“Chronicle of a Closing Night” Revisited


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 When the provisional notice wasn’t rescinded as of Thursday, the cast realized their show was closing in two days.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.

"Ditties for an Opening Night"

I enjoy perusing my Playbills and usually there are some fun features… But sometimes they are not so good…

From the opening night Playbill of the flop musical Jimmy, by Maureen Cannon:

“Who’s with whom?” and “What’s she wearing?”
Seems the order of the day
While the actors wait, despairing
Of the audience’s caring
Just a bit – a flop? a hit? – about the play!

There was a young usher named Marge
Who said to herself, by and large,
As she led the elite
In the dark to each seat
“From where I squint, the play’s a mirage!”

The theatre’s sweet magic
Turns sour, or tragic,
Each time that I sit down to find
My legs and knees poking
Whoever, not joking,
Glares round to see who sits behind!

When is it that
A flower hat
Infuriates, enrages?
When, blooming, it’s
On her who sits
‘Tween me and where the stage is!

Granted, two-on-the-aisle
May be chic and in style,
But I’ve suffered, and more than a little,
Playing jack-in-the-box
To latecomers (a pox
On ’em all!) Give me two-in-the-middle!!!

Sardi Party:

Opinions are plain
And not murky:
The playwright’s new brain-
Child’s a turkey!

Quote of the Day: "Bye Bye Birdie" Edition

I don’t know what it is about a bomb that really brings out the creativity in journalists and critics. While there are a plethora of gems that I could cite from the universal evisceration received by Roundabout’s dead-on-arrival revival of Bye Bye Birdie, I’ll let you enjoy finding those on your own. But reading Harry Haun’s account of the opening night festivities on Playbill.com, I encountered this insightful passage with director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. Here the auteur-in-training talks about some of the touches that make this revival unique:

‘Longbottom has made quite a few alterations in the original text. “The first act wasn’t touched, not a word of it,” he quickly pointed out. “The second act—I wasn’t crazy about the way one thing flowed to the next. Nor were Charles and Lee, so we all put our heads together and looked for ways to make it a little more cinematic. “We found a better place to put ‘Kids,’ and I got rid of the Shriner’s Ballet, which I had no interest in doing. It was [the original director] Gower Champion’s number. It had nothing to do with the plot. It forwarded the plot nowhere. I didn’t really want my leading lady on her knees underneath a table, actually. Which is exactly what that was. I didn’t quite get that. I’m sure it was fabulous, but it wasn’t for me.”‘

Just sayin’…

Offstage Whispers

From the January 1976 Playbill of Pacific Overtures, I found this amusing featurette written by Walter Vatter and wanted to give you a glimpse into the theatre of the period.

Clive Barnes on Carol Channing: “Who wouldn’t like her? It’s the only time in your life you enjoy being hit by a car with its headlights on!”

Elizabeth Ashley on Tennessee Williams: “Usually an actress looks at a script and thinks, how am I going to wrap my mouth around this junk. Not so with Tennessee.”

Rita Moreno on the matinee ladies: “Those blue-haired ladies have the dirtiest laughs in town.”

Nicholas Dante (author of A Chorus Line) on Michael Bennett (director): “He wanted to illustrate the humanism among the dancers in the gypsy community as well as the brutalism.”

Julie Harris on the 30th anniversary of her career in the theatre – “It feels like it doesn’t belong to me.”

Morton Gottlieb (producer of Same Time, Next Year) on the city of Boston: “The Colonial is one of the most beautiful theatres in the world. I love the restaurants in Boston and Elliot Norton (Boston Record American) is a very fair critic – someone whose criticism is a big help.”

Geraldine Page on playwright (The Norman Conquests) Alan Ayckbourn: “The similarity between Ayckbourn and Neil Simon is that they both write a lot of plays and sometimes have two shows on the same street at the same time. And both of them have the same message – They want us to straighten out fast.”

Tom Stoppard (author of Travesties): on the theatre: “Theatre is a series of small or large ambushes.”

Clive Barnes on Clive Barnes: “God wanted me to become a critic because He wanted me to go to the theatre almost every night of my life, but He did not want me to buy tickets.”

Actors’ Foibles

A feature by Paul Steiner from a 1970 playbill for Company (with Larry Kert as Bobby):

Edmund Kean, the famous British thespian, believed that diet was important in preparing a role. Consequently, when he was to play a tyrant he ate pork. If he was to be a murderer, he leaned heavily on raw beef and when he was rehearsing as a lover, he always ordered boiled mutton… Claudette Colbert had a theory that what one wore next to the skin was significant. As a result she chose black lace for her glamorous part and homespun when she was a down-country heroine.

Arthur Godfrey broke into vaudeville by trying to sell a cemetery plot to an old trooper, who didn’t buy the plot but signed up the salesman… Don Ameche made his stage debut in a grade school Christmas tableau in which he played the part of the Virgin Mary… Danny Kaye’s very first public performance was in a PS 149 production in which he played a watermelon seed… Gregory Peck worked as a barker at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.

Act I, Strike 3
Ethel Barrymore, a rabid baseball fan all her life, used to have an extra come onstage on matinee days when a game was in progress and whisper the Giants’ score in her ear.

Close to the Heart
W.C. Fields listed contributions to churches in the Solomon Islands and depreciation on his lawn mower on his income tax forms… Although unable to cook, Joanne Dru has always been an inveterate collector of cook books… The late Gypsy Rose Lee once smuggled her Chinese hairless puppy onto an airline in her bra in order to avoid having her beloved pet ride in the baggage compartment.

"Stars of the Future"

“Talented ladies the pros think will make it on Broadway”

While browsing through my Playbill for the musical The Girl Who Came to Supper (which ran for 112 performances at the Broadway Theatre from December 8, 1963 to March 14, 1964), I came across this particular feature in which producers picked the actresses they felt were most destined for stardom. This seems like the type of feature that I would prefer to see today, rather than the phony restaurant recommendations.

Let’s see if their predictions were correct…

David Merrick:

“If the axiom that stars are born, not made, is true, it is equally true that opportunity and luck are an important part of the picture. There’s a 17 year old named Lesley Ann Warren in 110 in the Shade, and if the reactions of the audiences and my associates mean anything, she is headed for stardom. Lesley has the radiance and the special magic about her that, combined with her talent for singing, dancing and acting, insure her a happy future in the theatre. When she first auditioned for me, without benefit of previous stage experience, I knew she would not disappoint me. I was right.”

Frederick Brisson:

“Next year’s star? I nominate Carolan Daniels, an almost terrifyingly gifted emigree from California who is playing a half-dozen different characters in the fascinating off-Broadway charade called Telemachus Clay. She has incredible grace, delicacy and charm. Young Miss Daniels looks like a Eurasian pixie, which should be no drawback in a business always seeking the new, interesting, off-beat and beautiful in looks and talent. All of these adjectives apply to Carolan. But there is no adjective adequate to describe the personal poetry with which she infuses every line she reads and every character she portrays. It is the stuff that stars are made on, and the stuff that makes stuff. I believe it will make Carolan Daniels.”

Theodore Mann:

“I look at an actor’s movements and the excitement generated by his performance, when I judge a potential “star.” It becomes a matter of personal involvement, what does the actor do to me? Is there variety within their acting ability? And the most essential element… the actor’s level of communication with his audience.
With the aforementioned in mind, I submit Miss Cicely Tyson as a potential star. Cicely is unusually attractive, even exciting looking, and moves beautifully. Her performances have generated a great deal of empathy every time I’ve seen her on stage. She needs only the opportunity to work to further develop her craft to become a complete star, in the true sense of the term.
I firmly believe she will be one of the first in a new wave of Negro stars to emerge within the American theatre. The “Negro problem,” robbing America of many fine artists, has consumed us for too long a time, and I truly feel that the climate is such that complete acceptance by all Americans of the outstanding actor, regardless of race, is now within us, insuring Miss Tyson of an honest appraisal, a just critique and an assured acceptance.”

Saint Subber:

“Next year’s star may very well be a bit of this year’s sunshine, named Penny Fuller. She has beauty, she has intelligence, she has great warmth and charm, she has a kind of self-generated incandescence that is simply too big and bright to be confined. Soon, I suspect, it will illuminate entire theatres, marquees included. This little dynamo is currently whirring away pretty much unseen as Elizabeth Ashley’s understudy in Barefoot in the Park. But one of these days she is bound to have a good part of her own. Then watch her glow, glow, glow!”

Your Intermission Interview: 1956

I love collecting theatre memorabilia, whether it be Playbills from older shows, cast albums on LP and other formats and souvenir programs. Leafing through “The PLAYBILL for the Sam S. Shubert Theatre” for the original Broadway production of Pipe Dream, I came across this page entitled “Your Intermission Interview” which presents a checklist of the shows on the boards. This idea has been modified into the “How Many Have You Seen?” pages in the contemporary theatre Playbill which isn’t as participatory. I thought I’d share it:


How many of these hits have you seen?

If your score is 14 or more you are a star; 13, you are featured; 12, you’re a bit player; less than 12, you need more rehearsals at the box office.


□ FANNY – Majestic – Ezio Pinza, Walter Slezak
□ THE PAJAMA GAME – St. James – John Raitt, Eddie Foy Jr., Helen Gallagher
□ PIPE DREAM – Shubert – Helen Traubel, William Johnson
□ SILK STOCKINGS – Imperial – Hildegard Neff


□ BUS STOP – Winter Garden – By William Inge
□ THE CHALK GARDEN – Barrymore – Gladys Cooper, Siobhan McKenna
□ THE DESK SET – Broadhurst – Shirley Booth
□ THE MATCHMAKER – Royale – Ruth Gordon, Eileen Herlie, Loring Smith
□ THE PONDER HEART – Music Box – David Wayne
□ JANUS – Plymouth – Margaret Sullavan, Claude Dauphin, Robert Preston


□ A HATFUL OF RAIN – Lyceum – Shelley Winters, Ben Gazzara
□ INHERIT THE WIND – National – Paul Muni, Ed Begley, Tony Randall
□ THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK – Cort – Joseph Schildkraut, Susan Strasberg, Gusti Huber
□ THE LARK – Longacre – Julie Harris, also starring Boris Karloff
□ TIME LIMIT – Booth – Arthur Kennedy, Richard Kiley