December 10, 2022: Theatre Yesterday Today, by Ron Fassler.
As an inveterate theatergoer since the age of twelve, I've chronicled in these columns and elsewhere about the days when I saw shows on a weekly basis in the late 60s and early 70s. I've also made it known that by the end of 1972, I was burned out (two hundred shows in four years) and stopped going practically altogether. Diminishing returns with regard to most of the plays and musicals I was seeing depressed me (it had been a bad fall and early winter). Eleven plays closed over a six-month period averaging ten performances each, disastrous in any economic context. Fifty years later, we have the recently opened KPOP folding tomorrow after seventeen performances and forty-four previews, an unusually quick closing in the current business climate of Broadway. Imagine ten KPOPS over the course of six months and you’ll have an idea of the devastating impact on audiences (and producers) back then. In addition to that, even die hard theatre lovers were feeling less and less comfortable going to a seedy Times Square after dark. It was not a good time.
Consider that Follies, which had won seven Tonys at the 1972 awards ceremony in March, failed to get the desired bump at the box office and was gone by the Fourth of July. David Merrick, the once mighty producer who often had numerous shows playing at once, was represented by a sole musical, Sugar, which managed to run ten months but was by no means the sort of hit the showman once enjoyed. Funnily enough, it was based on the 1959 film comedy Some Like it Hot, which will open tomorrow night in another attempt to musicalize it a half-century later, reverting back to its original title. Harold Prince, who had closed the long-running Fiddler on the Roof the same weekend he shuttered Follies, was on the boards directing a limited engagement of Eugene O’Neill’s 1926 The Great God Brown. Joseph Papp, the Prince of Off-Broadway had just closed the critically acclaimed David Rabe play Sticks and Bones, which had started at his downtown Public Theatre, but was still well-represented by three shows on Broadway (two imported from summer engagements in Central Park). At the March Tony ceremony, Papp took home the honors for producing the Best Play (Sticks and Bones) and Best Musical (Two Gentlemen of Verona), a rare trick. The next season, his production of Jason Miller's That Championship Season would win Best Play and three years later, he would be King of Broadway with A Chorus Line, which won nine Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize.
The times they were a changin’.
For this column, I took the time to study the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the December 10, 1972 New York Times and got nostalgic for “the old days.” Fifty years is a long time, and so it’s no surprise to be astonished over how reasonable ticket prices were (top cost: $15). If you sat in the cheap seats, which is where I was always perched, it was actually cheaper to see a Broadway show than a first-run film, which is unfathomable today.
And, for the record, I saw every one of these shows.
Okay, wait. I did not see Say When, nor have I have even heard of it. It played in the basement of the Plaza Hotel (the Plaza 9, as it was called), not one of my usual haunts. However, there's an interesting story about a tenant that took the space the following summer due to an extraordinary circumstance. The musical revue, El Grande de Coca Cola, a hit at the downtown Mercer Arts Center, had to move to the Plaza when on August 3, 1973, the building it was playing in collapsed upon itself. The 123-year-old Broadway Central was, upon its construction, the largest hotel in North America. Its main floor had recently been renovated (as cheaply as possible), housing two theatres. Four cabaret theaters and a rehearsal space were on the second floor and dreams of it becoming an East Village Lincoln Center were not impossible ones.
Tragically, on the afternoon of August 3, 1973, the walls of the building began sagging and sounds of actual groaning alerted its inhabitants something was not right. Wise heads prevailed and the Center was evacuated at two-thirty with people dodging falling bricks as they made their exit. At five o’clock p.m., the eight-floor structure fell "like a pancake," as a fire chief told the New York Post, right out onto Broadway. Miraculously, the death total was kept to just four people. Eventually, NYU built a 22-story 625-unit graduate law student dorm on the property.
There was even an ad in this Arts & Leisure for one of the shows then playing at the Mercer Arts Center. Already a year and a half into a successful run (until the theatre fell down), a revival of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was housed there. A failure when it was on Broadway in 1965, in a version by playwright Dale Wasserman (Man of La Mancha), it had starred and was produced by Kirk Douglas. Later, Douglas would allow his son Michael the film rights, who would go on to win the Academy Award for producing it in 1975. And yes, gave his dad's role to Jack Nicholson (not a fun Thanksgiving dinner that year). Fun fact: Danny DeVito played Martini in both versions.
Also off-Broadway, James Earl Jones was asked by Joseph Papp to make his directorial debut with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theatre (he also played Lopakhin). Jones cast an all-Black company that featured Gloria Foster, Earle Hyman, Zakes Mokae and Josephine Premise. (Phylicia Rashad, then Phylicia Ayers-Allen, was understudy for Varya and Masha). Of this project, Jones writes in his autobiography: "I do not know if it is true that all actors want to direct and all directors want to act, but in 1972 I tried directing and decided I had better stick to acting... for many painful reasons, I couldn't make the production work."
On the same page as the Broadway ABC’s, a couple of ads in the corner caught my eye. Check out the prices below where, at the Classic Stage Rep, $2 (student) or $3.50 (adult) would allow you to see Pinter, Shakespeare, and Stoppard. CSC remains a cultural necessity in NYC, though prices for their current A Man of No Importance are a bit higher, starting as they do at $85. Also, check out the Yiddish Theatre, flowering in bloom on West 46th Street, offering Rebbitzen in Israel, starring such stalwarts as the husband and wife team of Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux. Revival cinemas were plentiful in the days before VCR's (now streaming) knocked them all to kingdom come. The Elgin, here playing a Marx Brothers double feature, is still standing and houses the beautiful Joyce Dance Theatre on 8th Avenue and 19th Street. And the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company's production of The River Niger would eventually move to Broadway and win Joseph A. Walker the 1974 Tony Award for Best Play, the first Black writer ever so honored.
There was also a near half-page ad for an off-Broadway musical called The Bar That Never Closes. This was one of many in a series of risqué (and supposedly shocking) shows in the late 60s and early 70s that, for the most part, all failed, save for Oh! Calcutta!.
Read these pull quotes carefully. The first three are what you'd expect, but as you go down the page, you have to give the producers credit for including such negative comments as "Devised in a Public School Lavatory!", "These People Are a Menace to the Public Welfare!" and my favorite "Most of the Men Seem to Be Women" (this from Clive Barnes in the New York Times—who liked it). By the way, the Astor Place Theatre is where Blue Man Group has been playing for the past thirty-one years.
I was also struck by how many film versions of plays were in theaters. Check out this list: Sleuth, Child's Play, Play it Again, Sam, Man of La Mancha, Avanti and Fiddler on the Roof, while those wonderful revival screens were offering Pygmalion, Dumbo, Anna Karenina (with Garbo), The Philadelphia Story, Gate of Hell and Rashomon (a Kurosawa double feature at the long-gone Thalia near where I live) ... even Gone With the Wind was in first-run theaters on a re-release. Oh, and last but not least, 1776 at the Radio City Music Hall (with a stage show and, of course, I made sure to see it). There's no price listed, but I'd be surprised if it cost more than $4.
Good times, indeed.
A few random thoughts on the Broadway season based purely on memory:
* Russian dramatist Maxim Gorky's 1906 Enemies at Lincoln Center, directed by Ellis Rabb, offered a sterling cast in a rarely produced play. It afforded the opportunity to see Barbara Cook in an unfamiliar dramatic role alongside such distinguished talents as Philip Bosco, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen and Christopher Walken.
* The Circle in the Square Theatre opened in 1972 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Its premiere production was Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O'Neill's gloomy tragedy, and in my review (written when I was fifteen, mind you), I wrote: "The show lasted 3 1/2 hours which is quite a long time." It was probably the longest I ever sat for a play (it was my 183rd show).
* Bob Fosse's staging of Pippin was nothing short of electrifying. When Ben Vereen grabbed the tip of a red handkerchief and pulled up an entire set through the floor, my jaw dropped (Tony Walton at his most inventive). Irene Ryan's "No Time at All" was joy personified as was so much of the score, which remains to this day in rotation on my playlist. And even though A Little Night Music (rightfully) took home the Tony for Best Musical and Best Score in 1973, I will always be fond of Pippin's youthful and tuneful music by Stephen Schwartz.
* Alan Bates stumbling about, hungover and morosely hilarious in Simon Gray's Butley, can be seen its movie version (sort of) as part of the American Film Theatre experiment of the 1970s. But you really had to see him on stage to understand how sensational he was in this role. He won the Tony for Best Actor and would do the same thing in Ivan Turgenev's Fortune's Fool in 2002. To this day, the longest span (twenty-nine years) between Tonys for an actor. Sadly, he died a year later at the age of sixty-nine, robbing us of more great work.
* Two extraordinary clowns graced the Broadway stage at the same time: John McMartin as Sganarelle in Moliere's Don Juan and Robert Morse in Sugar. Irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind artists, we lost both of them in the last few years, though they happily kept on working nearly to the end. McMartin's last show, at eighty-four, was Robert Schenkkan's Tony Award winning All the Way, and Morse, at eighty-five, dazzled once again in a cameo role in the all-star Jack O'Brien revival of The Front Page.
How lucky I was to see so many actors who would become, over time, my all-time favorite actors. Specific moments provided by these artists linger fondly in my memory: the radiant beauty of Julie Harris (The Last of Mrs. Lincoln); the outrageous antics of Jack Albertson and Sam Levene (The Sunshine Boys), the blunt rage of Charles Durning (That Championship Season), the effortless grace embodied by Bobby Van and Helen Gallagher (No, No, Nanette), the delightful comic timing between Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander (6 Rms Rv Vw), and the inimitable Zoe Caldwell as Eve (yes, that Eve) in The Creation of the World and Other Business, a comedic misfire from Arthur Miller.
I guess opening this column citing diminishing returns now seems somewhat ridiculous when you add up the highlights of the full season as displayed in the ABC's shown above for December, 1972. I'd happily travel back in the proverbial time machine right now if given a chance and, if I had only two shows to pick for a matinee and evening, one would be a play I haven't yet mentioned. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were at the Forum (now the Newhouse) at Lincoln Center performing in two Samuel Beckett plays, Not I and Krapp's Last Tape. That's a must-see I didn't see. And the one I'd attend again would have to be Sugar (if not for comparison sake with the new Some Like it Hot, then to experience once again the wondrous Robert Morse).
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, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.