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.
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.
You’re gearing up for the holidays, and your boss starts to wax poetic about how Christmas is more of a nuisance than a celebration. Later in the evening, when some eccentric guests show up at the office party, he complains that they may be products of his indigestion, and says he’d rather be getting a good night’s rest than chit-chatting. Soon, the familiar music comes in. And no, it’s not the brass tuba and mandolin plucking of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme, but rather the joyful sounds of carols – A Christmas Carol, to be exact.
Scholars have speculated that Charles Dickens’ 1843 holiday classic may be the “most adapted” text in the English language. And indeed, A Christmas Carol was the subject of Dickens’ first “public reading,” a practice he would continue annually during the holidays until his death in 1870. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why A Christmas Carol seems to have a very special relationship with theatricality – it’s been adapted hundreds of times in the 20th and 21st centuries: there were the “story theatre” style productions that began in the 70’s; the large-scale Broadway musical performed at Madison Square Garden until 2003; Patrick Stewart’s famous one-man version; traditional productions mounted annually at regional theatres across the country; modern-day spinoffs like A Christmas Carol in Harlem or 3 Ghosts, a steam-punk adaptation – and everything in between. Basically: if you can imagine an iteration of A Christmas Carol, it’s undoubtedly been done somewhere in the world.
Most scholars agree on the importance of the character Scrooge when considering the theatrical and literary legacy of A Christmas Carol. He’s the heart and (blackened) soul of the original text, and one of the major reasons why it’s been adapted within an inch of its life. Not unlike the great white whales of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, characters like Lear and Richard III, Scrooge has been played by some of the all-time greats of theatre and film, including Patrick Stewart (as discussed above), Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Lionel Barrymore, Kelsey Grammer, Albert Finney, and Jefferson Mays – in a one-man version that opened at the Geffen Playhouse in 2018 and was re-recorded to be streamed for holiday audiences this season.
Michael Arden, director of Mays’ one-man version of Christmas Carol, agreed that Scrooge is the ultimate, and one of the first, anti-heroes, in the tradition of Lucifer or Faust. Though he’s undoubtedly evil, bitter, and miserly, Arden described him as the “heart” and “center” of the piece. For these very reasons, it’s one of the most difficult roles to interpret. Actors find themselves asking: how “mean” does Scrooge have to be in order to give the show, and his transformation, appropriate stakes?
There are easy pitfalls. Ben Brantley wrote of Walter Charles’ portrayal, for example, “…you can forget for long patches that A Christmas Carol is about [Scrooge’s] conversion to goodness. Perhaps so as not to frighten younger spectators, he’s largely a benign scoundrel.” And Alexis Soloski wrote that Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s recent Scrooge “didn’t seem that mean” – rather that he just went “for laughs.”
“Humor” and “wit” were two of the first qualities Arden named in describing Scrooge. I, too, in re-reading various adaptations of the play, was struck by how funny Scrooge can be. Between his complaints about the unrealistic expectations of Christmas, loud carolers, over-indulgent writing and speech, indigestion, lack of sleep, teenagers generally, love generally, and work generally, it can feel more like reading an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”than the first act of A Christmas Carol. Any actor playing Scrooge must walk that knife’s edge between frightening darkness and a sense of humor to rival Larry David.
And the Scrooge-Larry David parallels don’t stop there: Scrooge is a man of a certain age, who lives alone and seems generally mystified by current social mores. You could easily see an episode of Curb focusing on Larry’s annoyance with Christmas carolers who are too loud, or Larry being flummoxed by the tradition of giving gifts to your employees in addition to what you already pay them.In many adaptations, when Scrooge is first warned of the appearance of three ghosts he asks, “I think I’d rather not…couldn’t I take them all at once and be over with it?” You could easily see Larry David wagering with a fearsome ghost in the same way. And the famous expletives Larry uses when confronted with teens who are “too old to dress up for Halloween,” coffee he believes isn’t hot enough, and a crush who voted for George W. Bush – to name just a few – can be seen as direct descendants of Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug.”
But given how funny Scrooge can be at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, it’s not hard to see how the good, earnest, transformed version we encounter at the end of the play could end up feeling like a wet blanket. Arden disagreed. He reminded me that Scrooge is still funny at the end of the play – it’s just a different kind of humor. “At the beginning of [A Christmas Carol],” Arden explained, “Scrooge uses [humor] as a defense. In the end when he’s playing the practical joke on Bob Cratchitt – it’s humor with a different motivation. He wants to have fun. He wants to make up for lost time and use humor to do that.”
While “Scrooge” (and “being a Scrooge”) has become synonymous over the years with malice, bitterness, and greed, the comedy in the character should not be underestimated. “It’s what makes [Scrooge] likeable even though he’s horrible,” Arden explained. “You [as an audience member] get that there’s hope there, and it’s identifiable.” Ben Brantley underscored this point in his rave review of Campbell Scott’s most recent interpretation: “…he’s probably a lot like many New Yorkers you know. And those who have already had your fill of premature Christmas music may find yourself rooting for Scrooge as he dismisses the carolers who gather outside his house.”
Larry David and the success of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm has made it clear that characters today can be mean-spirited AND funny. Written and portrayed in a certain way, a cynical and jaundiced view of the world can fuel laughs. Moreover, as Arden argued, we root for characters who are funny, because, even if they appear cynical and closed on the outside, a great sense of humor indicates the humanity within. And Arden said, too, what’s ultimately important is that an audience identifies with Scrooge – he is our surrogate and our window into the play, the reason it’s been adapted again and again, and the character in which we see ourselves, for better or for worse – or more to the point, for better AND worse. “Dickens was trying to put the reader in Scrooge’s shoes,” Arden explained. “In some senses [he’s] a bit ridiculous and cartoonish, but the more you get into him, the more we start to see ourselves in Scrooge, even in small ways. That’s why he travels through so many different past experiences…we have to understand him as ourselves…” Put another way, Scrooge’s story “has always been – and remains – our own,” as Brantley has said.
Larry David owes a great deal to Dickens’ leading man. Ebenezer Scrooge was the first to prove that a miserly, cranky and even seemingly nasty middle-aged man can be the emotional center of a show with the capacity to change – one that is “prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good,” even to this day.
Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She developed and hosted a weekly live interview show entitled “Theatre Book Club” for Berkshire Theatre Group, and she’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few. She is a proud graduate of Princeton University and member of Actors’ Equity.
During World War II, I was drafted into the Army. I was in the Signal Corps attached to the Air Corps, part of a five man team trained to install and operate a new kind of blind landing system. While we were waiting to be sent overseas, no one knew what to do with us. Every morning after inspection, the sergeant in charge of us grinned and said “Get Lost!” I knew there was a Special Service unit on the base, so I introduced myself to the man in charge, Sol Lerner.
Sol had been a theatrical agent in civilian life. There was an auditorium on the base, so every Monday evening Sol would produce a one hour entertainment featuring men from the base who played accordion or country western guitar (of whom there were more than I would have imagined). Sol put me to work auditions possible performers for his Monday evening shows. Everyone envied Sol because his fiancée, June Taylor, an attractive dancer, flew down from New York every few weeks to be with him.
After I was discharged from the Army, I went to Northwestern University and began to write songs which were featured in the annual student revue. I enjoyed this so much that when I graduated, I decided to move to New York to see whether I could make a living writing for the musical theater. I looked up Sol Lerner, who was no longer a theatrical agent. Now he represented only his wife, whose June Taylor dancers were to be featured on the soon to begin Jackie Gleason television show. Sol got me the job of writing a short introductory song for the show. This was the beginning of my career as a professional songwriter.
Sheldon Harnick, one of our foremost lyricists, is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Fiorello!, the Tony Award for Fiddler on the Roof, and his musical collaboration with Jerry Bock also resulted in Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds. Harnick received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Although it wasn’t identified then as such, Broadway got its first Christmas song on Oct. 13, 1903. In the 117 years since, the sweeping swirl of Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” from Babes in Toyland has come to epitomize the joyful spirit of the season. It was a show always sprinkled over the year-end holidays.
A Christmas Carol can be counted on to make recurring comebacks. The one last year, imported from England with Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, employed traditional holiday songs for its soundtrack.
This year is mostly unmusical: Jefferson Mays is making a one-man show of himself in a filmed version of the play, streaming from now to Jan. 3. A rival Scrooge, Raul Esparza, enters the streaming scene Dec. 16 and will hold forth with a helpful supporting cast of seven until Dec. 20 in a virtual reading benefiting Primary Stages.
A Broadway-caliber version was transplanted at Madison Square Garden for a decade of Christmases (1994-2004). Each production had its own guest-star Ebenezer. Broadway tunesmiths Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens came up with a lively 19-song score, the most insidiously catchy of which was timed to the clanging shuffle of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, and titled “Link by Link.”
Gregory Hines was a modern-day Scrooge, slum-lording over Harlem, for 45 performances at the Winter Garden in Comin’ Uptown, in a short-lived musical from Garry Sherman and Peter Udell. Their big hit was “Christmas Is Comin’ Uptown,” which became the show’s title when it was reworked for the regionals.
As soon as musicals moved into contemporary Christmases, Santa Claus tended to take over the focus from Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping, our hero (Sidney Chaplin) is an amiable hobo who functions as a one-man employment office for the homeless and drifters. Outfitted as a Community Chest Santa Claus, he implores his fellow charity Santas to “Be a Santa.” That commandment (composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) sends the red-suited brigade into a Cossack-kicking, Michael Kidd-choreographed frenzy that stops the show, or at least the first act.
Kidd’s choreography gets Here’s Love going in a big way with no less than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade for Scene 1. This is the defiitive department-store Santa story, first filmed in 1947 as Miracle on 34th Street and here musicalized in 1963 by Meredith Willson. Some could say Willson got a head-start on this one. Midway through “Pine Cones and Holly Berries,” a seasonal offering sung by the Kris Kringle-in-residence (Laurence Naismith), Janis Paige saunters in and starts singing in counterpoint “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” a little ditty that Willson had dashed off a dozen years before.
Store clerks run ragged by Christmas shoppers can be found in She Loves Me, all of them tending Maraczek’s Parfumerie in a bustling European town of the ‘30s. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick gave them a number to count down to, “Twelve Days to Christmas,” and that was turned into a chaotic meshing of carolers, customers and clerks by director Harold Prince and choreographer Carol Haney.
The office Christmas party where the worker drones frolic and make drunken fools of themselves is represented in Promises, Promises, the Broadway musical version of The Apartment. Burt Bacharach and Hal David, taking their one shot at Broadway, provided a lively number, “Turkey Lurkey Time,” for Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie and Margo Sappington to dance in a Michael Bennett showstopper.
Mame Dennis (Angela Lansbury) is one of those workers who makes it home from one of those department-store rampages. To pull herself and her household on to a happier plane, she decides “We Need a Little Christmas,” and one of Jerry Herman’s most buoyant numbers takes it from there.
Harnick has had other brushes with this holiday. He provided lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ next-to-the-last musical, Rex—notably, “Christmas at Hampton Court,” sung by Henry VIII’s three offspring: Elizabeth (Penny Fuller), Edward (Michael John) and Mary (Glenn Close). He also supplied words for Joe Raposo’s music to A Wonderful Life, a 1986 stage version of the famous Frank Capra-James Stewart Christmas flick of 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life. It never got closer to Broadway than the Paper Mill Playhouse because of the complicated stage rights to the original story, The Greatest Gift. Apparently, all that has been resolved: It’s a Wonderful Life will get a London staging next year, with songs by Sir Paul McCartney.
“Hard Candy Christmas” has nothing to do with Christmas per se but does refer to a time when dirt-poor families of the Depression could only afford to give their children penny candy at Christmas time. Carol Hall’s heartbreaking ballad comes at the close—or, more precisely, the closing—of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, euphemistically called The Chicken Ranch, when all the chicks in residence are rudely uprooted, set free and trying to put a happy, hopeful face on their uncertain fates and futures.
The joyful noise of the holidays, evident in everything from “Jingle Bells” and “Silver Bells” to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” is conspicuously absent in the most widely-known Christmas song of them all, the almost melancholy “White Christmas.” Featured twice on screen and on Broadway in musicals titled Holiday Inn and White Christmas, it was written a long way from home during a sweltering California summer by a man who had lost his only son—25-day-old Irving Berlin Jr.—on Christmas Day of 1928.
I was in a sauna with my husband and 3 year old son on the Dingel peninsula when I received a phone call from Joe Papp asking me to start a multicultural Shakespeare company for him to play for the New York City school system.
Why me? He had seen a multicultural-multilingual production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA that I had directed at the Womens’ Interart Theater on 52nd Street. I put together a company: 5 Blacks, 6 Hispanics, 3 Japanese, 2 Whites and 1 Turk.
We played in the Anspacher theater at 425 Lafayette Street for one year and then moved to the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street as SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. It was Joe Papp’s dream.
We played daytimes during the school week for high school and junior high school students. On Friday and Saturdays they could bring their families from great grandparents to babes-in-arms. It was all free.
I TOOK FIVE MONTHS TO DEVELOP THE COMPANY
First an hour of relaxation and physical work led by a member of the company who was a dancer.
Then an hour of vocal work led by another member of the company. Then, five hours of free form work to find out who these actors were.
The reason for these five months?
Commercial actors of whatever culture or race learned to “act white” back in the 80s. I wanted to know who these people really were, their customs, their talk, their heritage, themselves. That stuff is the bedrock of compelling theater and fine acting.
One day Rene Moreno, an Hispanic, was showing us something of his heritage when Vince Williams, a big black guy from a family of musicians in New Orleans, sitting near me watching in the audience, piped up with “My heritage is some guys standing on a beach waiting to be brought here to be slaves”. Necessary talk this. Five months of it.
What do high school students like? Sports teams, oh, yes!
We put sweats on the actors and we had a sports team. (Ruth Morley of ANNIE HALL fame did the costumes). THE NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PLAYERS
AFTER 5 MONTHS, HERE’S THE DRILL!
The actors came out to introduce themselves “Hello. I’m . . .”
But-hold it! Is that theater? What is your moniker, what is your “John Hancock”?
What is yourself? Show me your essence!
Not easy. Maybe impossible. Try.
One actor was really good at juggling. One could do backflips. One had been trained at New York City Ballet. Got it? Too big a challenge? Yes. Try!
By now the kids were into it.
Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, now part of the city government saw just this much of the performance and gave us a big donation.
BLACKOUT. LIGHTS UP. AS YOU LIKE IT.
Natsuko was Rosalind. Celia was Regina Taylor—with a live boa constrictor around her neck. 25 pounds. Had his own dressing room.
“I can’t rehearse all day with this thing around my neck.” Of course not—but it had been her idea.
One matinee, lights came up and a big girl in the front row shot to the back of the house – faster than any animal I had ever seen run.
The snake was still on Regina’s shoulders.
We alternated AS YOU LIKE IT and ROMEO AND JULIET.
We played the Anspacher, the Mobile Unit in the parks all summer, and then added the Scottish play when we became SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. Ching Valez played Lady M.
Oh, but she could.
After the students had seen the productions, the actors, as themselves, visited the schools and “played Shakespeare” with them.
At the end of our second season, I went, as a wife, to Gracie Mansion for dinner with the Mayor. My husband worked in the city government.
Bobby Wagner, head of the school board, was there. He told a story.
“I was in a school elevator and asked a teacher how her year had been. She said ‘Estelle Parsons’ Shakespeare program was the only good thing that happened all year.”
Estelle Parsons received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Rachel, Rachel. She is well known for playing Beverly Harris, on the sitcom “Roseanne”, and its spinoff “The Conners”. She has been nominated five times for the Tony Award (four times for Lead Actress of a Play and once for Featured Actress) for her work in The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way, Morning’s at Seven, and The Velocity ofAutumn.
When someone discovers that I am an actor, at some point I am often asked, “How do you remember all those lines?” I sometimes wonder myself. Their question is often followed by, “I could never be an actor. I couldn’t memorize all those words.” I usually restrain myself from replying, “There’s more to acting than memorizing lines. There are hours and layers of work that take place before the words come from an actor’s mouth. There are years of training and suffering and doing jobs that barely pay the rent or buy food, and it is a lifetime of ups and downs and humiliation and elation at getting a job at all to have lines to remember in the first place.”
Like I said – I usually restrain myself.
Sometimes though it all does come down to remembering lines.
In 1997 I was asked out of the blue to do a private reading of a play called How I Learned to Drive at the Vineyard Theater. The remarkably beautiful and unsettling play was written by Paula Vogel. The role I was asked to read was Uncle Peck. He is the uncle to Li’l Bit, the narrator of the story. The reading went well. Afterwards there was little discussion, so off I went home to Philadelphia grateful to be asked to take part in something that felt quite special. I had no expectations of being asked to do the play. In fact, I felt too young for the role. But indeed, the invitation to play the role of Uncle Peck in the Vineyard Theater’s production came not long after.
I joined a terrific company of artists directed by Mark Brokaw. The wonderful cast included Johanna Day, Michael Showalter, and Kerry O’Malley. At the center of everything as Li’l Bit, was Mary-Louise Parker. For those who know Mary-Louise’s work on stage I probably don’t need to say more. For those who do not know her, and it is hard to imagine there are many people who don’t, Mary-Louise is a rarefied artist. Her dedication to living fully, truthfully, and deeply in the moment is an inspiration. Sharing a stage with her was one of the great gifts in my life.
There are three performances out of a play’s run that I am always relieved when they are over: the first preview, opening night, and closing night. When doing a play, actors try to create an imaginative reality for themselves and each other. The rehearsal hall becomes its own cocooned reality until tech rehearsals on the stage arrive and that becomes the new awkward and surreal reality. Just when the actors start to incorporate the actual set, lights and theater into their imaginative reality, the first preview arrives and a horde of people looking to laugh, cry and be wowed show up and now they are part of the reality. Closing night is just one long battle with not getting overly sentimental on stage because every moment is the last time you will be doing or saying, blah, blah, blah and for God’s sake can’t we just do our jobs without all of the mush.
Opening nights are the worst. Everyone you love is there, all of your representatives are there, all of everyone’s people they love are there, and if you thought the first preview was bad with all the expectations to laugh, cry and be wowed, opening night is over the top with expectations. Just to add to the tension, there might be some straggler reviewers in the audience hired to observe and comment about this unnatural evening. And so, on opening night, everyone on stage is supposed to forget all of that and pretend like it is just another performance. It is not just another performance. It is opening night.
On opening night for How I Learned to Drive everything went pretty well. It went so well, that in the scene where Uncle Peck is teaching Li’l Bit how to drive his Chevy I actually had the thought while delivering my lines to Mary-Louise, “This is going pretty well.”
As soon as I had the thought that everything was going pretty well, the line I was speaking to Mary-Louise completely and totally evaporated in my mouth. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I didn’t panic. I had forgotten lines before and it always worked out in some way. I had actually done a two-hour one person play not long before I was cast in How I Learned to Drive where I was completely on my own if I forgot my lines. That production had many of its own challenges and I had relatively successfully gotten through that. So, on opening night of How I Learned to Drive, confidant that if I just relaxed, took a breath, the lines would come to me. I relaxed, took a breath, and the lines didn’t come to me.
I looked at Mary-Louise hoping she would understand what was happening and come up with a line that could cue me and off we would go with the scene again. Mary-Louise stared at me in a way that I interpreted as, “You got yourself into this, get yourself out.” I felt abandoned. Many years later she told me that she was terrified and didn’t know what to do to help me. She felt terrible. Anyway, I misunderstood her and knew that I was utterly on my own. Again, I thought to myself that everything would be okay. Just breathe and relax.
In my mind I went backward in the play to see if I could find a line to start again on. There were no lines. It was a vast wasteland back there. I went forward in the play to see if I could find some lines there. Nothing but a mocking vacuum. That’s when I felt the tiniest seed of panic deep inside me. There had been nothing but silence on the stage for an eternity. The audience shifted in their collective seats unsure of what was happening in the scene. My mind was completely useless. The seed of panic sprouted so fast I could feel it threatening to take me completely over. So, I finally punctured the world of our imaginative reality, turned to the audience and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my line.” Then I called out into the darkness beyond the stage lights, “Is there someone who can help me?”
From where Mary-Louise and I were seated on the stage we could see the lighting booth illuminated behind sound-proof glass beyond the audience. When I asked if someone could help me with my lines the stage manager in the booth, the lighting operator, the sound engineer, all began leaping around, papers flying, trying to figure out how to get the line to me on the stage. I turned to Mary-Louise and said, “I’m sorry Mary-Louise.” I turned back to the audience and again said, “I’m sorry, it’ll just be a minute.” We waited.
Then a voice over a loudspeaker like God intervening called out Uncle Peck’s line. I called back into the darkness beyond the lights, “Thank you.”
I turned back to Mary-Louise, took a relaxing breath, and said the line. I stared at her. She stared at me. I could not for the life of me remember what came next.
I turned back to the audience and called again over their heads to the sweaty people in the lighting booth, “I’m sorry, do you mind telling me what the next line is?” From the loudspeaker boomed the words I was meant to say. Then, like an old steam engine struggling to pull its heavy load up a mountain, out chugged one line after another until the play was speeding along, and the rest of the evening was brilliant. When the worst had happened, or so it seemed what was there then to worry about?
In the reviews of the play there were no mentions of my blanking, so I assume there were no reviewers attending that night. My manager, agent and family were happily in attendance though. My manager during the endless silence and exchange with the lighting booth nearly had to be resuscitated in her seat. In the end it all seemed to work out. Paula Vogel won the Pulitzer prize for her work and many other awards came our way. So, in spite of, or perhaps because of what had happened, the people who had been a part of the opening night of How I Learned to Drive felt they had shared in an experience particularly unique to the theater. And I can tell you without a doubt – they had.
David Morsefirst came to national attention as Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison in the medical drama series St. Elsewhere. He has appeared on Broadway as James “Sharky” Harkin in The Seafarer and Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh for which he earned a Tony nomination. He also received acclaim for his portrayal of Uncle Peck on the Off-Broadway play How I Learned to Drive, earning a Drama Desk Award and Obie Award. He was slated to return to this role in a Broadway revival in the spring of 2020 that was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
David will appear in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, which also co-stars Colman Domingo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Heather Simms, Laurie Metcalf, Carrie Coon, Kristine Nielsen, Tamberla Perry and Annie McNamara and will air tonight, December 10th, through Monday, December 13th on Broadway’s Best Shows. Tickets available at TodayTix.com.
If it’s been a while since you dusted off your collection of classic Broadway albums, there’s nothing like a nostalgia-packed listening session to transport you to a simpler time. Hearing golden-piped leading ladies warble full-throated anthems while you attempt Jerome Robbins choreography in the privacy of your living room is a guaranteed fun evening!
And to make it even more festive, we’ve paired wines and cocktails with some of our favorite classic Broadway scores.
West Side Story
Based on Romeo and Juliet, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling scores in Broadway history. The star crossed love story is set against the teenage gang wars of New York City. The music covers multiple genres, from the Latin rhythms “America” and “The Dance At The Gym” to the beatnik jazz touches of “Jet Song” and “Cool” to the swooning romantic ballads “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere,” which have become standards. Our hero, Tony, is the son of Polish-American immigrants, and his love, Maria, is Puerto Rican. So, we suggest you make yourself two cocktails (it’s a long show after all)…
For Tony, pick up a bottle of Polish vodka. Belvedere, created from Polish Dankowskie Rye and quadruple-distilled, is an excellent choice when combined with ginger beer and elderflower in a Polish Mule. More adventurous palates should try Zubrowka, a traditional Polish bison grass flavored vodka that dates back to the 16th century and is delicious in a Grapefruit Thyme cocktail.
For Maria, choose a Puerto Rican rum. Don Q is the top-selling rum in Puerto Rico, and many locals claim it’s the best. Keep it classic with a Daiquiri or Pina Colada, or use an aged rum to make an unexpected take on an old-fashioned.
The Music Man
The tale of a charismatic con man selling fake hopes and empty promises to naive citizens of small-town America might hit a little too close to home at the moment… but if you have fond memories of glory days in your high school marching band, Meredith Wilson’s sunny, melodic score is an instant mood-lifter.
Full of rousing marches (“76 Trombones”), upbeat ditties (“The Wells Fargo Wagon”), and romantic ballads (“Til There Was You”), this appealing musical comedyis a nostalgic treasure featuring classic Americana touches such as an Independence Day celebration and even a barbershop quartet. The climactic scene where our leading man is unmasked as a fraud occurs at River’s City’s annual ice cream social. In that spirit, our listening party pairing for The Music Man is a grown-up, boozy ice cream float! Try a Boozy Cherry Vanilla Float spiked with vanilla vodka, a Whiskey Root Beer Float, a Blackberry Gin Fizz Float, or a Chocolate Stout Brownie Sundae Float.
Guys and Dolls
A musical adaptation of Damon Runyan’s short stories about Manhattan’s underworld in the mid-20th century, Guys and Dolls is chock full of colorful, whimsical tunes by Frank Loesser where gangsters, gamblers, nightclub performers, and other quirky characters all converge. When Gangster Nathan Detroit bets gambler Sky Masterson $1000 that he can’t get prim, proper, teetotaling Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission to join him for a night in Havana, hi-jinks ensue. Standout hits from the cast album include “Luck Be a Lady”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”.
The booziest moment in the show comes during the Havana escapade when the pious Sarah attempts to order a milkshake– and Sky asks the waiter to bring a Bacardi rum cocktail called ‘Dulce de Leche.’ This prompts one of the funniest lines in the show as Sarah becomes more intoxicated and exclaims: “You know, this would be a wonderful way to get children to drink milk!” Efforts to find a Dulce de Leche recipe in cocktail books from the 1950s came up dry– so it’s likely that the playwright was referring to a creamy Cuban rum drink, the Batido. However, in 2009 Bacardi created a new Dulce de Leche cocktail recipe in honor of the Broadway production that year; get the recipe here and shake one up!
And of course– if you’re suffering from a bad, bad cold after being engaged for 14 years, you could always forego the rum milkshake and go straight to one of these cold remedy cocktails instead.
The tale of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a professional busybody/matchmaker, has been a hit since Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play. It became a musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman in 1963, with a legendary leading performance from Carol Channing– and gained further immortality for the film version starring Barbra Streisand. And the most iconic scene is Dolly’s big return to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant in the title number when we see waiters rushing around the opulent dining room with Champagne buckets, floral arrangements, and crisp linens before Dolly’s entrance down that grand staircase.
For a beverage pairing as decadent as the scene, pop a bottle of Champagne! True Champagne is only made in the Champagne region of France, and it’s made with the utmost attention to care and craft… so it can command a premium price tag, but some things are #expensivebutworthit, and Champagne is absolutely one of those things! For an elegant brut style, try Besserat de Bellefon Bleu Brut, perfectly balanced between citrus, apricot, and praline tones. For something clean, lean, sleek, and mineral, grab a bottle of Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs. And rosé fans, Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose won’t disappoint with tangy and bright layers of fresh red cherry and raspberry flavors.
Set in the jazz age of the roaring ’20s, Chicago is a dark and stylish peek into the lives of Vaudeville chorus girls and ‘merry murderesses’ with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The plot is based on actual events of a series of high-profile cases in Chicago when attractive young women killed their husbands or lovers and got acquitted. The show is just as legendary for its concept and choreography by Bob Fosse as it is for memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, and “Razzle Dazzle.”
The cast album (the original and the 1997 revival are both excellent) immediately transports listeners to a sexy spot where the gin is cold… so elevate your listening experience by mixing up a Prohibition-era cocktail! There are much better gin options nowadays than Matron Mama Morton was likely brewing in her bathtub… so grab a bottle and mix up a Gin Rickey, a Bees Knees, or a Last Word. We’re partial to the Southside— a mix of gin, mint, lemon and simple syrup– which allegedly got its name from some 1920’s gangsters on the South Side of Chicago who created this cocktail to make their homemade gin more drinkable! A perfect pairing for a sultry night in.
Sarah Tracey is a certified sommelier, entertaining expert, and wine educator based in New York City. Whether teaching classes, creating custom beverage programming for corporate and media events, or exploring wine regions world-wide, she’s driven by her love for producers who make fabulous wines and are also mindful of our environment. With years of experience, knowledge, and a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, above all, Sarah is a fierce believer that wine should always be approachable, festive, and fun.
I’m a late bloomer. It wasn’t until I finished high school, graduated undergraduate school and worked in corporate America for 3 years that I “decided” to become an actor. By the time I started showing up in plays in Chicago, the growing question became “who is this NEW girl?” I know, because years later people would tell me that was the conversation being had behind my back…and not in a bad way. All that to say, I did not come from ANY type of training. Well that’s not true. My senior year at the University of Rochester, just prior to graduating with my degree in HEALTH and SOCIETY with biology requirements fulfilled and aspirations of becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I enrolled in a beginners acting class. I thought it would be an easy A and IT WAS NOT!!!! One “B’ later, I was annoyed I had not taken it more serious! But since it was not my life’s plan, I didn’t think too much about that class. Long story short, things changed.
Fast forward years later, I arrive at my first general audition with MPAACT theatre in Chicago. One of the cites oldest black theatre companies. That day they were casting for 2 shows in their season. I would leave one audition and head straight into the next. The assistant came out of the theatre “Tamberla, are you ready?” I walked into the space, head high, shoulders back and the confidence of someone who had just won the Tony. The director and Artistic Director were sitting in the theatre looking at my headshot and said “Thank you for coming in, what monologue will you be doing for us today?” “I will be performing a monologue from the play ‘THE WOMEN’. ” – Let’s pause here for a second. Now, if you know anything about the play The WOMEN, you know it’s an all WHITE cast and takes place in 1936. The monologue I chose was that of a 40 something year old Jewish woman from New York City with an extra thick accent. At that time, I was 24 years old and Black…I’m still Black btw! – We can unpause now. – I finished my monologue. There was a long pause – silence. I smiled proudly. I waited as the director looks at me; picks up my headshot, flips it over, looks at my resume, puts it down, takes off her glasses and says, “Don’t ever do that monologue again!” – – – – – – The dashes stand for silence, not a typo. – – – – – – – – – – What felt like 5 minutes of me standing there holding back tears was probably only 5 seconds, “and here’s why,” she said. She asked me did I understand the purpose of a monologue request at a general audition. I told her “not really.” She then explained how important it was for me to know my type and that this monologue did not give her any indication of who I was.
In that moment I was mad. I was sad. I was embarrassed, defeated and not at all interested in going to the second audition. She put her glasses back on and said “I have your information. I will email you some plays and monologues to think about. Thank you for coming in.” I gathered my things, walked out and smiled that faux “I killed that audition” smile to the other girls in the waiting room.
That moment helped shape my career in two ways. The first being, I IMMEDIATELY found a new monologue that much better suited me. The second was a lesson in paying it forward. That director did not have to sit me down and explain anything to me. It wasn’t her job and I doubt she had the time. But she MADE the time…and after I got myself together and realized she only wanted to help, I headed into that second audition with a new attitude……………….No, no I didn’t. I was still sad and actually bombed that one too. The point is, despite it feeling like the worst moment in the world, her candidness was one of the biggest blessings in my life, and to this day, when ever I get a chance to pay it forward…I do so, with pleasure.
Tamberla Perry is known for her extensive work in Chicago theatre with appearances in productions at Steppenwolf Theatre (Marie Antoinette, The North Plan, The Brothers Size / Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, In the Red and Brown Water), Goodman Theatre (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Race) and Lookingglass Theatre (Plantation!, Fedra: Queen of Haiti, Black Diamond) among others. Her television credits include APB, Dare Me, Suits, How To Get Away With Murder, The Good Fight and Bosch.
Tamberla will be recreating the role of Barbara in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue which she originated at the Public Theatre. Barbecue also co-stars Colman Domingo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Heather Simms, Laurie Metcalf, Carrie Coon, David Morse, Kristine Nielsen and Annie McNamara and will air this coming Thursday, December 10 – through Monday, December 13th on Broadway’s Best Shows.Tickets available via TodayTix.com.
In April of this year, just as the Pandemic was in full swing, I was approached to play King Lear in a zoomed, 90-minute adaptation, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday, and to raise money for the poor.
It was a daunting experience. Even though I was familiar with the text, having played him in two previous productions, I felt the need to have the text close by, requiring me to scroll the words on the computer with my right hand while making sure to keep my eyes focused on the little green dot at the top of my screen, that being the camera.
Also, whenever the actor is not in a scene, it behooves he or she to “mute” and “stop video”. The problem is remembering to “unmute” and “start video”. Too often, an actor forgets, and this becomes one of zoom’s frequent mishaps. In the live theater, to offer good luck, we say “break a leg”. In the world of zoom, we say, “forget to mute”.
Choosing the right virtual background is yet another challenge. A green screen becomes an essential component, along with a ring light. Most of the time, zoom works best with each actor shares the same background. However, there are exceptions to this. My wife, Malgosia Tomassi, created different backgrounds for each character in our recent zoomed production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, each color representing the essence of their particular character. For example, my Big Daddy had a purple backdrop. What I have discovered about his new medium is the degree of concentration required to give a successful performance. We, the actor, become our own camera and sound man. Depending on how close or far away we are from the screen, we establish the nature of the shot. Also, I have learned that 1) glasses are the enemy as they cause reflections that block the eyes; 2) the actor must be so familiar with the text that “wandering eyes” are avoided, and the actor can look straight into the camera. In my recent zoomed version of Hughie, one of my favorite characters, having played him at LAMDA in 1965, the National Theater in London in 1980, and now on zoom, I discovered that the essence of zoom theater is a hybrid cross between live theater, film, and television. Hopefully, zoom theater will become an anomaly of the present, and that we will be back in the live theater in the near future.
An Embarrassing Moment
The year was 1969. It was my Broadway debut playing Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit’s Indians. On opening night, I galloped onstage, enveloped in my imaginary horse, and due to my jitters, yanked back so hard on the horses’ reins that I snapped his paper mâché neck! Profoundly embarrassed, I had to think fast! What to do?
Somehow, I managed to “get off” or “get out of” my horse, took his drooping head in my hands, came forward to the apron of the stage, and delivered my opening speech. I was mortified!
However, some weeks later, I was greeted backstage by a fan who informed me that, “I was here opening night. What happened to that wonderful moment when you snapped the horse’s neck?!!”
Almost immediately, my embarrassment and shame were alleviated!
Stacy Keach, one of our most distinguished stage actors, made his New York debut in “Macbird” for which he won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award. His Broadway debut was in “Indians”, for which he received a Tony nomination and a second Drama Desk Award, and his Broadway credits include “Deathtrap,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Solitary Confinement” and “Other Desert Cities”. For the New York Shakespeare Festival he played the title roles in “Peer Gynt” and “Hamlet”, for which he won an Obie. He was also the recipient of an Obie for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. His many notable films include “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Fat City”, “The Long Riders”, “American History X” and “W” among many others. Known as the definitive Mike Hammer from the successful television series, Keach won a Golden Globe Award for the television mini-series “Hemingway”. He is an inductee in the Theatre Hall of Fame.