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Authors: Boze Hadleigh

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That production took in the largest amount of money for a single week of any show until that time: $409,884, at the 2,699-seat Pantages Theatre in January 1981. Rachel had intended to grab the newspaper headlines for herself and in so doing remind the town and industry of the Landis suicide. But her Hispanic gardener didn’t show up to discover her body on the appointed day, and the LA coroner, despite Roberts’s precautions, didn’t at first believe it was suicide. After all, she was in her fifties, and British.

: Was Irving Berlin the greatest-ever Broadway composer?

: He was one of the all-time greats, and one of few, like Cole Porter, who wrote both words and music. As a pianist, he wasn’t good and played only in one key, F sharp. Nor did he actually
his music; he dictated tunes to an assistant. He’d become a composer via misunderstanding: when asked to deliver a
, the Russian (born Israel Balin) thought he also had to compose the melody.

Berlin lived long enough—1888–1989—to become a legend in his own time, but early on wasn’t that universally esteemed. When Berlin, a Jew, married Ellin Mackay, she was expelled from the Social Register, whose editor sniffed, “Irving Berlin has no place in society.” Berlin’s wife’s eighteen-year-old sister lived with a Nazi diplomat and undiplomatically showed off her charm bracelet with a diamond swastika to her brother-in-law.

Berlin, who wound up agnostic, composed America’s most widely played secular yuletide song, “White Christmas,” and the most popular Easter song, “Easter Parade.” He also created “God Bless America,” whose royalties go to the officially homophobic Boy Scouts of America (the British-founded group’s UK branch is not anti-gay).

: Who made the most money from a play in the shortest time?

: Noel Coward claimed to have dashed off
Private Lives
(1930) in a few days. Anne Nichols wrote
Abie’s Irish Rose
(1922) in three days (in her
twenties). The “sentimental comedy” supporting religious tolerance (a Jewish-Irish couple) broke Broadway’s record for longest-running play and held it for fourteen years, though for three years producers had declined it. Nichols eventually used her own house for collateral to help finance her play. Though she’s barely remembered today, the
New York Times
recorded in 1962 that
Abie’s Irish Rose
“brought its author spectacular fame and fortune, earning her more money than any single play has ever earned a writer.”

: When did music become more than mere entertainment on Broadway?

: One of the benchmarks was December 27, 1927, in
Show Boat
, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, when the first-night Manhattan audience got a shock that made several gasp: the curtain rose on a chorus of sweating black stevedores loading cotton while singing, “Niggers all work on the Mississippi. Niggers all work while the white folks play.…” The two Jewish artists confronted theatergoers with an aspect of American life that they’d preferred not to think about, let alone paid to learn more about. The musical, which dealt with interracial love and became an instant, often-revived classic, was based on the novel by best-seller Edna Ferber (
So Big, Giant

: On a lighter note, what about musicals and swimming pools?

: Though
Miss Saigon
boasted an actual helicopter, it wasn’t until 1952, in
Wish You Were Here
, that a swimming pool was put onstage in a musical. Alas, most critics found it shallow. Conversely, the first musical to take place
a swimming pool—at Yale—was the Burt Shevelove—Stephen Sondheim adaptation of
The Frogs
, an ancient Greek classic which most critics found too deep.

P.S. The first musical to feature electric light was
, in 1888, with personal supervision by Thomas Edison.

: Who was the unluckiest American stage performer ever?

: It had to be Laura Keene, a renowned actress with her own company. Her biggest hit was
Our American Cousin
, of which a benefit for her one-thousandth performance as Florence Trenchard would take place on April 14, 1865, in Washington, D.C. The event would include the farewell performance of “clown consummate” Harry Hawkes as Asa Trenchard. Since the recently ended Civil War, theaters had reopened, and this gala occasion would find President Lincoln and his wife, Mary, in attendance.

The comedy was heartily and gratefully received. Laughter erupted after Asa bawled, “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man trap!” At that moment, the door behind the presidential theater box opened while the guard assigned to the Chief Executive was in the bar drinking whiskies. Disgruntled actor and Southern fanatic John
Wilkes Booth aimed a .44 derringer at Abraham Lincoln’s head and fired once at point-blank range. Booth then jumped down to the stage, shocking the actors into petrification while much of the audience wondered if this were a planned entertainment. Despite a leg injured in the dramatic leap, Booth got away—for the time being.

Lincoln’s assassination ruined the career of Laura Keene, one of the first American women to head an acting company. She and her company were punished via guilt by association. John’s brother Edwin was forced into temporary retirement. Theaters across the country were closed, and hundreds of actors lost their livelihoods, as preachers and newspapers denounced the entire profession as heading for hell. As recently as the 1960s when actor Ronald Reagan ran for California governor, his rival proclaimed that, “An actor killed Lincoln.”

After Lincoln died, before dawn, Laura Keene and her fellow actors were arrested for conspiracy. Although Edwin Booth later made a comeback, Keene tired of fighting the taint of Lincoln’s assassination. Her fortunes dwindled in her remaining eight years, and she briefly found work as a lecturer, dying of consumption in 1873 at fifty-four. One of Keene’s theatrical innovations had been spending significantly on advertising. J.H. Stoddard, a popular actor of the era, deemed her “the greatest stage manager I have ever known.” In 1867 she was one of the first American managers to encourage native talent by offering the then-considerable sum of $1,000 for the best play written by an American.

P.S. John Wilkes Booth’s violent action hurt numerous individuals outside of the theater, as well. One was a Dr. Mudd, at whose home the fleeing assassin stopped to have his broken leg set. Mudd had no idea who Booth was or what he’d done. But after the episode came to light, the doctor was imprisoned for life, his sentence eventually commuted because of his services at the jail during an epidemic. The innocent physician’s predicament gave rise to the popular expression, “Your name is Mudd.”

: Who is or was the most sexual personality on Broadway?

: Some may have matched director-choreographer Bob Fosse in quantity, but no one probably surpassed him. Richard Adler, composer of
Damn Yankees
, stated, “There is nobody who knows anything about Fosse who doesn’t know about his sex life. He made it very public; he just didn’t care. How he portrayed himself in [the film]
All That Jazz
is playing down what he was really like. This man was sexually insatiable!”

: Was
the musical really as bad as they still say?

: On a superficial level,
resembled a more recent teen-centered movie-into-musical,
. Of course, the latter doesn’t have a blood-spattered heroine or a religious-fanatic mother whom she offs by fadeout.
’s unlikely source was Stephen King’s 1974 novel, made into a hit film in 1976. Betty Buckley, the movie’s kindly gym teacher, enacted Carrie’s monster mom in the Broadway musical twelve years later.

was the most expensive flop in Broadway history, losing $8 million for its British and West German investors. First performed in England, it originally starred Barbara Cook, who had the insight or luck to bolt the production pre-Broadway. (Reviews were terrible, and a stage accident reportedly almost decapitated her.) Cook had been attracted by the music. The Broadway reviews, even worse than the British ones, focused more on the plot and dramatics than the score or the elaborate staging.

The show aimed too (non-) squarely at the MTV crowd rather than average theatergoers, and didn’t have time to find its audience, nor for word-of-mouth to spread.
played less than a week—reserve funds to keep it running had already been eaten up. Theater historian Ken Mandelbaum observed
’s jarring mix of “often breathtaking sequences and some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical. It alternately scaled the heights and hit rock bottom … and unlike so many flops, was not dull for a second.”

: When was Broadway’s golden era?

: The 1920s was the Great White Way’s most exciting, pioneering, and booming period. America’s participation and victory in “the Great War” (World War I) provided energy and optimism. Prosperity had reached the masses, and there was a building boom. Over seventy-six “legit” theaters were in operation, with more coming. During the hot and humid summers Broadway all but closed down, except for girl-and-comedy revues like Florenz Ziegfeld’s
. Yet in 1927 alone, there were 268 openings. Tickets ranged from fifty cents to five dollars, and a show was a hit if it passed one hundred performances—producers and investors had a one-in-three chance of success. Plays and musicals didn’t have much to fear from movies, which were still silent.

But Broadway differed from other U.S. theatrical venues due to being part of Manhattan Island’s expensive real estate. From way back, theaters have had to compete with other sorts of land use. Thus Broadway was and is primarily a commercial theater. Its acknowledged goal is profits first, art second.

Regarding art, it was in the ’20s that plays and musicals moved into the modern era. Stage realism and naturalism in acting developed rapidly, partly thanks to the enormous impact of the visiting Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski, the “Method,” Russian actors who remained in America to coach, and American disciples like Lee Strasberg would influence Broadway (and also Hollywood) acting for decades to come, and still do.

By Any Other Name

• The record-breaking hit
Abie’s Irish Rose
was presented in Los Angeles, pre-Broadway, as
Marriage in Triplicate

• Joseph Kesselring’s comedy hit
Arsenic and Old Lace
was earlier titled
Bodies in Our Cellar
and was a thriller before producers Howard Lindsay and Russel [sic] Crouse helped give it a lighter touch.

• After terrible reviews greeted Nunnally Johnson’s Broadway play
The World Is Full of Girls
, he reportedly sent a telegram to producer Jed Harris: “Change title immediately to
” Except that “Girls” opened some nine months earlier!

would likely have been a smash hit whatever its title, but it began as
Away We Go!
(after the square-dance call, not Jackie Gleason’s catch phrase); based on a non-musical poetically titled
Green Grow the Lilacs
—not a hit—“experts” believed it was doomed because it featured a murder and was the maiden effort of the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter had experienced a string of failures, but collaborating with Rodgers completely changed lyricist Hammerstein’s luck.

• The title
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
was a graffito found in a Greenwich Village men’s room by playwright Edward Albee; he did seek widower Leonard Woolf’s permission to use the late writer’s name. (Early on, producer Richard Barr overheard one playgoer telling another after the show, “Well, I loved it. But why did they call the wolf Virginia?”)

The Seagull
features a stuffed seagull perched on a bookcase, per the playwright’s stage directions; Noel Coward, no fan of Chekhov and particularly not of
The Seagull
, once said, “I hate plays that have a stuffed bird sitting on the bookcase screaming, ‘I’m the title, I’m the title, I’m the title!’ ”

• “My
show was
Everybody Loves Me
(1956). I shouldn’t have set myself up like that. Hardly anybody loved it. That was
the end
.”—producer M
in 1970 (he produced
Born Yesterday
in 1946 and had four concurrent hits during the 1933–34 season)

Fatal Thespians

assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865 in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. For many years he was the only actor to have murdered somebody in a theater. The only actor to have been murdered just outside a theater was William Terriss, popularly known as Breezy Bill, a hero of melodramas. He was killed in 1897 outside the stage door of London’s Adelphi Theatre by a small-part actor with an imagined grievance against the star.

Terriss’s friend, the even more popular Henry Irving—the first actor to be knighted, in 1895—bitterly and accurately predicted, “Terriss was an actor—his murderer will not be executed.” Justice for actors in those days was unlikely, if at all.

No actress has ever killed in a theatre. However, not long after women were allowed to perform onstage—Shakespeare’s female roles were, of course, written to be enacted by males—two British actresses did get down and dirty. Elizabeth Barry (1658–1713) and Peg Woffington (1714–1760) each nonfatally stabbed a rival actress.

Another fatal fellow was Irish actor Charles Macklin, born in 1700 or earlier. He died in 1797 and last performed in 1789. Apparently peaceful at home, he was quite cantankerous at work. He once caused a “violent disturbance” just by appearing on stage, and another time indirectly caused a riot via his friends’ aggressive support. When another actor once borrowed a wig of Macklin’s without permission, he poked the offender in the eye with his cane, which penetrated to the brain and killed the colleague.

BOOK: Broadway Babylon
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