I think that the first musical that inspired me to be a director (even though I didn’t know it at the time) was “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. I wore that album out! When I was in High School in the late 70’s I was obsessed with it – I thought the staging was so simple and thrilling, and the performers were absolutely incredible. I saw the national tour in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then when it was in San Diego I volunteered to usher for the week it was there. It was perfectly staged by Richard Maltby Jr. It was seamless and moved so beautifully. It felt like a big show while retaining the intimacy of only 5 performers (with big personalities)onstage.
I think this was the first time I watched something and took notice of the direction. In my first 10 years or so in New York, I concentrated on being a performer and I wasn’t really aware that I wanted to direct – but I’d subconsciously absorbed the shows and experiences where the staging had a big influence on me. A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, Evita, Once On this Island, Me and My Girl and Ragtime to name a few were shows that wowed and inspired me with their direction and choreography and the way the two were integrated. Never did I dream that I would be creating my own work for the Broadway stage.
Casey Nicholaw is a multiple Tony award nominated theatre director and choreographer best known for his work on The Drowsy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon (Tony Award- Director), Something Rotten!, Aladdin, Mean Girls and The Prom, and for choreographing Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Broadway photographers have a big task: capture the magic, beauty and wonder of a brand new show every night, each one posing new and unexpected challenges. It is essential work not only for the show’s marketing team, but for the historical record. Their work may well shape how, or if, a show is remembered.
We spoke to seasoned veterans Joan Marcus, Matthew Murphy, Jeremy Daniel and Peter Cunningham about memorable shows, challenging shoots, and why they do what they do.
In this last abbreviated season, is there a show that stands out in your memory as having been particularly challenging to shoot?
Six was hard. The lighting, which is totally spectacular andfabulous, was challenging because it moves so fast. Fortunately on that one I got to do set-ups [a photoshoot designed to replicate scenes or moments in a show]. So you could slow it down a bit, and make some images that you wanted to make but couldn’t quite do – because the show moves so fast!
The Inheritance was so stunning, but the design of the show was really sparse. It’s a lot of people on stage most of the time, on opposite ends of this really wide platform – which as an audience member is so striking, but as a photographer you’re like, “How do I establish the relationships between the characters in a single frame that doesn’t feel too sparse, or too overly spread out?”
How I approach production photography is, it really is about finding an image that feels like the show feels to an audience member. We finally did get to do a set-up call early in February and figure out a way to shape it for a camera so that it had the maximum emotional impact on first glance.
Especially now, with how quickly we all ingest imagery on a constant basis, you have to figure out a way to make it “thumb-stopping.” If you’re scrolling through Instagram, you need something that immediately is going to be dynamic enough that it’s going to stop you at least for that 0.5 seconds to tap the “Heart” button. That’s how it’s changed.
“The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s brilliant Tony-nominated play starring Mary-Louise Parker, was especially tough. Normally when shooting a show, my gut instinct is to accentuate the light and minimize the darkness. Within the composition of a photo, empty stage space is one thing — but total, complete darkness is another. For “The Sound Inside,” I had to put those gut instincts aside. I had to do a complete 180, and consciously pay attention to the darkness. I had to allow space for it. I had to include it, because it had a role to play in the remarkable story being told. It was a brilliant lesson.
Reflecting back on your career during this time, what memories of past shoots have especially stuck with you?
The very first show I did. I ran into [then press representative, now producer] Jeffrey Richards on the street. He said he had this new guy Harvey Fierstein, who was doing a show called International Stud, and he needed a photographer. So my first initiation to the theater business was Harvey, who is absolutely wonderful and outrageous. That was a great training for me. I have never had a chance to thank Harvey for that, actually. To just be immersed, for a short while, in his perception of the world was the best thing that could happen to a young photographer in the late 1970s.
Then in 1982 I photographed Nine. They wanted to decorate the outside of the theater differently than had ever been done before. So I had the whole cast, 22 women and Raul Julia, come down to the studio one day to be photographed. And it was that day that the toilet decided to break. So that was a challenge – and a pleasure, obviously. The photos made quite a stir, and are still talked about as having changed the way theater displays are done.
Right now the set of the play K2 is all I can think about, because it was designed by Ming Cho Lee, who just passed away. It was unbelievable. I shot it at Arena Stage in Washington [in 1982] when I was first starting out. The play was about two mountain climbers who are in an avalanche and get stuck on a ledge on K2, and only one of them can survive.
So the whole play takes place on the side of the mountain. And it was the most amazing set you’ve ever seen. Just floor-to-ceiling mountain, into the pit, up into the flys, and edge-to-edge – just ice. But it was really styrofoam, unbelievably lit by Allen Lee Hughes. It was just regal and magnificent.
The first thing that really pops into my mind is Howell Binkley’s face [Tony Award-winning lighting designer of Hamilton, who died of lung cancer on August 14]. Losing Howell over this time has been so heartbreaking for the community. From the minute I started working with him, he just had the most warm, generous energy. He had an incredible way of shaping a space as a designer, and an incredible way of shaping a space as a human.
You watch Hamilton and you’re just like, holy crap – how is he telling this much of a story with just lighting? It’s crazy the way he could shape a space. I’ll miss walking in and hearing his laugh at the tech table.
Normally each November I’d be getting ready to hit the road for my annual photo shoot with the “White Christmas” Broadway national tour. That show always techs out-of-town during the first week of November, and it has held a special place in my heart for years (mostly because I’m a total sucker for an old-fashioned musical comedy). How I wish audiences around the country could experience the joys of that show this year. Boy, do we need it.
Four years ago, on the day after the election, that evening was the final dress for “The Babylon Line,” a new play at Lincoln Center. When I arrived at the theatre that evening, everyone was in a state of quiet disbelief, stunned and shocked by the events of the day. The mood was unlike anything we’d ever experienced. But then the final dress began. And God bless Julie Halston. Julie Halston made us laugh. It was just the right thing, at just the right time. That night was a glorious lesson in how incredibly healing and uplifting theater can be. For that reason, whenever I see photos of “The Babylon Line,” I’ll always be grateful.
How Are You Reflecting on Life as a Broadway Photographer?
I loved the human experience. What I remember most from photographing Jeffrey Richards’ 2000 revival of The Best Man is actually being there for the readthrough. The production photographer has so many different interfaces with a play. In that case, I was part of that first day where the actors meet each other, and the director – and me. That’s a great feeling, to be there at the beginning of a project, and to be part of the team.
That may have been the most unique read-through I attended. Charles Durning, who was to star in the production as the ex-President, had been hospitalized for an operation (successful) to remove polyps and the cast was informed right before the read-thru that he would be joining the company in two weeks. Gore Vidal agreed to read the role of Art Hockstader…he was mesmerizing, sharp and funny and even folksy (well patrician folksy) when his dialogue called for it. When there were scene breaks, Gore would regale the company– Chris Noth, Michael Learned, Liz Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray–with anecdotes about the original production and anecdotes about the politics of the era. Gore loved doing the role and the company loved his doing it…
I know photography is recording somebody else’s work, and being a little bit of a cipher. But it’s kind of the whole package – every day is different, every show is different, every show poses a different challenge. And that’s scary, but the fact that you have to problem solve with every show you do keeps it really interesting.
The greatest thing is being in that room. Like seeing Hamilton for the first time and thinking: “It’s even more wonderful than they say!” It’s that element of surprise when you’re one of the first people to see something. Being with all of these people who are so talented, and seeing something wonderful – or even seeing something disappointing! I just miss it.
As a photographer, my heart will always be on Broadway. One evening last in May (which feels like a lifetime ago!), just as the industry was starting to accept the long-term realities of what lay ahead, I took a walk alone, around the theater district. The sun was setting and the sky was absolutely gorgeous. As I looked up at the Broadway marquees, still shining brightly against that sunset, I thought “Oh, right now would be the places call.” Yes, the streets were empty and the doors were shut, but there was something magical & hopeful about it.
It gave me an idea for a photo series…but then the vibe in our city shifted again with the George Floyd protests, the curfews, etc. That’s when most of the Broadway lights were turned off as a safety precaution. So while the photo series couldn’t materialize the way I’d hoped, I think the social uprising that ensued was a worthwhile exchange.
In September, I shot the cast of Moulin Rouge! as they returned to the empty Al Hirschfeld theater, marking six months since the shutdown. I never took being in a theater for granted. But it was even more obvious how special of a place it is, and how fortunate I am to do what I do. Reflecting back on that day in the last month or so, I’ve felt a lot of sorrow about it, and a lot of joy about having that moment with those people. A moment to really look at them, and be present with them – and to value the space, the sacredness of a theater.
Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He was also Social Media Editor at Exeunt for two years. He has written short plays and sketches at The Tank and The PIT. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. Prior to the theater shutdown, he was an Operations Manager at TodayTix.
When I first came to New York, with all those aspirations, I, through a fluke of a chance conversation between an actor I know and her agent, learned that Jerry Robbins, who was about to direct, off-Broadway, Arthur Kopit’s brilliant play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad, was having a terrible time casting the part of the young son in the play. I worked hard on the audition and waltzed in and knocked him out with the audition. So he asked me to come to a callback audition a few days later. At which I totally bombed. I’d never heard of a callback. It was a fiasco. Jerry called me the next day and asked me to come see him. He said. “what happened?!” He wasn’t angry, he was just bewildered. I told him that I had no idea, at that second audition, what I was doing. So he kept calling me back and calling me back, looking for the fire to return. Then finally, on, I think, the sixth audition, he had me read opposite the magnificent Barbara Harris. And we soared.
So my career was launched. Jerry was the launcher and Barbara was the rocket.
Luck. Pure, wild luck. This business is beyond capricious.
On the night of February 1, 1979, I stood in the vom of Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway, terrified. I kept repeating to myself, “You didn’t have to take this job. Why did you take this job?” The job I had taken was standby for the female lead in the entire four acts of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.
An hour earlier I had been having a glass of wine with my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting New York and had tickets to see Da. It is my habit to get to the theater early, but that night I arrived a wee bit late only to find that our leading lady was ill, and I was going on. The following half hour was a blur. As I was being helped into costume and makeup, one of the other cast members asked if there was anyone I would like to have notified. I later learned that within minutes of my response, ushers were hurrying up and down the aisles of the Morosco, whispering, “Mr. Dunagan? Mr. Dunagan?”
Luckily there had been an understudy rehearsal and I was well prepared, but I felt totally inadequate as I stood there waiting for my cue. In what seemed like a lifetime but was really only minutes, I remembered that my only obligation as standby was to say the lines in the correct order, with the correct cues, so that the other actors could do their usual stellar work. That realization (and maybe that glass of wine) helped me get through the performance, which astonishingly, may have been one of the best of my life. To top it off, my brother and his wife had made it to the theater seconds before the lobby doors were closed. After the show, we had a jubilant celebration at The Russian Tea Room.
The day after my Broadway debut, while walking around the Upper East Side, my brother spotted a small second floor cafe which offered tea leaf readings. He insisted I have a sitting to see what my future held and was dismayed when the “seer” said the leaves didn’t show anything special. No matter how he argued, recounting the story of the previous night, she stood by her reading.
It’s true, that after a brief flurry of activity during which a column was written about me in Backstage and I signed with ICM, nothing else ever came of my one night stand. But I think there may well be a time limit on one prognosticatory cup of tea. For soon I found myself in Chicago, a city I love, where I have spent a long and gratifying career as part of the vibrant theater community. It was because of that involvement that, almost 29 years later, in 2007, I made my second Broadway “debut” in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. This time my brother was in his seat well before the curtain.
I was in my second season at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota when one afternoon the phone rang. It was Mark Medoff, the playwright, which was odd because I had never met or spoken with Mark. He was calling me out of the blue to ask if I would like to come to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (where he was head of the Department of Theater Arts) to teach Voice and Diction and work on my play, “The Legend of Pecos Bill.”
I am not a playwright, but when I was in grad school at the Dallas Theater Center, I couldn’t find a children’s play to direct for the new Magic Turtle Theater program, so I wrote one. Several years later Mark had been working on a new play at DTC and in the market for a children’s play. Someone had given him my script and he liked it well enough to follow up with that phone call.
I explained that I was extremely flattered, but that I wasn’t really a playwright, I was an actor. When we hung up I thought that was the end of it. But after the season, when I was living in New York, I heard from him again. He was opening a new play at Jewish Repertory Theater and wondered if I would like to be his guest at the opening. We met, hit it off, and kept in touch. A couple of years later, in 1980, his award winning Children of a Lesser God was casting for the First National Tour. I loved the play and wanted to audition, but ICM, my agency at the time, was unable to get me seen. My friend Mark Medoff thought I might be good in the role of the lawyer; he had no trouble getting me in.
That tour took me to Chicago where I fell in love with the city and its thriving theater scene. After my six month commitment to the production, I moved from New York to Chicago where I have had a rich and satisfying theatrical career. My involvement with Chicago theater led me to be cast in the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County which moved to Broadway in 2007 and won five Tony Awards.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my life had I been able to find a children’s play to direct in grad school.
Deanna Dunagan is an actress best known for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and for her portrayal of Nana in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 film The Visit. She has also appeared in the recurring role of Mother Bernadette on the Fox television series The Exorcist, and Dr. Willa Sipe in the 2018 film An Acceptable Loss by writer Joe Chappelle.
During my run as Melchior in Spring Awakening, I was living a double life. (No wonder ALIAS was my favorite tv show at the time…) On stage, I played a fearless and intelligent rebel who refused to let the world define him. In my personal life, I was living a completely closeted existence. My “roommate” was just a “roommate” – certainly not a “BOYFRIEND.” Backstage at the show, I never spoke of my personal life in an honest way, and blessedly the cast never pushed me for the truth. I performed the show for almost two years. In June 2008, a month after I finished my run, I came out of the closet and started my journey towards self acceptance. Looking back, I see how much Spring Awakening changed me. Getting the opportunity to grab the mic and express myself every night was the therapy I didn’t even know I needed. Just thinking about singing the song “Touch Me” every night still makes me well up. I found the courage to come out of the closet from cultivating bravery every night trying to be more and more like Melchior. The show changed the game for me professionally, but it hit me harder in a personal way at the exact moment I needed that form of self expression. I think the ultimate legacy of Spring Awakening is the opportunity the show provides future teenagers by taking their struggles seriously and giving them an outlet to express themselves. Every time I see the show performed in community theaters and schools, I can feel the experience is changing the lives of it’s fearless young performers in ways that they might not even be aware of yet. And watching them transforms me all over again.
Jonathan Groff, recently seen off-Broadway as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors, earned Tony nominations for playing Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening and King George in Hamilton. His film and television credits include Disney animation’s Frozen, HBO’s Looking and Netflix’s Mindhunter.
In 1997 I did a one man play about a drunken Irish theatre critic at the Bush theater in London. St Nicholas! Written by Conor McPherson, which I subsequently performed the following year at Primary Stages in New York on 45th street, and for which I was honored with ‘The Lucille Lortel Award’!
But the previous year the play was premiered at the Bush Theatre in London. The Bush was a small intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. This particular night was a sellout performance. The audience were packed to the rafters.
Now St Nicholas is an extremely intricate complicated and fantastical text. With a sinewy comic thread! It demands an incredible level of Concentrated attention from the player. That evening started well.
But…About 6 minutes into the evening I noticed that sitting on front row…in…the middle…to my right was my ex girlfriend. Who I had recently broken up with. I was a little thrown by this …and wondered why on earth she had chosen that particular, really, quite prominent, seat.
I recovered from this slight ‘hiccup’ and continued, feeling proud of myself that I was not thrown by this ‘obstacle’. So I proceeded with renewed confidence.
After a few minutes, I’d just gotten back in stride when I turned to address my audience stage left and there sitting…in the middle of the left front row was…my ex ex girlfriend. The girl friend previous…to the girl friend…now sitting stage right. In fact these two young ladies were actually sitting…facing…each other. I didn’t panic… but, my anxiety…was, shall we say…mounting.
What on earth was going on? And of course various scenarios began to play out in my mind!
Had they come together?
And as some bizarre joke decided to sit opposite each other?
Or??….were they there by pure coincidence?
My brain became occupied with, what seemed endless permutations on these shifting scenarios. The text of the play, the main purpose of my attention, was drifting in my consciousness. And..ten minutes into the evening….the inevitable happened. I went up! Dried stone dead.
I struggled like a drowning man seeking a life raft. But after..a beat..which seemed a lifetime. I stopped turned to the audience, and said “Ladies and Gentlemen I’m afraid for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I need to start the evening over again! Apologies!” And so indeed I did…and it was truly scary!
“Will I get over the point where concentration abandoned me.”
And…”Will I indeed get through the entire evening….”
The moment where I had lost my way, was looming like one of those huge fences at the English Grand national horse race. Would I get over the fence? The moment arrived… and I lept the fence.. and..proceeded obsessively to the finish. After it was over, I left the stage exhausted!
I sat in my dressing room. There was a knock on my door. It was my ex-girlfriend. “Brian that was wonderful, what an incredible evening.” I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank!
I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank! Were you in?”
Ex-girl friend, “Yes, were you, wasn’t it wonderful
I sat there in a state of stupefaction! Me “But weren’t you?… didn’t you? ..Um..ah…see..?”
Ex girlfriend “ I was absolutely caught from the moment you came on!
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 Harrington, and 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.
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.
‘American Pie’ premiered in 1999, catapulting me and my castmates into the cultural zeitgeist and changing the course of my professional and personal life forever.
Doing press around the release of the film, I was often asked what it was like to be an “overnight sensation.” While it was impossible to ignore the simple fact that yes, everything literally changed overnight, I found myself resenting the question and its implication that I had come out of nowhere to achieve this success.
Because in truth, I had been acting professionally and working fairly consistently since I got my first agent in 1983. And while nothing I did in that decade and a half had the reach or impact that ‘American Pie’ would eventually have, there were still a few projects that at the time I considered to be “big breaks.”
One of them was my first play, a production of Herb Gardner’s Conversations With My Father. I was with the production from the very first reading in 1990 at HB Studio in the West Village, to the two-month tryout at the Seattle Repertory Theater (the first time I ever “went on location”), to the Broadway run in 1992. From the age of twelve to fourteen, I acted almost nightly opposite Judd Hirsch (in a role for which he won the Tony) and Tony Shalhoub and a brilliant ensemble, learning everything I could from them, watching and listening to the show when I wasn’t required to be on stage. It was here that I gained the confidence to play to the audience, and the ability to know when not to. I learned that no two performances were alike, and that when I enter stage left and accidentally trip on a step and improvise a line to my father about him needing to fix it, Judd Hirsch will clap back with a “yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it” and then carry on with the scene as written.
I learned how to be present and connected to another actor. I learned how to help lift an actor when they were struggling, and how to receive the help when I needed it. I learned how to show up on time, always. I learned how to be a part of a work family, and to have fun offstage. But perhaps most importantly, I learned that all good jobs come to an end.
It taught me to be grateful for the opportunities that I would get. To enjoy the moment, and to not get ahead of myself. This would serve me especially well years later when ‘American Pie’ would become a global success. I have an inherent understanding that not every job I do will be as successful, and that even the successful ones will eventually fade into memory. There are just no guarantees. But that’s ok. Because the way I see it, the next “big” break is always right around the corner.
Jason Biggs is an American actor and comedian known for his work in the American Pie comedy film series, and Orange Is the New Black. He also starred in Boys and Girls, Loser, Saving Silverman, Anything Else, Jersey Girl, Eight Below, Over Her Dead Body, and My Best Friend’s Girl.
Today is my daughter Stella’s 21s birthday. She studies statistics and Italian, vaguely likes theatre, and is utterly straightforward, charmingly so. Naturally I am spending time assessing whether I’ve been a hindrance or help as she walks into a sea of adults never to be a child again.
We started our mother daughter dance in a kind of protective bubble but within a few short months, I was doing a play and carting her to rehearsals so as not to disrupt her supposed sense of comfort. The play on hand was called Lobster Alice and we performed it at Playwright’s Horizons back when Playwright’s Horizons was a rickety mid-town haunt and the term Hell’s Kitchen had slightly more meaning. The wonderful director Maria Mileaf was at the helm and she was a new mother as well.
Stella and I felt very taken care of. The rehearsals were complete with breaks to breastfeed and the seasoned nanny, I’d met through a friend, seemed only slightly weirded out by the looks of our 46th street rehearsal space. We rolled into previews and I thought perhaps having Stella in my dressing room, or even backstage for that matter, might provide maximum coddling for her 6 month old self.
One evening, I sang to her in the dressing room as I donned the gorgeous period costume Ann Hould-Ward had dreamed up. It was circa 1940 in our play, I was secretary to an animator that Reg Rogers brilliantly portrayed. I was in love with said animator. During this particular evening, the love scene we were to enact had been slightly rewritten. I was to raise my voice in frustration and then our mutual attraction was to be realized and some of this romance would ensue. I focused on those new lines and the raise in my voice belted over the monitor. The sound woke Stella from her comfy sleep and she began to cry.
Stella cried powerfully and relentlessly and due to the way in which the stage was situated over the basement dressing rooms, Reg and I could hear the crying but those in the house remained oblivious. My body could not take it. My breasts began to express milk in such a forceful way that two round puddles formed on the front of my swanky suit jacket and I myself began to silently sob.
My attempt to” mother” while on stage, was the first of many miscalculations as a parent. As much as I’d like to think I’m a swell multitasker-there was simply no damn way to do both tasks at hand.. I could not maintain even a slight veneer of the character. I really should have been a magnet for Reg in that moment, but no, my sense was that he was frightened…or perhaps repelled?
I raced off stage at the end of the show to Stella now howling and Ann Hould Ward, the kind nanny and several stage hands, trying in vain to soothe her. Maria arrived minutes later with her usual notepad and said : “I have only a few things from the beginning of the play. I want to shift to the final scene and just ask….”What was WRONG with you. Were you sobbing??? It’s a love scene…..”
And in retrospect it was. Between me and my daughter. If I had it to do over, forgive me, I perhaps would have done it all the same.