It’s always a pleasure to watch a master craftsman at work. A.R. Gurney is such an artist and for over 50 years he has been offering us well crafted plays at the rate of one every year or two. His latest, Buffalo Gal, is a reworking of one he wrote in 2001 for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He saw it staged again in 2002 in Buffalo which is the play’s setting at the Studio Arena. Now, reshaped for 2008, it finally arrived in New York on August 5th, via Primary Stages. Why did it take eight years and three versions? Second thoughts about the structure (it was in two acts, now it’s in one, which required some tinkering), about the ending (the original endings were not satisfying to its audiences, he’s finally found one that pleases him), and commitments to other plays that kept popping out of him.
He certainly knows how to give a star an entrance! This play opens with five minutes of amusing talk about theatre during which we learn a lot about the Actress who’s come jobbing in to play Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. By the end of this talk we are salivating in anticipation. And then – there she is – our Leading Lady. Katherine Cornell, herself a Buffalo gal, would have loved it. One can only conjecture about the ladies who’ve played this leading role in previous incarnations (the first was Mariette Hartley, the second Betty Buckley and now we have Susan Sullivan), but changes were made in casting all the roles. The performance I saw this past week was impeccably cast, with Ms. Sullivan reminding us we lost a major talent to Hollywood when she began her long runs on series like “Dharma and Greg,” “Falcon Crest” and “It’s A Living.”
The role of Amanda is a perfect fit for Ms. Sullivan.. Both the character and the actress began careers onstage, both went west for the money and acclaim of television and film, both are in their middle years and slightly out of fashion in movieland. Both have returned to regional theatre, Amanda to The Cherry Orchard, Ms. Sullivan to Buffalo Gal. There are major differences in their personal lives and in their personal back stories, but clearly Ms. Sullivan has great affinity for Amanda, and she has said so publicly. Mr. Gurney knows the territory of this play too, knows it well. Buffalo is his hometown and he writes about it almost each time out. And he certainly knows the ins and outs of regional theatre. So this play is filled with inside references that ring true, with characters (a stage manager, an assistant stage manager, a director, an actor) that he captures with all their humor and much of their complexity. The one ‘civilian’ in the company, an ex-love of Amanda’s who comes to reclaim her, is beautifully conceived and written and beautifully played by Mark Blum. To watch Blum and Sullivan relight the candle that glowed so brightly for them when they were teenagers is to watch two fine actors playing two well written characters, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon (I caught a matinee.) It’s no wonder that the run at Primary Stages has already been extended for two weeks. The play may not interest all audiences as much as it will theatre lovers, but one thing is certain – it could not be better realized than it is here under Mark Lamos’ keen direction.
Buffalo Gal is at NY’s Primary Stages through Sept 13th.
Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater
Published by Allsworth Press
I’m certain most of you have not been overly anxious to know who produced the last musical or play that you enjoyed. But for those who might wish to go down that road and meet some of those still practicing and some who go back 100 years, Iris Dorbian has offered us a book called just Great Producers, and the Allworth Press has published it. In a 180 page paperback, it is more a pamphlet than an in-depth account of some 14 of these practitioners, and their roles have changed over the years.
Ms. Dorbian begins her book with Florenz Ziegfeld who was the shining light among impresarios all through the early 20th Century. Ziegfeld’s name above the title (and his alone, no consortia in those days) sold tickets. Though he died broke in 1932 because his style of theatre was no longer fashionable, he was enough of a big time gambler to make and lose several fortunes in his twenty years at the top. His series of Follies are his calling card of course, but he was innovative enough to give us Show Boat as well, and that alone marks him special, for it was the groundbreaking of a new form of theatre, the book musical. He gave the public what it wanted and he did it with taste and imagination. In those pre-feminist days, he did for women what was then the vogue – he ‘glorified the American girl.’ Today he’d be shot for even suggesting such a theme, but in 1910 every beautiful young woman wanted to parade around in the Follies wearing nothing but feathers, furs and very heavy hats.
Another heavyweight from Ziegfeld’s era was David Belasco who was as powerful in the world of drama as was his colleague in musicals. Again, one name alone above the title. “David Belasco Presents” introduced realism, incredible lighting and special effects to the stage, which included the removal of footlights, until then a staple of all theatrical lighting. He was able to transform claptrap like The Girl of the Golden West, The Easiest Way, Lulu, Madam Butterfly and others into box office gold. These guys never seem to know when to quit so Belasco, like Ziegfeld, died after a string of mediocre flops in 1930. He was about as far as he could get from the Group Theatre, which followed in the depression years. Depression was not for “The Bishop of Broadway” and he tossed off this mortal coil just as bad times really struck in 1932.
In the mid-twentieth Century, a Ziegfeld-Belasco type guy bounced into town bringing his newly minted name (he was born Margulies) and a passion for fame and fortune. So we get a chapter on David Merrick, who apprenticed with major Broadway producer Herman Shumlin before he struck out on his own in 1949 with a Benn Levy comedy, Clutterbuck. With tepid reviews and no big names, it was doomed, or so thought the theatre community. But Merrick began his career as master showman, and knocked the socks off traditional publicity methods. He would take an ad saying “We make no claim that he’s a saint – as a matter of fact he ain’t! – Clutterbuck. He hired unemployed actors to paint or stencil “Have You Seen ‘Clutterbuck’ Yet?” on dozens of sidewalks in the theatre district. And he managed to get a run of 218 performances out of this, his first effort. Of course he was considered cheap and vulgar, and the general feeling around town was that he’d be on a bus back to his native St. Louis at the end of his first season. Wrong!
He knew he needed a major production with big names with which to establish himself, so he refused to take “no” from hot director Josh Logan on a musical version of Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny, Marius and César. It took him two years to put it together but he got his big musical, with a score by Harold Rome and a cast topped by Walter Slezak and Enzio Pinza, and featuring the about-to-become a star Florence Henderson. Not at all depressed by the tepid New York reviews, he promoted it well, making everyone aware that it contained a scene with a scantily clad belly dancer. The fact that she was on for about 6 minutes in a three hour show did not figure in his campaign. So another ‘name above the title’ producer was born.
His success was limitless; sometimes he’d produce four shows in one season. Nothing stopped him. He appeared one night in Laurence Olivier’s dressing room in London and would not leave until he had a commitment from London’s leading actor . The 1950s and 1960s belonged to him, but by 1970 he’d run out of steam, and he headed for Hollywood – not a good idea. Child’s Play, one of his Broadway hits, and The Great Gatsby, despite the presence of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, were duds. After two more flops, Semi Tough and Prime Cut, he cut his losses and returned to familiar turf on Broadway. He was determined to top his career with his biggest hit yet. He talked an ailing Gower Champion into staging an enormous stage version of the Warner Brothers hit film 42nd Street and again, his instincts were sound. The show killed Mr. Champion (in the best tradition of Warner’s musicals, he died on opening night), but it gave Merrick’s career a smashing third and final act. He worked so hard at keeping it alive (it had 3486 performances and ran through the whole 80s decade) that it nearly killed him too. He suffered a debilitating stroke and ended his days frustratingly trying to mount shows, with no voice, little movement and no success. Like his two predecessors in the Star Producer category, his final days were not to his choosing. I’m sure the Broadway community was grateful for all the jobs he provided over 40 years, but I never met anyone who said they’d miss him.
The other eleven producers in Great Producers are less celebrated, for most of them have had to gather together masses of “co-producers” to cope with the rising costs of New York theatre. But the likes of André Bishop, Roger Berlind, Margo Lion, Barry and Fran Weissler and others are unique too in their tastes and style and motivation. There’s not a lot of insight in the book; it’s mostly a series of “Who’s Who” articles filled with facts, some little known, but all it did for me was whet my appetite for proper biographies of most of them. However, if theatre is your favorite pastime, this compilation will make excellent company at the beach.