Every year when March rolls around, I'm still surprised by the number of so many of my favorite theatre artists who share my birthday month. It feels special to be in the company of some extraordinary fellow members of the Pisces and Aries persuasion. Since the month began, I’ve already written about John Cullum and John Kander, and in the past I've written about John Garfield, Alan Arkin, Diane Wiest and others. Here are a few more.
To begin with, on this particular date — March 22 — what are the odds that Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were each born? Though eighteen years apart, with Sondheim born during the Great Depression in 1930, and Lloyd Webber, a baby-boomer, born in 1948, this fact has not gone unnoticed by devoted theatre goers. It seems silly that an unforced rivalry between the two of them seems to have been thrust upon them over the years, ever since Follies and Jesus Christ Superstar opened in the same Broadway season of 1972 (neither won the Tony for Best Musical, for as many are well aware, it went to the rock musicalization of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona). A year ago, on the occasion of Sondheim's 90th, the pair had some fun saluting one another and even managed a message about hand washing (this having been the very beginning of the pandemic):
March marks the birthdays of dozens of theatre veterans. To name a few more: The British actor Michael Redgrave (1908), who last played Broadway in 1961 (a bit before my time); Carl Reiner (1922), who appeared as a performer on Broadway in two post-war revues (WWII, that is), but also wrote and directed a couple of plays himself; Hal Linden (1931), who first started his New York Theatre career in 1956 in Bells Are Ringing, when he stood by for that show’s male lead, Sydney Chaplin; Victor Garber (1949), a Canadian, started out as a folk singer, but after playing Jesus in Godspell in Toronto (1972), was launched as a theatre actor who numbers four Tony nominations among his lengthy Broadway credits; Chip Zien (1947), who has distinguished himself in a baker's dozen's worth of Broadway shows, including his indelible performance as... well, the Baker in Into the Woods; Glenn Close (1947), the winner of three Leading Actress Tonys (one for a musical and two for drama — the only woman to achieve that honor), continues to work on stage as recently as 2018 playing the woman who gave birth to Saint Joan in Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid; William Hurt (1950) has one Broadway show to his credit (Hurlyburly), but fifteen plays Off-Broadway when he was the most promising young leading man in the 1970s and early ’80s; and Holly Hunter (1958), who only did two Broadway plays in the early days of her career, both by Beth Henley (one being the Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart). Maybe she’s just waiting for Ms. Henley to write her another? Karl Malden (1912), who created the role of Mitch in the original Broadway cast of 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Richard Easton (1933), a Tony winner for Best Actor in 2001 for Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. Easton even made his Broadway debut in the same year as a fellow birthday boy: Easton in a production of Measure For Measure and Sondheim with West Side Story in 1957.
As a means to celebrate, here are a few quick stories from their lives in the theatre, as told by the artists themselves:
Interviewing Hal Linden for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he hit upon something that made him yearn for days gone by, when he explained how once upon a time every New Yorker seemingly knew what was going on in the theatre:
Hal Linden: “Let me tell you the most wonderful story. I used to pick up the 104 bus on 8th Avenue to head home after the theatre when I was doing The Rothschilds, and often I’d see William Daniels waiting at the same stop. He was in 1776, which was also on 46th Street. Well, one night on the bus we both sit down across from a lady that I have always said looked like she came out of a Hoff cartoon. You remember Hoff cartoons? They always had very fleshy ladies in them.’
“Anyway, this woman was in some kind of house dress, sort of in her fifties. She had two large shopping bags at her feet. And she’s right opposite us. And as soon as we sit down, this one says to one seated next to (who looks just like her), ‘Well, Sally… we’re honored by the presence of Mr. Adams and Mr. Rothschild.’ Can you imagine? But that’s what it was like back then. Everyone in New York knew everyone else’s business.”
Carl Reiner: "I was found while performing in a Broadway show by Max Lieberman, And the first full year of Your Show Of Shows [which Lieberman produced] was about to go on the air, and he needed somebody to support Sid Caesar. And I had been a first banana up until that time. I had been a leading comedian. And he invited me to become the second banana. When I had seen Sid in Tars And Spars and another venture on Broadway, Make Mine Manhattan, and I thought this guy was an extraordinary talent. And being a second banana to such a massive first banana didn't — wasn't a come-down at all for me. I realized I was working with the best... that's the way I became a writer without a portfolio. Up to that time, I'd been just an actor. And now I was just an actor but who had some ideas, so I was always in the writers' room from then on. I never — we never got credit in those days for writing. Actors were actors, and writers were writers. But I did learn my craft working with those brilliant writers."
William Hurt: "My first role in New York was playing three parts in Henry V in Central Park... Bates, Scoop, and then an invented role, the French interpreter for the Princess [played by Meryl Streep, in her Delacorte debut]. I created these three totally different roles, with beards, makeup changes, accents and everything. I was onstage maybe a grand total of half an hour, but I was so busy racing around that I would lose three or four pounds a night."
Glenn Close: "There's something so elemental about live theater. I mean, yesterday, in our matinee [A Delicate Balance, 2014], I started having a nosebleed just before my entrance. And I thought, oh, no, what am I going to do? And my entrance came, and I went on. And I had a whole thing of Kleenex. And I realized, you know, like, five lines in that it wasn't going to go. My nosebleed was not going to stop. So I made the decision to go down to the footlights and say, ladies and gentlemen, I'm experiencing a nosebleed. I need to have a couple of minutes. And John Lithgow went down and said, well, maybe we can sing some Christmas carols. And then, the idea was to kind of bring down the curtain for a couple of minutes... And they just loved it."
Karl Malden, a truly major character actor in all mediums, had a sixty-three year career that goes as far back as appearing with the Group Theatre in the original production of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy in 1937 with, as he put it, “four lines in the third act.” Through his association with Harold Clurman (who directed it) and Elia Kazan (who recommended him), Malden took classes with the Group Theater in the early 1940s and later at the Actors Studio, but he never called himself a "Method" actor. As he wrote in his 1997 autobiography When Do I Start?, he said "I do have a method, of course. Any method that works.”
The last day of March brings the birthday of Christopher Walken. Mainly known for his film work, he made his Broadway debut at age sixteen as a replacement in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning J.B., by Archibald MacLeish. A dancer as well, he appeared in the choruses of High Spirits (1964) and Baker Street (1965), all three under his birth name Ronnie Walken (he changed it to Christopher feeling "Ronnie" sounded too immature). When he was appearing with fellow Aries William Hurt in David Rabe's Hurlyburly in 1984, he had this to say about that experience amidst a wonderful cast of actors: "It's a ball game of a very special and exquisite, exotic sort. If you're on your toes and they're on their toes, you can cook. It's as exciting as sports. When you work with people like that, there's an element of unpredictability to it which might be called danger. You can't take anything for granted. They throw you curves, you throw them curves. The watching and the listening, the constant reversing of those roles, is fascinating both to the actors and the audience. If I'm not sure what I'm going to do, they sense it, the audience — what's he going to do? It makes them not take anything for granted. They don't go to sleep."
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. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.