Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Villager Theater Review

The Playbills of Broadway’s past
A Villager theater critic uncovers a trove of theater history

By Scott Harrah

A little more than three years ago, I went to a performance of “Wicked” by myself. As a freelance theater critic for numerous publications, this was a normal occurrence for me at the time, since none of my friends enjoyed the theater. They found Broadway to be too expensive and musicals to be corny, and I either had to force them to see shows with me, or I had to go alone. So there I was at “Wicked,” sitting in the dark theater as I watched the audience clap and cheer after each scene. I wasn’t enjoying the show at all — family musicals just aren’t my thing — and I seriously considered walking out after the first act, but I had paid far too much for my ticket and decided to stick around and see if act two might be better.

As the lights came up and intermission began, I grabbed my coat and noticed the man sitting next to me, smiling.

“I take it from the look on your face that you also think this show is pure dreck,” he said.

“Am I that obvious?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I think we’re the only two people here who haven’t applauded once.” 

He extended his hand for me to shake and introduced himself as David. We went outside the theater and spent the entire intermission ripping the show apart.

David Nounou and I became fast friends. While I have always loved the theater since I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, and even had a play I wrote produced in college, it wasn’t until I met David that I was able to seriously discuss Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and all the great playwrights with another person. David introduced me to the true world of theater with his extensive knowledge and regaled me with stories from his many years of theatergoing in Manhattan — years he has documented extensively. The first time he invited me over to his apartment before a show, I was shocked to learn that he had an entire walk-in closet of Playbills dating as far back as 1959, when he was just 11 years old. He also has a handful of Playbills for shows produced before he was born, such as the original 1943 Playbill for “Oklahoma.” Over the past three years, he has shown me countless notebooks with his own handwritten reviews of every show he’s ever seen, as well as the ticket stubs and books chronicling the exact seat in which he sat for each show.

I recently sat down with David and asked him to talk about his longtime obsession and his huge collection of Playbills. “I am not a frustrated critic or an ex-actor,” he explained. “I don’t collect sweatshirts from ‘Les Miz,’ mugs from ‘Lion King,’ or masks from ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ I don’t collect knickknacks that may or may not have been used by Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera in the ill-fated musical ‘The Rink.’ Instead, I am a well-adjusted New Yorker whose hobby and love just happens to be the theater.”

I’ve always understood why he collects Playbills from each show, but why the ticket stubs? “The stub gives me the date, theater, seat assigned and price,” he said. “The price is especially notable. In an age of so many revivals, it’s mind-boggling to see that I paid $15 for my seat to ‘A Chorus Line’ in 1975 versus $111.25 today.”

I asked him to compile a list some of his favorite shows, particularly those for which he still has a Playbill. “In selecting these, it doesn’t mean they are the best shows, but something within them held my imagination and the memories of them are still indelible in my mind,” he said. “That’s what a magical moment in the theater should be.”

His list is in no particular order or preference; only chronological order, and all are the original productions that he saw during his first 16 years of theatergoing.

“Jamaica,” 1959
This was the first show David ever saw at age 11. What does he remember most about it? “My uncle was dumped by his girlfriend, didn’t go himself, and instead sent my older brother and me,” he said. “I sat there amazed and joyously confused. I wondered how all this action was taking place. Where were all these people onstage coming from and where were they going to after they finished their song and dance? Where was the music coming from? All I could think of is that by singing, dancing, having colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and such a wonderful score, the show possessed the magic to transport me to Jamaica. And the lovers who led me there were none other than Ricardo Montalban and Lena Horne. I knew them from watching too many MGM musicals. What a glorious way to start.” He adds that, in those days, if a child was lucky enough to go to the theater, “he or she saw grown-up, originally created shows that stimulated and opened the mind and world to all possibilities…They didn’t have the family-oriented drivel musicals that are manufactured today.” 

“West Side Story,” 1960 
“The magic was in the music,” David said, “Nothing could ever prepare you for it. It was cool. The choreography by Jerome Robbins was unforgettable. I never saw such storytelling interpreted through song and dance. The lovers were Maria and Tony, portrayed in song and dance by Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. However, the most exciting character to me was Anita portrayed by the incomparable Chita Rivera. She was electric. She has mesmerized me from her first entrance to the present day. To date, she has never given a bad performance but unfortunately, she’s performed in her share of turkeys.”

“The Night of the Iguana,” 1962
Although David considers Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” to be one of the best American dramas of all time, he never saw the original — only revivals. So he was especially intrigued to see this classic in its original production. “To see Bette Davis, a star of such magnitude, in a Tennessee Williams play was nothing short of orgasmic,” he said. “However, once the curtain went up and Margaret Leighton made her entrance as Hannah Jelkes — one of Williams’s best heroines — she was incandescent. The consummate stage actress and perfectionist that you never take your eyes off of. She won the reviews, the ovations, and the Tony, and Bette left shortly thereafter to do ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” 1963
“Edward Albee in all his glory,” David said of this classic. “I was too young to fully understand all that was happening onstage back then. However, I knew I was seeing something new for the stage, with raw, exposed performances by Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill as Martha and George. When this play is done well, it’s astounding, as witnessed by the recent revival starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin — the rawest incarnation to date.”

“Barefoot in the Park,” 1964
David calls this comedy “Neil Simon at his sophisticated best.” He cites impeccable direction by Mike Nichols and the “gorgeous casting” of Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley as newlyweds in the beginning of their careers. He adds that this is a remarkable comedy that “still holds up if it is cast properly, directed well, and the humor is not forced.” Unfortunately, he adds, last year’s revival “was guilty of not living up to the three things I just named.”

“Funny Girl,” 1964
What was so remarkable about this show? “Two words—Barbra Streisand,” David said. “Even then, as a kid, I was smart enough to know I wasn’t seeing a musical about Fanny Brice.” The clue? “Oh, those glorious stiletto nails and expressive, long fingers,” he laughs. “From her opening, ‘I’m the Greatest Star,’ you knew this was going to be all about Miss S passing as Miss S in costume. She ruled that stage at age 22. You knew that you were witnessing a great diva coming to fruition, at a time when the word diva only applied to opera singers.”

“Mame,” 1966
This musical adaptation of Patrick Dennis’s best-selling memoir of his eccentric aunt (and the 1958 movie starring Rosalind Russell) is particularly memorable for David. “Angela Lansbury—God, how I wished she was my aunt,” he said. “Her high kicks in a gold lame outfit, blowing a bugle atop a piano, gave me one big, theatrical goose bump. Angela’s a monumental actress that I had the wonderful fortune to see in ‘Gypsy,’ ‘Dear World,’ ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and many more. She’s the best actress a musical could have as its lead.”

“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,”1968
“Zoe Caldwell as Jean Brodie was the best performance by an actress in a drama to date,” David said. “She made every move, every gesture a delicious moment to savor.” He saw her three times in the play and said the role was hers each time. “I was never much into teachers, but somehow it felt natural to be a student of hers,” he continues. “For years, I fantasized she was teaching me about art, music, and beauty.” He said he was disappointed with the current revival of the show, starring Cynthia Nixon as the unusual Scottish schoolteacher Jean Brodie. “This play can only work and be well received if it is cast properly,” he said. What modern-day star would he like to see portray Jean Brodie? “An actress with the dramatic force of a hurricane named Cate Blanchett.”

“The Boys in the Band,” 1968
David believes this groundbreaking drama by Mart Crowley was monumental for its day because it was the first drama to show eight distinct gay male personalities. “No longer the confidant hairdresser or the fluttery decorator, they were eight different men attending what was supposed to be a fun birthday party that turned nihilistic by the end of the evening,” he said. “It was revolutionary then, but dated now because so many plays since then have used the same premise and have become poor imitations that have diluted the original.”

“Follies,” 1971
For fans of Stephen Sondheim, this is the one show nearly everyone calls their favorite, and David is no exception. “It’s my favorite musical of all time,” he said. “The most opulent and intricate show of the time. It was bliss—from Sondheim’s sublime, jagged first note, a glorious ghost of a former showgirl in a breathtaking black sequined gown and a Follies headdress, glided across a bare stage with only a spotlight following her. It was from that single moment that you knew this was going to be a show unlike any that would ever be seen again.” David was especially intrigued by the all-star cast headed by Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, and Yvonne De Carlo and “the best costumes on any stage, ever.”

He said the book by James Goldman blended the past and present of the lives of showgirls in the most intricate of patterns. “The brilliant and imaginative direction by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett doing double duty as choreographer moved the show along like precision clockwork,” he said. “Unfortunately, the only way to see it now is as a tacky revival. It’s just too exorbitant a price tag to reproduce this masterpiece.”

“A Chorus Line,” 1975
“Does this brilliant show need any explanation?” David said. He believes the musical is a testament and tribute to any dancer. “Most people who saw the original went back and saw it again,” he explained. “That cast captured the essence and desperation of a dancer in need of a job. Upon each viewing, it retained its vibrancy.” He has some advice for future producers of the show. “Please don’t revive it if you can’t get a cast that can feel it and respect it.” And what does he think about the current revival? “It is an exact replica,” he said. “However, it lacks the earnestness and desperation of every dancer that the original had, and this makes the story seem empty and unfulfilled.”

Shows So Bad, They’re Good
David saved the proverbial best for last. “The above-mentioned shows were the thrilling, exciting, magical moments that come when all the pieces fall together perfectly to create the greater whole,” he said. “However, for the sadist in all of us, there is another form of theater that is equally satisfying in a giddy, absurd manner, where nothing comes together and a show’s dubious distinction is how wretched it is. We call this the ‘train wreck.’ A true train wreck is not about being bad or boring because boring in the theater is unforgivable. The true train wreck falls in the mind-numbing, jaw-dropping, head-shaking, unbelievable realm of ‘what were they thinking of when the creators decided to do this mess?’ ” 

David explained that this type of show has to be so “ludicrously bad that you are laughing uncontrollably when there is nothing funny to laugh at.” Why do shows this awful get produced? “The egos and the maniacal drive of the show’s creators are so huge that they can’t see what the audience will eventually be seeing,” he said. “To them, they see perfection. To us, we see something strictly delusional.”

He cited two of Broadway’s all-time worst “train wrecks” he’s ever seen as examples:

“Carrie [The Musical],” 1988
“Picture the 1976 movie as a musical—I am not kidding, a musical,” David said. “At the performance I saw, the audience was dumbstruck and howling with joy in all the pathetic and absurd places.” David pointed out one scene that defined the sheer lunacy of the show. “Who can ever forget the scene where the stage parted in the middle, with red and orange lights beaming upward and the chorus jumped into this pit to slaughter a pig to extricate blood for the prom scene?” he said, laughing hysterically. “With the sound of squealing pigs in the background, the dancing chorus jumped into the pit and had blood squirting all over them as they hacked at an imaginary offstage pig while blood shot across the stage. It was theater nirvana.” The show closed three days after it opened in May 1988, but it inspired a generation of theater aficionados that love “train wrecks,” and the female lead was featured on the cover of Ken Mandelbaum’s book “Not Since ‘Carrie’: 40 Years of Broadway Flops.”

“The Blonde in the Thunderbird,” 2005
This show, described in ads as a “one-woman musical joyride” and a “musical autobiography,” was supposed to be an inspiring retelling of the life of “Three’s Company” star Suzanne Somers and her childhood battle with an alcoholic father, her first movie role as a blonde in a Thunderbird in “American Graffiti” (hence the show’s title), her rise and fall in Hollywood, how she beat cancer, and her subsequent success as a best-selling author and TV saleswoman shilling cookbooks, a line of dietary products, fashions, and that infamous exercise gadget, the ThighMaster. In the show, while sporting a feather boa, she sang songs from old movie musicals such as “If I Only Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz,” although it wasn’t at all clear how the songs related to her life. David’s reaction? “Never was an ego so large and talent so limited to pass itself off as a one-woman show on Broadway,” he said. “Gosh, I really give Suzanne—or, as she kept calling herself throughout the show, Suzie—credit for coming back on that stage for seven more performances after opening night, when the critics savagely skewered and butchered her.”

He said she should have closed after the opening. So why didn’t she? “In a train wreck, the ego is so big that there is no stopping it,” he said. “Therefore, there is no way of stopping the demented pleasure that’s bestowed upon the audience.” He remembers that for her finale, “Suzie” rolled out a pushcart prominently displaying the ThighMaster and all the products she sells on the Home Shopping Network. “I hear Elaine Stritch is still green with envy,” David said.

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