My first Broadway musical—well, the one in which I was a sapient, walking, talking, singing, dancing human-type person (I know some people question the “human” part)—was What Makes Sammy Run? I was ever-so-close to turning 10. My mother had bought the tickets months in advance—Steve Lawrence! Sally Ann Howe! Robert Alda! How could we miss? Except it was Christmas week. Steve was on vacation with Eydie. Sally Ann had flown to England for the holiday. Robert Alda was still there, looking properly disheveled and grumpy. Even then, the budding critic in me was crying to get out. The show was meh and not very memorable. (I did encounter Steve’s standby many years later when we were both in the same theatre at the same time in Palm Springs, where I now reside in retirement).
My first Broadway musical—really—was the original production of The King and I. Of course, I don’t remember much about it. Mother and I were seated together; she had just become aware of my existence that day because, well, the rabbit died, according to Cousin Eleanor’s OB/GYN (Eleanor was pregnant with my cousin Cheryl, who is three months my senior; Eleanor had urged Mother to go with her because she had been feeling poorly and speculated she had morning sickness). “I hope it’s a boy!” cried the OB/GYN to Mother across a crowded waiting room. It was. “Good times and bum time, I’ve seen them all and my dear, I’m still here.” Of course, Mother, being an obsessed Rodgers and Hammerstein fan (don’t get me started, please) chose to celebrate by taking in The King and I. I kicked along to “Shall We Dance”. She hadn’t bothered to inform my father (425 miles away back in Buffalo) of the turn of events yet; she had a show to see. Mother definitely had priorities (plus she was angry at my father).
The second Broadway show I saw (first row mezzanine, 46th Street Theatre) was the one I sat through the next day on my birthday: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. That time, the budding director (as opposed to the critic) took over. “Did you see how the sets coordinated so perfectly with the costumes? The actor playing Finch [by then the late, great Ronnie Welsh, who was also half of a super-couple on As the World Turns] was amazing. The actress playing Rosemary [19-year-old Michelle Lee, actually] was so terrific. Those songs [Frank Loesser]. That orchestra. The choreography [Bob Fosse] I want to do that when I grow up.”
(To be fair, I was already smitten with the stage having played the title character in The Gingerbread Boy at age six—but I digress.)
I sit here typing this blog on the 65th anniversary of my natal day—65 years of being obsessed with doing, watching, and writing about theatre. That’s a couple of thousand times I’ve sat in a darkened room (okay, a few times in bright sunlight when I was seeing or doing shows outdoors), tens of thousands of hours of my life I have spent doing the most worthwhile thing I know. I’ve acted, directed, produced, designed (sets, lighting, costumes), run props, been a dramaturg, been a playwright (The New York Times gave me a good review—does that count?), had a lighting board explode in my face and catch fire (without missing a lighting cue or burning myself). And in that time, I’ve been through some amazing theatrical experiences.
I sat through nearly nine hours of the RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby. It felt like an hour, tops. To see a full Dickens novel come alive on stage in so creative and brilliant a fashion was one of those great theatre moments; it can’t be captured on film.
Not knowing what was going to happen, I was at the opening night of Sunday in the Park with George. At the end of Act I (spoiler alert), when the painting we know so well comes together as a living tableaux, there was this huge, audible gasp from the audience at the Booth. Then dead silence. Then a deafening ovation as we collectively realized and understood what we had just seen.
Dear Evan Hansen. Come from Away. Brilliant. Perfect. ‘Nuff said.
As I recently noted elsewhere, I think She Loves Me is one of those rare properties—the perfect musical, where not a line, not a lyric, not a note of music is out of place. I’ve seen it many times, and I still am left sobbing at the end. C’mon. Unless you have no heart (and I’ve certainly been accused of this, but this belies it), you have to be crying at the end of this gem.
In Spring 1965, my parents took us to spend Passover in the Catskills (if you’ve been binging on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon—which I recommend—you know what those resorts were like). And every second-rate act performing at night was singing some song (out of context) from Fiddler on the Roof. After hearing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” sung badly night after night, just about the last show I wanted to see was Fiddler. Again, Mother prevailed, and we trudged our way to the Imperial Theatre to see it. I was so wrong. Fiddler is a magical show, it really is. I’m seeing it once again for the umpteenth time in May.
One fine fall afternoon in 1971, I was with my college chums Sally Beddow (if anyone knows where she is now, let me know) and Cleo (Pam) Gurenson (who introduced me to future Tony winner Reid Birney; she’s also MIA). We would regularly go into New York City to see if we could find student discounts at any of the Broadway houses. Someone directed us to the Winter Garden. We got $5 student rush tickets (last row orchestra) for the original production of Follies. Um, uh, well, yeah, it kind of made a lasting impression on us. (Cleo and I had gone a few weeks before to see Company as well; one year later she accompanied me to my first Broadway reviewing gig, the disastrous Hurry Harry.) Sally, Cleo and I also went to see Pippin for my 18th birthday—with the original cast, including Irene Ryan (who sadly passed away a few months later).
Spring semester 1973, our stage management teacher took us to see Irene, followed by a backstage tour. He had helped design the backstage at the newly-opened Minskoff Theatre, so he had lots to show us. While we were there, he took us to meet Debbie Reynolds in her dressing room. She was there with her daughter, Carrie Fisher (this was two years before American Graffiti and four years before that little film Carrie did—I think it was called Star Wars—and six years before I saw Carrie in one of the worst Broadway musicals ever produced, Censored Scenes from King Kong).
Indeed, amongst those many thousands of hours spent in a theatre were many I wished I hadn’t experienced. Lysistrata starring Melina Mecouri (she left acting after this and became a member of the Greek Parliament). The aforementioned Hurry Harry and Censored Scenes. Dude (which I did think had merit, but it was an unholy mess—and a tad uncomfortable since I was seated next to Gerome Ragni, who authored it). The never-ending (seemingly) Tale of Two Cities. Harrigan & Hart (starring another Star Wars alum, Mark Hamill). The calamitous Up from Paradise, which has the distinction of being the only musical ever written (if you can call it actual writing) by famed American playwright Arthur Miller. Voices, starring Julie Harris and Richard Kiley (notable only because its producer, mobster-about-town Joey Gallo, was gunned down in an Italian restaurant the same night I saw it). There were also such gems as Shrew, a musical version of Taming of the Shrew, which was not (unfortunately) Kiss Me Kate, and The Bodyguard, a bad version of the movie. And I shouldn’t omit Amélie.
Along the way, I’ve also found some hidden gems not necessarily huge successes. Inner City, the best directing job Tom O’Horgan ever did. 9 to 5. Enron (I genuinely loved this show—I thought it was brilliant). Finian’s Rainbow (okay, disclaimer here: I was an investor in the Broadway revival, and it deserved a much longer run—damn Marketing department).
Other shows I’ve loved over the years: Fiorello, Falsettos, A Chorus Line. Most Happy Fella, Hairspray, Plain and Fancy, Evita, Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon. City of Angels. Little Me. Brigadoon (I still think it’s the best show Lerner and Loewe ever wrote, or as Sondheim noted, “I saw My Fair Lady, I sorta enjoyed it”). Almost anything by Sondheim (except Do I Hear a Waltz?). Hello Dolly with Carol Channing (so sue me; I thought Bette was doing her typical one-woman show up there, and not playing Thornton Wilder’s Dolly Gallagher Levi). Mame. La Cage. Les Miz (well, before I inadvertently got the entire touring cast fired on the road for giving a fifth-rate performance).
And popular shows I just didn’t like, which I offer with no explanation except I found all of them weak in their own way: Rent, Wicked, Love Never Dies, The Lion King, Cats, August: Osage County, Miss Saigon.
I know I’ve left off hundreds of titles I wanted to include here. Shows like Big River, Little Shop of Horrors (which I saw before it was a monster hit), Smile, Sweet Smell of Success, Bright Star, High Fidelity, Legally Blonde, Peter and the Starcatcher. Maybe when (or if) I turn 70 I can have another go at this. Damn, I’ve seen a lot of theatre. I so need a life. Or maybe this is my life.
Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® who is in a reflective mood. Contrary to popular opinion (which he might just have fostered himself), he doesn’t hate everything. He just hates bad theatre. It makes him grumpy, which in turn makes him yell at the young whippersnappers to get the hell off his lawn.