This Supporting Player and special guest play to a packed house
I haven’t been around for a while because NY theatre is between seasons and not a lot is happening. There will be a new beginning very soon, but meanwhile, I turned my attention to an offer to have an “event” at Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center in New York, involving my book, Supporting Player, my journey through 60 years of theatre on and off Broadway, on and offstage.
During my agency years, when I represented talent in the musical theatre, the jewel in my crown was Chita Rivera, whom I discovered in a tiny musical called Shoestring Revue because it was produced for almost no money at all. So it was indeed an event for me when the gracious lady agreed to join me for my talk at Barnes & Noble, and together we had us a ball. A packed house of almost 200, lots of amusing anecdotes from her lips and mine, some sentimental stuff about what we’ve meant to each other lo these fifty-plus years.
I asked Chita if she remembered how we met and she did! “Backstage after the show in what was my dressing room, but as I shared it with 3 other cast members, you and I had our first talk in—the toilet.” That was the night I asked her to be my client, and she agreed. Lest you think it was instant stardom for her, instant immortality among agents for me, think again. It took three years for anything much to happen – the only roles I could come up with for her were those of “Latin tomatoes” like Rita Romano in Mr. Wonderful, Fifi in Seventh Heaven, understudy to Eartha Kitt as a cat in Archy and Mehitabel until finally she found a Latina with substance in Anita in West Side Story. But though she has now starred in a dozen Broadway or touring musicals like Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, Sweet Charity, Can Can, Zorba, Bajour, The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, there were down periods along the way and we had a good time remembering her stint in a spectacular with a waterfall and a robot at the World’s Fair of 1974, of her appearances in two West Coast turkeys, The Prisoner of Zenda and 1491.
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Right after she opened on Broadway in Chicago in 1975, I left the agency world to return to the stage myself. I’d been away from acting since 1953, and I had to start all over again. Off/Off Broadway, showcases, extra work in films, then “under 5 lines” in films, decent roles in tiny films (i.e. Have a Nice Weekend, remember that one?), later tiny roles in decent films The Onion Field, Quiz Show, Being There. But live onstage I managed to climb from a showcase production of Big Fish, Little Fish (which played on the roof of a midtown office building) to another showcase of A Far Country to a job in the long running The Norman Conquests on Broadway, but alas – only as standby to Barry Nelson, who never missed a performance, not in ten months. Finally – the good news of a decent supporting role in Dore Schary’s Herzl at the legendary Palace Theatre, the bad news that we only stayed three weeks. Then, Modigliani, which led to my invitation to join the Circle Rep Company, which led to 14 years and a dozen plays in New York and regionally.
But in the years of my agency and acting careers, I had the opportunity to either represent the likes of Chita Rivera, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Linda Lavin, Kander and Ebb, Ron Field, Ethel Merman, Nancy Dussault, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Maureen O’Hara and a host of others, and I got to act onstage and on film in support of Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson, William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch, Richard Thomas, James Woods, All 3 Charlie’s Angels, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, and Rip Torn. It was great fun remembering the journey, surprising that I remembered so much, and had data to back me on all of it.
I told this audience on the upper west side of Manhattan tales of Rex Harrison’s panic on the opening night of My Fair Lady, a funny story of which she was the butt of the joke told me by Ethel Merman, my own panic just before my first entrance after 22 years away from the stage, of the circumstances under which I was able to introduce Fred Ebb to the work of John Kander, which led to the longest uninterrupted collaboration between a composer and lyricist in Broadway history – well over forty years. And the collaboration continues even since the passing of Fred Ebb five years ago, as the surviving composer Kander has committed himself to arrange productions of the four works they’d finished before Ebb’s departure. So far, Curtains has reached Broadway, The Scotsborough Boys has been workshopped. Over and Over has been seen in stock, at Signature Theatre, and regional theatres. The Visit deserves, and still hopes to have a New York production after well received tryouts at the Goodman in Chicago and at Signature Theatre, where many of you may have seen it.
The My Fair Lady story involved a blizzard, a New Haven preview, and a star who panicked when he first heard an orchestra accompanying him. “I can’t hear them, they can’t hear me! We must cancel the preview!” said Rex Harrison to his producer, the authors and the director, Moss Hart. The house manager of the Shubert Theatre piped up, “You tell that S.O.B. that if he doesn’t go on tonight, I will personally call Walter Winchell and tell him that he chickened out. You guys all go away a week from Saturday. I’m stuck here with a subscription audience month after month. They come here tonight in a blizzard, the baby sitter is paid, and I’m to tell them the show is cancelled because the star is NERVOUS? I DON’T THINK SO!!!” Long story, it’s duly reported in a chapter called “Two Birthdays.”
The Merman story had to do with a holiday she took with her girl friend Benay Venuta, a lesser star of the Broadway musical world. Venuta’s husband had recently died, and Merman was between husbands, so the two gals decided to visit Italy. One night, they tried to get to Capri but the last ferry had left. Venuta negotiated with a barge captain to take them across the Bay of Naples. When they were out in the middle of the water, Merman suddenly said: “Benay, I’ve got my little black bag full of my rocks – and you know me, I got a pile of good stuff (you know, diamonds and such). Here we are in the middle of nowhere, no one knows we’re here, what if they knock us out and steal the stuff? Nobody knows where we are.” Venuta thought about it for a minute, and then she answered, “Ethel, I don’t think this barge captain saw you in Call Me Madam, and I know he didn’t see me in By Jupiter. To him, we’re just a couple of broads looking for a little adventure. Which, come to think of it, is what we are, so calm down.” For the rest, I’ll see you inside the pages of the book.
As a result of the response to the reading/discussion, Supporting Player has now been “kindled”, so if any of you have a Kindle from Amazon, there I am. And I’m doing another “event” in Laguna Beach on September 19th. And Joey Reynolds has asked me to appear on his all night talk show on WOR.
And on this very day, Chita Rivera was handed the highest honor a civilian can achieve in America, the Medal of Freedom, placed upon her and 16 other Americans who’ve achieved much in their various fields of endeavor, placed by President Obama himself. The country owes this gifted lady a lot – I owe her even more.
A short article, but I wanted you to know where I spent Thursday evening, August 6th, at Barnes & Noble doing my one-man show, supported this time by my favorite star. Now if you’re of a mind to know even more about me, to have a couple of laughs along with me, to catch up on your history of the Golden Age of Broadway, hie thee to your laptop or bookstore, and pick up Supporting Player by NY Theatre Buzz’s papa – me. And let me know, as some of you already have, whether it fills the bill.
I’ll be back as soon as things start humming again.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: