Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Close Every Door (But Not On My Head)

We are heading into the final week of our production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; the past two weeks have spontaneous. A little while ago, I posted a note of admiration for our company of players, for having survived an intense 9-shows-in-5-days work week without injury or illness. No sooner had I posted that mash note than the wheels on the bus started to wobble.

We knew in advance that the gal playing Mrs Potiphar, the lovely and talented Heather Beck, would have to miss one of our performances due to a prior commitment. This kind of thing is very likely to happen if a show extends beyond its original date of closure, as ours has. Heather was replaced in that particular performance by the lovely and talented MaryLee Adams, who in addition to subbing for Heather, accomplished all her other duties in the show, including her scene-stealing moment as a camel.

It was the unexpected happenings which added some spice the past week or so. On different occasions, Car Trouble caused not one, but two of our actors to arrive so late to the theatre that we did the show without them. In both instances, we expected the actors to arrive in time to slip into the show in progress, but that was not to be. I was particularly impressed, then, that one of our non-Equity ensemble members, the lovely and talented Vinnie Kempski, was alerted (in the middle of the show!) that he would be performing one of his understudy assignments, singing the role of the Baker. I slipped into the vom under the audience to watch (I have about 15 minutes offstage, alone, during the show, so I often slip out to watch, the cast never suspects), and I can verify that he played the role with smooth aplomb.

But it was last Thursday's school matinee that caused the most consternation. We started the show missing two ladies, one of whom had a previous commitment, and the other had (you guessed it) Car Trouble. A momentous crash was heard backstage, during Joseph's "Close Every Door" scene in the jail cell. One of our actors, the lovely and talented Ben Lurye, had been clobbered backstage by a falling door. You may well wonder how a door can fall over onto somebody. Only in the Theater, folks. There were these huge metal doors, you see, which I guess had been impeding the backstage traffic during performances, so they had been removed from their hinges and propped up against a wall. Gravity being a cruel bitch, one of the doors fell over, conking our Ben on the head while he changed his clothes. His skull was cracked open, or it seemed so, as blood gushed all over the place. I was backstage at the time, and overheard Ben keeping a level, if bloody, head. His first thought was the show, and he whispered urgently, "Tell Parker he has to go on as the Butler." Yes, while his head was bleeding profusely, this actor was anxious that his understudy be alerted that he would have to perform his number in about 2 minutes. Now that's commitment. The noise backstage, and all that blood, caused stage management to halt the show, which was ultimately canceled outright. We were about half-way through, but it was thought unwise to attempt to continue with 3 actors absent. The matinee was rescheduled for the following week, causing a whole lot of dashing about by company management in order to get the necessary riders signed (riders are addenda to our original contracts). This added school matinee also necessitated yet another rehearsal for yet another Mrs. Potiphar, as both the lovely and talented Heather, who usually plays the part, and the lovely and talented MaryLee, who is her understudy, were unable to make the additional early morning show. So, between our performances on Saturday, we spent an hour or more rehearsing the lovely and talented Briana Marcantoni in the role.
All this dashing about proved moot, as the production office curtly alerted the cast and crew on Sunday that the extra matinee had been cancelled.
This kind of confusion isn't all that unusual, as I said, when a show extends its run. On the same day that one of our actors had car trouble and missed the show completely, another of our guys had an important rehearsal elsewhere, and was forced to leave the performance before it was over. In a cast of 21, you may not even notice such a thing. All of the men in the show play my 12 sons, and there are many mentions of Joseph and his 11 brothers. That one day, he had only 9; for a while, our family was looking a little dissipated.
Many theatres try to minimize the effect of missing actors by employing swings. These are performers who learn the music and choreography of the show, with the expectation that, should an actor go out (that is, miss a show), and the actor's understudy bumps up from the chorus to play his role, the swing would step in to fill in any gaps in the ensemble. We had swings for all our shows at The Shakespeare Theatre Company when I interned there, due to the extensive fight choreography, and most musical houses employ them as well. I imagine it was a financial decision to forgo hiring swings for Joseph, even as there are surely musical theatre students over at Catholic University who would eagerly sign on for such a gig, for 200 bucks a week or less. The lack of swings for Joseph has probably caused some frustration for stage management, and has certainly caused the show to look a little under-populated when things such as Car Trouble and Falling Doors sideline our actors. Who knows what our final week of performances will bring? We already know Joseph will have only 10 brothers Saturday night, we'll see about the remaining shows. I have no doubt this cast can put out any fires that spring up unexpectedly; Ben, the aforementioned injured actor, returned to the show that very night, earning respect for his professionalism and a new nickname to boot. We've been calling him "Staples," since that's what he now has in his head. The adrenalin has been flowing out at Olney Theatre, that's for sure. I'll be sorry to see it all end Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

White Diamond Obits

The stage, the screen, and the soaps have all lost some of their diamonds in recent weeks.

Jacqueline Courtney


"Stay out of the sun. Wear sunscreen." According to her daughter, those words closed every letter Courtney wrote in recent years. She died in December from melanoma. She spent her career in soaps, appearing on six different programs over the years, beginning with two roles on Edge of Night in the late 50s. It was her role on Another World which put her on the map. She was part of the soap's debut cast, playing nurse Alice Matthews from the show's first episode in 1964 until 1975. She was the undisputed leading lady of the show, and when she was paired with actor George Reinholt, they became one of daytime's earliest "super couples," even before that term was invented. The trials and tribulations of their romance formed the central plot of Another World for 11 years, until a new writing team came on board. In a stunning move, both popular actors were sacked. The show's competitor in the timeslot was One Life to Live, who promptly hired both actors and created a romance for them on their show. Another World lost a million viewers when Courtney and Reinholt left, and One Life to Live gained a million when they were added to their cast. I remember seeing Jacqueline Courtney's work a few times on Another World, and I found her a bit dull (the producer who fired her called her "a bad actress," and I wouldn't dispute that), but she had an attractively husky voice and an incandescent light about her which must have been the source of her popularity. When she died in December, the trades were calling her one of the first superstars of soaps.

I was not a regular viewer of Another World until this gal came on the show:

Helen Stenborg


On the soap, she played an evil housekeeper who was trying to gaslight her wealthy employer. At the time, I had no idea I was watching one of the great ladies of the American stage. Stenborg left her native Minnesota shortly after Pearl Harbor, heading to New York and a career in show biz. She lived for a time at the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women, and appeared in USO shows during the war. In 1946, she was entertaining at a veteran's hospital when she met Bernard Hughes. Four years later, they were married, beginning one of the most enduring marriages in show business.

The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary while appearing on Broadway in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings, for which Helen earned a Tony nomination (playing an elderly pyromaniac). She played opposite Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country, opposite Liam Neeson in The Crucible, and opposite her husband in Da, the play for which he won the Tony. Helen's most memorable work may have been Off-Broadway, where she appeared often and to great acclaim. She was a longtime member of the Circle Repertory Company, where she was a frequent interpreter of playwright Landord Wilson's work (he recently died, too: if you wait patiently, his obit will show up in these pages). Stenborg won the Obie for Talley and Son, and appeared in Wilson's Fifth of July. During rehearsals for the latter play, she quizzed the playwright about the backstory of her character, which inspired Wilson to write Talley's Folly, which won the Pulitzer. Another memorable performance of Stenborg's was in the original cast of Wit; the final scene had Helen reading the children's book The Runaway Bunny to the leading lady as she lay dying of cancer. Not a dry eye in the house, I imagine. Helen Stenborg's final stage performance was just last year (at the age of 84!); it had some personal significance for me, as it was in the Off-Broadway production of Vigil, a play I have appeared in twice. She had film roles in Three Days of the Condor, Starting Over, and Doubt. She died last week at the age of 86; she is survived by, among others, her son, famed theatre director Doug Hughes.

Both of the above "white diamonds" first came to my attention for their appearances on soap operas. I can't say the same for our last diamond, though she also spent some (brief) time on soaps:

Elizabeth Taylor


Everybody in the world knows of this superstar's death last week, which is understandable, as, during her heyday, she was sometimes described as the most famous woman on the planet. Everybody already knows about her movies and her marriages, the tributes last week were plentiful. Not everyone is aware of her brief fling with the daytime soaps. In 1983, she visited her buddy Carol Burnett on the set of All My Children, and as a tribute to Burnett, dressed as a charwoman for a brief cameo. You might wonder what a star of Burnett's stature was doing on a soap in the first place; Elizabeth Taylor had something to do with that, too. Two years earlier, Liz was the first superstar to appear on a daytime drama. The story goes that Taylor was a huge fan of General Hospital, and in particular, the show's romantic centerpiece "Luke and Laura." She made a special request of the show's writers that the couple finally be allowed to marry. Head writer Thom Racina agreed, on the condition that Taylor make a guest appearance on the show. He created the role of evil Helena Cassadine for her (the role, now played by Constance Towers, remains part of the show today). She shot her scenes in one day, which were then sprinkled over the three day period which included the wedding of daytime's reigning supercouple. Due to Taylor's participation, "Luke and Laura's Wedding" remains the highest rated regular episode of anything in daytime history.

Elizabeth was not the greatest actress in the world, not even close, but she was a stunning beauty, and more often than not, she relied on that beauty rather than her talent. She was a bit lazy as an actress, but she could turn in a gutsy performance when she was pressed. Her work in two Tennessee Williams films (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer) is highly regarded, as is her blowzy, blustery, braying performance as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which she won one of her Oscars.

She despised her own work in Butterfield 8, her first Oscar winner, believing it was awarded to her out of pity for her poor health and her sudden widowhood (her husband Mike Todd had recently died in a plane crash; it was the only one of her 8 marriages not to end in divorce).

And oh those marriages! Her love life made headlines across the world. She famously swiped her friend Debbie Reynolds's husband (I wrote a bit about that when Eddie Fisher died), only to dump him when Richard Burton, who was also married at the time, came into her life. That production of Cleopatra in 1963, where they met, is one of the most infamous films ever made. Its original budget, before Taylor became attached as its star, was two million dollars; before they were through, that had ballooned to over 44 million (320 million in today's dollars). Taylor herself broke records for being paid a million dollars upfront, the first film actor to ever receive such a paycheck. In fact, due to time delays for weather, set construction, and Taylor's own ill health (she had an emergency tracheotomy during the shoot), she eventually received closer to 7 million (which translates to about 47 mil today). The very public affair she conducted with Burton was an international scandal at the time, which added to the film's infamy. Though Cleopatra was the highest grossing film the year it was finally released, it still lost money; 20th Century Fox was on the brink of bankruptcy until its coffers were refilled by the gigantic hit The Sound of Music.

Taylor has my respect for her unflinching support of the gay community throughout her life. Her best buddy was Roddy McDowell, and when her friend Rock Hudson was revealed to have AIDS, she stepped up to the plate. At the time, the disease was a hidden, shameful mystery. Taylor was the first celebrity to embrace the cause and shine light on the growing epidemic. She founded two AIDS charities, and worked tirelessly to raise funds for research and treatment. It has just been announced, in fact, that her extensive jewelry collection, valued at over 150 million dollars, will be auctioned, with the proceeds going to those charities.

The famous Taylor-Burton Diamond will not be among the jewels. Burton purchased the diamond for his wife in 1969, making headlines for its size and cost (he paid over a million for it). Taylor auctioned the stone in 1978, after their divorce, and it brought a whopping $5,000,000. She used the proceeds to fund a hospital in Botswana.

The diamond was so famous, it inspired an episode of Here's Lucy in 1970. Taylor's beauty is on fine display here, as is her surprisingly light touch with comedy. Burton is ruggedly handsome, the two really were a stunning couple. If you can get past the shameless mugging of Lucy and her costar Gale Gordon, it's a fun little clip.

As everybody knows, Elizabeth Taylor died last week from heart failure at the age of 79.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dear Thespis

If there are any civilians reading these pages, I should help you out a bit: who the hell is Thespis? Back in the mists of time, before drama was invented, religious ceremonies usually included some kind of choral chanting. A dude named Thespis, our theatre history profs tell us, was the first secular man (as opposed to a priest or king) to step out of this religious chorus and speak words on his own. He is considered the world's first actor, and though I don't believe he was ever officially deified (that is, classified a god by the Greeks), over the millennia, he has come to be a sort of guiding spirit for actors; after all, we are called thespians in his honor. OK, enough of the history lesson, let's get back to the important thing: my story.

Dear Thespis: Please oh please don't ever allow me to act like the jackass with whom I shared an audition appointment this afternoon. I was attending an audition at one of the area's largest and most prestigious theaters. It was late in the day, so when I arrived, only one actor was ahead of me. Let's call him "Actor," since I imagine he is one, as he is currently appearing at one of our smaller local theaters. He and I were seated at a table filling out an audition form when the director of the project in question, and his assistant, and his assistant (this theater is big enough that the director's assistant also has an assistant) popped out of the audition chamber to take a little break. Our Actor immediately launched into Full Self-Promotion Mode. He verbally assaulted this poor director with, "Daniel! (not his real name) Great to see you!" The director, who had only slipped out to grab a cup of coffee, was forced to respond with a generalized greeting: "Oh, hi! How are you?" Now this is where I started to feel my blood get hot. This actor proceded to inflict the director with a litany of self-aggrandizing statements, in the form of small talk. I couldn't help responding in my head.

Actor: "I've been so busy! I'm in a show right now!"
Me (in my head): "So am I, you twit. Let this guy get a cup of coffee without being hounded. No wonder actors have such bad reputations."

Actor: "I just did a matinee and raced over here to read for you!"
Me (in my head): "So did I, you jerk. Everybody came from somewhere."

Actor: "Our show's been extended!"
Me (in my head): "So has ours, you hack. The difference is, your show is in a theater which seats 150 people: My show is in a theater which seats 450 people: And our show is often full. Your show is never full. I am intimately acquainted with your theater, having worked there several times and having many close friends who are members of the company there. And while I don't equate money with artistic worth, I know for a fact that you are making only one-third of what I am making right now, and yet you are assaulting this director, who just wants a cup of coffee, with all this self-centered, self-important crap."

Don't get me wrong, Thespis. I have no problem with self-promotion, when it is at the proper time. If I am in the audition chamber, and the director asks me, "What are you doing now?", I have NO PROBLEM talking at length about the joys and occasional trials of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Olney Theatre Center, or anything else I am working on. I'm all about me me me when the time and place are right. But the time is never right when the director is on a break, and the place is never right when it's in the waiting room. Thespis, I hope you will forgive this obvious dichotomy. I love my work. I love my current castmates. I love everybody in my dressing room and in the green room and onstage at Olney Theatre. I love so much about my chosen career.

But sometimes, I hate actors.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Pass the Peace Pipe

The star of this week's Dance Party was never a household name, though perhaps she should have been. Joan McCracken was one of those firecrackers who had the tendency to steal every scene she was in, though she never achieved major celebrity. She studied dance as a kid, and spent a bit of time as a ballet dancer, but her short, stocky frame was not suitable for a career in ballet. She appeared in several Broadway hits in the 40s, including her debut in the original Oklahoma, in which she was billed as "Sylvie, the Girl Who Falls Down." She claimed that her backstage breakdown during the run of Bloomer Girl was the inspiration for a scene in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Joan was married for 7 years to Bob Fosse, before he hooked up with Gwen Verdon.

I only became aware of McCracken when I was researching the obit for this gent:

Hugh Martin

Martin was a well-respected vocal arranger on Broadway, fulfilling those duties for Dubarry Was a Lady, The Boys from Syracuse, Sugar Babies, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and several others. His original compositions were heard in Best Foot Forward, High Spirits, and Look Ma! I'm Dancing!. He was nominated for four Tonys during his career, but it was his film work which provides his enduring legacy. Though he contributed songs to several musical films, his score to the 1944 Judy Garland movie Meet Me In St. Louis is now considered classic. For Judy, he provided two songs which became signature tunes for her, "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song" (Martin earned an Oscar nomination for the latter).

Even more impressively, Meet Me in St. Louis provided the world with an enduring Christmas song with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hugh's original lyrics for the song were a bit dark ("Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last...") Garland complained about the tone of the tune, and under pressure from the star and from the film's director, Vincente Minnelli, Martin jollied up the lyrics. As a result, the song has become a holiday perennial.

Hugh frequently accompanied Garland when she sang live, specifically for her celebrated concerts at the Palace Theatre in New York in the early 50s, the first of her famous comebacks.
Martin's second Oscar nomination came for this week's Dance Party. He contributed this number to the 1947 musical film Good News. Despite it's political incorrectness, it's a fun song, and our star Joan McCracken displays a lot of spunk. I imagine she is equally perky throughout the movie, but I've never seen Good News in its entirety. Frankly, I avoid musicals starring Peter Lawford.

Joan McCracken died of diabetes back in 1961. Composer Hugh Martin died last week, at the age of 96.