Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Dance Party: "And I'll Bury Ye, My Billy"

as Johnny the Snitch, "Police Squad!"
William Duell
The New York Times called him "puckish," as he was barely five and a half feet tall, and weighed under 140 throughout his adult life.  He had a masters degree from Yale School of Drama;  one of his classmates, Paul Newman, helped him snag a role in The Hustler in 1961. 

Before hitting the big screen, however, he set a record of sorts, with his appearance in the legendary Off-Broadway revival of Threepenny Opera (the one with Lotte Lenya, Bea Arthur, Charlotte Rea, and all those folks). 

"Threepenny Opera,"
with Jesse Martin as MacHeath

He remained with the long-running show for the entirety of its 6 years.  He would return to the piece in the Joe Papp revival (the one with Raul Julia) and at Williamstown Theatre Festival, opposite Jesse Martin.  Duell's oddball features and diminutive stature probably doomed him to the quirky roles which he played on stage and screen.  In 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he played an epileptic afraid of his own medicine, and in TV's Police Squad!, he played Johnny the Snitch opposite Leslie Nielsen. 

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
In the Nathan Lane revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he played the ancient Erronius, searching for his long-lost children by circling the seven hills of Rome. 
With Mark Lynn-Baker and Nathan Lane
He reunited with Lane in the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came To Dinner,playing the hapless doctor hoodwinked by Sheridan Whiteside.

All of the above supporting roles would warrant Duell's inclusion in these pages, but it was his participation in one of my favorite musicals which seals the deal. 

Our hero created the role of McNair, the custodian for the Second Continental Congress, in the original production of 1776.  I have written previously about my admiration for this outstanding musical, so it's understandable that the news of Williams Duell's death would be of interest to me.  McNair is definitely a supporting character on the canvas of the show, but Duell's participation helped make the role a memorable one. 

Duell as McNair is seated below the tally board,
over William Daniels's left shoulder
He was the only original cast member to remain with the show throughout its Broadway run, never missing a performance.  When the show was revived in 1997, he joined that cast as a replacement for the role of Caesar Rodney, the Delaware delegate dying of cancer.  Most importantly, Duell's performance in the role of McNair is preserved in the film version of the show.
Unfortunately, Sony has blocked most of the clips which were recently available from 1776, the film, so this week's Dance Party comes from the clip presented at those Tony Awards back in 1969.  The music in the show is so beautifully intertwined with the story, that none of the songs are easily lifted from the score to stand alone. 

Scott Jarvis's Courier sings the plaintive
song which mirrored anti-Vietnam sentiment

"Mama, Look Sharp," though, has had some further life as a cabaret favorite.  When 1776 premiered in 1969, it garnered negative reaction from the Nixon White House, as it was thought to be a stinging rebuke of the conservative party and its obstructionist policies; the authors denied such intentions.  The point of this song, however, cannot be denied, as it poignantly illustrates the sacrifice which soldiers make in times of war.  I had the privilege of singing backup on this song several years ago, when I appeared in a concert staged reading of the show at the reopening of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.  I was playing Mr. Thompson, the congressional secretary.  In the original piece, the character is not onstage at this moment, but in most productions these days, he is added to the scene to provide 3-part harmony on this most haunting of ballads.

The following clip includes a bit of the dialogue preceding the number, and shows a little of William Duell's performance as McNair (he's the older imp, smoking the pipe). He died in December at the age of 88.