Necrology, 2019: Actors and Theatre Personnel


By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.

I. Actors

Carol Channing - Hello, Dolly

Carol Channing, 97.
It was common when I was young to hear people lamenting that Channing didn’t get to play Dolly Gallagher Levi in in the movie of her most famous stage musical. Had those people seen Thoroughly Modern Millie? (Had the Academy, which gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for it?) With her popping eyes, elaborate wigs, wide mouth, facial tics, grand gestures, deliberate baritone (sometimes bass) singing voice, and teasing, outsized persona, Channing’s affect was less feminine than that of a drag queen with a uterus. On stage, as Dolly, she probably seemed ingenious; in her few screen roles and with the camera capturing each grimace and moue and the mike picking up every nuance of her kewpie-doll gushing Channing was, like Ethel Merman (another absurdly outré performer these same ignoramuses used perpetually to cite as “wasted by the movies”) a freak, lacking only the appurtenances of the side-show. With her character in it limited to dialogue only (or better still, re-cast) and with no elaborate musical numbers to show her off her freak attributes, Millie might have emerged as a minor comedy classic rather than the pleasant but overblown (and, because overlong, tiring) exercise it became.*

Kaye Ballard - The Golden Apple resized

Kaye Ballard, 93.
Ballard (née Catherine Gloria Balotta) was another Broadway freak, with a huge voice, a good range, and, in comedy, an arch performing style perhaps best suited to TV farce like The Doris Day Show and The Mothers-in-Law, where she played her excited volubility against Eve Arden’s dry acerbity (although the plots were strictly from I Love Lucy.) Yet her appeal was considerable — she was more human than Channing — and when she got her teeth into a great, sultry ballad like the Jerome Moross / John La Touche “Lazy Afternoon” in The Golden Apple, she could be incandescent, even hair-raising. Her tandem act with the treasurable Alice Ghostly in the original, Julie Andrews-starred 1957 Cinderella, in which the pair sang the knowing “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet, remains indelible. Another splendid Ballard recording: “There’s Always a Woman”, a bitch-fest cut from Anyone Can Whistle which Ballard performed with the great Sally Mayes on the Unsung Sondheim album. The way she rolls the word “delicious” off her spiteful tongue is a vest-pocket tutorial in how to get the absolute, zesty most out of a tiny line reading.

Was Ballard a Lesbian? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., “Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?”

Julie Adams, 92.
Adams was fine in a very good 1953 James Stewart Western, Bend of the River, but, cultural memory being what it is, will likely be remembered longest for being menaced, in a white one-piece, by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Albert Finney, 82.Albert Finney - Tom Jones

Although he walked away from Lawrence of Arabia before it began, Finney triumphed as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the hilariously earthy 1963 adaptation by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson; the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still among the most paralyzingly funny sequences in post-war movies. As adept at comedy as he was at drama, Finney was also as devoted to the stage as to film, ever returning to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Feydeau, his true métier. He could be subtle or hammy, as required, and his conviction was total; even in the veriest trash he is never less than watchable. Among his best movie performances: Opposite Audrey Hepburn in the time-shattering Stanley Donen/Frederic Raphael dramatic comedy Two for the Road (1967); a delicious Ebenezer in Scrooge (1970); unrecognizable as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974); the conflicted, and increasingly frightened, police detective of Wolfen (1981); the agonizingly obsessive husband in Shoot the Moon (1982); the Donald Wolfit-inspired “Sir” in The Dresser (1983); the doomed, alcoholic British consul in Under the Volcano (1984); the unsinkable Irish mobster in Miller’s Crossing (1990); as Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1994); the paterfamilias of Sidney Lumet’s astonishing final feature, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007); and, movingly, the unbowed ancient caretaker of Skyfall (2012). In 1975, he performed an amusing cameo in Gene Wilder’s spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. It’s difficult for me, who grew up watching him, and who cherished his presence, to imagine to a world without an Albert Finney in it.

Jan-Michael Vincent. 73. Jan-Michael Vincent resized
Once both disarmingly attractive, and charmingly amiable (
“Danger Island” on The Banana Splits Show, The World’s Greatest Athlete, Bite the Bullet, Big Wednesday), later a victim of alcoholism and diabetes, Vincent ended up a bitter, angry and staggeringly homophobic single amputee. A sad ending to a once-promising career.

Beverley Owen, 81.
The original Marilyn on The Munsters, for them as cares. Which I don’t. Why did I post this? Because I care about you

Katherine Helmond, 89.Brazil - Katherine Helmond

When she played the perpetually confused Jessica Tate on Soap, one puzzled stare into the camera by this woman, perfectly timed, was enough to put me on the floor. She had her best movie role as Jonathan Pryce’s cosmetically-obsessed mother in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Gilliam’s depiction was prescient; we’ve since witnessed 35 years’ worth of women, and men, whose every gaze into a mirror must include a profoundly disorienting lack of immediate recognition.

Denise Nickerson, 62. Remembered by moviegoers of my generation as the obnoxious Violet in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Seymour Cassel, 84.
Active largely in American independent movies, especially for John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams) he also had roles in more mainstream pictures such as Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The Last Tycoon (1976), Valentino (1977), Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Indecent Proposal (1993).

Georgia Engel
, 70.
With her slightly breathless, baby-doll voice, zany logic and sweetly expressed forthrightness Engel, a late addition to the cast, was an endearing  Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and, later, Ray Romano’s mother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.)

Peter Mayhew
, 74.
Mayhew was the man beneath the mask and the shaggy, bandoliered body as Chewbacca in five Star Wars pictures and, like so many giants (he had Marfan syndrome), a gentle soul.

Barbara Perry, 97.
A reliable character actor known for her series performances (The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Bewitched) Perry earned her immortality in the Ross household as the first Pickles Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Peggy Lipton
, 72.
I’ve never been happy my friend Michael Dorfman committed suicide, but I’m slightly relieved he’ll never have to hear of the death of his first big TV crush.

Harvey Korman, Tim Conway

Harvey Korman and Tim Conway in a segment of the recurring Kenny Solms and Gail Parent soap-opera spoof “As the Stomach Turns.” Korman is the hilariously Yiddish-inflected Marcus, Conway The Oldest Man. (AP Photo/CBS)

Tim Conway, 85.
The Carol Burnett Show didn’t really need Tim Conway; it was funny enough already, and a much more devastating blow than Conway’s never being on it would have been the loss of Harvey Korman (as time eventually proved) or even Vicki Lawrence. But Conway, in his recurring guest appearances, gave the series some of its funniest, and most memorable moments… particularly when the rest of the cast was reacting to him on-camera. What most civilians didn’t know (a friend and fellow young actor complained to me when we were both 12 that the people on the Burnett show were “unprofessional”!) was that Conway, like Nancy Walker, merely walked through rehearsals; what we were seeing on the air the cast was also seeing for the first time. And while his actions were certainly devious, and perhaps a little sadistic, the break-ups became part of the shtick of the show. My father used to relish the way Conway broke Korman up, and he wasn’t alone; their double-act became one the classic running-gags of 1970s American television. In addition to his Oldest Man character, which he’d performed in his nightclub act with Ernie Anderson Conway also contributed to the show his phlegmatic Swedish businessman Mr. Tudball (a character he created), forever battling Burnett as his inept secretary Mrs. “A-Wiggins” and once, in the soap spoof “As the Stomach Turns,” had a memorable slow-motion fall down a staircase. (Conway always knew exactly how, and where, to put the button on any physical gag.) He also, infamously, got broken up himself by Lawrence during one of his elongated, un-scripted interpolations, an agonizingly pointless anecdote about a “Siamese elephant.” As with Jonathan Winters, whom in his improvisational genius Conway in some ways resembled, his gifts were never fully employed, or appreciated, in his movie work, although he developed a third double-act on-screen, this time with Don Knotts. Those pictures are variable, but Conway’s work on the Burnett show is evergreen and, quite literally, peerless. There was no one like him.

Sylvia Miles, 94.
Brash personality more than actor, Miles was a hard-edged Sally Rogers in the Carl Reiner pilot Head of the Family which eventually became (with, blessedly, Rose Marie in the role) The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won the first of her two Oscar® nominations as a kept woman who ends up taking not sex but money from Jon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and her second for her boozy, blowsy loser in Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Miles famously dropped a salad into the lap of the critic John Simon, a comestible that grew to become all manner of hefty dishes in her retelling. Miles also starred, with Joe Dallesandro, in Andy Warhol’s 1972 Sunset Boulevard spoof Heat. Didn’t Warhol get that Sunset Boulveard was a black comedy to begin with?

Max Wright, 75.
An idiosyncratic and often very funny character actor (Reds, Simon, All That Jazz) Wright found his greatest fame in the aggressively stupid alien-puppet situation comedy ALF, and is now associated solely with tabloid sleaze-stories about his addictions and sexual encounters with homeless men. Sigh.

Arte Johnson, 90.

Arte Johnson and Ruth Buzzi

Tyrone F. Horneigh (Arte Johnson) and Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi) in their accustomed spot on Laugh-In.

Remembered almost solely for his run on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he introduced such indelible characters as a German soldier who seems not to have noticed that the War had ended years earlier (“Very interesting…”) and Tyrone F. Horneigh (pronounced, in a sop to the era’s network standards and practices, as “Horn-eye”), the degenerate old man who plunked himself down on the park bench occupied by his unwilling inamorata Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi), rasped indecent nothings to her, and was rewarded by a smack with her handbag, eventually toppling off the bench while intoning some dopey “punch”-line. It was a predictable, one-joke running-gag… and, especially if you were an 8-or 9-year old as I was, a very funny one; the only Laugh-In character I imitated as often as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine was Johnson’s Tyrone.

Freddie Jones, 91.
Onstage Jones was the originator of “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, and while he appeared in movies as divergent as Marat/Sade and Far from the Madding Crowd (both 1967), The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968), Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula (1973), Juggernaut (1974), the delightful John Cleese/Chekhov short film Romance with a Double Bass (1975), Ladies in Lavender (2004) and seemingly countless British films and television series, he stays most vivid in the theatre of my mind as the abusive, terrifying ringmaster of the 1980 The Elephant Man.

Maude - Arthur and Macy

Bill Macy, 97.
God finally got you for that, Walter.

Rip Torn, 88.
Famously widowed by Geraldine Page (the bell on their New York apartment read “Torn Page”) and older cousin to Sissy Spacek, Torn once attacked Norman Mailer with a hammer (well, which of us at one time or another wouldn’t have liked to?), allegedly pulled a knife on Dennis Hopper (again, who didn’t want to?) and was a notable drunk. And while he appeared in prominent or supporting roles in movies such as Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Tropic of Cancer (1969, as Henry Miller), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nasty Habits (1977), Coma (1978), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1969), Cross Creek (1983, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®), Men in Black (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) he was infinitely less interesting an actor than his wife and cousin. Machismo is a fucking bore.

David Hedison, 92.

Live and Let Die - Hedison and Moore resized

Live and Let Die: When David Hedison’s voice emerges from an automobile accessory, Roger Moore’s James Bond observes, “A Felix lighter.”

Immortal in some circles as The Fly (1958), Hedison was the most congenial of Felix Leiters, twice: Live and Let Die in 1973 and License to Kill (1989) in which he first married, then suffered the fate Ian Fleming devised for the character in the novel Live and Let Die. (“He disagreed with something that ate him.”)

Russi Taylor, 75.
The curse of having the longest-running animated series in television history is that over time your voice actors tend to die. Taylor was a Simpsons stalwart from the beginning, providing the voices for the twins Sherri and Terri, the German exchange student Üter and the conniving nerd Martin Prince.

Fonda family

The Fondas: One of the creepiest family snapshots in post-war Americana. Everyone (except Jane) is pointedly not looking at anyone else, and she will spend the rest of her life trying to please Daddy by repeatedly marrying him.

Peter Fonda, 79.
The less-talented of Henry’s children, Peter enjoyed his greatest success with the appallingly overrated Easy Rider in 1969, in which, as co-scenarist and co-star of this annoying, pretentious, self-indulgent mess, he bore much responsibility for the subsequent inundation of numbingly bad “youthquake” movies that washed up on shore in its wake. Considering the profoundly dysfunctional family from which he sprang, I am unsurprised to have discovered that Fonda, enraged at President Trump’s immigration policies (very little different from Obama’s) Tweeted that, “We should rip Barron Trump from the arms of First Lady Melania Trump and put him in a cage with pedophiles.” (He also “suggested that Americans should seek out names of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in order to protest outside of their homes and the schools of their children.” – Lisa Gutierrez, The Kansas City Star) Thus was Fonda a typical liberal, trumpeting his concern for others while wishing harassment and rape on minors. Imagine his outrage had anyone suggested such things about the Obama daughters, or the children of Obama’s officials. But then, I guess the children of prominent figures are only off-limits if their parents are perceived as liberals. On the subject of Millennials voting, to parents concerned their children might cast a vote for Trump, Fonda’s advice was to “take their early ballots, fill them out [emphasis mine] and mail them in, or take the ballot to the voting place and give it to the officials… no more worrying!” I think we can easily imagine his reaction had his father suggested such a thing in, say, 1968. But as I’ve often said (and tire of having to say): Scratch a liberal, find a fascist. (Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for Fonda’s Tweet advocating paternal voter-fraud.)

Anna Quayle, 86.
Warmly recalled by musical aficionados for her Tony® award-winning performance in the Newley/Bricusse Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, Quayle was also the women with whom John Lennon has a funny dalliance on the stairs in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the child-hating Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and as the maid of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

Valerie Harper, 80.

Rhoda - Kavner, Harper and Walker

The Morgensterns of Rhoda: Find the Gentile. (Hint: There are two of them.) Nice Hanukkah decorations, by the way. Love that menorah.

Adults of (ahem!) a certain age will vividly recall their first glimpse of Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, washing the windows of the Minneapolis apartment she thought was going to be hers on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 and memorably sparring for the next seven years with Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom. Her subsequent spin-off, Rhoda made her, arguably, the most famous Jew on television, but Harper was a Gentile. (So — and please brace yourself—was Nancy Walker.) Although Rhoda was never as good, or as respected, as the show that spawned it, it was sometimes gut-bustingly funny (it helped if you relished Jewish humor, which I did, and do) and Rhoda’s wedding was the highest-rated television episode of the ‘70s before Roots.

Carol Lynley, 77.
Lynley, who was strikingly pretty, had a tendency to extreme emotionality (Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) but in the right role (as Darren McGavin’s grounded girlfriend in the 1972 television movie The Night Stalker for example) she could be quite engaging.

Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green

Phyllis Newman, 86.
Newman won a Tony® for her comedic role in the Jule Styne/ Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Subways Are for Sleeping, a spread in LIFE magazine, and Green’s undying love. (They married soon after and were together until his death.) Newman’s character appeared in a nothing but a towel the entire evening, and her 4-minute solo “I Was a Shoo-Inwas a comic goldmine. I also cherish the way she introduced “Who’s That Woman?” in the 1986 concert version of Follies; when Newman says, “If I do this number… we all do this number!” there can be no argument.

Dihann Carrol - Julia resized

Julia: Dihann Carroll with Marc Copage as her son.

Diahann Carroll, 84.
The first black performer to win a Tony® for Best Actress (Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, 1962) Carroll was also in the movies of Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and had the lead in the Broadway musical House of Flowers whose rich Harold Arlen/Truman Capote score included the exquisite ballad “A Sleepin’ Bee.” From 1968-1973 she was the young widowed mother Julia for NBC, often cited as the first non-stereotyped black woman on television. (Although Carroll herself said Julia was “the white Negro.”) But it was a sweet series, often poignant and sometimes very funny, as in this exchange between Julia and her new employer (Lloyd Nolan as what Harlan Ellison would have called “a crusty-but-lovable doctor”), with whom she has been placed by an agency:

Julia: Did they tell you I’m colored?
Dr. Chegley: What color are you?
Julia: Why, I’m Negro.
Dr. Chegley: Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?

Rip Taylor

Rip Taylor, 88.
Two Rips loosed in one year! Taylor’s shtick — the toupee, the flamboyant (read, “screaming queen”) persona, the confetti — was so over the top you either roared, or rolled your eyes and switched channels. I often roared.

Michael J. Pollard, 80.
From Bye Bye Birdie on stage to Bonnie and Clyde on screen is quite a leap, and while Pollard lacked the physical attributes ever to become a star, he was always engaging, even when, as in Bonnie, he was practically a moron. (While Beatty infamously vetoed the manage David Newman and Robert Benton wrote into their Bonnie script, which would have involved Pollard, had his objection been aesthetic rather than cowardly I wouldn’t have blamed him.) Pollard later had a charming role in Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne and an unexpectedly moving one in Scrooged (1988).

Joan Staley, 79.
A model and an actor, Staley will always occupy a warm chamber of my heart for her delightful performance opposite Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Philip McKeon. 55.
McKeon replaced Alfred Lutter after the pilot as the son in television’s Alice, weirdly spun from the far superior movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I include him largely because he was never spoken of as being involved with a woman and also never declared himself one way or another, for which some smug fool on Pinterest praised him for “keeping [his private life] where it belongs.” Hey, buddy — would you still say that had McKeon posed for photos with a wife and children?

Ron Leibman, 82.

Ron Leibman and Sally Field - Norma Rae

The fish he wanted to hook: Ron Leibman and Sally Field in Norma Rae.

Leibman was the very definition of a working actor in America. He divided his time between stage, movies and television, racking up an array of marvelous, buoyant performances in each: The Hot Rock (1972), superb as the union organizer Reuben in Norma Rae (1979), breaking his wrist while making a typically vehement point as the D.A. in Night Falls on Manhattan (1996); racking up an Emmy® in the title role of the short-lived Kaz (1978-79); playing Kilroy in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real in 1959 and appearing in productions of A View from the Bridge, Dead End, The Deputy, Uncle Vanya (as Astrov), Beckett’s End Game (as Clov), Volpone, The Three Sisters, We Bombed in New Haven, Richard III (as Richard), I Ought to Be in Pictures, Tartuffe (in the title role, naturally), Neil Simon’s Rumors, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (as Roy Cohn, a performance that yielded him a Tony®), Angels in America: Perestroika, The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock) and Kushner’s version of A Dybbuk. His zest for acting was obvious, and infectious, and only once (in the 1974 The Super Cops) have I seen him give a bad performance. But since the picture itself was conceived and executed as a cartoon, Leibman’s overacting was of a piece with the rest.

René Auberjonois MASH resized

René Auberjonois, 79.
A year before his sweetly ineffectual Father Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy in MASH, Auberjonois was camping up a storm on Broadway as Katharine Hepburn’s gay rival Sebastian in the Alan Jay Lerner/Andre Previn Coco, singing the vicious satirical tango “Fiasco” and winning a Tony® in the process. He went on to perform in three additional pictures for Robert Altman: 1970’s Brewster McCloud, in which he played a lecturer who slowly evolves into a giant bird, the glorious McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Images (1972). He did more television than movies (Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and I also remember him as a robust swashbuckler in a 1976 TV movie called Panache, which, being an inveterate fan of Cryano de Bergerac and Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, I had to watch. On Broadway he was Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972), The Good Doctor, Neil Simon’s 1973 adaptation of several short Chekhov plays; the Duke in Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn musical Big River (1984), the 2004 revival of Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox and, in the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels (1989) had a veritable field day with Gelbart’s trademark mixed metaphors and David Zippel’s too-clever-by-half lyrics. In 1987 Auberjonois gave perfect voice to the rapacious, Inspector Clouseau-like French chef in The Little Mermaid (1987), gleefully singing, in the best Folies Bergère style, Howard Ashman’s delicious lyric “Les Poissons.”

Carrol Spinney cropped

Carol Spinney. 85.
The once and future Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Danny Aiello, 86.

Do the Right Thing - Lee, Aiello
Aiello’s stardom, such as it was and for as long as it lasted, came late: He was for years a union rep for bus workers, and a bouncer at The Improv, before being cast in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and as Tony Rosato in The Godfather Part II (1974), in which he ad-libbed the line, “Michael Corleone says hello!” during the failed hit on Michael V. Gazzo’s Frank Pentangeli. He was a frightening racist cop in the excellent Fort Apache — The Bronx (1981), Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1085) and Cher’s hapless, mother-ridden fiancée in Moonstruck (1987). His best work on film, and his most prominent role, was as the pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s literally incendiary Do the Right Thing (1989). An essentially decent man, Sal is too hidebound to budge even slightly. It’s his pizza shop; why should he accommodate his black patrons… even though they’re pretty much the only ones he has? Sal’s tragedy is that he could have easily prevented the conflagration that explodes in the movie’s gripping last act, but didn’t know how to integrate his Italian pride with a responsibility to the neighborhood in which he makes his living.

Sue (née Suellyn) Lyon, 73.
Lolita - 1962
Lyons became an overnight pop icon in 1962 as Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Nabokov’s book, itself wildly controversial when it was published in 1955. Lyon’s casting was, one presumes, a compromise: Too advanced in age and too developed physically at 14 to really represent the 12-year old “Lo” of the novel (she looked at least 16, and yes, those two year jumps matter) Lyons took some of the heat off the filkmmakers — but she also turned in an exceptional performance opposite James Mason’s peerless Humbert Humbert. Two years later she was the lubricious teenager in love with Richard Burton’s defrocked minister in the superb John Huston movie of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana in which among other things she had a strange, wonderful scene, suggested by Williams, in which the pair walk on broken glass in their bare feet. She was very good as a missionary in China in John Ford’s final picture, the underrated 7 Women (1966) and had leading roles in The Flim-Flam Man and Tony Rome in 1967. Aside from her beauty, which was obvious, she brought a sharp intelligence to everything she did. Whenever I see Carol Lynley in a movie I mentally re-cast her role with Lyons; it improves whatever I’m watching by at least 25 per cent. Lyons’ final acting role was in 1980. Her loss was the audience’s as well.

II. Theatre

Harold Prince, 91. The last of the great, visionary super-dirctors of the American musical theatre, the man who put together such shows as Cabaret, Company and Follies the way a great playwright does.

Betty Corwin, 98.
Corwin’s was not a name known outside New York, or theatre and library circles (or New York theatre and library circles) but anyone who cares about plays and musicals should give her a tip of the hat. It was her idea to create archival video records of the offerings on and Off-Broadway, and to house them in a special collection (Theatre Film and Tape Archive) at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. And while these are obviously not the flashier, and more professional, two-and-three camera affairs later developed for PBS programs such as Theatre in America (remember when PBS actually cared about theatre? Remember when PBS cared about anything other than money?) they are a treasure-house nonetheless. How else would you be able to see a video tape of the original Follies, or A Chorus Line? Bless you, Betty.

Beyond the Fringe - So That's the Way You Like it

Beyond the Fringe: The Shakespeare parody “So That’s the Way You Like it.” Miller with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

Sir Jonathan Miller, 85.
Hearing that anyone has dementia or has died of Alzheimer’s is depressing, but especially so when the person in question has lived a life of the mind. Miller was such a polymath his theatrical career is almost the least of his interests, and achievements. Miller began as a member of Beyond the Fringe, all of whom became important figures in theatre and movies and British comedy, particularly the actor/playwright Alan Bennett. He was also a physician, a theatrical director (the agonizing Merchant of Venice with Olivier was his) and an author. For 40 years I have treasured his Fringe monologue “The Heat Death of the Universe” with its immortal last line: Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen… trot by.

Channing could also be a beast. I strongly suspect what she put Mary Martin and James Kirkwood through during rehearsals and road-tour for the latter’s comedy Legends! hastened his death by heart attack two years later. (And that’s not to mention Martin’s increasing deafness or her justifiable fury at her character’s monologue about breast cancer being cut by the producer, which caused her to back out of an eventual Broadway production, killing the show’s chances. See Kirkwood’s Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

More wonder’d at: Harold Prince (1928 – 2019)


Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at.
 — Prince Hal, 1 Henry IV (I, ii. 221)

By Scott Ross

When Harold S. Prince died in July, at 91, I have the feeling the general reaction among at least two generations who grew up with the effects of his genuinely revolutionary approach to musical theatre was a collective shrug… if they noticed at all. (He wasn’t making news just before he died, and with today’s collective 15-minute memory span, who knows?) Yet nearly everything they, and we, now take for granted, both as audience members and as creative and performing personnel, about the way musicals are staged, and about what their content is permitted to be, stems from Prince’s advances, and from those with whom he collaborated: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett.

Hal Prince - Hirschfeld resized

Prince in the ’70s by Al Hirschfeld, glasses characteristically perched atop his dome.

Without Prince, the harder-edged musical play would have happened… but not nearly so soon. I say “musical play” as opposed to “musical comedy,” which encompasses everything from George M. Cohan to The Producers. The musical drama, pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern with Show Boat (1927) and to a degree perfected by Hammerstein in his shows with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I) was, for all its innovations, unwilling, or incapable, of addressing harsh reality, or even satire; by the time of Oscar’s death, Rodgers & Hammerstein had become the old conservatives of their own movement: Murder, yes, and miscegenation… war and racism… even Nazis (although they don’t sing and dance; we have to wait until Mel Brooks for that). But these are easy to come out against; who’s for Nazis and murderers? On the other hand, it takes real intestinal fortitude to stage near-rapes, gang violence, pogroms, 1930s Reds, brownshirts menacing Jews, American incursion into Japan, serial killers and cannibalism, Fascist rallies, stories that run backwards, Nora after the door-slam, nelly queens and systemic prison abuse, and lynching. That is where Harold S. (“Hal”) Prince comes in, and why we owe him so very much. (Re-reading that last sentence, I am irresistibly reminded of Alan Bennett’s witty bon mot in Beyond the Fringe: “I go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be taken out of myself. I don’t want to see lust and rape, incest and sodomy — I can get all that at home.”) He also left us in debt by making musicals more cinematic, less convention-bound even in the matter of the spaces between scenes. A Prince show moved, and what he called the “boring holdovers” of blackouts (except when effective dramatically) and “in one” transition bits played before the curtain while stagehands busily moved furniture behind it slowly disappeared. Here Robbins, with West Side Story, is the most important progenitor of a new mode of transit — “through-staging,” we might call it — but Prince, as one of the show’s producers, surely approved. Why should an audience be bored by the same things that bored the people who put the show together?

It seems impossible that he could have been born with the almost jokey-prosaic last name of Smith. Fortunately, his mother re-married a certain Mr. Prince. That was more like it. (I’ve always been rather nonplussed that no one in the press, when profiling Hal Prince and his innovations, saw the Shakespearean obvious: Just reverse the names.) Prince began his theatrical career as an assistant stage manager, then a stage manager, for George Abbott, eventually becoming, with Robert E. Griffith, Abbott’s producer. The first Prince/Griffith show, The Pajama Game (1954, score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, choreography by Fosse, co-directed by Abbott and Robbins), was a massive hit. The team followed it up with Damn Yankees (1955, also Adler and Ross, with Abbott and Fosse), New Girl in Town (1957, Bob Merrill out of Eugene O’Neill, with dances by Fosse), Fiorello! (1959, Bock and Harnick, directed by Abbott) and Tenderloin (1960, ditto) with a break from Abbott for West Side Story in 1957. When Griffith died in 1961, Prince became a solo producer with the comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and when David Merrick walked away from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, directed by Abbott, ghosted by Robbins) Prince stepped in, largely as a favor to the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. In 1964, he had his greatest success until the late 1980s with Fiddler on the Roof (1964, staged by Robbins), which kept his production office going through any number of bad years and disappointing shows. Prince’s last musical purely as producer (1965’s Flora, The Red Menace) strikes one now — as indeed it struck many then — as a very tame affair. Although it was peripherally concerned with ’30s labor agitation, toward which “Mr. Abbott” was predictably cool, it boasted the first Kander and Ebb score and gave Liza Minnelli her first starring role, and defining number (“It’s a Quiet Thing.”)


She Loves Me: Barbara Cook, Gino Conforti and Daniel Massey

The second phase of Prince’s career, overlapping the first, was as a producer and director, mostly of musicals: A Family Affair (1962, music by John Kander with lyrics by the librettists, James and William Goldman), the exquisite She Loves Me (1963, once more with Bock and Harnick), It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966, score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams). But it was his last show of 1966 that would mark the real turning point. Within (and without) a more or less square musicalization, not of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories so much as the pale John Van Druten play made of them, lurked a striking, even frightening, political floorshow, a fierce, grinning Brechtian commentary on the action, and the disintegrating Weimar Republic, conducted by a grotesque little Master of Ceremonies, patent-leather hair parted in the center, rouge, mascara and lipstick splitting his clown-white face at strategic angles.

This character, no part of any previous iteration of the material, is pure, impure Prince; during his military service he’d seen, in a seedy Stuttgart nightclub, a dwarf M.C. made up exactly that way. The gorilla in a tutu the Master of Ceremonies sings to was likewise part of a dream Prince had during rehearsals, and which he got Kander and Ebb to musicalize. I am the furthest thing from a subscriber to auteurism, and as a one-time playwright my sympathies are naturally more attuned to the writers than to the vaunted “directocracy” (and now, it seems, “dramaturgic community”) that wants credit for everything done in a play or musical. But what Prince wrought with Cabaret — indeed, throughout his entire career as a creative collaborator — is an example of what can happen with a visionary director has a hand in shaping theatrical material. Prince also used a galvanizing experience he had at Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, where he saw a blazingly theatrical production of a play based on John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and whose effects, such as using spots trained upward from the stage floor to create a curtain of light, he carried with him forever after. (That Orson Welles had done similar things in the 1930s does not diminish their impact; whatever is neglected will seem new when re-discovered.) The loose form Prince developed for Cabaret freed him to give everything a shot.

What he came to call the “Limbo” numbers of Cabaret were what the show was really about, and had its creators (which included Kander and Ebb, the book writer Joe Masteroff, and the choreographer Ron Field) played to those strengths and remained wholly true to their intentions — and to Isherwood’s homosexuality — the show would have likely run a tiny fraction of its eventual 1,165 performances but would have been a greater blow for the freedom of creative expression in the marketplace. Still, for Prince it was an impressive hurling down of a personal gauntlet. Its success gave him, and a lot of other people, permission to try.

Cabaret - Wilkommen (Joel Grey)

Cabaret: Joe Grey leads the performers of the Kit Kat Klub in “Wilkommen.” Note the titled mirror, which reflected the audience back at itself, forcing it to become a part of what it was witnessing. Jill Haworth, the show’s Sally Bowles, is at right.

His, and Kander and Ebb’s, follow-up, the almost unrelievedly dark Zorbá (1968) and told through even stronger theatrical means, ran less than a third as long as Cabaret, which tells you something. But it was with his next two musicals that Prince made his boldest statement yet. First, developing with the actor/playwright George Furth a fragmentary narrative frame for a seemingly unconnected series of marital and romantic encounters — the first of the so-called “concept” musicals — Prince and Sondheim (and Michael Bennett, who choreographed) concocted a book musical almost more like a revue: Bold, witty (although perhaps a bit more arch than was good for it), wildly theatrical, sophisticated in content, style and form, Company (1970) was unlike any musical comedy before it. And if it caused arguments (there were those who loathed it) they were as nothing to what Follies inspired.

Company - Being Alive

Company: Dean Jones as Bobby. Note the body language of those “good and crazy people,” his friends. What they are urging him toward — marriage — in this configuration looks so unsettling it’s no wonder he’s ambivalent.

Follies drew blood, and meant to. Originally intended, under the title The Girls Upstairs, by Sondheim and James Goldman as a sort of musical murder-mystery (or, as Goldman called it, a “Who’ll-Do-It?”) set against a reunion of old showgirls, the musical evolved under Prince’s tutelage into a ghost story, a metaphor for the nervous America of the Nixon era, an extravagant reverie on loss, disillusion and regret set to music — specifically, the music of America before and between the wars, in the “Follies” numbers, and, in the “book” scenes, the singular and piercingly modern voice of Sondheim. No musical before it had hit back so forcefully against what the creators thought was the lie of pop culture, and of the Popular Songbook itself: The phony optimism, sexless love and happily-ever-after dreams that sustained generations of Americans, and American songwriters, who woke up one day and realized it was all shit.

Set in an old, crumbling theatre about to be demolished (itself a potent metaphor) Follies presented past and present at once, with impossibly tall, ghostly showgirls floating through the action and its main characters appearing on stage in both their current and their former personae. Goldman’s dialogue frequently overlapped past and present, and when the four protagonist/antagonists’ feelings bubbled over, everything split apart, reality replaced with a “Follies” of the mind, in which, singly, the quartet expressed their dissatisfaction in traditional musical-comedy terms that revealed a kind of anger and bitterness no such song ever admitted to in the past.* A “You Don’t Know the Half of it Dearie, Blues,” baggy-pants routine for a philandering husband, his bored wife and overly avid lover; an aching, emotionally naked torch number, slightly reminiscent of “Black Coffee,” for a woman who for 30 years has been in love with an unattainable ideal. And long before that show-within-a-show, there were contrapuntal duets for a singer and her younger self (“One More Kiss,” one of the show’s major musical metaphors), a dance number (“Who’s That Woman?”) in which ageing flesh and uncertain limbs are juxtaposed with the bright and beautiful bodies of the past, and a  soaring love duet (“Too Many Mornings”) in which the lovers sing past each other, she seeing him even in his middle age as her perfect love, he seeing only her lovelier past self.

Follies - Too Many Mornings embrace

“Too Many Mornings”: Dorothy Collins as Sally, who can no longer tell the difference between the past and the present; Marti Rolph as Young Sally; and John McMartin as Ben, who does see it. One of the most moving, and chilling, moments in the American musical.

Young people, perhaps especially those (usually gay) with a knowledge of the history of musicals, loved the show. Older spectators, uncomfortable with what they were being shown about themselves, hated it. But Follies dared. It said, in Sondheim’s words, “that to live in the past is foolish,” and not doing so becomes harder with age. In a show this music-heavy, and which depended so strongly on songs and dances to grow its metaphors, Prince made the smart decision to share direction with Bennett. It was his most dance-heavy show, and one sometimes wishes he — and Sondheim — had trusted that more in the years to come; eschewing dance in favor of “movement” loses you a lot, even in a “serious” musical, including the goodwill of audiences, who love watching dancers in a musical.

Follies’ effect was one of Total Theatre. With Florence Klotz’s extravagant costumes, Tharon Musser’s atmospheric lighting and Boris Aronson’s deteriorating sets moving with fluidity from one space to another, and all adhering to a single idea, Follies is arguably the most perfectly integrated musical ever created. And in Dorothy Collins’ Sally it presented the American musical’s first true madwoman, her brain split apart by the unbridgeable abyss between obsessive fantasy and untenable reality; Sally’s final line (“Oh, dear God — it is tomorrow!”) was the most despairing ever written for a musical.

Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: Glynis Johns as Desirée in A Little Night Music.

The next Prince/Sondheim was almost the antithesis of Follies, a romantic European period musical — one based on Bergman, admittedly, and with dark undertones to the froth — in which, through the composer’s strange alchemy, all of the music was in three-quarter time. Even so, A Little Night Music (1973) actually ran fewer performances than its predecessor. (Its “hit” song, “Send in the Clowns,” only became big two years after the show opened, when Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.) The next year, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prince produced a re-conceived, and largely re-written, edition of Leonard Bernstein’s esteemed 1957 flop Candide. With (at her insistence) the original Lillian Hellman book jettisoned — Hugh Wheeler wrote the revision, hewing closer to Voltaire — old numbers cut, new ones created using trunk music (the lyrics were Sondheim’s), a vaudevillian structure and an environmental staging, the show was so successful it virtually demanded a Broadway transfer.

Never content to play it safe, Prince convinced young John Weidman (John’s son) to let him musicalize his un-performed play about the opening of Japan by the West and corralled Sondheim to compose for it. The result, Pacific Overtures (1972) was a glorious nonesuch, a nearly operatic meditation on American imperialist power kitted out with Kabuki conventions (including invisible stagehands, a Lion Dancer and men playing the female roles) and an entirely Asian cast. Its score is among Sondheim’s finest, especially in the phenomenal “Someone in a Tree,” during which past and present meet, commingle, conjoin, and explode, with one of the most hair-raisingly glorious climaxes ever heard in a Broadway theatre. Pacific Overtures enjoyed only 193 performances, but that it ran at all, much less during the Bicentennial year, is something of a miracle.

Pacific Overtures - Please Hello

“Please Hello”: Yuki Shimoda, center, importuned — and threatened — by Admirals from Britain (Alvin Ing), America (Ernest Harada) and Holland (Patrick Kinser-lau)

Prince’s next show may have seemed a surer thing. On the Twentieth Century (1978) boasted a Hecht and MacArthur pedigree (they based it on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, a satire of the impresario David Belasco) and movie aficionados might have recalled the hilarious 1934 Howard Hawks movie with John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. The score, maybe his richest, was by Cy Coleman, and the book and the genuinely witty lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. However… their concept was not, as might have been expected, hot 1930s Broadway jazz but, inspired by the absurd comic passions of the larger-than-life leading characters, opéra bouffe, which may have been a hard sell. Set largely on the eponymous train, the show had a fabulous, gleaming Art Deco design by Robin Wagner and three indelible comedic performers in John Cullum, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca (plus Kevin Kline in an athletic supporting role) but it was a costly show and Kahn was unreliable. Her understudy (later replacement), Judy Kaye, was from the evidence every bit as inspired and musically sound, but it always hurts to have your above-the-title star making a habit of not showing up when fans are expecting her, and Kaye was then an unknown. It won a Best Score Tony® but only ran 449 performances.

On the twentieth century

On the Twentieth Century: The “It’s a Contract” sextet. From left, John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Significantly, On the Twentieth Century marked the third phase of Prince’s career, as a director only. The increasing cost of Broadway production, plus the ageing-out of his old reliable angels, had made producing less fun and took his attentions away from mounting his shows. From this point to the end of his life, and with few exceptions, Prince was a director only. It may have lost him some money when it came to projects like Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, but he was by then already wealthy enough. (Easy for me to say? When you produce Fiddler on the Roof and have a second house on Majorca you’re not exactly starving.)

The next Prince/Sondheim collaboration yielded a masterwork. The composer had seen Christopher Bond’s 1973 Marxist rendering of the Victorian penny-dreadful Sweeney Todd in London, and thought it might make an interesting chamber musical, with a few songs. He’d intended writing the book himself but as it grew he needed assistance, and called in his friend Hugh Wheeler, who had written the book for A Little Night Music and assisted John Weidman on Pacific Overtures. The piece got larger as it went along, with Sondheim ending up composing what amounted to a demi-operatic score. It’s a show in which music is present throughout, either in song or as underscore (Sondheim wanted a Bernard Herrmann sound, and got it). It also featured the strangest content of the composer’s oeuvre. The original (called The String of Pearls) featured serial murder and unwitting cannibalism, as the victims of the “demon barber” were conveniently baked into meat pies by Sweeney’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett. Bond made Todd less a remorseless villain than a societal victim bent on revenge who, maddened by his inability to wreak his vengeance on the hated judge who sentenced him to exile, raped his wife and took in his daughter (and on whom the jurist now also has lecherous designs), focuses his rage on the entire human species. It was a heavy brew, leavened only by Lovett, now a convivial if criminally opportunistic comedian.

With Prince aboard, and the leads entrusted to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney developed into a black-comedy thriller of epic proportions in its sweep and physical production (Prince and his designer Eugene Lee disassembled an old New England foundry and employed its parts, some of them working, for the set) and the sheer size of the sick joke at its core. In the contours of its themes and content it was absolutely non pariel, in its (no pun intended) execution, a work of genius, and of art. Not even the smallish but growing legion of Prince/Sondheim fans saw it coming.

A Little Priest

Sweeney Todd: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou performing “A Little Priest,” the most macabre first act finale in Broadway musical history, and the funniest.

The show was overwhelming, in every particular. I count myself fortunate that it was my first Broadway musical seen on Broadway, and that I caught it with what Sondheim called “the unbeatable combination” of Cariou and Lansbury (although, alas, by the time I saw it, in December of 1979, Victor Garber was gone and Sarah Rice had been dismissed). It was also, I could just about swear, the first black-and-white musical I’d ever seen, its deliberate grayness of person, setting and costume mitigated only by the blood, shockingly and vividly red.

If Sweeney had a flaw, it was the size of the physical production, which, while intentional — the cruelty and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution was a subtextual theme of the show — somewhat dwarfed the action. This was proven to my satisfaction when I acted in a small college production of in 1982, the first such in the Southeastern states (I was Toby), and again when I saw the scaled-down Circle in the Square revival in 1989 starring the splendid Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler. There the major drawback was the minimization of the music, reduced to synthesizer accompaniment and dubbed by Gerald Alessandrini in his Forbidden Broadway series, quite rightly, as Teeny Todd. But I was aware even while watching the original that in Lansbury and Cariou I was being privileged to witness two of the great, galvanic performances in Broadway musical history, to hear in Sondheim’s music and lyrics one of the finest of all American musical theatre scores, and in see in Prince’s staging one of the modern theatre’s most impressive feats of direction. If not the show of the century (I think that was likely Follies, or perhaps the original Pogry and Bess, both of which I can imagine only in the theatre of my mind), Sweeney was certainly one of them.

Prince’s follow-up was not an American show, but the stage version of a British concept album by the creators of a previous successful LP-to-stage hybrid, Jesus Christ Superstar. The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Evita (1979) premiered in London, with Elaine Page as Eva Peron. In America there was some revision of the material, and a long tour beginning in California, the release of the 2-LP cast recording pre-dating the Broadway opening on which its Eva, Patti LuPone, who often strained for notes (she later wrote that Lloyd Webber “hated women” and that he would not lower keys to accommodate her voice) but as a star presence was nearly incandescent.

The show was criticized for seeming to glorify its fascist subject by people who, carried away with the power of Prince’s staging (and Larry Fuller’s dance movement) in the first act finale, couldn’t take their irony without a scorecard. A much stronger case could be made, not against the show’s point of view — the inclusion of a Greek chorus figure called Che (Mandy Patinkin in his Broadway musical debut) made that plain enough, or should have — but in critiquing its surface treatment of complex issues and personalities. But Evita certainly had its moments, not least of which were its clever metaphors (revolving power as a game of musical chairs, for instance, and the way the aristos moved together in a fashion not unlike Bob Fosse’s organic “amoebas” and were, late in the show, literally stripped of their possessions) and that chilling first act closure, one so powerful Lotte Lenya recognized in the manipulation of Argentinian voters and media a reflection of what she’d lived through as Weimar Germany collapsed and loosed the Nazi daemon. Interestingly, especially for an inveterate Lloyd Webber skeptic like me — I prefer his pop/rock passages to his better-loved, soupier Puccini imitations — the show actually plays better as a recording, where you don’t mind the elliptical structure or the thin characterizations. But even via a stripped-down, bus-and-truck tour, Evita was something to see.

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Just a little touch of star quality: Patti LuPone as Evita with Prince (above) in rehearsals and Mandy Patinkin (below) on stage. (Color photo: Martha Swope.)

With his next show, Prince hit the beginning of what can only be called a long losing streak that was as precipitous a decline as his previous rise had been formidable; he was, at the time, as one with Bennett (A Chorus Line), Fosse (Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago) and Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly… an interesting juxtaposition) in the league of Broadway musical “super-directors,” his name as well-known as those of his songwriters, and his shows, and deficient only in that he did not also choreograph. It began with the ill-conceived Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an adaptation of a depressing, flop Kaufman and Hart drama (there’s a tip-off right there) reconfigured as a musical brimming with un-tested youth, and with Sondheim a reluctant collaborator. The play’s structure, telling the story of its central character’s rise and fall in reverse, was retained, and it was there that the concept really caught fire. Unlike with many musicals (and indeed plays) which peter out after intermission, Merrily‘s second act topped its first, and the songs, largely based around a particular chromatic structure, got better and better until, by the end, when you’d experienced their development and realized how subtly and traditionally they had been expanding all evening, they were both exhilarating and heartbreaking in their emotional pain and their optimistic ebullience: There aren’t many second act builds in American musicals as good as the progress from “Not a Day Goes By” to “Opening Doors” to “Our Time,” and what the ignorati call “show tunes” don’t rate much higher either. But the piece, under Prince’s direction, was frustrating, its Eugene Lee gymnasium sets tacky and its proliferation of characters so confusing to its preview audiences that the creators were reduced to slapping T-shirts and sweaters on the actors with their characters’ names, or phrases like “Producer” and “Best Friend,” emblazoned across their fronts. When Merrily opened it received the worst reviews Prince and Sondheim had gotten yet, and ran 16 performances before shuttering. Sondheim blamed the critics, believing, not without reason, that they were gunning for him and Prince. But while time has been kind to his score, few indeed are those who feel the original production of the show that contained them was under-appreciated.

Merrily - Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Merrily We Roll Along: Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Fortunately, as with Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records on Sondheim’s earlier flop Anyone Can Whistle, Thomas Z. Shepard recorded the score anyway, preserving a wistful souvenir of a might-have-been that, whatever its flaws as a show, contained a set of songs so good they couldn’t be allowed to languish in artistic limbo. Indeed, Sondheim and James Lapine later revised the show, originally written with George Furth, casting it with rueful adults rather than enthusiastic kids. Yet even Off-Broadway it didn’t run long, and it’s never going to be a rouser with the public, any more than Assassins or Pacific Overtures. The greatest irony in this musical about old friends lay in Prince and his choreographer, Ron Field, nearly coming to blows after a performance, and ending their long friendship and collaboration. They subsequently reconciled, but Merrily’s failure also put an effective end to the artistically compelling, if financially risky, Prince/Sondheim corporation.

Prince’s creative recession continued in 1982 with A Doll’s Life, which he for some mad reason chose to produce as well as direct and which eked out two more performances than Merrily. It was a notably cheerless affair to have a book and lyrics by Comden and Green, picking up Nora Helmer after she slammed the door and performed as a play-within-a-rehearsal, something John Gielgud attempted with his 1964 Hamlet and which perhaps only Orson Welles, in his Moby Dick—Rehearsed, managed to pull off. A Doll’s Life is one of those shows for which you remember the negative reviews more than the songs. I have the cast album. I’ve listened to it once. But two lines from John Simon’s critique in New York magazine have remained with me; of Larry Grossman’s lugubrious score, Simon likened it to “two bars of Sondheim, stretched on a rack” and said of the show as a whole that it “should make passionate door-slammers of us all.” Unsurprisingly, the cast knew the production was headed for the dust-bin. Its star, Betsy Joslyn, knitted as Prince gave his final notes before the opening; when he asked what she was working on she held up her handiwork and replied, “A coffin cover for the show.” Well, at least George Hearn, Cariou’s replacement as Sweeney Todd, got a Tony® nomination out of it.

The downturn in Prince’s fortunes worsened with, in succession: Play Memory (4 performances, 1984), the baseball revue Diamonds (122 performances, Circle in the Square, 1984) and Grind (Larry Grossman again, with Prince producing again… do some people never learn?… April – June 1985). Salvation came, financially if not artistically, with the 1986 Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera, although its raison d’être, for a man of Prince’s convictions, is almost wholly inexplicable. Certainly no one can accuse the director of not giving his all to it, what with subterranean, candle-lit lakes and (at least initially, in London) old-fashioned scene-moving equipment — shades of that New England foundry in Sweeney — but other than desperation I can see no reason for him to have undertaken such a creatively barren, soppy enterprise. But with 13,270 Broadway performances, who knows how many in London, and only Cameron Mackintosh’s accountants aware of the additional revenue generated from touring companies, music sales, recordings and DVDs, Prince’s widow is likely set for life from his cut of this one show alone, not to mention his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. As if to atone, in 1987 Prince assayed the flop Roza, which ran two months before closing, and a revival of Cabaret, which lasted 261 performances, with Joel Grey given top billing now (he was fifth in 1966) for the same role he’d played 21 years earlier.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello

Kiss of the Spider Woman: Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello. (Martha Swope / The New York Public Library) 

Although Prince’s involvement with the musicalization of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman eventually yielded a Broadway run of over 900 performances, its beginnings spotlighted an episode of ugliness that ultimately destroyed a potentially useful program. In 1990 the Performing Arts Center at SUNY-Purchase created New Musicals to provide “a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years,” one of the first of which was Kiss. Broadway critics were urged to stay away from these workshops but Frank Rich in his magnificent arrogance decided his pronouncements were more important than giving writers, actors and creative personnel the safety to fail more privately; he and others duly hied to Purchase and wrote highly negative reviews that killed the show’s chances for years, and destroyed the New Musicals program in the process. Were it not for the (now-disgraced) Garth Drabinsky and Livent, that might have been the end of it. Drabinsky presented the musical first in Toronto, then in London, before deigning to let Broadway get a look at it. While the show’s Kander and Ebb score is good, it isn’t great, and it may well be that Rich’s criticisms were valid; in his review of the eventual Broadway edition, he wrote that the musical “does not meet all the high goals it borrows from Manuel Puig’s novel. When it falls short, it pushes into pretentious overdrive… and turns the serious business of police-state torture into show-biz kitsch every bit as vacuous as the B-movie clichés parodied in its celluloid fantasies. Yet the production does succeed… in using the elaborate machinery of a big Broadway musical to tell the story of an uncloseted, unhomogenized, unexceptional gay man who arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.”

Rich’s self-important tactics at SUNY-Purchase, however, were and remain an example of how those equipped with tunnel-vision and a convenient set of professional ethics are perfectly willing to extinguish a needed corrective to the problems of creative people in what was, and had long been, an increasingly perilous milieu (and which Rich well knew.) He and his cohorts could have gone to Purchase out of curiosity, seen the show, and either kept mum permanently or held off on expressing their opinions until after the workshop. But their egotism, their need to air their verdicts, was stronger than their desire to see new Broadway musicals thrive, or to allow creative artists to experiment without censure. To Rich, the ability to critique without restriction was more important than the nation perhaps getting one or two good shows  out of the experience.

Showboat - John McMartin and cast

Show Boat: John McMartin and company. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Prince’s 1993 Livent revival of Show Boat “was deliberately staged to cast attention on racial disparities; throughout the production, African-American actors constantly cleaned up messes, appeared to move the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), and performed other menial tasks” (Wikipedia). Naturally, the production was met with protests from self-styled black “leaders” who, predictably, picketed the show — and Prince, whom they screeched at for being that hated thing, a Jew — without seeing it. But then, pressure from Jewish groups forced Prince and company to alter that moment in Cabaret (restored in Bob Fosse’s movie) when the increasingly Nazi-embracing M.C. confides to us that if we could see her through his eyes, his gorilla girlfriend “wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

It’s a wonder anyone ever attempts anything bold in Western culture.

Parade - Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Parade: Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Post-Show Boat Prince shows included one of many attempts to interest an indifferent public in Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind (1996); a revival of Candide (1997) with Jim Dale as Pangloss, Andrea Martin as the Old Lady and an  unexceptional Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde (Prince had previously directed the 1994 Civic Opera House production); and Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade (1998), which he initiated. (Prince had asked Sondheim to compose the score, but he passed.) The story of Leo Frank’s arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual lynching for the rape and murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan, a worker in his Atlanta pencil factory, a crime of which the Jewish Frank was entirely innocent, had previously been explored in an excellent television mini-series (The Murder of Mary Phagan, 1988, starring Jack Lemmon as the former Georgia Governor John Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank) but this was prime Prince territory. It ran three months. Although the show and its score were popular with critics and musical aficionados generally, the subject of American miscarriages of justice is no crowd-pleaser, as Kander and Ebb and Susan Strohman discovered to their cost when they mounted their masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys a few years later.

Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett resized

Prince’s first theatrical venture in the new century was a heart-breaker: Hollywood Arms (2002), Carrie Hamilton and her mother Carol Burnett’s stage adaptation of Burnett’s memoir One More Time concerning her childhood with her grandmother and her unreliable parents. Well before there was a Chicago or New York production, Hamilton’s lung cancer spread to her brain, and she was killed by the pneumonia that resulted. The play was received rapturously by, of all people, John Simon, who wrote of it:

“Plays about passion are profuse and easy: heterosexual or homosexual, interracial or senescent, kinky or chaste. What is difficult and rare is a play about affection, which is what Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms is. Authentic affection: not syrupy or sentimental, posturing or feel-good-ish, gussied up for theatrical effect. Hollywood Arms is about real people who fight or let one another down, jab and jeer, needle and explode, but also, when need be, help people who are sarcastic or pathetic failures, impoverished and disappointed.

“But Hollywood Arms has yet another form of invaluable affection, that of Harold Prince for the characters and their story. You will never see more feelingful insight, more self-effacing love for their quirks, foibles, and kindnesses, from a director for his stage children, big and small. If only this thoroughly endearing play and production could have been seen by Burnett’s daughter and co-author, Carrie Hamilton, dead before even the Goodman Theatre premiere. One fervently hopes that the joy of such a true creation accompanied her on her final journey.”

Hollywood Arms ran all of 76 performances.

Things like this are part of the reason I no longer write plays.

There were other Prince shows in the next 17 years, but I’m afraid my increasing antipathy and indifference to live theatre generally, and to new musicals specifically, prevents my having much to say about them. In 2003 came the Goodman Theatre production of Sondheim and Weidman’s Mizner Brothers show, now called Bounce (it premiered at the Kennedy Center as Gold!) That engagement represented the extent of Prince’s involvement in the project, which has been revised and re-written for years by its authors and is now known as Road Show. Even my 45-year old veneration for Sondheim has not been sufficient these past 15 years or so to get me to put either the Bounce or Road Show cast recording on the CD player. I’m afraid for me that particular ship not only sailed but foundered, and sunk. I have also not heard the recording, on Ghostlight, of Prince and Uhry’s LoveMusik (2007) based on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and including a laundry list of Weill songs. My ennui regarding Broadway musicals is now so complete that not even Donna Murphy is adequate enticement.

Prince attempted a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway sort of career retrospective in 2015, but aside from a tryout in Japan(!) and at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Prince of Broadway hasn’t made a ripple. This, I’m afraid, is the fate now of Broadway’s old innovators. If they can get an airing for something that isn’t a pre-sold property like a musical retread of some hit movie, they’re lucky; if it runs, it’s a miracle. And what does run is enough to make anyone who cares about theatre, or who used to, give up on it entirely. That’s not to mention the audiences who now, trained by television talent shows, give an automatic standing ovation to everything they see, diminishing the spontaneous tribute to a mere expectation — an accoutrement, as meaningless as the ubiquitous sound-board that has turned the musical into a glorified rock-arena show.

With the American musical reduced now to the “synergy” of Disney shows attempting to cram old animated wine into new live-action bottles and asinine hip-hop editions of American history, it’s no wonder the Princes and Sondheims of the Broadway theatre can find no home there.

I’ve said little here about Harold Prince as a man, but I think his work and his legacy are what matters. My own playwriting was as influenced by the stagecraft of Cabaret, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures as the plays I read and absorbed by Chekhov, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and Larry Kramer, and I am not ashamed to say so just because those shows were “mere musicals.” That Prince had an ego, and foibles, and wasn’t always the nicest person around is a given; he’d not only have been pretty rare not to, he’d have been inhuman. Richard Bissell based a character in his novel (and subsequent play-with-music) Say, Darling on Prince, and Bob Fosse left a wicked impression of him via John Lithgow’s performance as a grasping Broadway director in All That Jazz (1979), even unto Lithgow perching his sunglasses atop his head in a very Princelike fashion. (Both Prince and Sondheim, by the way, took a dim view of Fosse’s achievements, expressing their reservations in a highly self-serving fashion. See Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse.)

Like Fosse, Prince also tried directing movies, but found the experience unsatisfying. Something for Everyone (1970) is a good black comedy (although not nearly as dark as the novel on which it was based) but A Little Night Music (1977) is a mess, losing most of Sondheim’s great score and even transporting — by demand of the picture’s international financiers, I presume — the show’s Bergmanesque Swedish setting to sunny Vienna, I suppose to justify the waltzes.

In 1974 and at the height of his notoriety Prince dictated his theatrical memories as a book that, over the years, has been one of the most well-thumbed in my library. In Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-six Years in the Theatre (Dodd, Mead) he provided context, history and origin for all his shows, from Damn Yankees to Candide. Thankfully, Prince expanded that useful book as Sense of Occasion (Applause, 2017), offering some revised opinions on his previous statements and bringing the reader up to date. Perusing this second volume last winter I was struck by how much I remembered from previous readings in my 20s of Contradictions, and despite my coolness now to theatre, grateful again for what Prince brought to it. I even, reading about the evolutions of Cabaret and Follies, felt some small stirrings of my former passion. Not enough to wipe out my distaste for, and distrust of, the theatre as it is currently constituted in America (and, judging from podcasts from the National Theatre, it’s scarcely better in Britain) but at least sufficient to remind me that there was a time when it all mattered.

And it mattered more for Prince being there.

* Cabaret, Company and Follies all, to a degree, owe something to two musicals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro and the virtually un-known, sadly un-remembered (and un-recorded!) Kurt Will-Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life (1948) which among other things ends with its married lovers on a tight-rope, groping their way toward each other. Mark N. Grant: “Alan Jay Lerner described Love Life as a cavalcade of American marriage. The unusual structure of the show alternates scenes chronicling the Cooper family’s progression through successive periods of American history starting in the 1790s with vaudeville-style acts that comment on the main story. The two types of scenes do not overlap until the end of Part II. The Coopers’ ages do not change noticeably despite the 150-year lapse of time.” Grant, it should be noted, wrote the single best book on the American musical theatre I’ve read in years. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press, 2004) is not only erudite and technically impeccable (the author is also a musician and composer) but expresses admirable disgust at the decline of a once-great popular art form.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross