There aren’t a whole lot of new works this summer, just plenty of old works getting revitalized or limited runs that might be over before you know about them. The bloodless revival (thanks for nothing, Trevor Nunn) of “A Little Night Music”, now that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury have departed, is closed for retooling and will soon reopen with the fabulous Bernadette Peters and the mega-fabulous Elaine Stritch, respectively. Now there’s a pair that will do their best to overcome the pedestrian direction and the teeny-tiny band to bring new life to one of Stephen Sondheim’s lushest musicals. If any pair can work that kind of magic, it’s Miss Stritch and Miss Peters. Surprisingly, this particular production has already run longer on Broadway than it did in the West End, from whence it came. On the other hand, the West End has seen more revivals of this work than Broadway has, in particular, a 1995 revival that starred Judi Dench and knocked the socks off Mr. Nunn’s re-imagining and dumbing down of a classic. We shall see what the grand ladies of musical theater accomplish in the weeks to come. I’ll bet they turn it on its ear. It’s going to take a lot to erase the memory of the incredible Ms. Dench from my mind.
Speaking of my mind (Achhh, what a twisted place to venture)…this particular brain pan of mine was stirred to boiling recently when I saw the new A.R. Gurney play, “The Grand Manner” downstairs at Lincoln Center Theatre in the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. I was looking forward to another memory play from Mr. Gurney just to see what he hadn’t yet told us about his somewhat privileged upbringing, actually thinking there was little more he could possibly have to offer. Well, this turns out to be a memory play AND a fantasy/memory play at the same time. I’ll tell you why. Once upon a time, young Pete Gurney traveled down from prep school into the wilds of Manhattan to see a production of Shakespeare’s “Antony And Cleopatra” starring the legendary (even then) Katherine Cornell. Miss Cornell in 1948 was at the height of her powers, was being wooed by television(which she disdained), but saw the writing on the wall as far as how far her career was going to go. But I get ahead of myself.
Because Miss Cornell came from Buffalo, young Pete, also from Buffalo, managed to arrange a meeting backstage after the show. He met Miss Cornell, she offered him a Coca-Cola, he declined, and that was that. NOTHING ELSE HAPPENED. But through the magic of playwriting and imagination, our narrator, played by the rising young star, Bobby Steggert, informs us he decided to expand on their brief meeting and create a play out of what might have happened. What follows is a replay of their brief meeting that becomes a meditation on life and career and sexuality and “the grand manner”. And what follows in this piece you’re reading is a segway of enormous proportions.
Many years ago, practically back in the Ice Age, I was a college student whose mentor was a man by the name of Michael Kelly. Michael was a magazine publisher, a raconteur, an amazing font of theatrical knowledge and someone who knew people like Andres Segovia and Leonard Bernstein and Gore Vidal, and yes, Katherine Cornell. And one lovely evening he presented me with a birthday gift I have kept to this day. It had been given to him by Miss Cornell on his birthday, and he passed it down to me. It was Katherine Cornell’s rehearsal script of the 1948 Broadway production of “Antony And Cleopatra”, complete with notes, cuts in the script, changes in dialogue, and on the first page, a yellowed sticker identifying the script as the property of C. & McC. Productions, Inc., 1270 Sixth Avenue, NY NY. (NO ZIP CODES BACK THEN, KIDS) And written below in her own hand, Cornell’s address-23 Beekman Place. And I had forgotten about this wonderful gift until I saw “The Grand Manner” and realized I had more invested in this piece than I’d thought I’d have. The play became infinitely more interesting to me because of my little treasure, but I certainly learned more about Miss Cornell than I’d known before, or even needed to know. The McC on the sticker was her husband, Guthrie McClintic, here played by the terrific Boyd Gaines, who, as Mr. Gurney feels the need to inform us, was a husband in name only, since both Miss Cornell and Mr. McClintic were drawn to those of their own sex. Didn’t really need to know that, but it does provide Mr. Gaines with a terrific little near-seduction scene that considerably livens up the piece. Mr. McClintic also directed all of Miss Cornell’s productions, oftimes to disastrous results. “Antony And Cleopatra” was one of those disasters, apparently. It’s mentioned in the play that a young actor named Charlton Heston was a spear-carrier in that production. It neglects to mention Tony Randall was another. It’s a wisp of a play, yet it is charming and old-fashioned, and well-played, and the luminous Kate Burton plays the heck out of Katherine Cornell.
Interestingly, I have a tiny bone to pick with Mr. Gurney. Much is made in “The Grand Manner” about some lines that were cut in that production of “Antony And Cleopatra” back then, because the lines were deemed too racy for Miss Cornell’s audiences. Total invention by Mr. Gurney. I checked my copy of the script. The lines are there. There’s a lot that was cut for the sake of time and exposition, but the line “Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears…” isn’t one of them. But then, as Mr. Steggert’s Pete Gurney informs us, the encounter is of his own invention and after all, the playwright’s the boss.
“The Grand Manner” is all there for the taking. My copy of Miss Cornell’s script, however, remains mine all mine.
Finally, a few thoughts on the recent Tony Awards. Down in the mosh pit in front of the stage as special guests of dear Yvette, we were up close and personal and saw all the silly stuff the audience at home didn’t get to see. For instance, the ENTIRE first hour of the awards, which included several awards that belonged on the main 3 hour show, not relegated to a one hour throwaway on NY1. Marian Seldes, a legend in American theater, received a lifetime achievement award and because she’d been instructed to keep it really really short in her acceptance remarks, she chose not to say a single word, simply smiling at the audience and slowly shuffling off the stage with the aid of an instrument one had never seen her use before- a cane. Always a gentleman, and a damned classy one, David Hyde Pierce gave a most heartfelt speech explaining his involvement in an Alzheimer’s foundation, simply by instructing the audience to never take for granted the phrase, “I’ll never forget….”, because there is no guarantee you’ll pull off a seemingly simple feat such as that. It’s never as easy as that. He had a hushed Radio City Music Hall audience in thrall and in tears. Did I call this “silly stuff”? Hardly. These were two of the greatest pieces of an otherwise overdone show. And hardly anyone got to see them. A real shame. You want a silly moment? How about Fran Weissler, 82 years young, zipping up the stairs from her seat to be the first to remark on the Tony win for “La Cage Aux Folles”, before any of the other producers were out of their seats. How about Sean Hayes, dressed as Little Orphan Annie, extolling Bernadette Peters while tearing a new one for oil giant BP, all in the same breath. How about the look on Beyonce’s face, off-camera, after Lea Michelle tried to sing “Don’t Rain On My Parade” directly to her at one point. I thought there’d be fisticuffs! How about Jackie Hoffman, reading from Ethel Merman’s biography in Merman’s voice? How about all those hunks in drag from “La Cage” adjusting their backsides before appearing in camera range? Never mind there were a few unnamed artists who won awards and didn’t deserve them. It’s politics, baby, and that will never change. Just because you’re a Hollywood star still carries weight with some. But, oh my, I did get to see Kelsey Grammar pop an entire slider into his gob later on at the party, when he thought no one was watching, practically swallowing the little sucker whole.
Honey, I was watching. And it wasn’t pretty.