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What Is the Stars?

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This week I am allowed to select my own topic, and my choice comes out of recent experience. I just finished watching 11 performances of Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry’s 1971 musical Lolita, My Love, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, in a book-in-hand concert staging presented as part of the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series honoring Lerner’s centenary. I saw all 11 shows because I edited together the script that was used, taking it from six different scripts in the Lerner archives at the Library of Congress. Thanks to the extraordinary direction of Emily Maltby and the sterling work from a phenomenally talented and extremely hardworking company of 13 actors, I was very proud of what was on the York stage and happy to see how well audiences responded to it.

Central to the production’s success was the stunning performance of Robert Sella as Nabokov’s anti-hero, the pedophilic literature professor from Switzerland known as Humbert Humbert, fiction’s most famous unreliable narrator. The character virtually never leaves the stage, as the whole musical takes place in a psychiatrist’s office in which Humbert is being examined by Dr. June Ray as to the state of his sanity. Lolita, My Love had 27 musical numbers, 16 songs and 11 reprises, and Humbert was involved in 24 of them and sang in 16. It’s a mammoth part of extreme psychological complexity that calls for nothing short of a tour de force star performance, and I watched Robby deliver exactly that at every show. I was in awe of him each time.

I started thinking about the idea of “star” performances. I suppose the term means different things to different people, but I realized that for me it means a performance that galvanizes me, whether emotionally, intellectually, or simply in terms of sheer show biz. It leaps across the footlights, grabs me by the throat, and won’t let go. It can be delivered by an actual star, one whose name above the title guarantees ticket sales, but it can also come from an actor who is not at all famous. It often happens in a leading role, but it can also come in a brief appearance. I’ve been fortunate to experience quite a few star turns in my nearly 60 years of theatergoing. Here are 10 of them, in alphabetical order.

Marilyn Cooper in Woman of the Year
Thanks to the magic of the alphabet we begin with possibly the briefest star turn I’ve ever seen. Late in Act 2, famous TV news personality Tess Harding visits with her ex-husband and his second wife to find the secret of their marital success, because her second marriage is on the rocks. Cooper played the wife, Jan, sharing a breakfast scene in her kitchen with the musical’s star, Lauren Bacall, as Tess, and joining with her in a hilarious John Kander and Fred Ebb duet, “The Grass Is Always Greener.” Cooper’s deadly deadpan and Swiss watch comic timing landed consistent belly laughs, and her shlubby housewife in a smatte was a brilliant caricature with just the right amount of honesty simmering underneath. She stole the musical right out from under Bacall and wound up with 1981 Tony and Drama Desk awards for best performance by a featured actress in a musical. Not bad for a mere 13 minutes on stage.

Joel Grey in George M!
Because my high school group visiting from Cleveland saw this bio musical about George M. Cohan at a Wednesday matinee a mere two weeks before it closed in April 1969, we had great center orchestra seats at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. (Usually we were stuck up in the rear balcony.) I already knew Joel Grey from the OBCR of Cabaret, but I was unprepared for his magnetic triple-threat performance, acting, singing, and dancing as the Man Who Owned Broadway with command and élan to spare. It seemed as if director-choreographer Joe Layton’s whirlwind production never stopped moving, the Cohan songs were seriously infectious (even the ones I didn’t know), and 15-year-old me was totally bowled over, especially by the first-act closer, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which put a big old lump in my throat. When the national tour came to Cleveland not long after, I rushed to see the show again. Grey was as great as ever, but I couldn’t help noticing that Michael Stewart and Fran Pascal’s book was a bit thinner than I had thought, too much of an excuse for songs and not enough of a character study. It was an early lesson in developing a more discerning critical eye. Still, nothing can tarnish the glory of that afternoon at the Palace and Grey’s phenomenal performance.

Katharine Hepburn in Coco
Alan Jay Lerner crafted this 1969 musical about French couturier Coco Chanel’s post–World War II comeback specifically for Katharine Hepburn, who at the time was at the height of her international film stardom. In particular, the script’s in-your-face feminism fit the pugnacious Hepburn’s public image like a glove. She responded with an incandescent, incantatory performance that riveted the audience at Cleveland’s Music Hall (the show was on national tour after Broadway) like I have seldom seen since. Hepburn wasn’t much of a singer, but she could put a song across with gusto and switch seamlessly from steel to sentiment in the blink of an eye. She knew she was in a star vehicle and played it to the hilt, delivering unforgettable show biz panache with wit and flair. Brava! (You can see her in the show’s final scene and song, “Always Mademoiselle,” filmed for the 1970 Tony Awards, on YouTube.)

Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
As my husband was the casting director for this 2003 bio musical about Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen, I first encountered Hugh Jackman’s electrifying performance in a small rehearsal studio on 42nd Street during a workshop presentation. The room couldn’t cramp the size and power of Jackman’s overwhelming theatricality, and it was quite clear that something very special was happening. Playwright Martin Sherman’s book was much richer and more political before Broadway, where it underwent an incompetent bris during previews, and as a gay man I was as moved as I was entertained. On Broadway the show featured flash over substance, but Jackman’s work only got better, drilling into the heart of this driven song-and-dance man and infused with a joy of performance that radiated throughout the Imperial Theatre like a thousand suns. It was a privilege to experience it.

Michael Jeter in Grand Hotel
It takes a singular talent to give a star performance while playing a nebbish, but that’s what Michael Jeter did as the dying bookkeeper Otto Kringelein, who has come to Berlin’s Grand Hotel for one fling before expiring, in search of a taste of the high life he has never known. Jeter delivered Kringelein’s shyness and sweetness at high wattage, and though it is a supporting character part, you couldn’t look away from the actor whenever he was on stage. Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest, with a little help from director-choreographer Tommy Tune, came up with the showstopping “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” in which the Jewish Kringelein and the elegant German Baron Felix von Gaigern celebrate their newly made and most unlikely friendship. Jeter’s impossibly frenetic, loose-limbed dancing effortlessly captured the moment’s potent mix of giddy joy and poignant incipient loss. When he hurtles over the bar, crashing out of reality and into momentary nirvana in limbo, I always choke up, and you can watch Jeter and Brent Barrett perform the number on the 1990 Tony Awards on YouTube.

Eartha Kitt in Timbuktu!
Playing Shaleem-La-Lume, wife of wives to the crooked Wazir of Timbuktu, Eartha Kitt was an elemental force of nature, and the brilliant Geoffrey Holder, who directed, choreographed, and designed the costumes, built this 1978 all-black revisal of Kismet around her. Whether entering triumphantly aloft on the shoulder of one of her cadre of muscle-bound bodyguards or smoldering her way through a suggestive recipe for a sweet, Kitt was mesmerizingly sexy, saucy, and salacious. With a simple flash of her eyes she could bring down the house. My ex-husband served as assistant to producer and book writer Luther Davis, so I saw the show many times, and Kitt always gave her all. No, it wasn’t about much of anything, except perhaps the glorification of a magnificent African culture, but it was beautiful to look at, lovely to hear, and fun. A good friend who taught musical theatre performance at the University of New Hampshire called it “children’s theatre for adults,” which struck me as astute and apt. Despite mixed notices it ran for eight months and spawned a successful national tour headed by Kitt, but there was no recording. Still, you can see Kitt make her entrance and sing her establishing song, “In the Beginning, Woman,” one of several new numbers added to the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, on YouTube, as well as her formula for “Rahadlakum,” also on YouTube.

Donna Murphy in Birds of Paradise
If ever there was an ensemble musical, it’s Winnie Holzman and David Evans’ 1987 off-Broadway piece about a group of amateur performers staging a musical version of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull under the direction of an out-of-work Broadway actor. The show had a powerhouse cast of mostly soon-to-break-out actors all doing excellent work, and yet what I recall most vividly is Donna Murphy’s comically concentrated, ironically named Hope, “a thirty-ish depressed feminist.” Murphy was an absolute hoot clad in masculine wear chosen to hide her femininity while drooping fiercely about the stage as she pined for the musical’s author, Homer, who was in love with his leading lady, who was in love with the director, who…you get the idea. Her only solo was a deliberately bad song, “Diva,” from a musical rip off of My Fair Lady that the troupe had originally intended to do, and it didn’t make the cast album. But just listen to her delivery of lines such as “To what end?” in the opening number (when she’s asked if she is going to warm up her voice before performing) and the surprised glee that she gives “Me too!” after another character sings “And I need lingerie” in the title song, as well as her fierce refusal to name her beloved in the same song. It was my first time seeing her on a stage, and afterward I remember remarking to numerous friends, “Donna Murphy! Who is she?”

Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change
Playwright-lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori don’t much care whether you like their titular character, an increasingly bitter and angry African-American maid for an upper-class Jewish family struggling to keep her family afloat in 1963 New Orleans, but they do want you to understand her. Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2003, Tonya Pinkins provided this complex, psychologically layered show with a rock-solid center of gravity, one that still held when the musical moved to the larger confines of Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 2004. If Caroline’s gruffness causes her to be less than articulate at times, Pinkins’ visceral emotional transparency communicated volumes about her roiling, often contradictory feelings. Her delivery of Caroline’s climactic soliloquy, “Lot’s Wife,” in which she tries to murder any hope left in her after she has cruelly lashed out at her employer’s child in anger, begging God, “Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me,” was quite simply one of the most heartbreaking moments of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, one that Pinkins elevated into transcendent art.

Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman
I think this 1993 musical adaptation of Manuel Puig’s classic novel is my favorite Kander and Ebb musical, most likely to due to its bold mix of sexuality and politics. Of course, Terrence McNally’s taut book and Harold Prince’s inspired staging helped too. Playing a beloved and glamorous South American screen icon named Aurora, Rivera was asked to project an image rather than create a fully dimensional character, and she did so with high style, exploiting her own persona ruthlessly. Her presence haunted the musical all night, and she was particularly seductive and sensitive in Aurora’s final deathly pas de deux with Molina, the gay prison inmate who sacrifices his life to protect his cell partner, a heterosexual political revolutionary with whom Molina has fallen in love. I saw Vanessa Williams, Carol Lawrence, and Maria Conchita Alonso in the part as well, and all had plenty to recommend them, but none of them ruled that stage like Rivera.

David Rounds in Herringbone
This audacious one-man musical by Tom Cone (book), Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics), and Skip Kennon (music) ran off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons for a mere 46 performances in the summer of 1982. It tells the story of a young boy in 1929 who becomes possessed by the ghost of a dead midget (they used that word then) entertainer named Chicken and rockets to stardom in vaudeville. David Rounds played all of the characters, who included the boy’s greedy but mystified parents and assorted people they all meet along the way. Rounds gave a kaleidoscopic, virtuosic performance in which you were never once unsure who was talking while displaying musical comedy chops of the highest level in his singing and dancing. His emotions ran the gamut from childlike innocence to adult debauchery and everything in between with crystalline clarity. Alas, it was to be his last role. We lost him to the plague of AIDS in December 1983. It’s a crime that no one recorded him in the role, but at least the show got a much needed waxing in 2012 when a production starring B.D. Wong was recorded for CD release live and in full at Dixon Place. I saw Wong do the show in 2007 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and he was very good, but he wasn’t as good as David Rounds. Nobody could be.

 


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