Thursday, February 21, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1975

I saw some memorable things during my first trip to New York in 1975. I was still in my stroller, of course, but sufficiently advanced to recall some specifics.

I have bragged many times that I witnessed true theatrical magic in the original production of Chicago. Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach played the hell out of the piece, which was not a financial success during its initial run. (Nowadays, of course, it is the longest running revival of anything on Broadway.) I remember being impressed with Verdon and Orbach, but Rivera was the one who really blew me away. I left the theatre thinking she stole the show from the legendary Verdon, and I was sure she would win the Tony for her smashing performance. Alas, the steamroller that was A Chorus Line couldn't be stopped that year, and Donna McKechnie won instead.

McKechnie was such a sensation, she not only landed the Tony, she landed on the cover of Newsweek. It seems a cliche to say so, but the night I attended A Chorus Line remains one of the most breathtaking evenings I have ever experienced in a theatre. It's difficult to imagine now, but back in 1975, it was unheard of that a dancer could also fill the theatre with her singing, then knock your socks off with her spoken words. But everyone in the original Chorus Line accomplished that feat, and when, after more than 2 unrelenting, riveting hours, the show ended, I couldn't get out of my seat. A new type of musical was born with that production, and a new Broadway inhabitant was birthed as well: the Triple Threat. And they were all superb, from Pamela Blair's hilarious "Val" (Dance:10, Looks:3) to Kelly Bishop's Tony-winning "Sheila" to Priscilla Lopez, who brought the house down with her comic rendition of Nothing, then belted out what would become a show biz anthem, What I Did For Love. And of course, Sammy Williams, the shrimpy little dancing boy, shut the show down cold with, of all things, a monologue. Standing still in a spotlight, hands jammed into his jeans pockets, he told the story of growing up gay in an immigrant household, and in that moment, he forever shattered the illusion that dancers were not actors. (He won the Tony, too.)

Chicago and A Chorus Line were worth the price of the trip, but I saw four more productions during that first excursion to New York. A young actor/writer from the revue Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett, was just launching his career as a playwright back then, and he was represented on Broadway by Habeas Corpus, a farcical comedy which starred one of my favorite aging British sexpots, Rachel Roberts. It was her presence which attracted me to the production, though the cast also included Jean Marsh, who had recently won the Emmy for Upstairs, Downstairs. This was a pretty starry cast for such a light-weight piece of fluff: Roberts and Marsh were joined onstage by Celeste Holm (who has her own Dance Party in these pages) and June Havoc (remember June Havoc? Her early childhood had already been splashed across the musical stage in Gypsy, I wrote an obit for her here). Playwright Bennett went on to write The Madness of King George III and The History Boys and much more. According to my program of the show, I also saw a young actor who would soon move to Hollywood and become one of the country's biggest sex symbols: Richard Gere (I don't remember him in the play. He must have been dressed).

Another comedy I saw that week remains burnished in my memory as two examples of spectacular comic acting, and both performances were given by actresses better known for their dramatic work. I couldn't believe my luck when I read about Absurd Person Singular, which included in its six member cast, two of my all-time favorite actresses, Sandy Dennis and Geraldine Page. On the same stage! At the same time! Dennis's performance was darkly comic, illustrated at the top of the second act, when she, wordlessly, attempted to commit suicide in her own kitchen, while her husband obliviously prattled on and on about his disappointing career. This doesn't sound very funny in the retelling, but I have rarely laughed so hard in a theatre.

Act Three was Page's time to shine, as a drunken grande dame. For reasons I don't remember, she ended up on the floor, crawling across the stage in a full-length mink coat and martini in hand. Believe me, it all made sense at the time, and was hysterical.

Another straight play I saw during that trip in '75 had already been running for quite a while. I don't know exactly when Equus first opened on Broadway, but its original stars were gone by the time I caught up with the show. I was pleased to catch Francis Sternhagen still in the cast, as Alan's mother. The troubled teen at the center of the story, who blinds six horses because of a convoluted psycho-sexual trauma, was played by a totally unknown, totally nude Tom Hulse. The doctor who treats him, originally played by Anthony Hopkins, was by then being played by Anthony Perkins. Yes, that Anthony Perkins. The guy from Psycho.

I've seen close to a dozen productions of Equus over the years, but that first Broadway production was the only one in which I found the doctor to be creepier than the patient.