For the first time in years, I watched the 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as part of my own “31 Days of Oscar.” In the time since I have last watched the film, I have gained a considerable understanding of the play through multiple readings of the text, two viewings of the phenomenal 2005 revival and (the apotheosis) the acquisition of the incredibly rare original Broadway cast album.
The film does hold up quite well, in its text and especially in Burton’s brilliant performance. Oscar-winner Taylor is fascinating, once you get over the fact that she’s Liz Taylor and the makeup used to make her look older. She has to work harder than other actresses I’ve seen in the part but it’s still a worthy performance. George Segal is a bit too stiff as Nick, and Sandy Dennis is her usual otherworldly self in her Oscar-winning turn as Honey. Albee’s qualms about music and expansion of the play from its unit setting are merited, but those don’t detract from the overall experience. It’s said that screenwriter Ernest Lehman tried to rewrite some of the script, but the leading actors insisted on performing Albee’s text (with the exception of a couple of lines that Lehman contributed).
However, while watching the film, I couldn’t get Uta Hagen’s Martha out of my head. Her performance in the original Broadway production has been regarded in textbooks as one for the ages, so I’d been curious about her work for years. Co-starring with Hagen were Arthur Hill as George, George Grizzard as Nick and Melinda Dillon as Honey. All four were acclaimed for their work, but it was Hagen’s performance that stood out from the rest. The actress and teacher received some of her best reviews (and a second Tony), in what would become the defining performance of her career. One of the most thrilling days to me as a theatre historian was the day I acquired the recording of the original Broadway cast, allowing me the opportunity to finally hear what all the fuss was about.
Well, after seeing Taylor and Kathleen Turner (who was quite good opposite Bill Irwin), it amazed me that a mere aural capture of the performance could be so thrilling. My general opinion of the two booze-soaked leading characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is that Martha is the showier role, but George is more interesting. But here on this album, as interpreted by Hagen, Martha is showy and interesting. Riveting, fascinating, gutteral. I’d never experienced any of her acting work before, just clips of her acting classes at HB Studios (she was married to Herbert Berghof until his death) and also from her interview in Rick McKay’s brilliant Broadway: The Golden Age documentary.
It’s a titanic performance. It’s rare that an iconic performance lives up to its hype, but hearing Hagen tear through Martha, you realize that she is simply definitive. She is funny, vulgar, volatile and ultimately devastating. She pulls out all the stops as Martha, triumphant in an incredibly difficult, demanding role. The producers insisted upon matinee alternates for all four actors. Hagen didn’t want that – she wanted to do all eight. But it was probably a good decision that she didn’t. Matinees were performed by Kate Reid. Mercedes McCambridge and Elaine Stritch also played the role during the original production’s 664 performance run. But it is Hagen who is best remembered from this cast, and rightly so.
Goddard Lieberson at Columbia was the one had the foresight to put the play on record, released in a 4-LP set. There were some who took issue with Albee’s text, as it made great use of various vulgarities not often heard in polite conversation (it’s believed that the controversy is what led to the denial of its Pulitzer Prize). That didn’t curb Lieberson, who was adamant about making the record. Even Albee didn’t think there would be a large audience for it, as he observed in comments he wrote for the LP booklet. But nonetheless, the performances were captured, complete with atmospheric sounds from their stage action, most notably the clinking of ice in their glasses.
Hagen died in 2004, leaving behind a great legacy as actress and acting teacher. Before the stroke that ultimately led to her death, the octogenarian revived the role of Martha in a couple of staged readings of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The evenings were to benefit the HB Studios, and actors held scripts. But the critics came out in droves and were full of superlatives for her performance. Thirty-five years removed, her performance was as prescient as ever.
The album went out of print on LP and has never been reissued in any format. Rare copies can be found in Amazon z-shops and occasionally on Ebay. I have long hoped that perhaps one of these days it would be released; I thought the DRG release of the film’s soundtrack was supposed to be this first recording. I hope now that Masterworks Broadway is intent on paying homage to all the musical theatre recordings in its catalogue (of Sony & RCA) that they will consider issuing a remastered edition of this play. It is an original cast recording, an important documentation of one of the most iconic plays of the 20th century. Drama students would be well-served by access to this landmark recording.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the recording. First up is from the opening scene of Act I, “Fun and Games”
Act III, “The Exorcism” – “Our Son.” Since it comes toward the end of the play, I warn those that are unfamiliar with the piece of the possibility of spoilers.