new medium with its huge reach.  “It was simply a question of finding something exciting to do and then finding a way to do it,” said Hammerstein to TV Guide.  Both men confessed to being TV buffs, watching avidly from early evening through sign-off.  NBC wanted to follow up on its success with Peter Pan and approached the writer-composer team to write an original musical play for television, a new idea in contrast to the adaptations and direct transfers of Broadway musicals to the small screen.  Rodgers had composed the Emmy Award-winning score for NBC’s Victory at Sea, a World War II documentary series that had aired in 1952 and ’53, and he and his librettist-lyricist partner were eager to give it a try.  They’d long wanted to do a musical version of the Cinderella story and felt this was the perfect opportunity.  “‘Cinderella’ will permit Oscar and me to do two things we’ve long wanted to do,” Rodgers asserted, “—an original for television and something that will interest children.”  Because the whole idea was new to the team—as it was to everyone involved—they asked a TV-savvy friend, Richard Lewine, for advice.  Lewine told the two that his network was also looking for a musical to produce—and what’s more, they had Julie Andrews under contract.  In his autobiography, Musical Stages (1975), Rodgers said, “What sold us immediately was the chance to work with Julie.  It was right from the start,” and the team signed with CBS.  Their intent was both to appeal tochildren, so they remained faithful to the standard fairy tale, and to engage the adults as well, so the fantasy and magic were played down for the romance of the tale and the humanity of the characters. 

The story on which Hammerstein based his book was fairly faithful to the popular 17th-century French version, Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre (Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper), by Charles Perrault (1628-1703).  The book-writer explained that the team “didn’t want to do a freakish version of ‘Cinderella,’ but only a musical adaptation of the story.”  As George Dale’s notes say, in Hammerstein’s rendition, “Cinderella is neither a goody-goody nor a hoyden.  She is a girl of intelligence and humor, and though she may be oppressed by her dismaying relatives, she is never dispirited.”  A perfect description of Julie Andrews.  In an interview at the time, Hammerstein said, “We want the kids who see it to recognize the story they know.  Children can be very critical on that score.  But, of course, their parents will be watching too, so we have tried to humanize the characters without altering the familiar plot structure.”  I wouldn’t have known the words at the time, but what charmed this 10-year-old boy was that the book was witty and, I think, smart.  The characters are rendered more romantically and honestly than like fantasy figures from a child’s fairy tale so that Edie Adams’s uncommonly young (she wasn’t yet 30) and spunky Godmother “seems more like a caring relative than a fairy,” as theater professor Thomas Hischak notes on the PBS website for the rebroadcast.  (She’s not actually called a “fairy” godmother in the ’57 broadcast.)  Cinderella herself displays a poetic turn of mind rather than a girl helped by magic.  Chase’s Stepmother and Ghostley’s and Ballard’s stepsisters, instead of being “vicious antagonists,” became “funny, self-absorbed brats,” and Cypher’s Prince Charming is “sincere and thoughtful.”  In fact, Cypher (who worked on the part with comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly) acknowledged in an interview on the DVD that, having had no experience in musical comedy, he played the role “straight,” “as though I were Brando.”  It worked.  As for the stepsisters, Ballard remarked after she saw the restored kinescope, “I said, ‘Gee, I wasn’t so ugly!’  Oh, it was so insulting, they asked me to play the ugly stepsister.” 

Hammerstein “cast aside the flummery that has cluttered earlier versions,” but the librettist didn’t simplify the narrative or the production text, and the 90-minute show was as complicated to present as any Broadway production.  “It takes a year to write a Broadway show,“ said Hammerstein in Time magazine.  “It took me seven months to write the book and lyrics for Cinderella.”  The script was tailored to the demands of television, so it was carefully divided into six scenes and the songs, dances, and action were crafted to fit into the format.  Despite this, Rodgers disclosed  to the Saturday Review, “we’re doing it as much like a stage show as possible.”  Andrews even recounted later of “the magical things” that Nelson, the director, “wanted to make it on camera, rather than using whatever limited technical effects we could have used in those days.”  Hammerstein admitted to Time, “Being ignorant of the medium, I wrote this show on the assumption we could do anything and nothing has been refused me yet.”  Unusually for TV, the show was rehearsed for weeks, starting on 21 February 1957, just like a stage musical.  In a later comment, the librettist insisted, “It will be good enough to be seen on the stage, in the movies or even on television again.”  (Except for the movies, Hammerstein predicted correctly, as it turns out.)  “I’ve never been in a show that was so well-rehearsed,” said an actor in the production.  Though R&H were ignorant of the new medium, both Nelson and Lucas were experienced in working on musical material for television.  The company of 56 actors, 33 musicians, 80 crew members, and four large cameras worked in CBS’s Studio 72, the network’s smallest color space at the time, at 2248 Broadway, the former RKO 81st Street Theatre (demolished except for its façade in 1986).  In the 4,200-square-foot studio, the Eckarts created a street scene, the exterior and interior of Cinderella's house, a room in the palace, a ballroom, and a garden.  In a theatrical production, sets can disappear into the wings or up into the flies when not in use on stage.  But for television, all the sets had to remain throughout the broadcast so the cameras could catch the scenes in different parts of the studio.  With the addition of staircases, the cameras also had to deal with elevation along with the varying sizes of the rooms.  Of course, none of this was obvious to the audience at home who saw a smooth and continuous performance.  Backstage, however, was what resembled a three-ring circus—“a combination,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization quips, “of My Favorite Year and A Night at the Opera.” 

So, what did all this effort add up to?  In one sense, 60 percent of the country’s population can’t be all wrong.  If Jon Cypher is right and everyone in Manhattan (and, I assume, elsewhere) stayed home to watch this once-in-a-lifetime event, it must have been some phenom, right?  Well, maybe.  After all, no one knew what was going to end up on the box since it was a live show and no one except a few insiders had seen the “tryouts.”  All those millions of viewers could have been disappointed, as were some reviewers the next day.  On 1 April 1957, New York Times television reviewer Jack Gould caviled that “last night’s ‘Cinderella’ was wanting in some respects.”  Missing, Gould declared, was “that elusive quality of fragile spirit that makes a fairy tale universally loved.”  The Times writer complained, “The warmth of ageless make-believe was submerged in the efficiency of the modern touch.”  He called the score “a shade thin and repetitive,” but went on to name four songs (out of ten) he predicted would “not lack popularity on records and dance floors.”  Gould also had “quibbles” with Hammerstein’s alterations to the fairy story, in particular the comic treatment of the stepsisters and stepmother.  The reviewer, pronouncing Jon Cypher “a ‘find,’” had high praise for Andrews, except that she was “fully as beautiful behind the broom as under the tiara.”  (Cinderella’s costumes also seemed “much too sophisticated.”)  Gould offered no complaints about Nelson’s direction, especially the camera work in the magic effects.

In a later article in the New York Times on 7 April, Gould reported, “Judged by both the formal written critiques and word-of-mouth opinions, [Cinderella] was either unreservedly enjoyed, rather angrily rejected or generally approved, subject to significant reservations.”  Gould’s own assessment was: “As a girl-meets-boy story it had the heaven-sent blessing of Miss Andrews, who . . . was a beguiling vision.  When she and Jon Cypher . . . raised their voices in songs . . . it was most pleasant theatre.”  His notice’s subtitle, however, made a different point: “A Pleasant ‘Cinderella’ That lacked the Magic Touch.”  He found “fault” with R&H’s “faithfulness to the spirit of ‘Cinderella,’” which “was very jarring and seriously destructive of the fairy tale’s precious fragility,” turning, for example, the stepsisters “into two distasteful vaudeville clowns.”  The Times’s TV reviewer continued that R&H “discarded the element of contrasts which really is the whole point of make-believe in ‘Cinderella’” by permitting Andrews “to appear so strikingly lovely and composed as the drab housemaid that her subsequent transformation into a radiant princess was very nearly anticlimactic.”  Finally, Gould compared the score of Cinderella unfavorably with the greatest of R&H’s past Broadway works, asserting that “on first hearing it seems both reminiscent and derivative of some of their earlier successes” and dubbing the songs “not top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein.”  The review-writer praised most of the cast, but observed that “Kaye Ballard seemed to be under the impression that she was doing a sketch written for Martha Raye.” 

Gould even criticized the “cramped” studio: “There was excellent dimension in terms of depth, but the limited width of the playing area marred the big ballroom scene.”  And the writer challenged, “[C]ouldn’t Cinderella have been dressed in a dreamlike ball gown of fantasy land rather than a chic, form-fitting number more suited to the Plaza’s Persian Room?”  In fact, the Eckarts designed just such a costume for Andrews, with a fluffy, lacy skirt right out of a storybook, but Nelson soon saw that the big, heavy dress wouldn’t be suitable for the cramped studio and the narrow stairs the star had to descend so it was replaced with a less fussy, more tightly-fitted, empire-waisted, sleeveless white sheath in which Andrews could maneuver more easily.  (At 10, I didn’t know diddly about fashion or costume but Andrews’s dresses and all the clothes in Cinderella looked perfectly magical to me.  Even in black and white.)

Perhaps the harshest critic of the broadcast was Robert Lewis Shayon of Saturday Review.  He claimed to have “questioned” viewers of the musical and “of roughly fifty,” he found only two who’d been “enthralled”: his eight-year-old daughter and a “sweet lady on her eighties” who loved all television unquestioningly.  “In between the young-in-heart ages every grown-up with whom I chatted,” Shayon alleged, “thought ‘Cinderella’ was a wonderless bore.”  In the Christian Science Monitor, Melvin Maddocks found, “There was a confusion of styles in Mr. Hammerstein’s book, as if he were at various times thinking of Viennese operetta, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and perhaps an Andy Hardy romance.” 

Variety covered the show twice.  On 1 April 1957, “Kove” (in those days, Variety reviewers used code abbreviations for their bylines) allowed that “even if it wasn’t the best thing the famed team ever have turned out,” the telecast “still stacked up as a fine evening of theatre.”  Kove opined that “if the score seemed to disappoint,” it was only because so much was expected of R&H.  Cinderella, the reviewer declared, was “a generally fine production” with a “delightful” book by Hammerstein and “splendid costuming and settings.”  The directing “was . . . sprightly, inventive and marked by excellent use of the camera.”  Kove generally praised the actors, adding that “both Miss Ballard and Ghostley acquitted themselves admirably.”  Then on 3 April, “Rose” declared that Rodgers and Hammerstein “delivered a whale of a show” that was “90 minutes of pleasurable viewing.”  Rose demurred slightly, saying, “If there was an occasional lapse when ‘Cinderella’ took itself a mite too seriously . . ., there was nonetheless artistry of the first order . . . executed for the most part with finesse and exacting skill.”  Rodgers’s score was “unquestionably the finest original cleffing for tv yet” and Hammerstein’s lyrics “were clever, yet remained romantic and sweet.”  The review-writer added that “the songs themselves, even though a few of them might be termed derivative, made one soon forget the less inspired moments.”  Rose praised all the technical aspects of the broadcast and most of the individual performances, also singling out Ballard and Ghostley who “brought fine comedic talents to the role of the stepsisters.”  This Variety reviewer concluded, “It was a class show.” 

Okay, I was only 10, as I noted, so I didn’t have the sophistication and background knowledge of Gould and other journalists, but I didn’t feel any of what the Timesman objected to.  Second-rate R&H?  Not a bit of it, as the Brits say.  I hummed and sang that score for weeks after seeing the show—I did that in those days: I’d walk out of musicals singing all the songs.  Howard Lindsay’s part in “The Prince Is Giving a Ball” was hilarious and his refrain became a sort of theme song in my family: “I want the wine of my country. I want the wine of my country! I want the wine of my country! The wine of my country is beer!”  Kirk, who never saw the 1957 broadcast, told me after seeing the rebroadcast in 2004 that he “roared when I heard it.”  (It was one of his funniest lines in the show and was cut from all the remakes—and, I suspect, the stage versions!)  Lindsay’s King and Stickney’s Queen were wonderfully silly and oblivious, contrasting their behavior with their natural looks of dignity and warmth.  “In My Own Little Corner” and “Impossible/It’s Possible” also became lifelong favorite tunes of mine.  Edie Adams's Godmother-as-cheerleader was wonderful, twirling her giant magic wand.  She was a decidedly modern (for the 1950s), and young, magical guardian.  Chase, Ghostley, and Ballard were funny and mean at the same time, the kind of comic bullies who make you laugh rather than cringe—and who actually redeemed themselves in the end of this version.  The R&H world of Cinderella, as primitive and cheesy as it looks now, was as magical a place as any computer-generated environment a tech-savvy George Lucas could devise today.  I mean, a pumpkin turned into a golden carriage before my very eyes!  That ain’t chopped liver!!  Kirk, a theater composer and playwright himself, added, “Hammerstein's lyrics are very funny.  That's a side of him that I don't think is sufficiently appreciated.”  So much for substandard R&H!  Remember, I already knew the music from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, and the other musicals Gould compared to Cinderella—and they are beloved to me—but Cinderella never paled before them to me, and I missed each and every cut and alteration when the play was remade in ’65 and ’97.  (When it comes to musical theater, I’m a strict constructionist.  No additions, no subtractions!) 

As for Ballard’s Portia, I can’t even remember her clowning beyond the limits of the character.  I don’t remember if I would have known who Martha Raye was when I was 10—though, of course, I would learn later (the comedienne had recurring roles in the TV series McMillan and Wife in the ’70s and Alice in the ’80s).  I can’t say that Ballard bore any resemblance to the famously large-mouthed comedian-singer; I only know that from then on Ballard was a favorite of mine—way before she started doing TV sitcoms.  (In Carnival!, Ballard performed what may be the most outrageous love song ever staged, “Always Always You.”  As The Incomparable Rosalie sings to the magician with whom she’s in love, Marco the Magnificent, who’s encased in a wooden box, she thrusts swords into him!)  The slapstick nature of the two stepsisters in the TV musical was intentional, of course, both to keep the threat-level low for the children the performance was meant to attract and to add an element of comedy for the adults—in the same way that Howard Lindsay’s buffoonish king was an appeal to grown-up humor.  As an acting teacher of mine liked to cite Laurence Olivier, ‘Humor makes more human.’

I wouldn’t really have known some of this when I saw that original broadcast, of course.  I discerned much of it when I watched the PBS telecast of the rehearsal kinescope back in ’04.  I also saw then how skillfully the technical production was handled, despite the tight quarters of Color Studio 72.  I’m not sure why Gould felt it was necessary to criticize the circumstances of the facilities—it’s not as if R&H could build their own soundstage—or even get their choice of studio.  They got what CBS had available that suited the needs.  Given the state of the technical arts 56 years ago and the conditions the space dictated, I was astounded at how well the production actually looked, even in dress rehearsal, two whole weeks before the broadcast.  The directing alone was a feat—Kirk had seen a stage version of Cinderella before seeing the video of the TV version and remarked on how difficult it is to do live—“and now I understand why.”  Remember, too, that I saw the show in black and white, so I didn’t have the spectacle of color to amaze me, but I was thrilled with what I saw. 

Okay, I have no doubt that my memory of how I reacted back then is heavily colored by both my extreme youth at the time, my devotion to musicals then, and a great deal of nostalgia.  This production could probably not have done anything wrong in my eyes—but I did watch it again as an adult and it all pretty much came back to me, colored however it was by my nostalgic recollection.  Maybe, considering that, first, this is still a fantasy tale, even if R&H wanted to bring it down to earth some, and it was a fabulous experiment in what was still an infant medium—commercial television wasn’t a whole lot older than I was—trying to figure out how to make it all work, having too much knowledge like the TV critics, reviewers, and journalists who wrote the notices was a detriment.  I don’t think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella made the impression on my parents, in their 30’s at the time, as it did on me but I also recall they enjoyed it immensely at the time.  After all, Dad did buy the cast album—ostensibly for me, I’m sure, but nevertheless . . . .  And it was Dad who turned “the wine of my country is beer” into a family catchphrase.  When I asked Mom about the broadcast the other day, she didn’t really remember even having watched it.  So, it didn’t stick with her as strongly as it did me. 

I've never felt any of the TV remakes—the 1965 version with Lesley Ann Warren or the 1997 with Brandy—ever came even close to the original live version, however primitive it might look today.  The subsequent versions all had so little personality—it was all pasteurized and homogenized with all the quirks and oddities ironed out by the adapters and the directors.  At least that’s my impression, biased as it is.  (I saw a bit from the Broadway production on Letterman early in April and my impression was similar: even though the actors were all fine performers and singers—Laura Osnes has a beautiful soprano voice—there seemed to me to be no idiosyncrasies in anyone’s performance that compared to Edie Adams’s Godmother or Andrews’s young dreamer or Ballard’s and Ghostley’s stepsisters; they were just nice, accomplished . . . and dull.  They sang a medley which led off with “Impossible”/”It’s Possible,” one of my favorite numbers, and it seemed to have no character, no charm, just competence.  When Adams and Andrews sang it, at least in my memory, it dazzled and told its own little story about “all the dreamers in all the world” and “daft and dewy-eyed dopes.”  I guess, at 10, I was among those.)  

The ’65 remake used several stage actors in the cast—Walter Pidgeon (the King), Jo Van Fleet (the Stepmother), and Celeste Holm most prominently; Warren and Ginger Rogers (the Queen) had done some stage work but most of their credits had been in film.  (Only Edie Adams's Godmother wasn't diminished by her later replacement: Celeste Holm, as I admitted, had always been a special favorite of mine, too, so I can't fault the production for that recasting.  I don’t think Holm, who died last July at age 95, was capable of ever doing a characterless performance, even if everything around her was dreck.)  By the time the ’97 adaptation was made, most of the company were principally film and TV actors or, as Brandy and Whitney Houston were, pop stars.  Victor Garber (the King), Jason Alexander (the Steward), and Bernadette Peters (the Stepmother) had considerable stage experience but, except for Peters, were best known from the screen.  (Whoopi Goldberg, the Queen, had done one Broadway musical prior to Cinderella and had appeared in her comedy special on Broadway.  Paolo Montalban, the Prince, was appearing in The King and I when he was cast in Cinderella, but he was an understudy and it was his début.)  I couldn’t see Brandy as Cinderella.  She was too strong a performer—a modern American teenager of the late 20th century—and too much a pop singer.  The Fairy Godmother has a little more flexibility, so Houston could get away with it (not that she could compete with either Adams or Holm!)   In the 1957 cast, everyone including novice Jon Cypher, who’d been doing summer stock where stage actors cut their teeth in those days, were live-theater vets, what the New York Times of the day described as “virtually an all-Broadway cast.”  Julie Andrews, of course, was also the perfect musical ingénue—great for Eliza Doolittle as well.  The point I’m getting at here is that back in the day, TV used experienced stage actors; today, when they get “stars,” they’re mostly film actors.  The latter may know how to work before a camera, but the former know how to work before an audience.  I think that’s the missing piece—the first version of Cinderella had the dynamic of a live performance.  They weren’t making movies on TV—they were doing plays.  In addition, there was the frisson of being a total experiment because no one knew yet how the TV business really worked.  The 1957 Cinderella company weren’t breaking rules or pushing the envelope.  They were trying to invent the rules because there weren’t any yet! 

I’m reminded of the gag about the bumblebee: It’s aerodynamically impossible for it to fly, but since the bee doesn’t know the laws of aerodynamics, it goes ahead and flies anyway.  TV was like that in the ’50s.  They could do outrageous and—if you will—impossible things because no one knew any better.  By the time 1965 came around, the TV business had rules and standards and executives and sponsors who expected mainstream entertainment—and that’s what they got in the remakes.  They took all the silliness, the goofiness, the quirkiness out—like “I want the wine of my country”—and left the shadow.  Rodgers revealed to a New York Times reporter that they dealt with “only the people who are actually getting the thing ready for the air.”  During their month or more of working at the network, the composer said, they’d “had only one smell of top-echelon brass.”  I’ll bet that in ’65 and ’97, there were executive producers and network officials all over the soundstages for the remakes making sure everyone was toeing the line and just squeezing the spark right out of the whole proceeding.  Apologies to Brandy and Whoopi and Whitney, but it comes out white bread.  Just casting black performers in the roles does not create pizzazz and snap.  Sorry.  All the things about which Jack Gould complained were removed, including the danger that it might all go poof during the broadcast, and I missed them.  I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but aside from my personal prejudices going in, I thrilled to the newness, the liveness, the specialness—the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants—of this performance, never done before and, sadly, never tried again.  “Nobody would attempt anything that complex now, I don't think,” commented my friend Kirk, adding “or know how.”  I came away, I remember, feeling elated, a little light-headed, because I’d been there when this remarkable thing was done and it was fantastic.  The benighted viewer wasn’t Gould’s eight-year-old daughter (or the 80-year-old woman), but Gould.  He lost something they still had.

When I watched the 2004 broadcast of the kinescope, much of that elation came back to me—part memory and part re-experiencing.  I saw all the flaws, exacerbated some by the nature of the kinescope (which is somewhat distorted for having been filmed from a convex TV screen—and, of course, it’s a film of a TV image as well), and I still marveled at what the creators had made.  The performances, 47 years in the can, were as delightful as they’d been when they were live.  As my friend Kirk told me that his wife, Pat, had mused of Julie Andrews, who glowed in all the reviews no matter what else the writers had to say, “She's a cut above, isn't she?”  Yeah, definitely “a cut above”!  And doesn’t that say it all?

20 April 2013

Reflections On Directing: Tech

by Kirk Woodward

[This is the final section of Kirk’s “Reflections On Directing,” “Tech.”  I trust readers have found the advice useful and edifying, and if you have, please pass the post along to anyone who’s just starting out as a director or who’s curious about how the job works within a production.]


In this series of articles on directing, we’ve been looking at the various issues a director faces while staging a play. This particular article focuses on some very particular directing techniques. It may not have general interest. On the other hand, it may be interesting to non-directors as an illustration of what can be involved in directing.

Know when the actors should move

Suppose that, for some or for all of the play, you as the director are going to stage it in the traditional way – by working out your blocking in advance and giving it to the actors in “blocking rehearsals.”

So you cut out your little pieces of paper with the characters’ names on them, you tape them on coins or chess pieces or whatever you use, and you set them on a diagram of the stage. You’re ready to figure out the actors’ movements.

When should they move?

Directing books tend to give answers that amount to, “The actors should move when their characters are motivated to move.” This answer never satisfied me. I was sure there was some more fundamental principle behind the question of actor movement, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I found the answer in a book called Thinking Like a Director by Michael Bloom. I have met Mr. Bloom once, and if I ever meet him again I will have a lot to thank him for, because he gives exactly the right answer. Here it is:

Regardless of a play’s style, one way to ensure that the staging reinforces the action (unless there is a special reason to contradict it) is to punctuate each new beat with business, activity, or movement. (p 143)

Thank you, sir. I am forever grateful.

You probably know, or if not you should, that in standard American practice, the director (and the actor) divides a play into “beats,” small sections, usually a few lines long.

The word “beat” is said to have come from the wave of Russian directors in the early Twentieth Century, who were saying the word “bit” in heavily accented English.

Whether that’s so or not, the idea is to divide the play into small sections (bits, now “beats”) that begin and end when a change occurs in the flow of the play – an entrance or an exit, a new thought, a new topic, a new strategy on the part of one of the characters . . . anything that changes the way the play is going.

The director or actor draws a horizontal line across the page where one of these changes takes place, and another horizontal line at the next change. The section of the play between those two lines is a beat.

Unless there is some reason not to, make some business or movement happen when the beat changes.

There is no science to this; it’s an art, and depends on your taste and judgment. People may argue about where a beat begins or ends. It doesn’t matter; you’re the director, and the definition of beats only needs to be useful to you.

As for the choice of activities, the decision on what happens at those places, those like every other decision are a matter of your talent and ability. No need to second-guess yourself – make the best decisions you can, and see how they work out when actors put them on their feet.


Paraphrase is having the actors say their lines using their own words, rather than the words in the script, as part of the rehearsal process. This may not sound like a sensible approach. We want the actors to learn their lines correctly, don’t we? How does it help to encourage them to use their own words? Aren’t they doing that enough anyway?

Maybe so. You want to use this tool carefully. But used in the right way, it can be useful.

I always, without exception, use paraphrase early in rehearsals when doing a play by Shakespeare. In order to paraphrase Shakespeare, you have to know what he’s saying. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare spoken where the actors literally had no idea what many of the words meant.

Paraphrase is also useful when a scene is jammed, when it just won’t work no matter what. The problem is that the farther along the play is in the rehearsal period, the more difficult it is for the actors to get away from the words they’ve already learned.

If the actors are too wedded to their lines to paraphrase effectively, you may want to design a slightly different scene that works the same way as the scene in the play – a similar situation, but not the identical one. In other words, actually, an improvisation.


Improvisation – basically, making up scenes from scratch – has become associated with comedy. As a result, many actors see it as an instruction, or an invitation, to show off. And there’s a related problem –

Many actors hate improvisation, especially during rehearsals.

For these reasons, directors have to be extremely careful about how they use improvisation.

Years ago, in a production of Promises, Promises, Dan Brambilla, a fine director, used improvisation with as much caution as I can imagine anyone using.

He explained to the cast his trepidation about the technique; he dimmed the lights so they were almost out; he had the two actors involved (I was one) sit and just talk to each other; and he defined the situations of the improvisations so closely that they were extraordinarily easy to accomplish. I remember that he had us talk quietly about our hopes (as characters) for the future.

There was something funny about how protective Dan was toward his actors (and he knew it), but he was right. He set limited goals for the improvisations, based on specific needs he saw in the play. He made them easy for the actors to achieve, and he limited the improvisation to those results.

In summary, don’t use improvisation unless you need it; if you do need it, think hard about the best way to do it.

A useful technique for starting an improvisation with beginning actors (borrowed from creative dramatics) is to have the actors arrange themselves in a “still picture” of the opening moment of the scene. They arrange themselves as though they were a photograph of that moment

The director says, “Ready, FREEZE” and the actors are motionless. Then the director tells the actors, “When I give the signal, continue the scene until I stop.” The signal can be clapping, rapping a pencil on a chair . . . some easy to hear sound.

This and similar techniques are probably unnecessary with more practiced performers.

However, just because they’re more practiced, they may not want to do improvisations at all. A director should use improvisation only when it’ll help.

“Crazy” rehearsals

Basically, at a certain point in rehearsals the director may feel that the work isn’t advancing. The actors are feeling stale, they’re bored, they’re not listening to each other. It’s time, maybe, for a crazy rehearsal.

There are many kinds of crazy rehearsal, and you want to pick the kind (or kinds) that will get the results you want. Some are specifically aimed at increasing the actors’ understanding of the relationships in the scene.

Some are designed to help the actors physicalize what’s happening in the play. Some are just, well, crazy, and, one hopes, fun.

Use the lines from the play, but there’s no need to use one of these crazy rehearsal ideas for a whole rehearsal. You can apply them to a scene or even a beat.

So, short or long, here are some ideas, and there are plenty of others.

Have the actors:
  • Touch the person they’re talking to, in a way appropriate to the line, at least one touch for each line.
  • Verbalize what they as the character want, just before they say each line of the play.
  • Sing the lines.
  • Do the lines very slow, as though in a film that’s been slowed down.
  • Do the lines very fast, as though in an old comic film.
  • Do the scene in mime, imagining that the entire audience is hearing-impaired
  • Whisper the lines, or speak them as though afraid of being overheard.
  • Do the lines at the farthest possible physical distance from each other.
  • Do a scene to music you play to create a mood
  • Reverse the characters – playing each other’s roles
  • Do the lines in different general styles – melodrama, farce, etc.
  • Breathe – inhale and exhale – before each line.
  • Do the lines sitting back to back.
  • Do the lines as different kinds of animals.
  • Narrate what they’re going to do, just before they do it – for example, “Now I’m going to scare the life out of you!”
  • Do the scene in the dark.
These are enough suggestions to give the idea. Different approaches give different results. Keep the mood light – let the exercises feel ridiculous – but also encourage the actors to keep in their performances anything they find that’s useful.

When used at the right time, crazy rehearsal ideas can lead to increased physicality, more solid interrelationships, and new understanding of the scenes. They can also reduce tension and help remind the actors that a play is play.

Alert the actors

Alert them of what?

There are certain things a director knows, that actors may forget. For example:
  • Alert them when a rehearsal is going to be bad.
How can you know that in advance? Very simply, every time something new is added to a show, it will fall back at least a few steps, for at least one rehearsal.

The first time memorized lines are due, the first time with lights, the first time with costumes, the first time with an audience . . . every one of those “firsts” will send shocks into the subconscious of the actors, alarming them and throwing them off their game. Anything new will.

  • Alert them in advance. Tell them that you don’t expect full-out acting at this particular rehearsal – that you just want them to adjust to the new circumstance, whatever it is. (If you give them this permission, the right not to act 100%, they will in fact perform better than they would otherwise, since they know they won’t be judged.)

If the play is a comedy, alert them, unless they’re very experienced, about the way to handle laughs – waiting until the laughs have crested and are just starting to die, then coming in with the next line.

This advice becomes second nature (as much as anything about comedy ever can) to actors who’ve worked with it a while. If they haven’t, they need the advice or they’ll start their lines that follow laughs either too late or too early, leading to the laughs stopping altogether.

Alert actors in a comedy, if necessary, that laughs will seldom come in the exact same place or at the same strength in two different performances. The cast must not count on the identical reaction each performance, because that won’t happen. 

  • Alert them also that an audience that laughs loudly may actually dislike the show, but that a silent audience may think it’s wonderful. The cast’s job isn’t to guess “how it’s going,” but to do the play they’ve rehearsed.
  • Alert a cast that complains about a particular audience that the audience paid its money and doesn’t owe the cast anything. We’re entertaining them; they have no obligation to entertain us.
  • Alert your actors that they ought to read their scripts once every day, as long as they’re part of the play! Yes, every single day, even after they have their lines down cold.
If you play piano, you may know what it’s like to return to a piece you’ve memorized and try to sight-read it. It looks very different than you remembered. Actors should continually reconnect with what the playwright wrote, not just with what’s in their heads. They’ll also find that their accuracy with the lines vastly improves.

  • And alert the actors not to let their own assessments of their performances guide them.
Actors can be the worst judges of their own work. When they think they're awful, it may turn out that from out front, they've been wonderful; when they think they've been brilliant, they may not have been. Especially while the actors are performing, their perception may be skewed. Alert them to let the director decide what’s working and what needs notes.

If a director’s job is to be a helper – and it is – then helping the actors by reminding them now and then of the results of experience is a valuable thing to do.

[In the longer version of “Reflections On Directing" he called The Director’s Book of Weird Ideas,” Kirk included a list of “highly recommended books on or related to directing:”  I’m appending these references here, with Kirk’s annotations on the books’ usefulness and benefits; I may also add one or two titles of my own. 

·   Bloom, Michael. Thinking Like a Director. Faber and Faber, Inc., New York. 2001. Calm, practical. A book that lives up to its title. Any director will find many useful things in it; the beginning director will find both knowledge and reassurance.
·   Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. John Willett, editor. Hill and Wang, New York, 1977. Heady stuff for a director. Brecht’s ideas on theater, like Brecht himself, are slippery, contentious, sometimes devious, and hard to pin down, but the director who spends some time with them will at a minimum feel a new sense of purpose, even if it’s not necessarily the purpose Brecht has in mind.
·   Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theater: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. Touchstone, 1995. A book that has opened doors for many directors since it was first published in 1968. Brook’s vision of theater goes back to the basics, tearing down many obstacles in the process, and starts to build it back up again – as he has also done in his productions.
·   Clurman, Harold. On Directing. Touchstone, 1997. Harold Clurman was a charming and fascinating person and his book is charming and fascinating, but it’s also practical, an exposition of the best of standard American directing practice.
·   Grotowski, Jerzy and Barba, Eugenio  (ed.). Towards a Poor Theatre. Theatre Arts, 2002. Like Peter Brook’s book, this collection was first published in 1968, and like Brook’s book, it led directors across the world to rethink their principles and the ways they were working. It still can.
·   Shaw, George Bernard. Shaw on Theatre. E.J. West, editor. Hill and Wang, New York, 1967. This collection would be invaluable if it only included “The Art of Rehearsal,” a letter Shaw wrote to a friend who asked him how to direct a play. Shaw told him, giving advice that may sound old-style but is smart and tough. Shaw knew theater inside and out, and everything he writes about it is worthwhile.
·   Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Northwestern University Press, 1999. For many the Holy Grail of books about theater improvisation, and a source of exercise after exercise designed to build the participants’ skills and their ability to perform. Spolin also provides solid instructions on how these exercises are to be coached and led.
·   Way, Brian. Development Through Drama. Humanity Books, 1967. For me, an eye-opener to the potential of creative dramatics, both as an activity in itself and as an asset to theater. Brian Way was both a theater worker and an educator, and this brilliant book is a bridge between the two.

[Kirk added that there are numerous textbooks on directing on the market. “Rather than survey the field,” he wrote, “here are two that I’ve found to be solid and useful”: 
  • Hodge, Francis. Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1971.
  • Vaughn, Stuart. Directing Plays: A Working Professional’s Method. Longman Publishing Group, White Plains, N.Y. 1993.]
[I can’t improve on Kirk’s selection of titles for this list, except to tout a book by a friend that I think is very interesting: Kazimierz Braun, Theater Directing: Art, Ethics, Creativity (Edwin Mellen, 2000), but I’ll reinforce some of his choices.  The single most useful book on directing I’ve ever read is Clurman’s On Directing.  If any book gives a clear and practical explanation of what a director does, that’s it.  Grotowski’s and Brecht’s theories (I might add Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Meyerhold on Theatre to this short list, but that is getting out to the fringes a bit) are provocative and imagination-prodding, as is Brook’s Empty Space, which startled me when I first read it because it seemed so obviously true  and yet so unexposed.  Spolin’s theater games and exercises are classics and deserve to be because they capture the very essence of theater as play.

[In that longer version, Kirk recommends that directors take an acting class “to know as much about how [actors] function as you can.”  In that spirit, I strongly recommend that incipient directors (as well as experienced ones and all other theater artists) read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).  It’s the single best book on acting that I’ve read (though there are lots of others by renowned actors and acting teachers, and sampling some by Stella Adler, Sonia Moore, Robert Lewis, or Michael Chekhov—many of whom were also directors themselves—can’t but help directors understand actors and acting better).  I have two copies of Respect because my first one got so thumb-smudged, annotated, and high-lighted I couldn’t lend it out anymore.  (I also have two copies of On Directing because my original one, with all its marginal notes and comments, had been used so hard, it finally fell apart.)

[It should go without saying, but probably won’t, that no theater artist should get far into the profession without a familiarity with the ideas if Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of modern western acting.  I’d start with his autobiography, My Life in Art (Routledge, 2008), and then delve into his so-called ABC’s: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role (all Theatre Arts Books, 1989).  (Jean Benedetti has published newer translations than these original classic editions by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood; the first two original volumes are combined into An Actor's Work, Routledge, 2008, and the third is retitled An Actor's Work on a Role, Routledge, 2009.  I’m familiar with the criticisms of Reynolds’s  mid-century renditions, but I don’t know the Benedetti versions; Benedetti is, however, a much-published authority on Stanislavsky and I have read others of his books and translations.)]