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


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.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – First Preview


I’ve received press invites to many preview performances, but until Thursday night I had never been invited to cover a show’s first preview. The 50th anniversary revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has started performances at the Booth Theatre, an import from Steppenwolf starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. Even more surprising about this invite is that I received no press embargo. Well, with a play this solid and a production this fantastic, the October 13th opening is merely a formality. This new revival, gamely directed by Pam McKinnon, is a must-see.

Albee’s play is one of my favorites. I’ve read it many times (both the 1962 and 2005 editions). I love the “games” played, the logic and wordplay, as well as the iconic put-downs. I was bowled over by the 2005 revival starring Kathleen Turner and Tony-winner Bill Irwin (incidentally, the first time I ever saw a Broadway play for a second time) and one of my prized possessions is the 4-LP original Broadway cast album from Columbia (a collector’s item worth tracking down – Uta Hagen exceeds the hype). I even enjoy Mike Nichols’ iconic, if humorless film adaptation. I know Virginia Woolf? is 50 years old, but I don’t want to reveal any plot points just in case there’s someone reading this who hasn’t experienced it. In short: a professor’s wife invites a new, younger professor and his wife to their house after a faculty party for a small mixer. Booze and insults starts to flow, and things get unpleasant.

This Steppenwolf import is not your grandmother’s Virginia Woolf? Dynamics are significantly altered, characters fleshed out in ways that puts a different new spin on a classic. Even the familiar set is a now glorious disaster; a beautiful living room now marred by George and Martha’s mess: piles of books and papers strewn everywhere (including the fireplace), empty glasses, and bottles. Martha doesn’t take total command on her first entrance with “Jesus H. Christ” and George doesn’t seem quite so deferential.

In fact, Amy Morton takes Martha in a whole new direction. She doesn’t exude the larger than life gaucheness you expect of Martha. Instead, Morton enters looking very much the prim and proper professor’s wife in a conservative coat with her haired pulled back tightly. Once she lets down her hair, however, she is more than ready to hurl razor-sharp, ugly insults and “bite till there’s blood.” Yet Morton reveals many layers and facets of Martha that I hadn’t considered before. Her organic approach brings out Martha’s rage and disappointment in unexpected ways, even with her understated deliveries of certain scenes. Her final moments are utterly devastating.

Tracy Letts, probably better known these days for his award-winning writing than his acting, offers one of the most complicated and most dangerous interpretations of George.  Typically played as a seemingly subservient foil to Martha’s domineering battle-ax, here he has more control than usual. The relationship between George and Martha has always been complicated, compelling and weird. With Letts’ tremendous performance, George not only dominates, but his relationship with Martha becomes as terrifying as a depraved codependency can be. His is a performance for the ages.

Madison Dirks plays Nick as less all-American and with more of an edge; his arrogance, ambition and condescension for George so naked that it’s easy to see why George goes out of his way to humiliate him. Even more impressive is Carrie Coon, offering one of the best interpretations of Honey I’ve seen. She enters, the epitome of primness and overly eager to impress, ultimately coming across as an embarrassment to her husband. As Honey gets drunker and drunker, Coon plays the scenes with a reckless, yet endearing abandon which makes Honey more empathetic and her breakdown over Nick revealing a personal secret all the more devastating.

Every time I experience Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (on stage, film or record), I am utterly spent by the end, as though I’ve actually stayed up until 5AM with these people. The play holds up remarkably well. It’s still unbearably hilarious and it ultimately still packs the sort of wallop that leaves an audience reeling. I can’t wait to experience it again.

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.