By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)
Two questions, one answer. How did I become such a theatre maven? How did I become so grumpy? I blame Fruma-Sara(h). More for the former than the latter.
No, not the Fruma-Sarah who visits Tevya in his “dream” during Fiddler on the Roof. She came from beyond the grave to warn him if his daughter married her husband, well, there would be dire consequences. And after this blog entry, I fear my Fruma-Sara(h) is going to be haunting me as well.
My Fruma-Sara(h) is my mother, the late Sara Kape. It wasn’t until after she passed away in 1984 we discovered her name was actually Sarah though she always used Sara. Very typical of her. She was also a terrible driver (don’t ask) and the world’s worst cook (only she could take a catered meal and ruin it—and did).
Fruma-Sara(h) started hitting Broadway in 1932, when she was 20 and ventured to New York City for the first time since her birth on Delancy Street. (I’ve always wanted to turn her story of what happened on that trip—when she rediscovered her “lost” family—into a musical. Who knows, maybe I will someday.) She never stopped going to the theatre once she had her first taste. The last musical she saw was Sweeney Todd (more about that momentarily—when she unabashedly embarrassed her youngest child) and her last movie, appropriately enough, was Bullets Over Broadway.
As soon as she deemed us old enough (circa age 10 or so), she would take us down to New York City from Buffalo for an annual pilgrimage to Broadway. She impressed upon us the need to be on our very best behavior (and be appropriately dressed) when going to the theatre (I wish parents would do that now—but that’s a subject for a different blog). Yes, that lesson stuck; I still dress better to see a show than when I go other places. As Fruma-Sara(h) told us, “It’s the theatre and you always dress to go there.” (There, now you know where I weigh in on that debate. When I was a critic, I always wore a tie and usually a suit. These days, not so much.)
The first Broadway show Fruma-Sara(h) took me to was What Makes Sammy Run? starring Steve Lawrence. But Steve took the night off, so his standby, Richard France, played the title role. (I encountered Richard years later when he was headlining The Palm Springs Follies. His claim to fame was being Steve Lawrence’s understudy. When he asked if anyone in the audience of geriatrics had ever seen him in the role, I alone raised my hand and said, “Yes, Christmas Week 1964.” He was shocked someone remembered him decades later. Insert “small world” cliché here.)
After Sammy on that trip came How to Succeed (original production but with the late, great Ronnie Welsh as Finch, and unknown 19-year-old Michelle Lee as Rosemary), followed by High Spirits (because she loved Noel Coward’s work).
But that’s not how my love for musical theatre started. No, for that we have to once again look to my pusher, Fruma-Sara(h). I was a mere toddler at the tender age of three. The gateway drug? She gave me a boxed set of 45s of Rodgers & Hammerstein for Children—thus indoctrinating me early. I loved those records but grew to thoroughly dislike Rodgers and Hammerstein (but that’s a story for another day).
(To my great shame, I “appropriated” a book from my parents’ library, The Complete Works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Maybe the word I should use is stole. No matter. I still have that book and it’s a prized possession. On the other hand, my father, a huge Damon Runyon fan, gave me his autographed copy of the book Guys and Dolls, from which the musical is derived, after I had been in a production of it.)
Fruma Sara(h) always made sure we had the very latest Broadway original cast recordings in the house (in those days, Broadway had just made the transition from record books—78s with one song on each side bound in a book—to LPs, which were so much more convenient). I still have most of those albums. I even have original sheet music from West Side Story (she also played the piano, badly). That sheet music is particularly valuable for one reason. It listed lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. (Bernstein generously took his name off the lyrics after WSS opened, gave full credit to Sondheim and had the sheet music reprinted, but he had in fact written some of the lyrics. Bernstein as a lyricist is a little known, but he wrote the “I Can Cook, Too” lyrics for On the Town.)
Over the years, we attended several shows together. She took my sister and I to see the original production of Cabaret in 1966. Before the show, we’re browsing through the Playbill. I’m excited because the legendary Lotte Lenya is in the cast. Fruma Sara(h) is excited, too. “Look,” she exclaimed, “Mickey Katz’ son [Joel Gray] is in this!” Mickey Katz was a popular performer in the Yiddish theatre circuit in those days, and Joel Gray’s one claim to fame at that point was being his son (go figure—that was what was in his bio).
Fast forward to 1979. I’m living in New York and my mother is living out west. She decides to come back east and wants to see some shows. I had just seen Sweeney Todd and wanted to take her to see it. I described the plot to her and she was, well, revolted by the very idea. She wanted something a little tamer. So, we compromised. On Tuesday night, we went to the “Neil Simon musical” (They’re Playing Our Song), which we both disliked. I had managed to obtain Sondheim’s house seats for the Wednesday night performance of Sweeney Todd. We were seated in the second row, on the aisle, as close to the action as possible. Instead of being disgusted, Fruma Sara(h) was enthralled. Act II begins. Mrs. Lovett shouts, “Throw the old woman out.” My mother blurts out, loudly, “The beggar woman—is that his wife?” Thus, did my mother managed to thoroughly embarrass her youngest child publicly. All I could do is hiss through my teeth three words I had never said before, “Shut up, Mother.”
My point in telling these stories is simple. We all enter musical theatre fandom in various ways. For some, it’s a release from home strife. For others, it’s a way to express feelings otherwise unexpressed or suppressed. It calms anxiety. It helps the shy emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight. And for some of us, we simply had no choice. We had a parent who thrust musical theatre on us at a tender age and we’ve never looked back—until now, that is.
So, who was your pusher—your Fruma Sara(h)—and what was your gateway drug?