the occasional thoughts of a theater fan
This post is dedicated to the memory of one my early theater pals (and high school/college friend), Tom Murphy. So many of my theater memories in the late 70's and early 80's involve seeing shows in DC and NYC with him: Evita, Cats, Brigadoon, Dancin' and so many more at The National Theatre in Washington; and on Broadway: Woman of the Year with Lauren Bacall, Lunch Hour with Gilda Radner and the play that comes to mind today, Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson.
I am particularly thinking of Tom now because of something he once said to me, as we sat in his childhood bedroom, hugging pillows and talking about dreams and wishes. He told me, with frustration, that all he really wanted was the white picket fence, the kids, the family; but that as a gay man who couldn't be open about who he loved, he felt as if he was destined for a life of one-night stands and anonymous sex in bar bathrooms. "How can I fall in love?," he asked "when I can't speak the name of that love?" It breaks my heart that AIDS claimed him before the age of 40; long before he could have walked down the aisle to marry a man he loved. I'm sure he never thought either of us would see the day the Supreme Court would hand down the decision it did last week. I certainly didn't.
We saw Fifth of July on Broadway together, on Friday, Jul 17, 1981. It was the original cast, but for Richard Thomas replacing Christopher Reeve as Kenneth Talley, Jr. We were thrilled to see Swoosie Kurtz in her Tony Award-winning role, and were moved and deeply affected by the show. Richard Thomas' performance has stayed with me for years. I remember talking and talking on the train heading back to Prospect Park, Brooklyn (our home with a friend for a theater weekend)...about how the Viet Nam war had impacted each of us, and how remarkable it was that the lead character was a gay, paraplegic veteran. In that era, finding a non-stereotypical personification of a gay man was like finding a unicorn.
Here's an excerpt about the play from a Berkshire on Stage review of a 2010 production of the play at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, that explains this sea-change:
"So why is Fifth of July considered a great American play? When I first saw it with Christopher Reeve in the role of Ken Talley and Jeff Daniels as Jed, it was the first time you could see two men kissing each other openly on stage. Once the word leaked out via the underground press, tickets were hot items as mainstream audiences – supplemented by gay ticket buyers – stormed the box office as the play, begun off Broadway with William Hurt, moved to Broadway with Christopher Reeve and then Richard Thomas, and moved in for a long run with many Kenny and Jeds over the two following years. “I saw Superman/John Boy Walton kiss another man,” was the sort of invaluable word-of-mouth that helped this show to run for 511 performances."
I honestly don't remember a lot of specifics about that night. I remember that we were so excited to be in the Orchestra (Row H, far to the side for the astronomical sum of $25.00, so much to pay for recent college-graduates with entry level jobs), but truly, we were just happy to be at a Broadway show.
To refresh my memory today, I pulled out my Playbill from 32 years ago next week (you can see how I feel about theater keepsakes from my Feb, '12, "Thanks for the Memories" post :)). Paging through this "snapshot of an era" gave me some amusing (and telling) glimpses back to those days of $25 Broadway show prices, and a theatre named The New Apollo (a reincarnation of the original Apollo Theatre from the 1920s; read more at PlaybillVault.com).
Along with the wonderful reminders of the play itself, there are also some other gems, like this peek at the line-up of shows at the time:
For the record, within the next couple of years after this, I would see Evita, Annie, Barnum, Children of a Lesser God, Woman of the Year, Dancin', They're Playing Our Song and Sophisticated Ladies. It took me a bit longer for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and A Chorus Line. There are still more to see from this list too.
And below is a feature, "Dear Playbill," that really made me feel as if I was reading a magazine about theater, not just a program for that particular show.
A venerable, lasting part of the Playbill, the "At This Theatre," always seems to generate conversations amongst my fellow audience-members before the lights dim, and at intermission. I've overheard many an exclamation along the lines of "I knew I'd been here before!! This is the theatre where we saw __________!!"
Cigarette ads anyone? I count 6 from this issue; including two two-pagers and the back cover. You can also find an ad for furs (real ones :)!) and the below ad for what you did for quick cash before the days of ATMs. Note the way you operated the phone...that would be a dial.
An advertisement in Playbill is all the more grand with an endorsement from the then-star of Woman of the Year, the great Lauren Bacall.
Aside: One of my favorite jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, breathtaking life moments was, 12 years later, having Lauren Bacall, her son Sam Robards and others make a grand entrance into Spago (on Sunset Blvd in LA), and brush past me on the way to their table. All any of us at the table could utter for a full minute was "Oh.My.God."
Back to the present day. This past spring, I was once again fortunate enough to see a production of one of Lanford Wilson's plays at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, Talley's Folly, and loved the passion and humanity of the writing and the characters. Somehow, I had not made the connection that this play was part of Wilson's trilogy, and came between the first, Talley & Son, and Fifth of July. I am clearly working backwards in this series, and will now have to find a production of Talley & Son, to complete the journey. What a treat to now have some additional context for the story that had such an impact on me 32 years ago.
And just yesterday, I spent the Fourth, as I have for many years, at my aunt and uncle's longtime home, just across the street from the house Tom grew up in; a house in which we had so many marvelous, wonder-filled conversations about the theater...and life.
So, to Tom, and to all my theater-loving friends of today with whom I have equally marvelous, seemingly-endless, conversations, thanks for the memories...and here's to many more fifths of July from which to drink!!