June 22, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I got an email from the restaurant Five Napkin Burger this morning that today is National Onion Ring Day. But June 22 always pops out on my calendar because I’m aware of it being the date significant artists of all kinds made their entrances into this world. Born as cancers, it can be said that this astrological sign creates "hard workers who don't mind sacrificing free time if it means moving up the ladder of their career."
Ain't that the truth? Especially when you look at a trio of leading crusaders born on this date like Erin Brockovich and United States Senators Diane Feinstein and Elizabeth Warren. Also born on June 22nd, are more than two hundred (by my count) of uniquely individual and brilliant talents, some who require no credits next to their names for identification:
For the purposes of a "Theatre Yesterday and Today" column, I could easily espouse on the infinite influence Joseph Papp had on the New York theatre scene. Or Gower Champion, whose impact is felt whenever a high school or amateur production of Bye, Bye Birdie goes up (hundreds of times a year). As for Meryl Streep, I saw her in her first and second Broadway plays nearly forty years ago, in revivals of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells” (superb) and Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (unforgettable). Though they were in 1975 and 1976 respectively, I can recall my epiphany of “who is that?” as clear as if it were yesterday. The Williams play was a one-act on a double-bill with Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays, and it wasn’t until midway through the second play that I made the connection that the thin, straight-backed, dark haired professional woman who appeared in the Miller, was the same woman who had minutes earlier been babyish, blowsy and big-chested in the Williams. A chameleon even then.
But allow me to shine a light on two actors born on June 22nd, whose careers in the theatre were just that: careers in the theatre. One a lowbrow Jewish comic who excelled at surly old-timers even when he was young. And the other (as if to the manor born), who has played distinguished men of one stripe or another throughout a more than sixty-year career.
That patrician actor is John Cunningham, born in 1932, and celebrating his 90th birthday today. He has the virtue of being the one and only actor to succeed William Daniels as John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776, a role I saw him play many times. I can attest to the fierce energy he brought to the part, beautifully straddling the difficult blend of that character’s unlimited intellect and limited charm.
Cunningham was also one of the earliest to replace Jerry Orbach as El Gallo in the famed Off-Broadway production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks, and was a favorite of perennial director Harold Prince, who first utilized his talents during the long run of Cabaret, when he succeeded Bert Convy as Cliff Bradshaw. This led to Cunningham creating the role of Nikos in Kander and Ebb’s Zorba, as well as Peter in Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical, Company. Later, upon maturing out of juvenile leading men, he became the perfect actor of a certain age to play opposite many great actresses, such as Glenda Jackson, in British playwright Andrew Davies’s Rose; Jane Alexander in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig; and most memorably, Stockard Channing in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
When I interviewed Cunningham for Up in the Cheap Seats, our conversation covered many of the shows he did, expressing how beyond grateful he was for those experiences. He did mention one regret (common to many actors) that he had perhaps been born in the wrong generation, as actors of his ilk did (sadly) did become somewhat less in demand than they were in the Broadway musical’s heyday of the 1930s-1950s. He also expressed a lovely (if liberal) sentiment when we discussed Howard Da Silva, with whom he became “great friends” when they played together in 1776: “I was once at a party at his house in Ossining, and I couldn’t believe the number of old left-wingers he had visiting. I said to myself, ‘This is where I would be.’ No doubt about it … I would definitely have been one of them if I came up at that time.”
Born thirty years earlier than Cunningham in 1902, was David Burns (or Davy, to all who knew him). He grew up on Mott Street in Chinatown and became an actor while still a teenager. His first Broadway show was in 1923’s Polly Preferred, so good in the part that he was invited to do the show in England. Finding gainful employment on stage and in films there, he didn’t return to Broadway for eight years. It was lucky for the American theatre he was lured back, and though his first show was a failure, a comedy entitled Wonder Boy, his second was the hit Irving Berlin-Moss Hart, revue Face the Music. Burns received glowing notices and from then on, became a steady fixture upon the New York stage for the next four decades.
He created the role of Banjo in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s iconic The Man Who Came to Dinner, had significant roles in musicals like Billion Dollar Baby, Out of this World, Two’s Company and straight plays like Arnold Schulman's A Hole in the Head and Arthur Miller's The Price. He won the first of his two Tony Awards when he created the part of Mayor Shinn in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.
Winning a Tony for a musical is usually when you get to perform some great songs, but the Mayor of River City doesn’t participate in any or sing a single note. So, you’ve got to be really funny to win a Tony for it —and without any film of Burns playing the part, one is only left to imagine the raspy sound of his voice and the comic delivery with which he must have had audiences in stitches. His second Tony was for creating the role of Senex, that dirty old man in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Again, no film survives, and the 1962 cast album (unfortunately) conveys little of the free-wheeling, kinetic energy for which the show was renowned. However, I do own an audiotape, recorded through the theatre’s sound system of that insanely hilarious original cast and hearing the live laugher makes it clear that as funny as Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine and Raymond Walburn were … none so masterfully displayed their comedic art as Burns.
Hard to believe, but Burns wasn’t even Tony nominated for what might have been his most famous creation on Broadway: that of Horace Vandergelder in 1964’s Hello, Dolly! The photos pretty much say it all … he must have made for a terrific foil to the different Dolly's he played opposite. He stayed in the show for three of the seven years of the show’s record-breaking run.
In 1968, he was tapped by Arthur Miller to bring to life one of the most eccentric characters the playwright ever wrote: Gregory Solomon, the ancient furniture dealer in The Price. But on the play’s opening night, Burns was in the hospital with a burst intestine. His understudy, Harold Gary, was who the critics saw, and thus Burns was robbed of what would have been his single greatest set of reviews. For when his health improved and he returned to The Price, he took over his rightful ownership of the part. His Solomon was thankfully preserved on tape when he recreated it for TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1970 — and won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. That version hasn’t been available beyond the one night it aired, but I will never forget, as a thirteen-year-old being glued in front of my TV set, how fully aware what a special performance it was (I even own a bootleg copy of it, which I take out on occasion to remind myself what great acting is).
In December of 1970, in what would be the last time critics had the chance to sing his praises in a musical, Clive Barnes said of his performance in Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen: “Whatever you think of the show, I challenge you not to adore Mr. Burns.” This was indeed the sort of thing that informed the tidal wave of love Burns rode his entire career, one that was cut short by a fatal heart attack in Philadelphia a few months later. It was while he was performing in a Broadway bound musical 70, Girls, 70, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, that concerned a group of people at a retirement home who are bored with their empty lives and start robbing banks and department stores in the style of Robin Hood. At the time, ninety-nine percent of the cast were eligible for social security (Burns was sixty-eight at the time), which made it a delightful excuse for many eccentric and talented performers to strut their stuff and show that they still had it. And on that night in Philadelphia forty-seven years ago, right after Burns performed his big number “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” he got his usual big hand after the song. Comedic business followed with policemen entering to interrogate the aged criminals, with a running gag popping up every time the word “operation” was mentioned. Burns would pull up his shirt and say, “I had an operation! Here’s the scar!” But on the third go-round with the bit, he barely got the word “operation” out. Seeing that Burns was failing, the two quick-minded actors playing the cops proceeded to carry him off into the wings, where he expired almost immediately. The audience thought it was a joke, and the laughter marked the last time anyone ever heard from the great Davy Burns on stage.
For a look at the master in action, go to the 24:00 mark and learn how an old pro performs tricks in service to a song in ways that can't be taught anymore. His way with an audience and his eccentric dance moves, the result of years of experience perfecting every move and phrase. And just listen to that ovation (this was filmed at the show's closing night, a mere thirteen days after it had opened in 1970). The following year, Burns would receive a posthumous Tony nomination as Best Actor in a Musical, his final hurrah.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.