A Broadway musical gave its last performance this past Sunday afternoon. A sad, but inevitable occurrence that happens every season. But more significantly, it was the last performance for a beautiful old theatre which is now set to be destroyed. And as builders prepare to erect a skyscraper in its place, another cultural landmark is lost.
If you're like me you arrive at the theatre early enough to linger around and consider the history of where you are. When I walk into the Lunt-Fontanne I don't just think of my first Broadway show (Rex in 1976), but also that I'm entering the space where, when it was called The Globe, Irving Berlin's 1915 musical Stop! Look! Listen! helped introduce audiences to ragtime in its infancy. The Alvin Theatre (now The Neil Simon) is not only where I first heard the overture to Merrily We Roll Along, but also where in 1930 an unknown Ethel Merman stunned audiences and became an overnight sensation singing "I Got Rhythm" in Girl Crazy.
The theatre I attended Sunday afternoon has gone by several names, but I'll stick to the one engraved in marble across its neo-Georgian facade (which fortunately has been designated a landmark and will remain in tact) since 1918, Henry Miller's Theatre. In a time when it wasn't unusual for performers such as George M. Cohan, Lew Fields, Ethel Barrymore and Al Jolson to star in theatres named after themselves (Imagine seeing Gypsy at The Bernadette Peters Theatre.), actor/producer Miller grew tired of leasing the Princess Theatre from the Shuberts and built a playhouse that reminded him of his English youth. The interior was decorated in lovely Georgian style, giving it an elegant drawing room atmosphere and, going against the trend of one-balcony theatres, he insisted on a second balcony where seats could be sold at an inexpensive price -- the way he attended theatre in his youth.
Although none of the plays produced by and starring Miller were of major significance, notable plays that premiered at Miller's Theatre include Noel Coward's The Vortex (starring the author), P.G. Wodehouse's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's The Play's the Thing, T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, Agatha Christie's Witness For the Prosecution and Joseph Stein's Enter Laughing. Three oddly named musicals graced Henry Miller's Theatre: La, La, Lucille (a Gershwin show that was followed on Broadway by No, No, Nanette and Yes, Yes, Yvette), Hello, Solly! (a one-man revue starring Mickey Katz, which played while his son, Joel Grey, was appearing a couple blocks north in Cabaret.) and The Nervous Set, a short-lived musical which introduced the jazz standard "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men".
But the greatest moment in that theatre's history came on a February evening in 1938, when Frank Craven looked out at the audience from a bare stage and informed them "The name of this play is 'Our Town.'" Thornton Wilder's warm drama about the significance of everyday living is perhaps the most performed and most beloved of all American plays, especially when it comes to high school and amateur productions.
As was the fate of many Broadway houses in the 1970's, Henry Miller's Theatre became an X-rated movie house. Then it became a disco. I remember being there the night Lucille Ball passed away. As the music blared, as usual, the video monitors showed TV clips of the grape-stomping scene, the candy factory and Vitameatavegamin, while proclaiming "We Loved Lucy, 1911-1989."
Ironically, the state of disrepair it had sunk to by the 1990's made Henry Miller's Theatre the perfect venue for its last four productions. The nightclub tables were kept and the seating capacity was diminished when the gritty, environmental Donmar Warehouse production of Cabaret moved in. It would have become the longest running show in the theatre's history had not a construction accident closed the space for an indefinite period of time, forcing the show to move to Studio 54. When it was safe to enter again, the off-Broadway hit Rollin' on the T.O.B.A., a revue recalling the last days of black vaudeville run by the Theatre Owners' Booking Agency (known by the performers as Tough On Black Asses), moved in roughly a month before the Tony deadline for the 1998-99 season. With the lack of new hit musicals around the producers of Rollin... made the move expecting several nominations, but were surprised to hear that the space's new, smaller seating capacity disqualified it from Tony consideration, and that an exception had been made for Cabaret because of the pedigree of those involved and the artistic necessity of playing in a smaller house. With no chance of a nomination, they closed in two weeks.
On New Year's Eve, 2000, I had a ticket in hand for the theatre's newest tenant, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but by curtain time 43rd Street was closed for the celebration and police were not allowing playgoers near the theatre. After showing my ticket to several officers I finally found one who let me through the barricades, but those who had tickets waiting for them at the box office were denied entry. By that time, Henry Miller's Theatre's next, last, longest running and certainly most unusual production was already creating a buzz around town.
Much has been written in the press about the genesis and early history of Urinetown. Most New York playgoing regulars can tell you how the idea for the show came to book writer and co-lyricist Greg Kotis while discovering that Paris was not only the City of Light but the City of Pay Toilets -- creating despirite times for a tourist trying to stretch his last few francs. It's become common knowledge that Kotis and co-lyricist/composer Mark Hollmann took the idea of a monopolizing corporation claiming to be helping save a town from drought by strictly regulating its citizens' right to urinate, and giddily set out to write a musical that no one would ever want to produce. And at first, they were right... nobody wanted to produce it. But the New York International Fringe Festival, then going into its 3rd season, doesn't ask how producible your show is. You fill out the forms properly, you pay the fee and you're in.
Fringe cast member Rob Maitner, who played Mr. McQueen (a much larger role at the time) recalls the rehearsal period: "From the first read-through, we knew this was something special. The cast was a motley crew who were all very funny. Rarely are actors in New York given such golden material, particularly in an off-off Broadway situation. Listening to Mark Hollmann attempt to play and sing the entire score during the read through was inspiring. The entire rehearsal period was truly blissful because the material was just so incredibly strong. We just prayed for an audience."
And they got one. "For three weeks", Maitner remembers "we were the show to see. The theatre sat 64 people and we consistently packing in 115-120 people into that unairconditioned space. And no one ever left. It was beyond anything I've ever experienced. It was so trippy because I was being recognized in the 'real world' as a cast member. You have to remember, the festival had never seen anything like this. For the first couple of years, it was this free-wheeling celebration with dubious artistic merits. We changed all of that. We gave that festival the credibility it (and the off-off Broadway movement) deserves. And all the while we kept hearing that we would transfer the show as is to another off-off space and hopefully build it to an off-Broadway run. It went to our heads a bit."
Of course, the off-Broadway run did eventually come, but (with one notable exception) without the Fringe cast. Maitner takes a "that's the business" attitude at new Director John Rando's decision to go with more experienced Broadway names, but what hurt was that, after such a successful run at The Fringe, a feeling was passed along that the original cast just wasn't professional enough or good enough. "It's gotten to the point where I may just take it off my resume. Which kills me because I was so proud of that work. Agents and Casting Directors give you the look of 'And why didn't you move with the show?' (But) no matter what else transpired, I was a part of the history of a Tony-winning Broadway show."
The one Fringe cast member who was retained by Rando was, of course, Spencer Kayden, who didn't even want to be in the show at first. A friend and co-collaborator with Kotis with Chicago's Neo-Futurists Experimental Theatre Group Kayden explained when she appeared on Seth's Rudetsky's Broadway Chatterbox that she told her friend she didn't sing or dance, so she might as well skip this project. Ironically, not being able to sing or dance (at least in the traditional Broadway sense) was one of the qualities that made her Little Sally work so well.
John Cullum thought his agent was playing a joke by sending him the script. On the same edition of Chatterbox he recalled telling his wife with disdain, "They have a song called 'Snuff the Girl'?" "This is the money song they want me to sing." he complained while reading her the lyric to "Don't Be the Bunny". Her reaction? "I think it's funny." And when Cullum discovered that people like John Rando, Jeff McCarthy and Nancy Opel were also involved he began to wonder if there was something special about the script he hadn't noticed.
So a genuine musical theatre legend and a cast with an impressive list of Broadway credits crammed themselves into the tiny dressing room of the American Theatre of Actors, located in a not-so-savory part of 54th Street above a courtroom and police precinct. After opening on April Fools Days Urinetown was again one of the hottest tickets in town and before the run was finished a Broadway move was announced. Opening night was to be September 13th, 2001.
By September 12th, 2001, the media had begun proclaiming "The Death of Irony" and wondered how long it would be before we could ever laugh again. One of Urinetown's major plot points involved people being thrown off of a building. It wasn't easy, but when performances resumed and a September 20th opening was re-scheduled, people did go to the theatre and laugh. Not as loudly as they laughed on September 10th, but that would come in time.
The controversy that followed Urinetown's failure to win the Tony Award as Best Musical was not the typical which-did-you-like-better debate. Never before had a musical won the awards for Best Book, Best Score and Best Director without winning Best Musical. Could it be that having the best material and the best execution of that material was not enough to be considered worthy of Broadway's highest honor? With Broadway musical tickets costing as much as $100 had the importance of dazzle and style superseded the importance of writing and interpretation? Urinetown's satirical strength was steeped in amateurism. It seemed made to look slapped together on a low budget by an underground theatre company that had a great deal of passion, but little theatrical know-how beyond what they could copy from others. The set was sparse and the costumes were dirty and torn. Choreographer John Carrafa explained on the Tony broadcast that he intentionally created dances that were too hard for the actors to do, adding to the unpolished feel of the show. Such work appropriately interpreted the text, but was not the type that wins awards. In addition, the ensemble nature of the piece provided no leading roles large enough to merit serious consideration in the lead acting categories.
Urinetown was never meant to to be a long-term guest at Henry Miller's Theatre, now owned by The Durst Organization. Plans for the theatre's destruction to make room for a skyscraper were in the works before the move to Broadway was made and those involved have expressed appreciation for allowing the run to extend as long as it did.
Closing performances on Broadway are much like Irish wakes. Fans of the show return for one last hurrah (I was sitting behind a woman who was attending her 200th performance.) and to wish the actors well. Entrance and exit applause is abundant and jokes get ovations after their laughs. From my second row seat I could see Jeff McCarthy mouthing "thank you" to familiar faces in the audience after the opening number. His cry of "Hail Malthus" at the show's conclusion was shouted back at him by most of the crowd, and when Spencer Kayden, as Little Sally, asked her final "Can't we do a happy musical next time?", his reply of "If there is a next time, Little Sally, I'm sure we can." was greeted with long, warm, hopeful applause."
A 900 seat, state of the art theatre is planned to be a part of the new skyscraper on 43rd Street. Perhaps 85 years from now it'll be torn down to make way for another new building, and theatre lovers will remember it as the stage where a great American drama written by an author who hasn't even been born yet was first seen. But for now we have the memory of a space where two narrators, roughly 63 years apart, wandered onto a bare stage and began telling the story of a town "like any other town". Thank you, Henry Miller, and good night.
For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com