Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Neither Pastoral Nor Lyrical

Charles earned a Tony nod as Harry in the ground-
breaking musical Company. His karate-chopping
partner Barbara Barrie was also nominated. They
both lost their awards.
This week's Dance Party is another two-fer, but this guy deserves it, I think.  He's been a character actor on stage and screen since the 60s, and is one of those gents who was semi-famous for a while.  He turned 78 today, so Happy Birthday, Charles Kimbrough!
Charles met his wife while doing Company. As Amy, Beth Howland introduced the famous "Getting Married Today."

It's astonishing that two of my favorite musicals have never graced these pages, but we're about to change all that.  By coincidence or not, Kimbrough features in each.
Kimbrough continues to work. A year or so ago, he appeared in the Broadway revival of Harvey, starring The Big Bang's Jim Parsons.
After several years as a company member at Milwaukee Rep, our hero moved to New York.  He snagged both a Tony nomination for his performance in Sondheim's Company, and a Chef Boyardee commercial.  He was to continue his association with Sondheim a decade later, when he appeared as Jules in the original cast of one of the Pulitzer Prize Committee's favorite musicals, Sunday in the Park with George.
As everybody knows, or ought to, Sunday in the Park with George concerns the creation of this masterpiece by Georges Seurat.  I'm sure the Act One finale, one of the most thrilling in all of musical theatre, will grace the Dance Party one day.  For today, another painting by Seurat anchors a clip below.
"Bathers at Asnières" was Seurat's first major work,
and it affords us our introduction to Kimbrough's
character, Jules.
In Sunday in the Park, Charles plays Jules, an artist who acts as the confidant, mentor, critic, and ultimate competitor to Georges Seurat. This little clip introduces Kimbrough and Dana Ivey, as his catty wife Yvonne. The song is not well-remembered in the overall score of the show, as it's less than two minutes, and is a blend of atonal notes and short, staccato phrasing. In fact, it reflects the manner of the two characters singing it, as most Sondheim songs do. The staging foreshadows the brilliant finale to Act One, when all the characters we have met are finally put together to form  Seurat's masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte".
But first we meet Jules and Yvonne, viewing Georges's first work:

Kimbrough gained some fame during the decade he spent as a regular player in the sitcom Murphy Brown.

Murphy Brown's Jim Dial was
a throwback to the great
generation of newsmen like
Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley.
Charles had some success in Hollywood, where he landed the role for which he is best remembered, stodgy anchorman Jim Dial in TV's Murphy Brown.  He proved an able straight man for star Candace Bergen, and received an Emmy nomination in 1990 for the role.
Kimbrough had lots of success in the voiceover field, where his best known work appears in my favorite animated musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I have no doubt other clips from that movie will show up here soon enough. The film was based, obviously, on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. In the Disney version, the hunchback gets three sidekicks, whom the writers hilariously named Victor, Hugo, ...and Laverne.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favorite of the animated musicals produced during what is commonly known as the Disney Renaissance. Beginning with The Little Mermaid, Disney spent the 1990s reigniting the animated musical feature genre.  Hunchback is the darkest of the series of films, which may be why it is my favorite.  
The vocal cast included Tom Hulce,
Kevin Kline, Demi Moore, David
Ogden-Stiers, Paul Kandel, and
Tony Jay.
The following clip is one of the comedic songs from the score (there aren't many of those), and features Jason Alexander and Mary Wickes as well as our birthday boy.  They all play gargoyles in the cathedral at Notre Dame, who come to life in the imagination of the tortured title character. When this musical makes its way to Broadway (it's already on track), this number will be the comic centerpiece of Act Two.  The villain has set fire to Paris, and the Hunchback frets about the missing gypsy Esmeralda.  His buddies the gargoyles attempt to cheer him up with this ditty, charmingly realized through some animated slapstick.  Happy Birthday, Charles, and thanks for your lifetime of work!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Bojangles In A Jumpsuit

This week's Dance Party comes from this variety show
phenom. Flip Wilson's show topped the ratings 2 of its 4
year run; it tanked as quickly as it succeeded. But it
afforded many black entertainers national attention;
Sammy Davis, Jr., was a frequent guest.
I confess to never being a big fan of any of the Rat Pack.  This is somewhat surprising for someone who grew up loving all things "show bizzie", and the Rat Pack of the 1960s and 70s were steeped in all that glam.  (When Eydie Gorme died a while back, I wrote a bit about my fondness for the old school Show Business which I observed from my TV screen as a kid.)  I just never felt that those guys who seemed to rule Show Business were very versatile performers. 
The Rat Pack dominated Show Business, so
why didn't I like them more?

It's sacrilege to admit, but I thought Frank Sinatra was an overrated performer: a talented singer and not a bad actor, but certainly not the electrifying presence everybody claimed he was.  Joey Bishop was strictly a comic of the old "take my wife, please" school, and he could not sing nor dance. Dean Martin was a solid crooner, but he bored me to tears, and I could never get through a full hour of his long-running variety show (and I LOVED the variety shows of that period). 

It bugged me that Dean Martin took his celebrity for granted so much that he never even rehearsed his show, he simply showed up to get his blocking and to tape the thing. (The Dance Party featured one of his show's numbers here, where it's obvious that they were just tossing songs up on the screen. Lee J. Cobb and Charles Nelson Reilly in a musical number together?)
Peter Lawford wasn't a bad actor, but again, had no musical talent, and ultimately became more famous for marrying a Kennedy than for anything he did on stage or film.

This week's star was the only Rat Packer whom I felt was an all-around Entertainer.  Sammy Davis, Jr. has appeared on the Dance Party before, go here for a charming clip of his hoofing at age 6.  I can't claim to be a great fan of his, as he always seemed to be pushing his talent at us relentlessly, rather than letting us enjoy it effortlessly.  Still, he was the only Rat Packer who continued to try to entertain as he grew older, the others seemed to sit back and rest on their celebrity.
As a frequent guest on Laugh-In, Sammy helped popularize one of the catchphrases created by the show, "Here Comes da Judge."
Davis was a constant presence on TV when I was growing up.  He was a favorite guest on all the variety shows of the day as well as on all the talk shows.  He even showed up on a sitcom or two, most famously in the second season of All In The Family.
Everybody remembers this moment from the second season of All In The Family, which featured a cameo appearance by Davis.  Seems he was a passenger in the cab which Archie Bunker drove, and left his wallet behind. He arrives to pick it up and soon discovers Archie's racist tendencies.  This surprise smooch brought down the house.
Sammy performed several songs which became signature tunes for him at various times in his career.  In the early 60s, his version of "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" from Stop The World - I Want To Get Off had major success. 
Davis decked himself with lavish jewelry
decades before bling became fashionable.

A decade later, just as his celebrity was fading, he had a surprise smash with "The Candy Man," from the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.  Though Davis disliked the song immensely, it was his only #1 hit, and he was forced to include it in his concert performances.  This week's Dance Party is the third of Sammy's signature tunes, and he never failed to sing it during live shows.  His recording of it never made the charts, but his fondness for it overcame its lack of commercial success. 
His early Vegas career was marred by
racism. He was not allowed to stay at
the hotels where he was the headliner;
he packed the house at the Sands
 but slept at a boarding house.

I remember seeing him perform it at least half a dozen times on the various variety and talk shows on which he regularly appeared.  Something about this song, which describes a night spent in the drunk tank and an encounter with a washed-out hoofer, spoke to Davis, and while his interpretation has a little too much razzle-dazzle for my taste, it clearly means a lot to him.

This version comes from one of the "hippest" variety shows in TV history, The Flip Wilson Show
It was the first successful variety show to be headlined by an African-American artist, and Time magazine called Flip Wilson the first black TV superstar.  Flip's show was appointment television for me every Thursday night (until The Waltons came along on another network.  Flip Wilson may be cool, but John-Boy Walton was dreamy. At that age, hormones took precedence over hipness).
One of the most unusual aspects of Wilson's show was the performing stage, which was in the round.  You will see from this week's clip that the audience was seated all around the performer. 
When Lily Tomlin's Ernestine hooked up with Flip Wilson's Geraldine, it was variety show magic.
You can also see, in this clip, that Sammy Davis, Jr., was not afraid to wear the outlandish styles of the early 70s. 
Nobody looks good in a onesie.
I clearly remember seeing this performance when it first ran on a Thursday night in the early 70s, before Richard Thomas's overalls distracted me from The Flip Wilson Show.

Davis continued to work for many years after this appearance, but was ultimately struck down by the throat cancer which resulted from his omnipresent cigarettes. Today is the anniversary of his death 24 years ago.  In his honor, here's Sammy's favorite song:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Choking The Fool

The reviews were stellar, with all of them saying
how lucky Queens was, to have Titan Theatre in
their midst. I was lucky, too, to have been a part
of this remarkable production.
The gent who afforded me my New York City debut, in Taming of the Shrew, spoke to me over a year ago about working with his company on their planned production of King Lear.  He wanted me to play the Fool, and from that moment a year ago, I worried about attempting this role.  The Fool, you see, is one of those ambiguous parts in Shakespeare which is completely open to interpretation... as opposed to, say, Malvolio in Twelfth Night (which is on my bucket list, just putting it out there...);  if the actor playing Malvolio just recites the words correctly, half his work is done.  But Lear's Fool is not so obvious.  I did a bit of research on the history of the character (not too much, I didn't want to spook myself), and it's been played in wildly different ways. 
Lear's Fool is wide open to the actor's interpretation, making it both exciting and worrisome to rehearse. Even women have played it. This picture is from the production by the Renaissance Shakespeare Company ("the OTHER RSC"), with Kenneth Branagh as Edgar. I saw this production, and wept when the Fool died.  The role was played by Emma Thompson, here seen in androgynous whiteface.  Scholars have surmised for years that the fact that the Fool and Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia never appear onstage together must mean that they were originally played by the same actor. Other research reflects that the role of the Fool was written for, and first played by, Robert Armin, who replaced Will Kempe as the resident comic actor in Shakespeare's company.  By the time King Lear premiered, Armin was 37, entirely too old to play Cordelia.
I found at least two modern productions in which the Fool was a British Music Hall performer, to which the Fool's various songs lend themselves.  In more than one production, the Fool is ultimately murdered by Lear himself, in a fit of madness.  I'm not sure how the text supports that, but it's happened. 
Lloyd Mulvey, as Oswald, was responsible for my death.
Lloyd is also the resident photographer for Titan, and
most of the shots on this page are his. But we have no
pix of the strangling of the Fool, since Lloyd did it. Not
really the time for a selfie. The violence surrounding my
death was rehearsed at our daily fight call, of course,
where it was called Choking The Fool.
The double entendre is evident.

What has concerned directors of Lear over the years is the Fool's sudden disappearance, without explanation, in the middle of the play.  In his final speech, Lear himself clears up the mystery by explaining his fool has been hanged, but there is no mention of exactly how or why the hanging might have taken place, or by whom.  There is no other mention of his disappearance.  It was decided in our production that I would be strangled and dragged offstage.

Tristan Colton swiped all the reviews as the
sociopathic Edmund. His famous speech
("Thou, Nature, art my goddess...") has been
butchered by every young classical actor.
Lenny moved it to the top of the show, giving
it even more importance. Tristan knocked it
all the way to Mets Stadium.

But I was never really concerned with how the Fool's life ended, I was more worried about giving life to the guy in the first place.  For a full year, each and every time I mentioned to somebody, ANYbody, that I was to play the Fool in King Lear, that person's face lit up.  "A great role!" or "Perfect for you!" or the like.  Nice, right?  The expectations of the Fool were very high, and even after a year of thought, I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with this part.
Michael Selkirk as the blinded Gloucester, being led, unknowingly, by his son Edgar. I spent some time onstage with Brendan Marshall-Rashid as he played that convincing beggar, Poor Tom; his was an extremely physical and satisfying portrayal. And I say that even when he had his clothes ON. I played Gloucester a year ago for Hudson Warehouse (go here for that report), but this is the remarkable thing about Shakespeare: never once did I think of how I played the role, I was so engulfed in creating my own character of the Fool. And Michael's performance as Gloucester was deservedly congratulated.
Director extraordinaire Lenny Banovez assembled a truly remarkable ensemble to play this Shakespearean classic.  He began, of course, with Lear himself. The role is one of those which is so substantial, and so iconic, and so very important to the success of the individual production, that the part is always cast first, and in advance. 
Kevin Beebee, on the left, has used his business
skills to help Titan grow fast and well.

You really cannot go into pre-production hoping to find your King Lear at an audition (Hamlet is another of those roles; because the entire play really revolves around these characters, it is impossible to build an ensemble to effectively tell the story without first knowing who will be at the center of it all.  This doesn't seem to be true with all Shakespeares. I think you can pre-plan Romeo and Juliet without knowing exactly who will be playing those title characters).
The relationship between Lear and his Fool is an important one, and through our rehearsal period, I think Terry and I developed a strong working bond. Here we are in rehearsal, with Brad Makarowski as Kent and Brendan Marshall-Rashid as Edgar.
I did not personally know our Lear, Terry Layman, before we began, but I had seen his work as Friar Laurence in Titan's production of Romeo and Juliet. (We almost worked together in that production, but that's another story altogether.) 

Lear surrounded by his daughters, played by Laura Frye,
Susan Maris, and Leah Gabriel. Fine actresses all, and they
actually looked like a family!
I was to learn, very quickly, in rehearsal that Terry was to be an outstanding Lear, and it was a privilege to stand next to him as he charted Lear's descent into madness. Lenny surrounded Terry with an exceptional ensemble. As Kent, the moral center of the play, Lenny cast Brad Makarowski, a talented and annoyingly tall actor with whom I shared several scenes. 
With Brad as the disguised Kent. Some of my favorite
moments were in this scene, in which Kent is in the stocks,
and the Fool advises him, through speech and song, that only
a knave would desert the king.

My first scene in King Lear opened with a speech to Kent, admonishing him that, if he insisted on following King Lear, he was himself a fool. The Fool's coxcomb, or hat, would traditionally have included bells, bright colors, or other signifiers of the Jester. Our version, with present day dress, could not include such a thing, so my coxcomb was just my hat. Unfortunately, the entire speech consisted of the Fool insisting that Kent take his coxcomb, or Fool's Hat, since he is becoming a fool himself. I tried to make this clear in the speech, but without the visual of a jester's hat, I'm afraid the audience did not follow.  Even successful performances have a failure or two, and this was one of mine.
Lenny did a fabulous job editing this monster of a script, which in its full form runs 4 hours or so.  Our cut ran only 2, yet told the full story with depth and nuance.  And it's a good thing the edit was so drastic, as we had only three or so weeks to rehearse the show.  We began, as so often happens, with the table reading on the first night.

Actors call this The First Day of School: the Table Read, or First Read Through. For me, it was the first time I met most of the cast; it is always an exciting rehearsal. This picture reminds me, though, of a pet peeve of mine regarding such rehearsals.  It has nothing to do with King Lear, particularly, but since this is my blog, I get to vent, right? You'll get a better view of my peeve in the picture below:
The Table Read, the first time the cast reads the script outloud. I can't count how many of these I have attended. The company sits around a table, at places assigned by either the director or the stage manager. From our assigned seats, we try to make preliminary connections with our fellow actors through the text. Without fail, actors who have significant interaction with other actors are placed next to each other, as above, with Lear and his three daughters. At this rehearsal, you will always find the Macbeths sitting next to each other, and Romeo and Juliet as well. The theory is that the actor can more easily make a connection to the actor sitting next to him. This is a false theory, at least at this early, script-reading stage. The actors who have the most important text together should be sitting ACROSS the table from each other, rather than side-by-side. Then, it's possible to glance quickly from the script to the actor and back again, with merely a flick of the eye.  But when actors are seated next to each other, it's necessary to twist the body 90 degrees to the side in order to look at each other, making it very difficult to glance up from the script to try to initiate a personal connection. I am apparently the only person in all of show business to take note of this constant failure of the First Read's seating chart.
Titan's King Lear was the troupe's inaugural production at their new home, the Queens Theatre, located in Corona Park, very near the stadium where the Mets play.  The park is a lovely one, and it's peppered with huge structures which are both attractive and desolate. 
These structures were constructed in 1964 to symbolize a modern future. Perhaps, then, it's fitting that Titan Theatre has moved into the neighborhood, as Titan appears to have a glowing future at the Queens Theatre.

Corona Park was the home of the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the structures which survive from that event have largely been abandoned.  Plans are afoot for a major rejuvenation of these artifacts, but for now, they remain both intriguing and a bit creepy.
This is my favorite picture on this page. The giant globe was constructed for the World's Fair and remains its most constant reminder. And there's our director Lenny Banovez, and his skateboard. I wish I had a picture of his skanky shoes, which I wore in the show.

Our theatre is nestled in the midst of the aging
monuments, above.

Our show was produced in the Studio Theatre of the building which houses a larger main stage.  It is a true Black Box, built as such, and it was a delight and a relief to be performing there.  This King Lear was my seventh production in the two years I have had a New York Branch, and the only one to be performed in a space originally designed to be a theatre. 
The intimacy of the Studio Theatre allowed
the audience to watch Lear's madness take
hold, up close and personal. When he drew
his last breath, holding his dead daughter,
there were tears. There were tears
backstage too, as we said goodbye to this
experience. We all knew how special it was.

It was very nice to have actual dressing rooms, an actual Green Room, and the like, but really, if a show is good, it doesn't much matter where it is performed.  And Titan's King Lear was very, very good, featuring a central performance which was majestic, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking. I was proud to be a part of it all.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Friday Dance Party: A Girl Who's Merely She

Stepsisters, 1965: Prunella and Esmerelda
It's time to reignite the Dance Party!  And what better way than to make a bit of history while honoring three of my favorite character actresses?  This week's entry is a Double Header, that is, two clips for the price of one. 

Stepsisters, 1957:
Joy and Portia

We've had a few Double Headers in the past history of the Dance Party, but never one like this.  Both clips feature the same song, sung by different performers.  Not to worry, they both time out at less than a minute and a half, so no need to arrange a babysitter.

Our song comes from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, and features some wonderful character stars.  First up, the only one of these terrific ladies with whom I have actually worked.
Pat Carroll (and me), backstage at Volpone.
Pat has had a very long and varied career, and by the time I met her, I had been an admirer of her work for decades. 
Barbara Ruick played opposite Pat as
the other of Cinderella's stepsisters. She
had a previous relationship with R&H,
having played Carrie in their film of
Carousel. All I remember of her performance
in Cinderella is her blinking. She is not one of
my favorites.

Though I have since seen much of her previous work, I believe I first became aware of this hilarious dame in the very clip below.  Along with Barbara Ruick, Pat delivered one of the few Rodgers and Hammerstein songs which is flagrantly comedic.  These two ladies were not the first to sing this song, but they are the ones I most closely associate with it. 
Most of my castmates in Volpone recognized Pat from this
vocal performance, but I considered her the definitive
Stepsister. I think of Pat every year on my birthday,
and here's why.

The 1965 version of Cinderella, starring Lesley Ann Warren, is the one my generation remembers most fondly, as it ran on TV annually for a full decade. It was almost 40 years later that I worked with Pat, and by then, she had won acclaim playing Mother Courage, Falstaff, and Gertrude Stein, as well as appearing on plentiful game shows, feature films, and the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  But sometimes the first memory is the strongest, and my first recollection of Pat Carroll was here:

You can see what's coming, can't you?  This 1965 TV production of Cinderella was a remake.  The original piece was broadcast live in 1957, and I wrote about that historical broadcast here.  The Stepsisters' Lament was handled on that date by two up-and-coming Broadway stars who would maintain careers for decades to come.  And both of them were favorites of mine.
Though never really absent, Alice Ghostley enjoyed a resurgence in her career as a recurring character on Designing Women.  I wrote about her when she died, go here for that obit.
Alice Ghostley's quirky delivery always cracked me up, and I was thankful to be exposed to it throughout the 60s and 70s in all the sitcoms of the day.  When Tom Bosley died, I wrote a bit about his episode of Get Smart, costarring our gal Ghostley, go here for those insights, and a quickie clip.
Alice was often compared to Paul Lynde, as they
had similar delivery and facial expression. They
both launched their careers on Broadway in New
Faces of 1954, but no, they were not related.
I love this serendipity. This screen grab is from the party scene in 1967's surprise hit, The Graduate.  We see Alice Ghostley as a party guest, as well as revered character actress Marion Lorne, who won the Emmy as Aunt Clara on TV's Bewitched during its early days. As Bewitched wound down, long after Lorne died, Ghostley joined the cast of that same show, as the maid Esmeralda.
But way back in 1957, Ghostley was chosen to create one of the original Ugly Stepsisters in Cinderella, along with another of my favorite gals:

Kaye Ballard first came to my attention when she costarred with Eve Arden in the 1967 TV sitcom The Mothers-In-LawI wrote about this series a while ago, when the cast showed up on the Dance Party.  When her sitcom hit the air, I had no idea Ballard was an established Broadway star, and of course had no idea that she, along with Alice Ghostley, were the first to introduce the Step-Sisters' Lament. 
Ballard hit the cover of Life in the early 50s,
while enjoying a burgeoning Broadway career
which included Carnival, costarring Jerry Orbach.
And a puppet.

Here is that very first public performance of the song, sung live to many millions back in 1957.  As you watch this version, take note that the later 1965 version has been expanded a bit, with another verse for Pat Carroll's character.  Cinderella is now on Broadway, for the first time if you can believe it, in a drastically rewritten version.  The Lament now being sung 8 times a week is delivered by only one of the step-sisters (and the ensemble chorus), in a dramatic departure from the originals. I haven't seen it, I doubt I will. Two versions of this lament are enough for me.