The McHugh Medley

The musical Sugar Babies was a very unique enterprise: it was a star-driven revue and tribute to the era of burlesque. Bawdy sketches, numbers and routines – both old and new – made up the evening which starred MGM stalwarts Ann Miller (Occupation: STAR!) and Mickey Rooney (in his Broadway debut). “The show was well received by critics and audiences alike; a genuine crowd pleaser whose sole purpose was pure entertainment; a sort of final farewell to the long dormant genre. There was some skepticism about the show from insiders and outsiders and it wasn’t expected to be a sell-out smash, but that’s exactly what it became.

The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1979, and settled in for a three year run, clocking in at 1208 performances; the final success to play the house. (During the 80s, there was one flop after another until the Nederlanders sold the building to the Times Square Church in 1991). Miller and Rooney headlined the Broadway production for its entire run and later toured. He only missed one scheduled performance during his seven years performing the show. His understudy never went on; when he vacationed during the Broadway engagement, Joey Bishop, Rip Taylor and Eddie Bracken were brought in to cover. As for that one performance he missed on tour? The producers just canceled it.  (The first national tour starring Carol Channing and Robert Morse was short lived).

Sugar Babies was nominated for 8 Tony Awards but went home empty-handed. Another little musical that year named Evita came to town, the event of that particular season. It didn’t matter, the show was a solid hit. Nationwide audiences were given the chance to see favorites Rooney and Miller on the Tony telecast when they performed the eleven o’clock “McHugh Medley” featuring various songs of noted songwriter Jimmy McHugh:


Our Heroines

This week I saw God of Carnage starring Janet McTeer and have started reading Dorothy L. SayersStrong Poison, a mystery which introduced the literary world to Harriet Vane (most famously played by Harriet Walter on the BBC). So what better way to spend a Friday evening than recalling the two ladies in their acclaimed run of Mary Stuart from last season? (And PBS, where was Great Performances when we needed you to air this gem?)

First up are some of the favorite scenes:

And here are the ladies being interviewed during a Vanity Fair photo shoot:

After seeing both this production and the import of Hamlet last year, I will gladly see anything the Donmar Warehouse wants to bring to NY.

The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail Revisited

Had the powers-that-be not bungled the whole idea of a “Best Replacement Tony” a few years back, I would readily nominate the new cast of God of Carnage, who started performances last night. The mere fact that I want to shower them with such accolades after merely one paid public performance should be enough evidence of how thrilling this new quartet works in Yasmina Reza’s study of good intentions gone awry.

The play has been running for a year, opening to rave reviews with a cast of stars who turned the play into a sell-out event, breaking house records and winning Tonys, etc. I saw the show last May, just before the awards hoopla ensued, and had a ridiculously good time from my seat in the rear mezzanine. (Thanks to KariG, we were in the front row). I hadn’t planned on taking in the show a second time, sometimes once can be enough.

However, when it was announced that original London star Janet McTeer would be reprising her role of Veronica (Veronique in the French-set London production), I was suddenly interested in a revisit. I’d fallen in love with this imperious talent during her acclaimed run of Mary Stuart opposite the estimable Harriet Walter last season, and am willing to hear her read the phone book. I had rumors that she was coming into the NY production, and was curious to see what her performance was like. McTeer was preferred by many friends who saw both the original London and Broadway companies. I was also intrigued at how she would fit into this Americanized version of Reza’s play. Rounding out the company was Dylan Baker as Alan, Lucy Liu as his wife Annette and Jeff Daniels (the production’s original Alan) as Veronica’s husband Michael (originally played by James Gandolfini).

Watching the play this time around, I was most taken with how playwright Reza keeps the actors (mainly Alan and Annette) in the living room for the play’s 90 minutes. This is especially more of a challenge as the play progresses, rum is served and verbal and physical assaults ensue. The couples have gathered because their sons were involved in a playground scuffle and hope to settle the incident in a civil manner, avoiding law suits and insurance claims.

McTeer dominates the stage. She is a natural presence; a living, breathing creature who unravels in front of her husband, two strangers and the entire house at the Jacobs Theatre. Her performance is simply tremendous, and I will admit a slight preference over Harden’s (whom I loved). She is so fascinating to watch in performance, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from her. I’ve rarely seen an actress who can be simultaneously gut-busting hilarious and tragic, and on top of it, McTeer makes it look so effortless.

Liu is making an auspicious Broadway debut as Annette; it was a delight watching her progress from an apologetic, sickly simp to a drunken Martha-in-training. Hers was the most surprising and unexpected performance, and I only hope she considers frequenting the NY theatre scene more often. She is especially memorable in her drunken monologue where she discovers her long-dormant confidence and unleashes her fury with $80 worth of imported tulips (seated in the front row, we got splashed – Kari even got a glass stone in her lap!).

Onto the men – Alan is a tailor made role for Baker: stringent, bored, clearly inconvenienced to be dealing with Michael and Veronica, as well as his own wife. Jeff Daniels was another curiosity – having played Alan so successfully, how would he transition into the other role? Quite brilliantly. It’s a testament to his versatility as an actor he can portray the two antithetical leading men in the same production without so much as blinking an eye. There is nothing in his Michael that even remotely suggests his disconnected, sardonic performance as Alan.

Putting all four together in that savagely blood red living room, it becomes something of a volatile game of doubles tennis. The two couples are innately juxtaposed, but things get interesting as allegiances shift among the quartet, exposing unpleasant truths about both marriages – which only provides more ammunition for the onslaught. Nothing amuses me more than watching characters shattering false illusions about themselves while completely falling from grace (and it is Veronica who has the farthest to fall, as she grasps onto notions of morality and humanity dismissed by the other three).

The play is still fiercely funny from start to finish, much of that credit is due to Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (who hit two home runs last season with Carnage and, more impressively, the revival of The Norman Conquests). If you haven’t seen the play, yet, by all means, run! If you have, rest assured that the production is in excellent hands and worthy of a second glance.

Walking Among My Yesterdays… "Carousel"

I was first exposed to Carousel through its 1956 film adaptation back in middle school. I was on a major Rodgers and Hammerstein kick from having seen the special Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a two hour retrospective on A&E hosted by Shirley Jones. I liked the film well enough, but truth be told I’ve only seen it once in the last ten years since I did the show at my high school. Reading the stage libretto and hearing the entire stage score and orchestrations throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, I realized that the show was darker, more substantial and ultimately more effective in its stage incarnation.
We felt inordinately proud of our production. As a cast we were very much aware of the show’s legacy and the difficulties in performing the material (especially in a high school setting). It marked the second time I ever appeared onstage in a musical. I was a sailor in the first act and Enoch Snow, Jr in the second. Even though I had really wanted to be Enoch Sr. (I sang “Geraniums in the Winder” for my audition… anyone? anyone?), I took a great deal of pride in what I did onstage in this show. It was the one and only time I completely costumed my own character, without any assistance (borrowing heavily from my father’s wardrobe).
Even after performing the show, I had never seen Carousel from an audience perspective.  I pounced on the news that there would be a concert at Carnegie Hall starring Hugh Jackman in his New York musical theater debut. The concert was months and months away, almost a year if I recall it correctly, so I kept on the lookout for ticket information. When it came time for tickets to go on sale, I set my alarm and spent about an hour on the phone getting busy signals from the Carnegie Hall box office. Eventually I got through and got the seats. The concert was June 6, 2002 and it was my first time inside the legendary venue.
The day of the concert, I got up and the skies were cloudy and threatening. As soon as I left the house, a downpour like none other started to fall and didn’t let up until the next day. Two high school friends (also in the show, one was our Nettie, the other our Heavenly Friend) went with me and we enjoyed an adventurous – if wet – day in Manhattan. I stopped at the Virgin Megastore, as per my old custom, and picked up a few cast recordings. We then dined at the TGIFridays in Times Square before we made the trek up to Carnegie Hall.

Now if we had been functioning like real adults instead of fresh-faced college kids, we would have taken the subway and/or been fully prepared for the inclement weather. But no, so we walked and walked in the rain – and in what was a first, I walked directly into the side of a moving cab. Amazingly enough, I wasn’t hurt. But oh, did we laugh.

Settling into our seats, the house was buzz with excitement. Carousel was last seen in NY in the acclaimed Tony-winning 1994 revival at Lincoln Center. The cast they had gathered together with Jackman was nothing short of exceptional. Audra McDonald, who won her first Tony as Carrie in the previous revival, was moving into the role of Julie. Lauren Ward was Carrie, Jason Danieley was Enoch, Norbert Leo Butz was Jigger, Judy Kaye played Nettie. But it didn’t stop there: Blythe Danner was Mrs. Mullin, Philip Bosco was the Starkeeper and original Billy Bigelow John Raitt made a brief appearance to introduce the concert; his entrance brought down the house with a lengthy ovation.

Directed by Walter Bobbie, the conceit of the evening was to really showcase the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers, as well as the orchestrations of Don Walker and dance arrangements of the brilliant Trude Rittmann. Bobbie and John Weidman adapted the book for concert, similar to Encores!, only it was even more spare than anything you find at City Center. There was absolutely no scenery, and very subtle but effective costume coordination by John Lee Beatty. Leonard Slatkin directed the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the principals were assisted by the Concert Chorale of New York.

I doubt you could ask for more perfect casting, particularly in the two leads. With McDonald and Jackman, the chemistry was palpable and the famed bench scene was not only superbly sung and acted, it was also incredibly sexy. When the two kissed at the end of it, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. McDonald’s crystalline soprano was perfect for Julie, with heavenly renditions of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” The two leads were ably supported by the others, particularly Kaye, who was and is ideal casting as Cousin Nettie, who brought a great sense of fun to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and a stirring warmth to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The evening, though, belonged to Jackman. He was more than ideal, and was probably as close to perfection as one could get for the part. At the time, he was only starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood but had previously scored raves for his portrayal of Curly in Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn’s West End reincarnation of Oklahoma!

His “Soliloquy” was so impassioned, so thrilling, it brought sporadic bursts of applause mid-song. A year and a half later he would carry The Boy From Oz in one of the great male star turns in recent memory. But his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen pales in comparison. He sang the role with gusto, and delved deeply into Billy’s psychology, giving a performance that was ready for a Broadway opening. There was talk of him starring in a second film version of the property. I don’t know if that is still in the cards, but it would be wondrous to have the star revisit the property, especially for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there that night. It was one of the greatest musical theatre performances I’ve ever seen in my life.

The finale brought the sold out house at Carnegie Hall to its feet almost instantly, in a warm ovation. That ovation increased as Mr. Raitt returned to the stage where he proceeded to embrace Jackman, in a spontaneous display of mutual admiration. Though Mr. Raitt didn’t sing a note that evening, just his mere presence made the evening that more perfect. I don’t know for certain but I believe it was one of his last public appearances in NY.

My friends and I hoped that there would be a recording of the evening, and were so generous in starting applause that we wondered if we’d be able to hear ourselves if there was one. But unfortunately, the powers that be hadn’t the foresight to consider such an enterprise. Three years later when they presented South Pacific in concert, they made it available on CD and DVD and even aired the presentation on PBS. I’d like to think this was in part to missing the boat the first time around. For as much fun as that South Pacific concert was – it wasn’t nearly as special nor as memorable as Carousel.

Numerous albums of Carousel have been made throughout the years, but there is no complete recording of the score, in its original orchestration and with all of Trude Rittman’s brilliant dance arrangements intact. Even when we performed the show, the musical directors made some splices and edits within the dance music of the score: which includes a rarely performed “Hornpipe” for the sailors in the first act, as well as the famed twelve minute ballet in the second. There have been recordings of South Pacific, The King and I and even the recent studio recording of Allegro which give us the score in its entirety. I would like to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest score might be given its due sooner rather than later.

The rain was still coming down in torrents when we left Carnegie. We had even considered stagedooring it (with mostly soccer moms in attendance, a precursor to what was to come during his Broadway runs), but we were informed by one of the stage door attendants that the cast was going to be sitting down to dinner before emerging. We decided the show had already been enough and walked through the rain all the way down to Grand Central (why none us thought about taking the subway or a taxi, I’ll never know) but we maintain great memories of that experience, and I for one couldn’t get that score of my head for days, as I nursed my inevitable cold. But dammit, it was worth it!

A Trip to the Library

Over the past couple of weeks I have been going through the house and sorting out the debris of my life. There are a lot of memories ensconced within my three rooms, and felt the need to organize it. While shuffling through some papers and sheet music, a CD fell out from the pile. It was the second cast album of Kiss of the Spider Woman with Vanessa William, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Howard McGillin. I had borrowed it from the local library about five or six years ago and had lost it. The thing was, I had gone back to college and someone else in the family was going to return it for me. Well, that didn’t happen and I ended up paying $20 for it, in spite of the fact it was nowhere to be found.

Anyway, I was so surprised to see this and decided that I should return it. I checked the library system online and they had even removed its listing. In the years since, I had acquired a cheap copy of the recording for myself and felt it would be better served back in their catalog. Suddenly I got excited at the idea of going to the library. I hadn’t used it in a long time since I spent so much time working at Barnes and Noble, and really didn’t need. I have a lot of books and was able to borrow hardcovers from the store.

I’m an unabashed book nerd; I was legitimately excited by the prospect of using the library again. So here I was back in the building and after filling out the necessary paperwork, I had a brand new library card (my old one was lost somewhere… three days after this trip during more sorting and organization that also fell out of a pile). I felt it most necessary to inaugurate the card while I was there. I went up to the theatre arts section on the second floor, where I made frequent trips during high school and embarked on my musical theatre studies.

I checked out two books: Rodgers and Hammerstein by Ethan Mordden and Mainly on Directing by Arthur Laurents.

The former is one I’ve read cover to cover several times; I am tempted to pick up my own copy. It’s a coffee table sized book which has the added bonus of generous history and criticism of the entire R&H canon. There are copious amounts of photographs, both color and black & white interspersed throughout. Captions abound. I don’t necessarily agree with Mordden on some of his theories, but I do find it fun to read what he has to say about every work from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, including comments on their film and television projects. For some reason the book is out of print, but there are used copies available on amazon, and it is one to remember.

Laurents’ book focuses on his career as a director. The first chapter is devoted to his immense dislike for the 2003 revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters. The star emerges unscathed, but there are very few kind words for director Sam Mendes. The majority of the book is devoted to his direction of the Patti LuPone Gypsy reviewing the course of the show from the City Center to Broadway. The general feeling I get as I read is that Laurents feels he’s the only one can direct any of the works he has written. He takes the usual swipes at Merman and Robbins, for whom he had little love in his memoir Original Story By. But this time there are a couple of pointed digs at Sondheim as well. The writer-director also talks La Cage Aux Folles (and again, no love lost on the revival) and his dislike of drag and how he came to rediscover West Side Story He also claims it to be about love; the book came as a tribute to his late partner, Tom Hatcher. However, the only love to be found in the text, which makes for an interesting read, is for Hatcher.

So I’m off to a solid start; there are a lot of theatre books I want to reread and others which I have yet to pick up. Mordden’s series on musical theatre decade by decade, William Goldman’s The Season, among others. But first? I assuage my ladies of the DLS/HWS with a quartet of Dorothy L. Sayers books.

Any suggestions as to what I should read…?

"Like Shiloh and Valley Forge…"

The sublime revival of South Pacific is poised to end its run at the Vivian Beaumont after a monumental 1,000 performances this August. I’ve seen the show twice; once on its opening night and the other on the night Barack Obama was elected our President. The production is a personal favorite of mine, and I hope to make another trip back before it ends.

The musical is based on the collection of short stories by James A. Michener, and there are two simple references to the original text. They are quotations which bookend the book’s introductory chapter which are projected onto white scrim; one before the overture, the other after the curtain call.

We have had an old mass market paperback edition of Tales of the South Pacific lying around the house for years. I got it in elementary school, but I didn’t read it until 2005, a result of seeing the concert at Carnegie Hall. It’s a collection of tangentially related short stories all revolving around Operation Alligator, a fictive military operation which took the restless Seabees and sailors out of their restless waiting and into the heart of the Pacific theatre of WWII. I couldn’t put the book down, I was fascinated – as I always have been and always be – with the history of the Second World War.

I can’t say that I grew up as a military brat, as my father (a Marine, once and always) left the military more than 20 years before I was born, but there was an immense amount of military influence in my childhood. Many family friends were veterans of WWII, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. So I have spent much of this time talking with them about their experiences, and have an immense appreciation for the sacrifices they have made and difficulties they have gone through for our benefit.

This past week marked the 65th anniversary of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Some of my time this past week was spent helping my father get ready to go halfway across the world. He is currently on a military tour with other veterans who are meeting in Guam. They will be visiting Iwo Jima for a ceremony honoring the loss of both US and Japanese life during that bloody battle.

On an entirely different note, I am seeing the new musical Yank! at the York Theatre on Saturday, so there’s been a lot of WWII on my mind lately. I have seen practically every film about it, read numerous books – both fiction and non-fiction, and have seen countless documentaries about it. It’s been something I’ve been aware of ever since I can remember and my fascination continues.

It was the Michener quote at the end of South Pacific that I recall today. I didn’t expect it, nor did I expect to be as moved as I was by it:

“They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.”

-James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific

The Liz Ashley

One of the most memorable moments from the opening night performance of Superior Donuts occurred prior to the actual show. I was at Angus having drinks with Steve, his partner Doug and Gil of Broadway Abridged, when on our way out we encountered upon the estimable Elizabeth Ashley. The actress was seated quite casually, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other and in a moment of pure nerve I decided to speak with her. Our conversation lasted five minutes, but it was one of most cordial, invigorating exchanges I have ever experienced with an actor.

A couple weeks ago, SarahB gifted me a copy of Ashley’s long out of print memoir Actress: Postcards from the Road, that she had found while out shopping in Texas. There were certain things I knew of Ashley – her Tony win and shoot to fame with Take Her She’s Mine, having Barefoot in the Park written specifically for her by Neil Simon and of her marriage to actor George Peppard. But – and this shouldn’t be as surprising as it was, but it is – there was a lot about the legend that I did not know. This book offered unusual candor in talking about the acting world of the 60s and 70s, and also regarding the struggles and challenges of being an artist of the theatre.

She doesn’t consider herself to be much of a writer, but with the help of Ross Firestone, she told her stories and he magnificently captures her voice in the text. The book is rather episodic and conversational – she establishes who she is and what she’s doing in her brief introduction. In the book she’s not going to separate her public and private persona and vows to be blunt:

“I know one thing for sure: You can tell an American the truth about anything and if you are really straight you are probably in for a terrific conversation. You may not get agreement, but you will almost certainly have a good, hot, rich exchange. Curiosity, compassion, and imagination are the most consistent spiritual characteristics I have found in the American psyche. This book is not an autobiography. It is about how I found my ticket to ride…”

She starts off with a breakdown during the run of Barefoot in the Park, where she felt she wasn’t good enough and sensed that everyone, especially co-star Robert Redford was aware of it. Highs and lows are traversed – the betrayal of her confidence by Sydney Pollack that cost her the lead in The Slender Thread, her volatile marriage to alcoholic Peppard, for which she gave up her acting career, the birth of their son, Christian, who really gave her the first real sense of identity she’d ever known. She left Peppard when alcohol started dictating violence and jealousy, culminating in an episode where she had to place a gun at the back of his skull to get Christian out of his drunken clutches.

She had given up on her career after turning down the film version of Barefoot in the Park and needed to work from the bottom up to get back into shape as both a performer and a professional. This involved one-shot appearances on minor television shows and appearances in movies of the week; anything to get her back into shape and so she could earn her stripes. In one episode of Mission: Impossible, she challenged herself to work as hard as possible on a climactic scene, and the director saw the effort she was making and why she was making it and it really clicked. Her comeback was fully realized in her highly acclaimed turn as Maggie the Cat in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opened in Stratford, Connecticut, moved to Broadway and became the hottest ticket in town.

However interesting her acting career, it is always the personal information that is the most fascinating; alternately amusing or harrowing. On the former path, she relays with considerable non chalance an affair with screenwriter Thomas McGuane. She and McGuane dallied for quite some time – with the full approval of McGuane’s wife who became one of Liz’s good friends. The three of them, taking sexual liberation by the horns and exercising their free love thought they had established the great sexual utopian experiment. Though she doesn’t mention her by name, merely a polite but terse “star-lette,” she mentions how Margot Kidder came along, snatched up McGuane ending his relationship with both his wife and Ashley.

The harrowing – and one of the most personal stories she relays was a recollection of her first pregnancy, with actor James Farentino (also her first husband) in the early sixties. She was about to go into Take Her, She’s Mine when she discovered she was unmarried and pregnant. She recounts with grim precision the abortion she had, up to and including her need for hospitalization afterward. It’s a devastating, chilling account of what things were like in our not so distant society. And she does not hold back.

Ashley takes is a no-nonsense, Southern gal: she suffers no fools but it brutally honest about herself and the events in her life. There is no glossing over her insecurities – from acting school, to the dismissal she received from her peers from the success of her first Broadway play (seen as commercial and not art). There is no stone which she leaves unturned in talking about her chosen profession, or the work she’s had to do and speaks of her successes and failures with considerable nonchalance.

She doesn’t delve very deeply into her childhood or her family life – just glimpses here and there of an impoverished upbringing, her lack of education, etc. The book is more a window into her life as a reflection of her career; all the more interesting since she wrote this in 1978. Her career has continued steadily, becoming one of the prime interpreters of her friend Tennessee Williams’ plays and taking Broadway by storm last year in Dividing the Estate and August: Osage County.

I had great respect for Ms. Ashley prior to reading her book, but now that respect has grown tenfold and I hope she might consider a follow-up. These last thirty years must have given this salt of the earth actress many more tales to tell. And I sure as hell would love to read about them.

Uta Hagen as Martha

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.

Remembering Kathryn Grayson (1922-2010)

Kathryn Grayson, blue-eyed, button-nosed brunette star of MGM musicals who played opposite Gene Kelly, Mario Lanza and Sinatra, has died at the age 88 in her home in Los Angeles. The first time I ever heard Grayson sing was while watching That’s Entertainment on television years ago. I have always been drawn to soprano voices, and knew several accomplished sopranos myself. But this was the first time as a kid that I ever heard anyone applying the coloratura technique, which fascinated me. I made it a point to seek out her other films, including the 1951 adaptation of Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, both co-starring Howard Keel, who once said she was “the most beautiful woman in the history of movies.”

She was born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick on February 9, 1922 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and would relocate to St. Louis and finally Los Angeles. MGM was desperately seeking a rival for Universal star Deanna Durbin, a young soprano whose career unexpectedly skyrocketed after MGM let her go. A talent scout for Metro gave the teenage Kathryn a screen test and she reluctantly signed (she wanted opera, not film). After she signed her contract, she was offered the chance to sing Lucia at the Met, but was convinced by Mayer that she should turn it down. Grayson wouldn’t appear onstage in opera for years, though she would sing many of the famed operatic arias in her films.

Her film debut was in 1941’s Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary who unwittingly caused Mickey Rooney’s eye to wander away from Ann Rutherford. Typical of the studio system, her role was basically an excuse to showcase her talent and to test her bankability; she sang Johann Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” in Italian, capping it off with a coloratura cadenza that culminated on a G above high C. After a few more roles, her career would take off as the top-billed star of Anchors Aweigh, in which she would introduce the song “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings.”

She would prove a cross-over artist as she brought much of the classical repertoire to film audiences, playing many characters were either aspiring or established opera stars or headlining numerous stage to screen adaptations. In many such films she was often paired with piano virtuoso Jose Iturbi, who served as an onscreen mentor of sorts. In The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Grayson would introduce the standard “Be My Love” only to be upstaged by Mario Lanza, who was the one co-star with whom she didn’t get along.

Though I have seen better singing-actresses (particularly coloraturas) in the years that have passed since I first encountered Grayson, I hold a special place for her for being that first. Many of the roles she played are negligible, excuses for a beautiful soprano to sing. For what it’s worth, I think her finest moment onscreen was as Lilli Vanessi in the bowdlerized film version of Kiss Me Kate, it offers her the rare chance to be something other than an ingenue, and she really took the opportunity to heart. She was slated to star in the film version of Brigadoon, but her contract expired and Kate would prove to be her final film as an MGM player. She would make three more films, none of them very successful. The last, a Paramount produced adaptation of The Vagabond King, proved a misguided flop and one that Grayson herself admitted should never have been made.

Grayson appeared in regional and stock productions of musicals and operettas after her film career waned, recreating some of her film roles in their original stage incarnations. She made only one appearance on Broadway, as a replacement Guenevere in the original production of Camelot in 1962 (where she reportedly sang the score up a third and added unnecessary coloratura flourishes). She would take star in the show’s national tour for almost a year and a half. In the ’60s, she also made many appearances in various operas with companies around the country.

There were a few TV appearances, including a recurring bit as Ideal Molloy on Murder She Wrote. She lived in peaceful retirement, teaching voice and making appearances about her MGM days and taping a few recollections for TCM.

Grayson was married twice. Her first husband was actor John Shelton, her second singer-actor Johnny Johnston. She is survived by her daughter Patricia Kathryn Johnston and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

From Anchors Aweigh, “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” & “From the Heart of the Lonely Poet”: