The Year of Living Cinematically

Same as every other year: all films were watched in their entirety and all films that I’d never seen before have been marked with an asterisk.

*Remember the Night (1940) 1/11
*August: Osage County (2013) 1/12
*Quartet (2012) 1/14
Gypsy (1962) 2/18
Never on Sunday (1960) 3/16
*Argo (2012) 3/17
Picnic (1955) 3/20
Godzilla (1954) 3/24
If…. (1968) 4/10
*Les Miserables (2012) 4/28
*Repo Man (1984) 5/16
*The Jazz Singer (1927) 5/20
*Frozen (2013) 5/22
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) 5/23
Father Goose (1964) 5/23
*Saving Mr. Banks (2013) 5/26
*Amarcord (1973) 5/29
*Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) 5/31
Oliver! (1968) 6/3
*Despicable Me (2010) 6/6
*Despicable Me 2 (2013) 6/10
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) 6/24
*Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013) 6/24
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013 6/25
*Autumn Sonata (1978) 7/3
1776 (1972) 7/4
The Goonies (1985) 7/6
The Tree of Life (2011) 7/28
*White Heat (1949) 7/29
Dumbo (1941) 7/29
The Producers (2005) 8/1
*Freaky Friday (2003) 8/6
Radio Days (1987) 8/8
Born Yesterday (1950) 8/10
*Lola (1961) 8/13
North to Alaska (1960) 8/16
*The Train (1964) 8/19
Psycho (1960) 8/22
*Agnes Browne (1999) 8/23
All That Heaven Allows (1955) 8/27
Operation Petticoat (1959) 8/27
High Noon (1952) 8/28
You Can’t Take It With You (1938) 8/30
Hot Fuzz (2007) 9/2
*Blue Jasmine (2013) 9/27
*20 Feet from Stardom (2013) 9/27
Young Frankenstein (1974) 9/28
Gone with the Wind (1939) 10/1
All That Jazz (1979) 10/17
The Innocents (1961) 10/23
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) 10/24
*The Uninvited (1944) 10/25
Carrie (1976) 10/29
The Haunting (1963) 10/30
Halloween (1978) 10/31
The Caine Mutiny (1954) 11/2
Shaun of the Dead (2004) 11/8
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 11/26
Bringing Up Baby (1938) 11/26
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) 12/3
Annie Hall (1977) 12/15
Christmas Vacation (1989) 12/17
Scrooged (1988) 12/22
A Christmas Story (1983) 12/23
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) 12/28
*Kiss Me Deadly (1955) 12/29

‘Can-Can’ at Paper Mill Playhouse

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It’s only taken 31 years, but I finally saw a show at the Paper Mill Playhouse. When Kate Baldwin announced at 54 Below that she was starring in their production of Can-Can, I knew I had to go see it. Fortunately, I was able to attend the opening night performance with my pals Patty and Emily, and it was a magnificent experience. The gorgeous venue in Millburn, NJ was warm and inviting, and I hope to make many more visits there from now on. This was also the first time I have ever seen any sort of an out-of-town tryout in a regional setting.

Can-Can, a hit in its original Broadway production, features a score by Cole Porter and a revision of Abe Burrows’ book by Joel Fields and David Lee. The plot is wafer-thin, cheeky nonsense about a Fin de Siècle-era romance between an empowered music hall proprietress and the staid, law-obsessed judge trying to shut down her establishment. The original production ran 2 1/2 years thanks to a star-making performance by Gwen Verdon (who stopped the show twice on opening night) and acclaimed choreography by Michael Kidd, both of whom were awarded Tonys. The 1960 film version and various revivals haven’t done as well. (The only Broadway revival to date closed after a weekend run of 5 performances).

This new revival, which has been in the works for many years, is being labeled as “Broadway bound” and I’m all for it. There is a lot of fun to be had with Can-Can, which abounds in wit and style, and there is much I loved about it. However, there is work that needs to be done before it transfers to Broadway. Director David Lee sets an appropriate tone, while Patti Columbo gives us some spectacular, eye-popping choreography. However there is still book trouble, even in this revision (which makes a gallant attempt to be as faithful to the original as possible). I speculated afterward that perhaps Can-Can can never recover from second act trouble, but after some thought, I believe there are a couple things that might be able to fix that. Steve Orich’s arrangements and orchestrations are excellent, though I hope the producers consider shelling out for about 5 or 6 more pieces.

I have no qualms with the casting. Jason Danieley, with his matinee idol looks and golden voice, makes the uptight judge surprisingly irresistible. Kate Baldwin, luminescent, sings like a dream and is a fetching wonder in Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes. The delectable Megan Sikora is playing the Gwen Verdon role, yet somehow feels underutilized. As for her character, I wish she made the choice to remain single as neither love interest is worthy of her. It’s been years since I’ve seen Michael Berresse onstage and it’s a joy to see him dancing in a musical again (this time as a lothario/critic). The featured players are all wonderful, especially Michael Kostroff, Mark Price and Justin Robertson. Greg Hildreth is a comic wonder as Boris, but the book writers need to rethink their approach to his character.

The apex of Paper Mill’s Can-Can is its title song. The seven minute production number, led by Baldwin and Sikora, features the men and women of the ensemble kicking up a ferocious storm, and builds to a jaw-droppingly sensational climax. (The number stopped the show cold on opening night and I can’t stop thinking about it). However, the song’s placement inadvertently damages the show. While the original version uses the number as a grand finale, this revision puts the song in the middle of the first act. As a result, the show climaxes far too early. Given that the dance itself is a major plot point and the bane of the conflict between the leads, the entire musical needs to build to this song. Other dance numbers, which are quite delightful, are less exciting merely because they are forced to follow it. Putting “Can-Can” back at the end of the show, or better still, as the eleven o’clock number, would elevate the entire production.

That said, the powers that be should keep the abortive “Can-Can Supreme” reprise where it is to give the audience a first act tease before the Judge sends everyone to jail. A new number or a restoration of one of the Verdon specialties could be created for this spot; something thrilling to spotlight Sikora’s rise from seamstress to dancer. As for the “Can-Can” mad libs, those are cute but totally unnecessarily. The second act runs about 20 minutes too long and an established group encore of the title song would be a much more exciting way to send the audience out of the theater. (Speaking of the second act, the swashbuckling sword fight also goes on far too long).

If the rest of the production can be brought up to the level of its title song, then I can see Can-Can being a potential Broadway hit. Nevertheless, there is still much to be enjoyed at the Paper Mill Playhouse through October 26.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway

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It’s been said that home is where the heart is. In that case, home should be the Longacre Theatre where a joyous Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You is currently playing. When the houselights came up after the preview I attended, I wanted to become one of the household. (The last time I had such a feeling in the theater was after MTC’s gorgeous 2009 revival of The Royal Family). The characters inhabiting the home of Martin Vanderhof are so beautifully drawn and so lovable, that I wanted to spend a fourth or even fifth act with them. While topical references may sail over some heads, and the play’s Depression-era escapism might seem naive for 2014 sophisticates, the Kaufman and Hart classic is still warm and funny. Dated, yes, but as a romantic comedy it’s timeless.

Grandpa, as Martin is more commonly known, decided one day that he didn’t like going to work so he just stopped. He doesn’t pay income tax, but he does like to collect snakes and listen to commencement exercises. Having gently dismissed a stressful life for 35 years, he has fostered in his entire extended family (they pick up dreamers like strays) the desire for each to do what makes him or her happy. His daughter writes plays, a granddaughter studies ballet, and his basement is a fireworks factory. Problems arise when his other granddaughter (sort of the Marilyn Munster of the family) falls in love with her boss’ son and her carefree family must soon meet her fiancé’s conservative, monied parents.

The Pulitzer Prize-winner first appeared on Broadway in 1936, starring Henry Travers (Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Grandpa. The 1938 film adaptation, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Picture. The play has since become a staple of high school and community theaters. This current production is the 5th Broadway revival, the first since an acclaimed all-star production in 1983.

At the heart of the play is its cast, made up of a Who’s Who of New York theatre. James Earl Jones, 83 years old and a genuine national treasure, plays Grandpa with a warm smile and an irresistible twinkle in his eye. Rose Byrne is charming in her Broadway debut as lovestruck Alice, though at the early preview I attended, she didn’t seem as comfortable as the rest. Kristine Nielsen, who is one of the best things to happen to Broadway in the last decade, follows up her Tony-nominated triumph in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike with another delectable performance. Meanwhile legends Julie Halston and Elizabeth Ashley provide some of the biggest laughs the play has to offer. Annaleigh Ashford delivers a performance that is quite literally fully choreographed (Liz Ashley’s reaction to Ashford’s greeting is worth the price of admission). Reg Rogers is delightfully over the top as a Russian dance teacher. Mark Linn-Baker, Fran Kranz, Byron Jennings, Johanna Day, Will Brill, Crystal Dickinson; they’re all superb.

The play looks beautiful. I want to spend time in the sprawling, cluttered Upper West Side living room David Rockwell created, though I don’t think it needed to be on a turntable. Jane Greenwood had a designer’s field day with the various period costumes. Jason Robert Brown provided a sensational period pastiche score, so enjoyable that my friend and I stayed around to hear the extended exit music. Scott Ellis’s production moves at a brisk pace. His direction never lets the energy flag, yet he also finds the right balance between the sheer anarchy of the play’s farcical moments and the more tender, impassioned sections of the third act.

I don’t think I stopped smiling for two and a half hours. My only qualm: the adorable kittens should have more stage time.

You Can’t Take It With You is a limited engagement through January 4, 2015.

And the Tony didn’t go to… Part II

It’s Tony Awards time, yet again. The last month has been spent praising the nominees, cursing the nominating committee for what it got wrong (namely, The Bridges of Madison County) and filling out our personal ballots and surveys. We’ve also been subjected to polls, videos, luncheons, speeches, think-pieces, as well as the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards, which all point the way toward “Broadway’s biggest night” tomorrow evening on CBS.

The race for Best Play seems to be nonexistent; it’s wide open with an edge to either All the Way or Act One, but no one seems to have great love for any of the five nominees. Best Musical has been met with some controversy this year, as only one book musical with an original score has been nominated. The other three new musicals are a revue, a jukebox musical and another Disney film-to-stage adaptation. Part of the controversy was the gaffe over the new fifth nominee rule. As per the voting guidelines a fifth nominee wasn’t necessary but confusion proved somewhat embarrassing. If they want to make it possible to expand the number of nominees, they should just expand the number of nominees and be done with it.

My mantra remains the same: awards are weird. Yes, they are wonderful for whomever is lucky enough to be voted the winner. Plus, it has been shown that Tony wins can have a financial impact. However, the outcome does not discount the fact that there are some truly wonderful performances that haven’t been honored. When a person doesn’t win a Tony Award, it doesn’t discount his or her achievement. Furthermore, a Tony win or loss doesn’t validate or invalidate the experience of an audience member.

There are many factors which can effect the voting. There can be a tendency to overlook fall shows, which have closed or lost momentum. Sometimes there is category fraud, where a performance is nominated in the wrong category, such as a featured performance being nominated as lead and vice versa (ask Patti LuPone about losing for Anything Goes or see Rita Moreno’s Tony acceptance speech). Sometimes it’s a real nail-biter, such as Ethel Merman in the successful Gypsy losing to Mary Martin in the SRO smash hit The Sound of Music. In some instances co-stars are nominated opposite against each other, like Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith in the original Follies. Whatever the case, it is interesting to go back and see how voters voted over the years.

Following up on last year’s post about Tony-losing plays and musicals, here’s a select list of major leading contenders – some iconic – that were not Tony winners. The winner(s) are in parentheses.

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
1956-57: Julie Andrews, My Fair Lady (Judy Holliday, Bells Are Ringing)
1959-60: Ethel Merman, Gypsy (Mary Martin, The Sound of Music)
1963-64: Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (Carol Channing, Hello, Dolly!)
1965-66: Gwen Verdon, Sweet Charity (Angela Lansbury, Mame)
1971-72: Dorothy Collins, Follies (Alexis Smith, Follies)
1975-76: Chita Rivera & Gwen Verdon, Chicago (Donna McKechnie, A Chorus Line)
1983-84: Bernadette Peters, Sunday in the Park with George (Chita Rivera, The Rink)
1987-88: Patti LuPone, Anything Goes (Joanna Gleason, Into the Woods)
1997-98: Marin Mazzie, Ragtime (Natasha Richardson, Cabaret)
1998-99: Carolee Carmello, Parade (Bernadette Peters, Annie Get Your Gun)
2002-03: Bernadette Peters, Gypsy (Marissa Jaret Winokur, Hairspray)
2003-04: Donna Murphy, Wonderful Town & Tonya Pinkins, Caroline, or Change (Idina Menzel, Wicked)
2011-12: Jan Maxwell, Follies (Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess)

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY
1954-55: Barbara Bel Geddes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Julie Harris, The Lark)
1956-57: Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame (Margaret Leighton, Separate Tables)
1959-60: Claudia McNeil, A Raisin in the Sun & Geraldine Page, Sweet Bird of Youth (Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker)
1974-75: Elizabeth Ashley, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year)
1975-76: Tovah Feldshuh, Yentl (Irene Worth, Sweet Bird of Youth)
1981-82: Geraldine Page, Agnes of God (Zoe Caldwell, Medea)
2004-05: Kathleen Turner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Cherry Jones, Doubt)
2007-08: Amy Morton, August: Osage County (Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County)
2008-09: Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter, Mary Stuart (Marcia Gay Harden, God of Carnage)

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
1956-57: Robert Weede, The Most Happy Fella (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady)
1975-76: Jerry Orbach, Chicago (George Rose, My Fair Lady)
1981-82: Raul Julia, Nine (Ben Harney, Dreamgirls)
1983-84: Mandy Patinkin, Sunday in the Park With George (George Hearn, La Cage Aux Folles)
1986-87: Colm Wilkinson, Les Miserables (Robert Lindsay, Me and My Girl)
1991-92: Nathan Lane, Guys and Dolls (Gregory Hines, Jelly’s Last Jam)
1997-98: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ragtime (Alan Cumming, Cabaret)
2000-01: Matthew Broderick, The Producers (Nathan Lane, The Producers)
2005-06: Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd (John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys)
2006-07: Raul Esparza, Company (David Hyde Pierce, Curtains)
2012-13: Bertie Carvel, Matilda (Billy Porter, Kinky Boots)

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY
1957-58: Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer (Ralph Bellamy, Sunrise at Campobello)
1959-60: Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun (Melvyn Douglas, The Best Man)
1963-64: Richard Burton, Hamlet (Alec Guinness, Dylan)
1973-74: Jason Robards, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Michael Moriarty, Find Your Way Home)
1974-75: Peter Firth – Equus (John Kani & Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Banzi is Dead/The Island)
1998-99: Kevin Spacey, The Iceman Cometh (Brian Dennehy, Death of a Salesman)
2004-05: Brían F. O’Byrne, Doubt (Bill Irwin, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
2010-11: Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart (Mark Rylance, Jerusalem)

The 70th Annual Theatre World Award Winners Announced!

The 2014 Theatre World Award Winners for Outstanding Broadway or Off-Broadway Debut Performance during the 2013-2014 theatrical season have been announced! The ceremony will take place on Monday, June 2 at the Circle in the Square Theatre, once again hosted by Peter Filichia.

Paul Chahidi, Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Nick Cordero, Bullets Over Broadway
Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Mary Bridget Davies, A Night with Janis Joplin
Sarah Greene, The Cripple of Inishmaan
Rebecca Hall, Machinal
Ramin Karimloo, Les Miserables
Zachary Levi, First Date
Chris O’Dowd, Of Mice and Men
Sophie Okenedo, A Raisin in the Sun
Emerson Steele, Violet
Lauren Worsham, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

The 2014 Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theatre: Celia Keenan-Bolger

The 2014 John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre: Christopher Plummer

‘The Bridges of Madison County’ on Broadway

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Recently, I referred to the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser’s lush romantic masterpiece, as a “grown-up musical for grown-ups.” Much of the current Broadway musical theatre is made up of subversive comedies, by-the-number adaptations of movies, and pre-packaged song catalogs. Sincere romantic musical plays tend to be a tougher sell these days. The most recent example I can think of is Giant with its sweeping score by Michael John LaChiusa. However, that show played a limited run off-Broadway at the Public (though it should have been on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont). Well, a new grown-up musical for grown-ups has come to Broadway and it’s Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s beautiful adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County.

Based on Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel, Bridges tells of a four day, once-in-a-lifetime affair between an Italian housewife and a National Geographic photographer in 1965 Iowa. The husband and the kids leave for the state fair, and she is planning to relax with iced tea and a novel. However, fate has something else in store for her when the photographer pulls into her driveway to ask for directions. The novel was excoriated upon its release, but sold millions of copies and became a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

The bittersweet new musical, now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre, may be the best incarnation of Waller’s story. Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) married an American soldier after her fiancé died in WWII to escape war-ravaged Naples. Robert (Steven Pasquale) has drifted through life as a roving photographer, never comfortable with commitment or settling down. Truth be told, their romance doesn’t feel like an affair, or for that matter even remotely adulterous. There is no true villain or antagonist; it is circumstance that brings them together and ultimately thwarts the possibility of “happily ever after.” In many ways it is reminiscent of Brief Encounter, with two ordinary people discovering an overwhelming passion that had previously eluded them.

Jason Robert Brown has written one of the most ambitious, openly romantic scores heard on Broadway since Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. It is, I think, his best work since Parade. He serves double duty as orchestrator and creates a beautiful string-based chamber sound. Marsha Norman’s book complements Brown’s score, establishing rich characters with vivid attention to detail. It is to the credit of both that the events never feel cheap or saccharine, and even the most banal word comes from a place of infinite emotion.

Bartlett Sher’s direction is quite superb; his staging is simple and forthright, yet always tender. The show does tend to meander a bit in the first act, and too much time is spent at the state fair, but by the second act the focus becomes laser-sharp. When Bridges focuses on its central relationship, it reaches its emotional pinnacle, giving the story a depth I didn’t think possible. O’Hara is giving the performance of her career, with one of the most sensitive and vocally supple turns we’ve yet to see from her. Pasquale makes his Broadway musical debut at long last, and it this season’s gift to hear his soaring baritone. O’Hara’s heart-stopping “Almost Real” is a practically an operatic aria while he devastates with the eleven o’clock number “It All Fades Away,” which may well be the best show song of the last ten years, maybe more. Their duets are the sort of dreamy, soaring moments that are musical theatre at its finest. Their duet “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles” is a gorgeously realized musical scene, which I think compares with the legendary Bench Scene from Carousel. Their singing is matched the intensity of their onstage chemistry, which was so hot that the woman next to me started fanning herself at intermission.

The supporting cast is mostly excellent. Hunter Foster has the rather thankless role of Francesca’s somewhat oblivious husband, but he humanizes the character. Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan provide warmly received comic relief as Francesca’s married neighbors. Morgan’s nosy Marge is played mostly in broad strokes throughout the first act, but she displays unexpected depth and surprising empathy in the second. Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena barely register as Francesca’s sparring children, but mostly because the roles are so limited. Whitney Bashor sells her one number beautifully (though I understand she also had a devastating aria which was cut).

There are many things about Bridges that remind me of the aforementioned Piazza. Both shows share Italian sensibilities, its two leading players, director, and scenic and costume designers (Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, respectively). Brown’s finale “Always Better” evokes memories of Guettel’s “Fable.” The leading ladies of both shows even share a surname: Johnson. Piazza opened at Lincoln Center Theatre and ran for 504 performances, which I think surprised many (including the show’s ardent admirers, myself included). Bridges, on the other hand, is a commercial risk and it hasn’t been doing so well.

I’m not sure how long The Bridges of Madison County will last on Broadway, but I feel it is a show that grow in estimation through the years, especially after the original cast album is released. After all, it seems Broadway only gets a new romantic musical once a decade. We grown-ups should savor it while we can.

“Chronicle of a Closing Night” Revisited

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I’ve been collecting Playbills for years. Not only for the shows I’ve seen, but also ones that I’ve picked up at the Broadway Flea Market or in various shops. It started initially with some of my favorite flops, but has expanded to include almost anything I can get my hands on. Last week, I was flipping through my Playbill for the original Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one I picked up randomly for a spell-check, when I came across a fascinating feature article by Colette Dowling chronicling the closing of the musical Illya Darling, a 1967 screen-to-stage adaptation of the hit 1960 film Never on Sunday.

Illya Darling was mostly eviscerated by the critics, with raves only for its Greek star Melina Mercouri, who was reprising her star-making, Oscar-nominated performance as a care-free, empowered prostitute (It’s about an insufferable American tourist who tries unsuccessfully to reform her in a sort of reverse take on the Pygmalion myth). 1967-68 was not a particularly strong season for Broadway musicals; at 320 performances, Illya was the longest running Best Musical Tony nominee of the season. The show lasted as long as it did because of a strong advance and the magnetic presence of Mercouri. However, business had dropped off precipitously during the Christmas holiday prompting a provisional one-week closing notice in January.

The article starts off by discussing the final week of the run. Mercouri, Orson Bean and three other principal players proposed taking Equity minimum to stay open, but the producer (Kermit Bloomgarden, who is never actually mentioned by name) said no. When the provisional notice wasn’t rescinded as of Thursday, the cast realized their show was closing in two days. Next to the notice was a typed thank you note from the producer, information regarding unemployment insurance and a request for donations for the closing night party.

Ms. Dowling was allowed backstage access during this final performance. She shadowed Mercouri throughout the performance, but also saw much of the behavior that goes on behind the scenes at a musical. Star Mercouri is weary and emotionally exhausted. The stagehands are noisy. The assistant stage manager pisses off the production stage manager by stealing his photo of Melina and having it personalized. The most unsettling incident: a cocky stagehand grabs Mercouri just prior to an entrance and kisses her to impress his friends, refusing to let go of her. Mercouri, who briefly flirts with rage, laughs it off and barely makes it onstage in time.

There is an unusual political aspect associated with Illya Darling. The infamous Greek military junta took place just ten days after Mercouri’s Broadway opening. It made her the most prominent exile, as well as a vocal opponent of the junta. Her property and assets were seized. When her Greek citizenship was revoked by Minister of the Interior Stylianos Pattakos, Ms. Mercouri famously declared “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist.” So great was her power and presence in the anti-junta movement, she was later the target of a failed assassination attempt after Illya had closed.

Before the performance started, Mercouri told Dowling, “Never on Sunday changed my life twice. With the film I became known. And with the play… I lost everything I owned.” There were other Greek actors in the cast, with Titos Vandis and Despo also reprising roles from the film. Many of these cast members are unable to return to their homes and there is a sense of national pride among them. The song “Never on Sunday” – which is sung in Greek – so stops the show at this closing, the audience demands two encores. Everyone on stage is in tears; Melina has stop to collect her breath during the extensive ovation.

One of the most surprising aspects of this article is its length. At 3000 words, the piece seems more like something you might find in New York Magazine rather than Playbill, or at least Playbill as we know it today. Dowling has an exquisite eye for detail, a captivating style and doesn’t shy away from less-flattering aspects of show business (the final section on the closing night party reads like a wake). There are quite a few photos shadowing Ms. Mercouri around the backstage area of the Mark Hellinger Theatre. While we often get to hear about legendary opening nights, it’s so interesting to see a piece about a closing, especially for a show that was little-loved and is mostly forgotten today.

As a result of the article, I decided to pull the Illya Darling Playbill from my collection. The feature article is a piece by Bob Hope recalling his stage career, with anecdotes about the Ziegfeld Follies and Jimmy Durante. In my copy of Pacific Overtures, there is a wonderful interview with Katharine Hepburn, who was then poised to return to Broadway in A Matter of Gravity.  Now, by interview, I don’t mean just a  printed Q&A. The author (Bernard Carrugher) takes his conversation with Ms. Hepburn and develops it into a fully-formed 1500 word piece.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could – and did – get lost in these for hours.

The time I spent with my collection led me to wonder: is there a way to create a digital archive of the articles and features from vintage Playbills? There are so many wonderful pieces filled with the minutest of details. I know I’d love access to all of these, with years and years of features, interviews, appraisals, mail-in columns, and occasional fits of whimsy just waiting to be rediscovered. The Playbill Vault is already a wonderful resource, but each entry is limited to the “The Show” portion of the Playbill. These articles are a treasure trove worth exploring.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

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One of my prized possessions is a copy of the 4-LP original Broadway cast album of Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It’s a handsomely packaged boxed set, with 4 LPs and a special booklet containing essays and commentary by Albee, Harold Clurman and Walter Kerr. The records are in mint condition and there’s not a crease in the booklet; this album was clearly cared for by a serious collector.

I’ll never forget the first experience of hearing this cast album for the first time. I was just going to sample a few minutes before going about my day. I had a night shift at Barnes and Noble later in the evening, and had some things I wanted to take care of before I went to work. Well, 160 minutes later, I found myself lying on my sofa as Hagen said the play’s final lines, utterly spent (both of us). I also came to realize that good plays make for great listening; and while not as common as musical cast albums, some performances were recorded including Richard Burton’s Hamlet, Luv, The Subject Was Roses, etc. It rarely happens these days, but I would have gladly purchased a recording of August: Osage County, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and the revivals of Mary Stuart and The Norman Conquests (to name just a few).

The original performances are all strong. Arthur Hill’s George seems mild-mannered, but there’s unsettling emotion always simmering beneath the surface. George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon are expertly cast as the secondary couple, arrogant, ambitious Nick and flighty, repressed Honey. However, it is Uta Hagen’s Martha, the stuff of acting legend, who dominates the proceedings. Ms. Hagen, only manages not only to live up to the myth, but she surpasses all expectations. Boorish, loud, caustic and cutting, hers is a mammoth, animalistic performance. However, the showier moments are layered with limitless depth. Martha’s innate brashness serves to make her quieter moments in the third act, as she is laid emotionally bare, all the more arresting and heartbreaking.

I have seen the acclaimed 1966 film adaptation numerous times, and have made it a point to catch the two recent Broadway revivals. I’ve enjoyed all these incarnations, but I find that I always go back to this original cast. It’s amazes me that an aural capture of a play could be so thrilling; with every clink of glass and chime helping to bring Albee’s text to life in one’s own home. Kudos to Goddard Lieberson, known for producing some of the finest musical cast albums of all time, for recording the play unexpurgated and with such vivid attention to detail. Kudos, too, to Masterworks Broadway, for making this great play available for the first time since its original release. It is essential listening for anyone with a vested interest in drama.  On second thought, it’s essential listening for anyone with a vested interest in the English language. Every performing arts college and library in the country would be mad not to add this piece of history to their collections.