My Favourite Broadway
I lied to Jason Robert Brown.
As I exited the signing event at Barnes and Nobel for the release of the cast recording of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, I touched his arm and, when he looked at me, I told him “In 35 years of seeing Broadway shows, nothing has affected me the way this show did.” He thanked me. I think he was sincere. I think he heard my compliment. Oh, the lie? 34 years, not 35. I tend to round up.
The summer that I was sixteen, I saw my first show on Broadway. My daddy picked it for me. I asked if I could please, please, please see a Broadway musical. He read The New Yorker and decided the best show for me to see was a musical called They’re Playing Our Song. For this, I am, forever, in his debt. He was, of course, entirely correct. The show was perfect for me and my love affair with Broadway was on. In a few weeks I will turn fifty. That’s only thirty four years of Broadway shows but, oh, what memories I have collected in those years. My friend, Michael, once told me that Joanna Gleason’s performance in INTO THE WOODS is one of the five greatest performances he has ever seen on Broadway. I am given to superlatives and extremes but even I cannot limit my list of great moments to five. I can, though, make a list of the moments and performances that remain in my memory after 34 years of seeing shows on Broadway. Here, in (mostly) random order, they are:
THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG: it was my first. It set the tone for a lifetime of theater going. Robert Klein’s comic timing and charm was mesmerizing. Lucie Arnaz was a revelation. I can still remember my excitement at the end of the title song with her sitting up on the back of the booth in that red fringe dress.. but most especially, I remember how it felt when she was singing her Act One closer and the phone rang – how she paused and, with a flourish from the orchestra, she left the stage and the curtain fell. I learned, that night, you have to leave your audience WANTING to come back after intermission, NEEDING to know what happens next. I was breathless with anticipation.
Joanna Gleason in INTO THE WOODS: This ranks as one of the all-time great performances of Broadway. Thankfully, it was preserved on film. Pat and I were on vacation in New York and we saw 13 shows in one week. We saw this play, with the original cast (except for Bernadette Peters, who was replaced by Phylicia Rashad), from the second row. It was a perfect day in the theater. Joanna Gleason captured our hearts on that day and, afterward, at the stage door, we met her and asked her to sign our poster. We told her she would win the Tony in two weeks. We just knew that she would. In many ways, this trip to the theater changed our lives.
Cherry Jones in THE HEIRESS: This was a complete Broadway experience. The play, the sets, the costumes, the cast — Frances Sternhagen, Donald Moffat and Cherry Jones. The first performance after Cherry and Frances won Tony awards, too. I had never seen this play and, frankly, I don’t need to see it ever again. I have SEEN The Heiress. In my mind, I can still see Catherine Sloper sitting at the window doing her needlepoint, throwing out her arm to stop Mariah from opening the door. I can still hear her say “Bolt the door, Mariah.” I can still see that long, straight – spined, dignified and determined walk up the staircase. I will never, ever, in this life forget this experience.
Dennis O’Hare in TAKE ME OUT: I had actually been watching Mr O’Hare work for a few years and fallen in love with his talent along the way, declaring him to be my favourite New York stage actor. When Pat and I went to see this Greenberg play (a favourite author of Pat’s) I watched an entire theater full of people fall in love with him, too. When we left, I knew he would be a Tony recipient and, indeed, he was. And worth it, so worth it.
Chita Rivera. Period. Since moving to New York I have seen every Broadway appearance Miss Chita has made. Not one time has she not thrilled me, from my first play on Broadway after moving here, Kiss of the Spider Woman to Drood, the last time I saw her onstage. I will admit that A DANCER’S LIFE destroyed me. I wanted to be a dancer but I didn’t have what it took. Still, in my heart, I am a dancer. So, to listen to a legendary dancer tell stories about her career, to watch her recreate the dances from that career.. I was on the floor, holding myself up by the chair in front of me. Each experience in a theater with Chita Rivera makes me a better, a happier, man.
Christopher Plummer in BARRYMORE: My favourite famous actor, ever, doing a one man tour de force as John Barrymore. He had me in the palm of his hand. Years later, on film, on my birthday, he still had me in the palm of his hand.
Deborah Cox in JEKYL AND HYDE: I was bound to be enthralled with this performance because I AM a Deborah Cox devotee – I think she is a great singer, a wonderful actor and a flawless beauty. I was not, though, prepared for this. The second week the show was on Broadway, the diva is singing Someone Like You and she gets to that moment near the end of the song “…and I’d feeeel so aliiiiiiive!” — She stopped. The orchestra stopped. Her voice echoed through the airplane hangar sized theater like a siren and people began to cheer. I will never forget it, ever.
Kate Burton in HEDDA GABLER: The day of this show I was so depressed. I just couldn’t go see another Hedda. I couldn’t. I was dreading it. About seven minutes into the great American actress’s performance, I laughed. Five minutes later I laughed again. I kept laughing. I leaned in to Pat: “She’s FUNNY.” He whispered back “Hedda Gabler is a comedy.” Until Kate Burton, I had no idea.
Donna Murphy. My diva. My friend. Every time she sets foot on a stage I am starstruck beyond explanation. And I miss nothing, if I can — some various benefits and concert performances, you know. My personal favourites have been off Broadway in HELEN and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE but on Broadway, I was starstruck by THE KING AND I and her elegance and I was beside myself by WONDERFUL TOWN, which allowed Donna to use all the parts of her brilliant and inimitable talent. The woman is one of those things: a One and Only.
Antonio Banderas in NINE: Nine was my favourite musical since I was 19. I got it. I still get it. I feel it more with every passing year. I never saw Nine until the revival, when my husband got me tickets for my birthday. We were in the second row. When the play started, I began to cry and I don’t think I stopped until the houselights came up at the end of the play. Until this point, in my life, I had never had a male actor onstage communicate a role so perfectly to me. This was a fully, completely realized performance. The acting, the singing, the natural charisma (a Guido without charisma is no Guido) – I was even able to look past the fact that Banderas sounds so Spanish, as opposed to Italian because it was a simply perfect night in the theater, headed up by a simply perfect performance. Memorable, to this day.
DEATHTRAP: I was 17 years old. I knew nothing about this play. I liked the logo on the poster. It looked interesting. I loved to read Christie mysteries. I bought a ticket in the first row. Farley Granger grabbed Ernie Townsend with a garret and down they went. When they came up, there was blood all over Ernie Townsend and the audience was screaming. I have still never recovered.
Deathtrap remains, to this day, one of my favourite plays (and movies, too, though I do consider it a flawed adaptation). The set for the Broadway production set the bar for my judgment of every set since. That afternoon in the theater set the bar for a LOT of things in my theater going judgments. Standing on the sidewalk outside the theater after, I bumped into, both, Ernie Townsend and Marian Seldes. I said hello to both and both were very friendly to me.
Years later, after a performance of HELEN at the Public Theater, I saw Marian Seldes in the stairwell, heading for an elevator. As she passed, she smiled. I said to her “When I was seventeen I saw Deathtrap.” She flourished and said ” I KNEW you were going to say that!” I told her what it has meant to me and she gave me her deepest curtsy. Then, with a flourish of her shawl, she disappeared into the elevator. My husband can back this story up, by the way. God bless Miss Seldes and God bless Deathtrap.
Michael Sheen in AMADEUS: The film version of this play was the first movie I called my favourite, as an adult. I always thought I got it, always thought I understood it. Not until Michael Sheen played the role of Mozart in a (actually, not very interesting) revival on Broadway did I, really and truly, understand the character and the reasons he went insane. For the illumination Mr Sheen provided me, into the man and the play, I will be forever grateful. It helped me to understand a little bit of the madness that lives inside my life as an artist, too. That’s not nothing.
Patrick Breen in THE NORMAL HEART: Everything about the revival of The Normal Heart was emotional and wonderful. Absolutely everyone and everything. However, I will never forgot a moment in act two when an actor who has spent last twenty years I have been in New York working as a New York actor, sometimes namelessly, stepped into the spotlight. This man who appears onstage, in films and on tv, who remains a working actor, respected by the community, but not widely known to the public. In Act Two of The Normal Heart, he went off on a tirade and delivered a monologue so impassioned and enflamed as to make me cry. I was honoured to be standing at the crosswalk after the play and to have him walk up beside me. I try to speak to strangers of the famous (to whatever degree) caliber as seldom as possible. I could not resist myself that day. I turned to him and just blurted out how wonderful he was in the play just now and I kept moving. It’s nice to validate people to their face.
Karen Mason in WONDERLAND: Every now and then, along comes a role that is perfectly suited for an actor. I’ve seen my girlfriend on Broadway each time she has landed on Broadway, except for seeing her play Norma Desmond, which I was unable to make happen. I am always astonished by how much talent this girl has because it doesn’t seem like one person should be allowed to have that much talent – and yet, there is Karen Mason. When the artwork for Wonderland went up, I took photos of the enormous pictures of Karen out front and waited, with anticipation, for the opening night. I didn’t make it there on opening night but I got there and I was giggling in my seat over her interpretation of The Queen of Hearts. The fact that anyone could wear those heavy costumes, alone, is worthy of note – but the song Off With Their Heads is the perfect song to show anyone what a star is and what they do. I often find the clips on Youtube and watch them and giggle again. Divine.
Danny Burstein in FOLLIES: I’ve been loving this man and his work since a revival of COMPANY in the 90s. He is always extraordinary; and why not? He’s just that good. However, his Buddy Plummer was a revelation to me in D.C. and again on Broadway four times. I had been a fan of Follies since 1980, when I first discovered the musical; and, although I had seen productions of the show before, I had never seen the showstopper Buddy’s Blues done the way I had always seen it in my mind. Until Danny Burstein. Finally. Finally. Finally. Thank you, Danny.
Kathleen Turner in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and HIGH: I am devoted to Miss Turner. She is, always has been, always will be, a part of my life. She changed my life. None of that has anything to do with how she reached inside of me and showed me about myself, about the way I see life, about the way I look to others, about the way I would like to eloquate myself and my struggles, with her performances in these two plays. I wish Miss Turner was given the respect that she deserves by the show business community and, especially, the New York entertainment community. Her performances in these two roles (and I have seen all of her New York appearances except Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was before I moved to NYC) were master classes in how it is done.
Betty Buckley in TRIUMPH OF LOVE: The lady is one of my idols, one of my divas, one of my inspirations and she always has been. Every performance she gives thrills me and holds a mirror up to me about what it is to be an artist, about what it takes to be an individual, creating something worth showing. Her work in this play, though, stands out for me as the most heart wrenching, most vulnerable, most humourous, most invested I have ever seen. Her commitment to all the parts of Hersione is the kind of commitment to which all artists should aspire. If you were there, then you know of which I speak.
Judi Dench in AMY’S VIEW: I remember sitting in Judi’s house seats and being transfixed by her every move, every word, every sigh. There were other people onstage with her but I’m not sure I looked at any of them, once. There is this moment, at the end of the play, where Jude is sitting at a dressing table, doing her makeup for a performance; after that, she stepped into a little box on the floor and someone poured water over her head. The clean, bright, white honesty of that moment lives in my memory. I want to be that clean, bright and white. Only with brown eyes instead of blue.
Laura Linney in TIME STANDS STILL: I view this lady as the Julie Harris of her generation. She can make no wrong move. (ok, so maybe she made a wrong move in an infamous Hedda Gable in the 90s but not since). What did it to me in Time Stands Still was her portrayal of a photographer struggling with real life, her work, tragedy and her personal life. I will never forget it for, as a photographer, I have, too, had these struggles. When one character said they thought her photos were beautiful, she replied “I think they’re beautiful too but I’m their mother”, I burst into tears. That moment will live inside me forever.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE: An artist, I have always had an attachment to this play. I feel like it speaks to the part of me that struggles to do something that is my own, the part of me that struggles for success and doesn’t get it. I love and I live Sunday in the Park with George.
When the revival came to Broadway (the only way I saw the original was on PBS and DVD), Pat and I rushed off to see it from the second row of the mezzanine, front and center. I was so excited! As the play started, the two Long Island matinee blue hairs were talking in full voice and, unable to stop myself, I turned on them and said “I BEG you to stop. During this play, PLEASE don’t talk. Don’t ruin this for me.” And they shut up. Of course, I felt badly after that because they had to listen to me sniffle and weep for the entire performance. Fuck ’em: those actors were there for me, and nobody else.
Weeks later, my friend Mitchell gave me the ticket he was unable to use. Front row. Dead center. I sat and watched the show, again, weeping. This was a particularly emotional time for me because I had left behind my cameras, tired of the struggle, tired of the rejection, and was no longer making pictures. Moved by this storytelling, I was a complete and total wreck. The cast most have noticed it because almost every one of them looked down at the weeping dude in the front row, during the curtain call, and gave me a special nod, particularly Jenna Russell.
Rebecca Luker in NINE: I love this woman so much. I have seen almost everything she has done onstage since I moved to New York (I missed Death Takes a Holiday) and I simply adore her. Her Marian the Librarian is a particular favourite of mine. When I went back to see (for a second time) what has, since the early 80s, been my favourite musical, Rebecca had replaced Laura Benanti as Claudia Nardi. I had enjoyed Miss Benanti in the role but I had also felt like she was a little young for the part. I believed that she was missing a certain quality in the role that a star of Claudia’s stature needs. Gina Lollobrigida had it. Claudia Cardinale had it. Capucine had it. Catherine Deneuve had it. When Rebecca Luker came out as Claudia Nardi, she took the stage, threw back her shoulders, flipped her hair, beveled her foot and hit a pose worthy of dragging a mink. Claudia Nardi had arrived and I was in heaven.
When I took Tom backstage before the show, to drop off some cookies for Rebecca (with whom I had been exchanging emails about doing a photo shoot) she was running around in her Claudia drag, being silly with the doorman, in big pink foo-foo slippers. It was a juxtaposition I will remember, always.
HAIR: What is there to say about the revival of Hair that the people who saw it haven’t already said? It was a perfect moment in time. Not like a production of a play, really, but like a happening. It was like it was happening in real time, each of the three times that I saw it. It was always spontaneous. It was always real. It was always thrilling. Each of the three times I saw it I was with people I loved. Two of the three times I saw it I danced on the stage at the curtain call. Two of the three times I saw it, there was a snowstorm happening outside. One of the three times I saw it I danced with Megan Reinking in the box, house right, during the Electric Blues number. One of the three times I saw it I and my companions might (I say might.. I can neither confirm nor deny it) have been a little high. This theatrical experience is one for the record books.
Eric Roberts in BURN THIS: Since the day I saw this play it has been my favourite play. I have other favourites but this is special. The insane set. The musical underscoring. Lisa Emery and Lou Liberatore. The crackling Lanford Wilson dialogue. Every. Bit. Of. It. However, Eric Roberts had replaced John Malcovich and I have to say, I cannot see anyone else in the role. His performance was filled with his wonderful individuality, his odd mannerisms and personal ticks, his unique physicality. I can actually still see his movements and hear his voice patterns, in my head, decades later. The poster he and Mr Liberatore signed for me at the stage door hangs in my home office, to this day.
Kate Baldwin in BIG FISH: Every Norbert Leo Butz experience is a great one. I have never not been entertained by him, so I knew that I was going to enjoy this play (which I did, in the extreme, particularly his final number). I did not know, though, that I was going to fall in love in the process. I had missed of Miss Baldwin’s other shows and this would be my introduction to her magic. I was delighted, then charmed, then mesmerized. However, when she sang I Don’t Need a Roof, she captured me, forever. That voice. That face. That emotion. I was completely undone. There was also the fact that the lyrics of the song were so personal to me that it could have been me singing to my husband. So I did. I sang this song, in lieu of saying vows, when I married Pat in New Jersey.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN: I never saw Death of a Saleman before. I never read it. I didn’t know it. I went to see Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Franz and Kevin Anderson in the revival of the play and I will never need to see it again. I don’t care who is in it. That’s that.
PRIVATE LIVES: Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, Noel Coward, the set from the Gods and One Enormous Hat. You don’t get over that.
Laura Benanti in GYPSY: My husband and I are devoted to The Benanti. All that she does is gold, it’s gold, it’s gold. HOWEVER. When we left the performance of Gypsy, I was wide eyed and breathless. I said to Pat “She’s going to win a Tony… for playing LOUISE. NOBODY wins a Tony for playing LOUISE. NO BODY.” But when you redefine a role and make it completely, totally, entirely, your own.. you deserve a Tony.
THE SCOTSBORO BOYS: This was brilliance in every way. The concept, the score, the choreography, the actors. My husband sacrificed and sent me to see it alone because we only had enough money for one ticket. I live Kander and Ebb and he wanted to make sure I saw it. It was one of the greatest gifts I ever got. I will remember it, forever, especially Joshua Henry singing You Can’t Do Me and the great John Cullum doing the cakewalk. As evil as the emcee.
Ellen McLaughlin in ANGELS IN AMERICA: Make no mistake. I remember every moment of this experience. Kathleen Chalfant’s performance alone takes up so many gigs in my mind; but add to it Jeffrey Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Misters Spinella and Mantello, David Grant and F. Murray Abraham (who I see onstage as often as I can, for it feeds my soul). I remember doing standing room only for the last performance with this cast — Pat and I, alongside Mr Kushner — and thinking “the man beside me chose to put those words together to make that sentence” and being unable to contain myself. Pat and I still, on occasion say “credit cards” with our hand outstretched like Cynthia. We still add “You son of a bitch” to sentences, like Kathleen. We remember, so vividly, this trip to the theater. I have to admit, though, that I still have not recovered from that moment when my heart leapt into my throat as Ellen McLaughlin came crashing through the ceiling and that light hit her as Stephen Spinella looked toward heaven and heard the words “THE GREAT WORK BEGINS!” Blackout.
INHERIT THE WIND: This is my husband’s favourite play. When it is in town, we see it. The first time was the Charles Durning George C. Scott revival. It was a straight forward presentation of a great play and the chance to see these two great American actors together was not lost on me. What I remember, especially, is that, from our seats, far house right, we could see into the wings of stage right. Upstage, hidden by a masking flat, we could see Mr Scott, sitting, awaiting his first entrance. He rose, and was, visibly, shaky (we would learn, later, that he was ill). Just watching him prepare to walk onstage gave us, both, thrills. As he stepped onstage, he pulled himself up to his full height, stopped shaking, and entered, strong, to spend a couple hours giving a stellar performance. Unforgettable.
Years later, there was a revival which was directed in a much more interesting, exciting manner, starring Brian Dennehy and my favourite famous actor, Christopher Plummer. We were broke at the time and couldn’t afford to see the show. I was leaving town for a week and, while I was gone, the play would close. I prioritized and decided I could not let this chance slip by us. On the day before I was to leave town, I walked over to the theater to get Pat a single ticket. I had every penny I had saved for my travels in my hand, in cash. The man at the box office had two tickets, side by side, in the eighth row. I decided to just risk it and, hands shaking, I handed over the cash for the tickets. I cried all the way home.
When we entered the theater and were shown our seats, Pat said “these didn’t come from TKTS” and I just smiled and released it to God.
When Christopher Plummer came on, I cried. During the curtain call, Pat cried. I could not be happier for having spent that money. Priorities.
Carol Channing: I only saw Carol Channing once. A few times, but once. She was doing a revival of Hello Dolly. My mother was so excited to see THE Dolly. My mother is excited about nothing. She was so excited, for weeks she talked about going to see Dolly. It was THE Dolly. The ORIGINAL Dolly. She was so excited. When Carol Channing lowered that newspaper, my mother was the first to applaud. When the title song was over, my mother was the first to applaud. When Carol Channing came out for her curtain call, my mother was the first on her feet. For the joy that she gave my mother, I will, forever, bless Carol Channing. For myself: I get it now. I never saw Hello Dolly before that day. Not really. Once I saw this production, I got it. I saw Thornton Wilder in Hello Dolly. That potato puff scene? I’ll never recover from that. So Long Dearie? I’ll never forget it. Thank you, Carol Channing.
FORTUNE’S FOOL: I love Alan Bates. I love Frank Langella. I’ve seen most of the plays Mr Langella has done in New York (he is so very wonderful, particularly in this, FROST/NIXON and Present Laughter) but not all of them. This was my one and only chance to see Mr Bates, whom I had loved since I was sixteen. They were so very different in this play, from their characters, to their acting styles, to their performances. I was prepared to dislike this Russian play that I was destined to not get and not follow but their combined performances created something so magical that I couldn’t help but love it, remember it and regard it as one of the good nights on Broadway.
Bernadette Peters: I always wanted to see Bernadette Peters. It took a long time til it happened. When it did, finally, it had been worth the wait. The lady is special. Each time I see her, live, I am impressed and excited. I was talking to Brady about mind altering theater and we remembered the day we sat in the fourth row, dead center and watched Miss Peters in GYPSY. Mind altering theater. One day, in the Barnes and Noble, I saw Bernadette Peters looking at cookbooks. I was with Brady. I stepped up beside her and asked if I might whisper something in her ear; she replied “of course”. I told her about mind altering theater and how she had moved us. She said thank you and smiled and I ran away.
Her performance in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is one of the most memorable, greatest, biggest master classes in the proper combination of instinct and craftsmanship anyone could ever hope to see. Some people say funny lines. She says lines and they become funny. How do you make “I’ve got to do Hedda for a week in Helsinborg” and make people laugh? She knows how. Go, girl.
Bob Mackie in THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE GOES PUBLIC — I happen to have loved this show. At no time did it come out and say “We are Shakespeare and we are intellectual.” It was rude, crude, crass and tacky — and I loved every minute of it! The score, the production, the choreography, the performances. A fan of fashion, I was (particularly) excited by a fashion show that took place in Act Two: the whores appeared, one by one, in time with an ongoing vamp, dressed in the Mackie-est of Mackie costumes, and paraded their looks for the audience. They were dressed for a courtroom hearing, head to toe in black and white suits and hats and the highest heels any girl could hope to walk a runway in. Each girl who appeared through the break in the curtain downstage left drew gasps from the crowd. I was just in heaven.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: I was very much against it when I read that Brian Bedford was playing Lady Bracknell. Well. I was wrong. He was perfect. In fact, it may have been the best Earnest I have ever seen. I adored everyone in it, thought they were all exceptional (particularly Santino Fontana who, in a matter of years, has become one of my top fives) and the entire evening simply marvelous.
BD Wong in M BUTTERFLY: There are no words. Literally, no words. You had to be there. Thank God I was.
MARY POPPINS: Sue me. I love magic. I love children’s literature and I love Mary Poppins. I love Gavin Lee, I love Rebecca Luker and I love Ashley Brown. I appreciated this show for all it was meant to be and every time Mary Poppins flew, I was like a five year old. When she flew out over the audience, they practically had to carry me out of the theater.
Helen Reddy in BLOOD BROTHERS: This lady was the first singer I ever loved. Misses Streisand, Minnelli and Garland all followed suit, quickly; but my mama listened to Helen Reddy and what my mama loved, I loved. I idolized this lady my entire life. So when she came to Broadway to do the play Blood Brothers, I was BESIDE myself. The first (of five) night that I went, in the dark, she began singing and I felt a shiver go through my body and it was as though I had died and gone to heaven. I’ve seen Helen in concert a few times since, as well as seeing her play Shirley Valentine in summer stock. Nothing will ever compare to that first time I saw her, live. What a freakin thrill.
Stockard Channing in PAL JOEY: Pat and I never miss a Stockard Channing play. NEVER. Now, this production was pretty much criticized. I couldn’t see why – Stockard and Martha Plimpton was astonishing. The rest was fine. Not astounding, not terrible: fine. Enjoyable. Really enjoyable.
When Stockard Channing settled into bed in a purple teddy and gown and sang Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, I felt like she had read my accounts of my love affair with a man 14 years my juniour and channeled them all into that performance. It was, completely, that Roberta Flack song Killing me Softly. Like WOW.
And speaking of Like WOW. Stockard Channing in this play. How gorgeous. HOW gorgeous. I was like “HOW old is that chick, anyway?” Gay man heaven alert.
STATE FAIR: This wasn’t a groundbreaker. It was R&H rehashed, something recreated from an old movie and some of it felt like a bus and truck tour. HOWEVER. I second acted this play about five or six times. Why? Because in act two Scott Wise sang and danced and a little while later Miss Donna McKechnie sang and DANCED. And THAT, my friends, is why we live in New York… to see the very best do what they do.. the very best. Still, I can see these two giants moving about that stage, in my mind.
Mercedes Ruehl: I’ve seen Miss Ruehl in so many things that I can’t remember them all. What I can point my finger to on Broadway is the opening moments of THE ROSE TATTOO, which I will never forget. Her entire performance was stunning but to have Ennio Morricone’s THE MISSION playing over loud speakers as a dim pink light rises on Mercedes Ruehl, looking into the heavens, fanning herself slowly, is to experience heaven. And then, the final moment of THE GOAT… To see Mercedes Ruehl drag a bloody sack center stage, throw it on the floor and look at Bill Pullman, as though to say “Ok, fucker, take THAT.” is to experience hell. Divine.
AN INSPECTOR CALLS. Good play, good actors and all that jazz. THE FUCKING HOUSE WAS UPSIDE DOWN, IT OPENED UP AND IT THUNDERSTORMED ONSTAGE!!!!! That’s all.
CABARET: Sometimes it isn’t just about the production, it’s about the whole experience. We saw the original Sam Mendes revival in the Henry Miller’s theater with the original legendary cast, from one of the cabaret tables, while sitting next to Mr and Mrs Paul Newman. Everything about the production was mesmerizing, naturally, starting with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson. When the play ended I couldn’t breathe. The audience ovation was instantaneous. As everyone screamed and shouted and applauded, Paul Newman turned to my husband and looked at him. Pat said “WOW.” and Paul Newman said “I KNOW, right??!!”
When Cabaret moved to Studio 54 we returned to see it for one reason and one reason only: to see our friends, the great Carole Shelly and the luminous Susan Egan, as Fraulein Schneider and Sally. Their performances helped to add to the treasure of memories and happiness brought to us by this extraordinary work of art.
Idina & Kristen in WICKED: I didn’t know anything about Wicked until I went to see it. I didn’t read the book and I didn’t follow the hype. I had never seen Idina before, though I had followed Kristen’s meteoric rise with glee, having known during STEEL PIER that she would be a big star.
If you have seen Wicked then you can understand why I was hyper-ventilating and crying at the end of Act one. And why I was weeping and jumping up and down at the end of Act two. This is a great play. It is great, all the way, round (even if some of the Fyiero’s cannot remember their lyrics a year or two later). Any woman who plays either of these roles has to have some serious chops — but the originals.. well, nothing beats those girls. And, forever, they will live in my heart.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE: It made me happy. Every single moment of it. It made me happy. Every person in it made me happy. That is what musical comedy is for. It made me happy.
SWANLAKE: I saw my friends Ben Wright and Theo Clinkard in the MatthewBourneSwanLake and I have never been so happy to have my heart broken. All who saw it will say the same thing. This was heaven on a Broadway stage.
Tyne Daly in MASTER CLASS: This lady, I worship. This is one great American actress and I can always watch Tyne Daly and be happy. What I want to say about Master Class, and all I need to say about Master Class is this: when I saw it wit Zoe Caldwell (who was lovely), I didn’t like it. I didn’t dislike it – I just didn’t like it. When I saw it with Tyne Daly I GOT it. I mean, I REALLY got it.
INDISCRETIONS: The thing about Indiscretions is that I don’t remember everything. I remember that I really enjoyed it, I remember that I was thrilled to be seeing Kathleen Turner, I remember that Jude Law was gorgeous, I remember that it was appalling and naughty and sophisticated and terrible (good terrible, not bad). But what I remember most of all is the amazing Cynthia Nixon, who I had loved since Amadeus, coming down that wicked spiral staircase, at the top of the second scene, in that curling red wig, saying “THAT is AMAZING.” I can hear her, to this day.
XANADU: This was just fun. Just fun. It happens that my husband and I were in our teens when Xanadu came out in the movie theaters, so we have some frame of reference. Natch, we were going to enjoy it. But we didn’t know we were going to enjoy it so much that we would insist on going back, two weeks later, for the final performance, willing to pay full price for the honour! We might have (I can neither confirm nor deny this) been a little high at that performance. Either way, both trips to Xanadu remain among our favourites in a theater.
Marin Mazzie in RAGTIME: We can never go back to before. If you saw it, you know. If you have listened to it on the cast album, you know. Ragtime, itself, was an epic journey for me. I was so excited to see it, one week before the Tonys, from Lynn Ahren’s houseseats (for which I will always be grateful). I was a ball of emotion, the entire night. However, I had listened to the cast album and envisioned Mother on the beach, barefoot, her hair down, her mood relaxed and softened. To see it play out in the manner in which I had seen it in my mind was such validation…and Marin Mazzie brought it home to my heart, at full steam. I am very grateful.
Lynn Redgrave in SHAKESPEARE FOR MY FATHER. I think that everyone has a Redgrave whose voice they, especially, hear. I love Vanessa Redgrave but some idolize her. I loved Natasha Richardson but I know that Brady was always left breathless by her. There was Corin, there is Gemma, tthere was Michael…there is a Redgrave for everyone. Lynn Redgrave was mine. I tried to always see her, live, and I had the great honour to see Nightengale, just before she died. When I first moved to New York I had the chance to sit in a theater with my husband and watch her self penned tribute to her father, Michael and it was a love letter, not just to him but to herself, to Shakespeare, to the theater and to all who love any of those things. We still quote this play in our home.
Audra McDonald: I haven’t seen Lady Day yet. I had to give my ticket to my husband because I booked a gig and when the work comes, ya gotta take it. So I haven’t seen it and I will have to, when I get back to New York. But I love this girl. I’ve always loved her, from Carousel to now. I remember how magical she was in Carousel and how she has eaten every stage, since. But do you know what stays in my mind, every day? “I think you’re a good man, Coalhouse.” I hear it, almost every day.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER: I didn’t really enjoy this play as much as I think I was meant to. I didn’t really go with them on this wacky telling of what I consider to be a serious piece. It was good. I enjoyed the music. BUT what really got me was an actor whose name I don’t remember, playing the ukele and singing Go Slow Johnny in a way I had never heard before. And I don’t ever want to hear it any other way. I managed to score a bootleg and I listen to this man sing this song, every day. It is a part of my life, daily. Isn’t that what artists want?
Christopher Sieber in SHREK: I’ve seen Christopher do the leading man and the character roles. I’ve seen him in drag and I’ve seen him in armour. I’ve seen him do just about everything. THIS, though, is what will, forever, set him apart for me. Playing a cartoon character in a cartoon I don’t really care about (enjoyed but don’t care about) in a play I enjoyed but was destined to not really care about (it being based on a cartoon and I not caring for animation), he grabbed my heart, my attention and my funny bone and held on for dear life. He still has it. Years and hours, acting and singing on his knees – that’s acting. The bathtub scene. OMG.
BOEING BOEING: Ouch. My face still hurts.
Karen Ziemba in CONTACT: Oh, the controversy over Contact! Still.. who cares? I loved it and, especially, Karen Ziemba. She lifted my heart and then she broke it. SHE is SPECIAL. The final moment of her vignette is burned in my mind.
Melissa Errico in OLIVER! Since I’m a little boy, I’ve loved this musical. I saw the movie a hundred times. I listened to cast recordings, the movie soundtrack, saw regional productions, a production in London and never did I see a Nancy that I felt was all mine. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Shani Wallis. But when I saw Melissa Errico, in a one night only performance at the Shubert theater in Shubert Alley, I was satisfied. I finally saw the Nancy of my dreams. Everything about this Nancy was just right. And I had been waiting a few decades for her. I was so happy she had finally arrived.
Constantine Maroulis in JEKYL AND HYDE: I didn’t really follow this man’s career. I knew who he was but I didn’t pay much attention. When he sang This is the Moment I rose up out of my seat, giddy with excitement. I never heard any man sing that way, live, before. In that moment, he had a fan for life. After the show, backstage to see Deborah Cox, I passed him and told him he was so good and he was super friendly. That’s the way a star behaves. Friendly to a stranger. Constantine Maroulis, I will remember you.
ORPHANS: I don’t know how to describe what it was like to see this play on Broadway except to say that I was weeping when the curtain fell; and it was due, entirely, to the work of Alec Baldwin, Tom Sturridge and (particularly, for me) Ben Foster. It was one of those nights in the theater where the building burns down.
Reba McEntire in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN: Honestly. It was the greatest casting stunt I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect marriage of role with talent. People may have thought it was stunt casting but, really, all it was was perfect casting. This goes up there with Joanna Gleason on the list of the most perfect performances of all time. I’m sorry for anyone who didn’t see it.
WOMAN OF THE YEAR: I saw it one year with Lauren Bacall and was mesmerized. It was sheer star power in what (for the time) was an incredible and intelligent musical (today, some will call it dated – I still love it). It was at the Palace theater and it was glamourous, sexy, smart, sophisticated. A year later I saw it with Raquel Welch and, though different with the new leading lady, it was still all that it was before. It remains, to this day, one of my favourite theatrical experiences, all round. And then. There was. Marilyn Cooper. Few things, before or since, have matched it. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes onstage and it was she, entirely, that the audience talked about when leaving. I’ve never, before or since, been in a theater where someone made the audience laughter continue to build until it was a cacophony. It is burned in my memory. Now, thanks to Youtube, it can be burned in yours.
Liza Minnelli: My diva. I’ve seen her live ten times. Four of those times was Liza’s at the Palace. To be seeing this diva who seems to be able to reach every emotion and every reach in my heart, in that glamourous venue, was every thrill in the book. I actually saw her there, before, in Minnelli on Minnelli, and when the mirrors parted and she stood upstage center, I burst into tears. I think I hyper ventilate and burst into tears every time I Liza makes her first entrance in a show. This show, though, was just the perfect mixture of classic Minnelli, new Minnelli and Minnelli tribute. I am grateful, to the enth degree for this experience.
Sutton Foster: My husband and I adore this lady. It’s hard for us to pick a favourite. Each time we see her we love her more – he, particularly, if she walks onstage and he hears the sound of taps. She is special and we hear her music. I will point out two things that stand out in my memory – one physical and one spiritual. In Drowsy Chaperone, the one handed cartwheel. Why it thrills me, so, I don’t know – but it did. And in Anything Goes, there is a moment, during the title song, when everyone is singing and dancing around her and she stops for about two counts of eight and just takes it all in – the stage, the dancers, the lights, the audience; and in that moment we see what pure joy looks like. I long for that moment in my life. I has happened once or twice – usually because of my husband; but I would like to know what it feels like to get there on one’s own. I think I felt it the day People Magazine did a story on me and the day I passed the ACE exams. I want to live in that moment forever; and thanks to Youtube and Sutton Foster, I can.
Julie Harris: It was just a production of The Gin Game with Charles Durning. I was there with Pat and Mama and Daddy. But it was us seeing the greatest American actress of her generation, my sometime penpal and onetime model. My friend, Julie Harris, as Fonsia. That’s enough. It’s enough.
PIPPIN: I grew up with Pippin. I found the cast album when I was thirteen and, not even grasping what it was about or what made the music complex, interesting or sophisticated, I knew that I loved it. So when the revival came to town I was most anxious to see it. My job kept me away and then it won all these Tonys and I was sure I would never get a ticket. But you make it happen. You prioritize. Well let me tell you. It was one of the nights of my life. Patina Miller, with whom I had fallen in love in SISTER ACT was sheer perfection. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise were giving the performances of their careers. Matthew James Thomas was breathtaking and Rachel Bay Jones – talk about reinventing a role. And then there was Andrea Martin — What can I say about Andrea Martin in this role? Astounding.
But it doesn’t stop there. What an ensemble of performers, of acrobats, of dancers and singers and gymnasts and just fireflies all over the stage. This ranked as one of my all time best nights in the theater. So much so that I went back again just to see…
Tovah Feldshuh: My husband and I adore this lady. She is a lady and a star and not one New York show have we missed. Hard pressed to pick a favourite, I would want to pick Golda’s Balcony or Irena’s Vow but no. I choose Pippin. Something happened the night we saw Tovah that I have never, ever, seen before. After her number Time to Start Livin’, the play’s action stopped so that the audience could ovate Tovah for over a minute, maybe ninety seconds. And that’s a really long time for a play to stop for a standing ovation. Tovah even started to cry. Now. THAT you don’t forget. Ever.
Flash forward a few months and I am at PIPPIN again – this time for my fiftieth birthday. There, an almost entirely new cast took me on an new journey. The lead player was now a lady named Ciara Renee who had her own outlook on this role and she had me sitting forward in my seat; the new Pippin was Kyle Dean Massey who put a completely different spin on the part that was fresh and illuminating. The role of Charlemagne was being played by the original Pippin, John Rubinstein, who happens to be brilliant in everything he does; and the Berthe at the time was Miss Annie Potts, who gave me the most heartwarming Granny of the batch. I was so happy to see Rachel Bay Jones and Erik Altemus in their usual roles and an understudy named Molly Tynes was on for Charlotte d’Amboise (who I adore) and she, too, put her own spin on her role. How exciting that producers don’t make a show a cookie cutter, always to appear the same – I was in laughter and tears on this third viewing. I can’t wait for the fourth!
Angela Lansbury: This is the actress whose work has meant the most to me, throughout my entire life. Angela Lansbury has always been there for me. Thanks to Bedknobs and Broomsticks, at the age of eight, I began to investigate this brilliant actress at an early age. So I was seeing movies like Gaslight and Mister Buddwing long before I was to, fully, comprehend what they were about. I was not living in New York during the eras of Sweeney Todd or Mame (certainly not Anyone Can Whistle or Dear World) but I had to live, as an adult, with the knowledge that my husband had seen my idol live, when GYPSY toured through Dallas. I was hoping that, one day, I would see Angela Lansbury live. Thanks to her devotion to the theater, I have seen her in every show she has done on Broadway in the last twenty years (except for The Best Man, which scheduling conflicts prevented). Suffice it to say: each time one sits in a theater while Dame Angela is on the stage is a blessing, a miracle; and the audience member must take time out to thank God. It is, without question, one of the great joys of this life, each and every time that an audience member takes the chance and buys a ticket.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY: I have blogged about this play twice. I started a third after my third trip to see this play. I had, as I said before, the chance to tell Mr Brown the truth: no musical, no play, on the Broadway stage has ever done to me what this one did. I know that a lot of factors went into my love of this show, beginning with the source material and the ensuing film; then there is Marsha Norman’s seamless script, the beautiful sets and supporting cast, Barlett Sher’s direction… but, at the end of the day, without Jason Robert Brown’s songs and the incomparable performances by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Together, they used the different parts of Robert and Francesca that live inside of me to blow me apart, the three times I saw this play and every time I have listened to the cast album. This one is probably going to be the one that, for the rest of my life, I say was my favourite.
If I were writing a story about my most memorable sights in New York theater, I could include things like Vince Gatton in David Johnston’s play CANDY AND DOROTHY, Pat Dwyer in 100 SAINTS YOU SHOULD KNOW, Gale Harold & Blythe Danner & Carla Gugino in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, Judith Ivey in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Brian d’arcy James & Julia Murney in THE WILD PARTY, Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn in TEA AT FIVE. And if this were a story about all the theater I’ve seen in my life, I could mention Donna McKechnie in a New Jersey production of FOLLIES, Maggie Smith in a London production of THE LADY IN THE VAN, the touring company of GRAND HOTEL or Diane Lane in a Chicago production of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. This is, however, a story about Broadway and I’ve been writing for days. I feel like I’ve mentioned every show I’ve ever seen but the truth is, this doesn’t cover half of the things I’ve seen on Broadway since the age of sixteen. I’m sad that (traveling and unable to refer to my ticket stub collection) I haven’t been able to remember more wonderful moments on the New York stage but I have all the time in the world to re live the memories and to make new ones. I’ll be back in New York in two weeks and I already have plans to see BEAUTIFUL, MOTHERS AND SONS and KINKY BOOTS.
I heart NY.
That. I do.
(This story was written the day of The Tony Awards 2014 and posted on Facebook. Since that day, I did see Beautiful, Mothers and Sons and Kinky Boots and they were all extraordinary nights I will remember, always. Next up: Lady Day!!)