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Cover Story Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE: Penny Fuller

I was in Los Angeles at ORAY’S BEAUTY SALON off Santa Monica Boulevard across from the Santa Palm Carwash. My head was in the sink. (I was having my hair returned to “normal” after shooting a TV pilot, written for me, never seen EVEN on the “dead pilot season”). The phone was handed to me, it was my manager saying, “I was to fly to Baltimore to take over the juicy role of “Eve Harrington” in the out-of-town tryout of the musical “APPLAUSE”, based on the award winning film: “ALL ABOUT EVE” starring Lauren Bacall.”

“When?” I asked. ”Tonight!” he said.

And the saga began.

When I was taken, knees, shaking, to meet Miss Bacall, I kept thinking: “Please let her understand that if I am good it will only help her!”

I was approved; rehearsed 3 days (my career always seems to be coming in at the last minute…but that’s another story!), opened, flew next to Detroit, then we opened in New York to wonderful reviews, and settled in to the miracle of a hit long run!

By this time, Bacall and I (or “Betty” as she was know to pals) had become real chums! She and I and Lee Roy Reams (who played her hairdresser in the show) became  a threesome, hanging out and having a ball for a year. Then Betty left the show and was replaced by Anne Baxter (the original “Eve” in the movie. Wonderful stories, too, but for another time).

Next APPLAUSE was do the national tour with Bacall and the available original cast. I declined, saying I had been “Eve, Eve, little Miss Evil” long enough! I felt I just couldn’t do it any more.

The reviews across the country were not like those in New York!Perhaps the heartland was less interested in a story of the “theatah”!!!! Betty missed me (and Lee Roy, who hadn’t toured either), but she carried on. The creative team was worried. In San Francisco it was decided to bring me into the show in preparation for Los Angeles, the city that WOULD greet, with critical eye, the musical of the iconic film, and Lauren Bacall’s “Welcome Home”. I arrive; I have a three hour “put in rehearsal”, I went on!

APPLAUSE begins “at the TONY AWARDS!” Margo Channing, (Betty, ) announces the winner of  “BEST ACTRESS: Eve Harrington!!!!” Thunderous applause boosted by more over the sound system: “Eve” (me!!!), SITTING IN THE AUDIENCE, comes onstage, breathlessly receives her award from Margo saying:”Needless to say this is the best night of my life!”

I extend my hand to Margo. Instead of glaring at me with a look of wry recognition, abetted by the sound system recording her TRUE thoughts..I see Betty, my dear pal, wreathed in dazzling smiles: I am back!!!!!!!


Remembering Lauren Bacall

I have been reading thru the obits for Lauren Bacall. I think I had forgotten that my friend, Betty, WAS Lauren Bacall! I was brought into “APPLAUSE”, her first musical, during its out-of-town tryouts, giving me a chance to see the show and HER: the STAR, charisma, magic, wit, timing, beauty, and power. But from the moment I walked on stage to rehearse my first scene in “Margo Channing’s” dressing room, she let me know we were colleagues; offstage she welcomed me as a friend…always. What fun we had in both worlds. That’s why I forgot she was “Bogey’s Baby”. When she was on her book tour I brought my 6 month old baby daughter to “meet” her: within seconds Betty was crawling on the floor with her, playing; some years later we three met by chance in Paris. Betty saw and recognized me, yelled across the boulevard, and took us to Cafe de Flore, talking to my daughter, aged 7 or 8. as if she were one of the girls”!! And she was THERE 

I have been reading thru the obits for Lauren Bacall. I think I had forgotten that my friend, Betty, WAS Lauren Bacall! I was brought into “APPLAUSE”, her first musical, during its out-of-town tryouts, giving me a chance to see the show and HER: the STAR, charisma, magic, wit, timing, beauty, and power. But from the moment I walked on stage to rehearse my first scene in “Margo Channing’s” dressing room, she let me know we were colleagues; offstage she welcomed me as a friend…always. What fun we had in both worlds. That’s why I forgot she was “Bogey’s Baby”. When she was on her book tour I brought my 6 month old baby daughter to “meet” her: within seconds Betty was crawling on the floor with her, playing; some years later we three met by chance in Paris. Betty saw and recognized me, yelled across the boulevard, and took us to Cafe de Flore, talking to my daughter, aged 7 or 8. as if she were one of the girls”!! And she was THERE for me during deaths in my family like NO ONE ELSE. And yet my friend was that icon I have been reading about.

She never suffered fools gladly; she had a sharp wit. a sharper tongue, a fabulous laugh, and was a straight shooter! I hope the after life id ready for her. Oh, how I shall miss her.


Penny Fuller received two Tony Award nominations for her performances on Broadway in Applause as Eve Harringtonand The Dinner Party as Gabrielle Buonocelli. For her television performances, Fuller received six Emmy Award nominations, winning in 1982 for playing Madge Kendal in The Elephant Man. Most recently, she appeared in the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park with George and as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE: Victor Garber

The Broadway production of Tartuffe, at Circle in the Square, in 1978 was something that set me on an unthinkable trajectory of success.

John Wood and Tammy Grimes were the stars, along with Patricia Elliot, Swoosie Kurtz, Stephan Gierasch, Peter Coffield, and Mildred Dunnock. The production was directed by Stephen Porter. John had had tremendous success in England at the Royal Shakespeare Company and turned New York on its heels with his performances in Sherlock Holmes and Travesties. I was an enormous fan.

He was an intimidating, brilliant man, with edges that could cut deep. The production of Tartuffe was successful, and although John and I had little to do together in the play, he was always kind to me backstage. We weren’t buddies.

One night he handed me a script backstage, after the bows, and asked me if I would read it. He’d been offered a new play and wanted to know what I thought. I was shocked, flattered, and when I rushed home and started reading it, I realized he must be considering me to play Clifford in Ira Levin’s thriller, Deathtrap. My head was spinning. Did I make this part up? But why else would he ask for my opinion? We’d never even had dinner together.

When I returned to the theatre and knocked on his dressing room door, he immediately asked me what I thought. I remember immediately insisting that he must play Sidney Bruhl. It was a fantastic role for him, never insinuating the possibility of my playing Clifford. He paused, something he did to great dramatic effect, and said, “Of course you must play Clifford”. I’m sure I blushed, something I did often, and he asked me if he could read with me for my audition. I blushed again, and said that would be great.

Soon afterwards, we read together for Robert Moore, the director, and Alfred de Liagre, the legendary Broadway producer. I’ll just say, that was a moment. Over the year, we worked together, John and I had many ups and downs. My unconditional love and support came from the incomparable Marian Seldes, who played Myra until the end of the 5 year run.

I will always be grateful to John for choosing me to play opposite him. That production definitely had an enormous impact on my career. I just wish we’d been able to find a way to be closer.


Victor Garber

Victor Garber was most recently seen as Horace Vandergelder in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! He originated roles in the Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd, Noises Off, Lend Me a Tenor (Tony Award nomination), Arcadia, and Art. Additional Broadway credits include Deathtrap (Tony nomination), They’re Playing Our Song, Little Me (Tony nomination), The Devil’s Disciple, Damn Yankees (Tony nomination) and Present Laughter

He’s been seen on film in Sicario, Self/less, Argo, Milk, Legally Blonde, Titanic, The First Wives Club and Sleepless in Seattle. Television credits include Alias (three Emmy Award nominations), Frasier (Emmy nomination), Will & Grace (Emmy nomination), Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (Emmy nomination), Power, The Orville, Deception, Eli Stone, Justice, Web Therapy, The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Damages, Glee, Annie, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella and The Music Man.
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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE: Jerry Zaks

Beginnings

Several months ago the producer, Jeffrey Richards asked me to write about “the play or musical that inspired me to become a director.”

The problem was there was no one production that inspired me to think,”I’m going to be a director.” There was however, one musical that acted as a catalyst, and ignited my desire to pursue a career in the theater…changing my life forever.

I was eighteen years old and a sophomore at Dartmouth College. I’d had an exciting freshman year and loved being away from home. I was a pre med student working at the local hospital drawing bloods and collecting lab samples, as part of my financial aid package. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I had my doubts.

The science courses were killing me. I was struggling with physics and chemistry. And I found myself in the middle of the “sophomore slump.” Lethargic, disinterested, doing my laundry every two months whether I needed to or not (I needed to) and changing my sheets less frequently. I didn’t know what to do.

To make matters worse, Winter Carnival was coming up and I didn’t have a date. One of my classmates said he could fix me up with a blind date from Barnard. Remember, this was 1965 in the days before women on campus.

I said yes. 

I’d never been on a blind date, so I bought tickets to everything….the hockey game, the glee club concert, and the Players’ production. Friday night we went to the hockey game. Saturday afternoon we heard the glee club, and Saturday night we went to see the student production of Wonderful Town directed by the late great Warner Bentley.

The lights dimmed, and time seemed to stand still. Suddenly brass and percussion erupted from the pit as the orchestra launched into the overture and the curtain went up. The explosion of light and sound and music and dance surpassed every expectation of what I knew happiness to be. I felt like a kid who’d walked into F.A.O Schwartz, barely managing to keep my mouth from hanging open at the spectacle in front of me. Throughout the show I vacillated between the desire to join the eccentric denizens of Greenwich Village on stage, and laughing so hard, I could hardly breathe. Two hours flew by and when the show was over, I knew I had fallen in love. Not with my date, though she was fun, but with the joy filled experience of the show.

That evening changed my life forever. 

I dropped premed, majored in English, and acted in every show on campus. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I went on to get my MFA in acting at Smith College and came to NY in the fall of 1969 to become an actor. I acted for ten glorious years, until I started directing which is what I’ve done ever since. But that’s another story.

I fell in love at Winter Carnival with Wonderful Town and the joy of theater.

It’s a love affair that’s gone on for over 50 years.


Jerry Zaks

Jerry Zaks is an American stage and television director, and actor. He won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play and Drama Desk Award for directing The House of Blue Leaves, Lend Me a Tenor, and Six Degrees of Separation and the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical and Drama Desk Award for Guys and Dolls. His recent Broadway Directing credits include Mrs. Doubtfire, Meteor Shower, Hello Dolly, A Bronx Tale, and Sister Act.

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Interviews

Stories from the Stage Lois Smith


The role that escaped me – one that I would have loved to play.

It’s a play I’m pretty sure hasn’t been written yet. There are significant roles for Vinie Burrows and for me. I’ve met Vinie only a couple of times and seen only a little of her work.  But she impresses me, and I want to do this play with her.

Maybe we, the not-only-white American theater, are on the verge of gaining and expressing more insight about how our country’s systemic racism has formed us, as people, as citizens, as artists. If so, then this insight will of course flow through us, from us, in our work, as our gift to our audience.

Vinie has experienced the injustice of lessened opportunity in our racist theater, and also her own resilience and strength. She carries the legacy of the crimes against her forbears, and their suffering.

I have experienced easier opportunity, and a sense of such privilege as normal. That has certainly made earning a living as an actor easier. I’m not feeling strengthened though by a legacy of racism.  In this case, easier isn’t better. I need to keep learning more about my history and experience of racism, and of hers.

It would be my privilege to do this play with Vinie. Working together is more fun than anything. I like to think we have something to offer each other, our colleagues, our audience.

I hope she’ll say Yes when the offer comes. I don’t know who is writing the play. Quickly please. Vinie and I are getting on.


Lois Smith is a three-time Tony Award nominee for her performances in The Grapes of Wrath (1990), Buried Child (1996), and The Inheritance (2020).  Her film career, spanning seven decades, includes East of Eden (1955), Fatal Attraction (1987), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Twister (1996), Minority Report (2002), and Lady Bird (2017).  She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2007 for her outstanding contributions to the theatre.

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Stories from the Stage

Stories from the Stage – Linda Cho

Once upon a time, a young woman ventured forth on a long road trip to attend the dreaded entrance interview for the Yale School of Drama. 

That was me, in a carefully chosen brand new double-breasted suit, hopeful, like a lottery ticket holder. I nervously entered an unremarkable brick building on York Street in New Haven.

I lugged my giant black bag filled with everything remotely artistic I have ever done up the stairs and sat in the Design Office waiting to be called, smoothing down stray hairs and trying to get my heart to slow down.

My fate would be decided by legends of design; professors Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein. I walked in, unzipped my portfolio, took a deep breath and launched nervously into my spiel.

After a short while, I was interrupted by Ming who raised his hand and said, “That’s enough.” 

The group silently pawed through my pile of naive attempts at designing the set for King Lear, pencil sketches of my mother (my only willing model), photos of medieval armor I made out of carpet pads, earnest attempts at still life paintings, laughable costume designs for Twelfth Night and my diaries filled with memories and doodles.

Finally, Ming spoke. “Your watercolor is terrible!”

 “The proportions on your figures are all wrong!”

 “Your set and costume design is really terrible!”

And, finally, he said, “I think you don’t know many plays!” 

Ouch.  

Sad but true. 

“But… this…” He added, “this is something.” 

It was my hoard of scrappy, little diary/sketchbooks. The ones I’d take to concerts, museums, restaurants, on the subway, in which I’d sketch and write about the things I wanted to capture and commit to memory anytime I was still for more than a few minutes.

He flipped through them, nodding his head.

The others began nodding silently, too. 

To my amazement, I was accepted right there on the spot. 

What I realized then was that I didn’t need to show dazzling proficiency in theater design to be a promising designer; they were looking for a keen observer and a willing sponge.  

Designers draw from their wells of artistic inspiration. They fill this well with amazing and ordinary things they see and experience everyday and everywhere. 

I learned my first lesson before classes even began.



Linda Cho
 is a Tony Award winning costume designer with extensive experience designing for both theatre and opera in the US and internationally. In 2014 she won the Tony Award and the Henry Hewes Design Award for the Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  In 2017 she was nominated for the Tony, Outer Critic’s Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Costume Design of a Musical for the Broadway production of Anastasia. In 2018 she was proud to be part of Broadway’s first all female creative team for Lifespan of a Fact.

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Creative

PIAF. . . Her Story. . . Her Songs

Broadways Best Shows and The Actors Fund present Raquel Bitton’s acclaimed musical event “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs.” All proceeds from suggested donations will benefit The Actors Fund.

Available for streaming on Broadway’s Best Shows Youtube channel and The Actors Fund Youtube channel beginning Monday, February 15 at 7:30PM ET. The concert will be available for four days through Thursday, February 18.

Part documentary, part stage performance, “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs” is a “powerful, emotional and mesmerizing” (San Francisco Chronicle) look at French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she tells her story through a theatrical presentation by singer Raquel Bitton. Bitton literally becomes Piaf while singing, but steps back and tells her story – in English – between the mostly French songs. Archival photos of Piaf illustrate her life of lucky breaks and tragedy. Some of the evening’s best moments are of Bitton and Piaf’s friends, lovers, composers happily discussing Piaf over food and wine at a Paris bistro. The event features 16 songs performed with a full orchestra, including “La Vie En Rose,” “No Regrets” and “Hymn to Love.”

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Long Form Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

TAKE A GIANT STEP

Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

A New Series in Honor of Black History Month


Almost 70 Years Later, Take a Giant Step Remains a Vital American Play

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Spencer Scott, the hero of Louis S. Peterson’s 1953 drama Take a Giant Step, ought to be listed alongside Willy Loman, Walter Lee Younger, and Joe Bonaparte as one of the great, socially aware protagonists of American drama. Just like those characters, he fights as hard as he can against the country’s failures, and even though he doesn’t win, he exposes something true. 

But as vital as they are, both Spencer and his play are largely forgotten. That’s our mistake. Now is the perfect time to remember them.

To a modern audience, the story of Take a Giant Step will seem acutely familiar: The only Black kid in his tony northern high school, Spencer gets suspended after angrily contradicting a teacher who says the slaves were too lazy to free themselves during the Civil War. When his parents find out, they’re horrified, though not by the teacher. They tell their son that as a Black man, he doesn’t have the privilege of contradicting white people. 

How is he supposed to be happy, he wonders, when everyone he knows just wants him to remember his place?

Peterson understood this conflict. He based the play on his own experience growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, and critics hailed him for his uncommon insight and feeling. After the show played five weeks on Broadway — and returned Off Broadway for an impressive eight months in 1956 — he abandoned his earlier career as an actor and became a trailblazer on Broadway and in film and television. He not only wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Take a Giant Step, which made him one of the first Black screenwriters in the Hollywood system, but also got an Emmy nomination for Joey, a 1957 installment of Goodyear Playhouse starring Kim Stanley and Anthony Perkins.

Granted, Peterson’s success didn’t always shield him from the very oppression that Spencer tries to fight. The film of Take a Giant Step, for instance, was forced to be re-edited because it was deemed too frank in its language and sexuality. As the critic Mark A. Reid noted in a Jump Cut magazine article about Peterson’s work, onscreen depictions of Black sexuality in the 1950s and 60s were typically limited to lusty madness (like Dorothy Dandridge’s character in Carmen Jones) or violent crime (like the the courtroom description of interracial rape in To Kill a Mockingbird). In this thick of this era, it was considered taboo for Spencer to have everyday confusion about growing up and meeting women.

Undaunted, Peterson kept writing about social issues. His 1962 play Entertain a Ghost examines interracial relationships, as does his sweeping 1979 drama Crazy Horse. In 1983 he wrote Another Show, about the rise adolescent suicide, specifically for his students at SUNY Stony Brook.  

None of these later plays were as successful as Take a Giant Step, but Peterson still had an undeniable impact on the arts in America. Along with laying a foundation for other writers of color, his work also highlighted a generation of Black performers.  At the age of 17, for instance, Louis Gossett, Jr. made his Broadway debut playing Spencer, and before he became a superstar pop singer, Johnny Nash played Spencer in the film. Ruby Dee also appeared in the movie, while Beah Richards, Bill Gunn, and Godfrey Cambridge were among the stars of the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (It’s worth noting that Gossett briefly reprised his role in the Off-Broadway run as well.) 

The astonishing cumulative success of these performers just burnishes the legacy of both a play and a playwright that are ripe for rediscovery.

Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.