Theatre Yesterday and Today, January 30, 2023, by Ron Fassler.
Due to a warm response to the column posted Saturday on replacements in Broadway shows, a Part Two feels warranted (as well as a Part Three) due to how many prime examples there are from which to choose. For more than a century, actors and actresses have been taking over in roles on Broadway in which they put their own stamp; not easy to do when dealing with originators who've often executed them in a brilliant fashion. Remember: this isn't about those who've rethought performances in revivals with a director's guidance, but cases where, for the most part, actors came on board without the help of the person who developed the look and feel of the show and instead "put in" by a stage manager or the director's assistant. It's not ideal, as an actor needs to make a part their own. The trick is to do it without radically throwing off a cast who are used to playing in a way that's been audience tested/audience approved.
A favorite story of mine concerning this was when I asked William Daniels about his replacing Len Cariou in the original production of A Little Night Music. He said that the director, Harold Prince, had told him "I want your own interpretation," only to have Prince ask him to do every single thing Cariou did, including which hand to turn a doorknob. Daniels, pro that he is, nodded. Then, once Prince was safely out of the room, he changed whatever was necessary to make it his own.
For the purposes of this Part Two, I thought I'd concentrate on a wish list of replacements I missed due to the sin of not having been born yet or was too young to be taken to by my parents (circa the late 1950s-60s). Some of these names are probably ones you never knew were associated with the roles they played on stage in these fabled titles. So, enjoy this scroll down memory lane; one which may not provide personal memories, but instead a few entertaining anecdotes, facts and figures.
As a child, I became enraptured by the 1950 film version of Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Harvey. I thought James Stewart's performance could never be topped and as my interest in theatre grew, I discovered that the actor who created the role, Frank Fay, was the one thought to have been the definitive Elwood P. Dowd. A complicated man to whom I devoted a column six years ago, Fay did Harvey for over a period of three years on Broadway. He took a few vacations which is when James Stewart, then a major film star (but one who had begun his career on the New York stage), took over from Fay to play opposite an invisible 6' 2” rabbit. Playing Elwood once in 1947 and again in 1948 and I was thrilled when I got to see Stewart do it more that two decades later in a 1970 Broadway revival co-starring Helen Hayes. Stewart was sixty-one at the time, though appeared much older. Hayes was seventy and appeared much younger. Go figure.
When the original Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando, left A Streetcar Named Desire, their replacements were Uta Hagen and Anthony Quinn. Both had been cast in 1948 in the show's first national tour beginning in Chicago and together they joined the Broadway company in 1949. Hagen had been paying her dues since her Broadway debut at age nineteen as Nina in a 1938 production of The Seagull, where she played alongside Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Quinn, four years Hagen's senior, had already been working in Hollywood films since he was twenty. Of their working together on Streetcar, I vividly recall Hagen tell a hilarious story on The Dick Cavett Show nearly fifty years ago. It had to do with when, late in the play, Blanche and Stanley have it out alone in the apartment, the scene ending with Stanley's ominous last line "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" The stage direction, as written in the published text, is: "She moans. The bottle-top falls. She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed." Only on one particular evening, the curtain did not come down. As Hagen told it, once Quinn laid her on the bed and realized they were still exposed in the light, he frantically breathed into her ear, "What am I supposed to do?" to which Hagen hoarsely whispered, "Rape me, you idiot!"
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman was one of the most galvanizing plays of the post WWII era. It's effect on audiences has hardly diminished over the more than seventy years since it opened, evidenced by five Broadway revivals, its most recent one (starring Wendell Pierce) that ended its limited run last week. Lee J. Cobb, whose towering performance as Willy Loman was the most highly praised of his long career, found the role so physically and psychologically exhausting that he left the show after eight months. Faced with the challenge of finding an actor up to its demands, producer Kermit Bloomgarden turned to the character actor Gene Lockhart, then fifty-eight (Cobb was only thirty-seven when he played Willy). Lockhart had been acting since the age of six and had a memorable film career in addition to having created such roles on Broadway as Uncle Sid in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! In his reassessment of the production, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson took note that "Mr. Cobb was big and powerful. Mr. Lockhart is pudgy and crumpled... don't ask this column to judge between the two."
To close out the run, Bloomgarden brought in the actor who played Willy on the national tour, Thomas Mitchell, an actor of great range with impressive stage credentials, all of which have been bypassed by the epic number of films in which he appeared. In 1939 alone, he stole scenes in five undisputed classics: Gone With the Wind (as Gerald O'Hara); The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Only Angels Have Wings; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach for which he won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. For a taste of what he brought to Death of a Salesman, a studio recording was done of the entire play featuring Mitchell and members of its original cast. I've owned it for years and for anyone who is interested, contact me and I'll send you a link for it.
Then there are the cases of certain icons, many of whom gave one-of-a-kind performances, opening and closing their shows without anyone ever replacing them. Actors like Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Ray Bolger in Where's Charley?, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in Long Day's Journey into Night, and Ethel Merman in Gypsy, hailed from a generation built for epic endurance, a love of the stage, and profound commitment.
And in the way he held onto the part his entire life, it should come as no surprise that Yul Brynner remained with The King and I for the entirety of its run between 1951 and 1954. However, before anyone shouts me down, another King did go on, which was when Brynner took a few weeks' vacation allowing for Alfred Drake to take over (correcting a decision he’d made turning down the role originally). Sure would love to hear from someone who saw him in it.
Yet what do we know of Mildred Fenton, who followed Mary Martin as Dolly Winslow in Coler Porter’s Leave it To Me, or George Tapps who came after Gene Kelly in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey? Virtually nothing because theatre is ephemeral. Those performances evaporate into the ether, just like Martin's and Kelly's, unless you were among the lucky thousands who got to see them. A little internet sleuthing produced these images of Fenton and Tapps.
So, raise your hands if you're over the age of sixty and saw any of these rich substitutes or replacements, all before my time, and just a portion of the hundreds I’d put on a wishlist. These aren’t touring or stock productions; all played these roles on Broadway:
Eddie Albert as Harold Hill in The Music Man
Carol Channing as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town.
Betty Garrett as Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing.
Joel Grey as Littlechap in Stop the World—I Want to Get Off.
Mimi Hines as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl
Beatrice Lillie as Auntie Mame.
Dick Shawn as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened...
Elaine Stritch as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Julie Wilson as Babe in The Pajama Game.
Some list, huh? And more to come in Part Three.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.