Friday, February 17, 2012

The Past Week In Theatre History (Feb.13 - Feb. 17)

 The Past Week In Theatre History: February 13 - 17

By Robert Viagas, David Gewirtzman,
Ernio Hernandez and Anne Bradley

1882    Birthday of John Barrymore (1882-1942), actor in the grand style, and scion of the Barrymore acting clan. Though he began as a light comedian, he became identified with the classics, notably Hamlet, before turning to drink.

1898    Birthday of Broadway leading lady and producer Katharine Cornell (1898-1974), who starred in and/or produced A Bill of Divorcement, The Age of Innocence, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Alien Corn, Jezebel, Saint Joan, The Wingless Victory, No Time for Comedy, Candida and Dear Liar.

1905    Birthday of composer Harold Arlen (1905-1986) a cantor's son who cut his musical teeth in 1920s Harlem, and went on to write music for Broadway shows, Star and Garter. Jamaica, House of Flowers and Saratoga as well as for the MGM film musical The Wizard of Oz.

1918    Al Jolson stars in Sigmund Romberg's musical parody Sinbad at the Winter Garden Theatre. It runs 164 performances.

1919    It's a spoof of operettas at the Cohan and Harris Theatre in New York. The Royal Vagabond, with a score by Anselm Goetzel added to by George M Cohan and Irving Berlin, will run 208 performances.

1930    George and Ira Gershwin provide music and lyrics for Strike Up the Band. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind conjure up an American war against Switzerland all in the name of chocolate. Of course, it's just a dream. Dudley Clements, Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough star. The tasty battle runs six months.

1939    Lillian Hellman forages the old South and comes up with The Little Foxes.Tallulah Bankhead leads the cast in this drama that will run for 410 performances at the National Theatre in New York.

1946    Birthday of tap-dancer/actor Gregory Hines (1946-2003), featured in Eubie!, Comin' Uptown, Sophisticated Ladies and Jelly's Last Jam.

1950    Before TV's "Hazel" typecast her as a frumpy maid, Shirley Booth won a Tony for starring in William Inge's drama, Come Back, Little Sheba. Co-star Sidney Blackmer would also take home a Tony for this Theatre Guild production. Best Play, however, went to T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party.

1959    Gertrude Berg plays a Jewish mother who charms Japanese widower (Cedric Hardwicke) in A Majority of One. This comedy by Leonard Spigelgass will run at the Shubert Theatre for 556 performances. It will return to the stage in 1999 at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.

1965    Opening night for the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street at the Broadway Theatre, starring Fritz Weaver as the detective, Inga Swenson as the love interest, and Martin Gabel as Moriarty. It runs 311 performances.

1968    George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton star in a trio of one-act comedies by Neil Simon, collectively titled Plaza Suite. It runs 1,097 performances and is followed by several other Simon "Suite" plays, California Suite, London Suite and others.

1972    What are the chances for a little rock musical about a high school summer romance that spills into the school year? Pretty good, apparently. Grease opens today, riding a wave of 50s nostalgia that will make it (briefly) the longest running show in Broadway history (3,388 performances), followed by a film version that becomes one of the most successful movie musicals (and soundtracks) ever. It's the first Broadway musical for songwriters Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey -- and their last.

1973    El Grande de Coca Cola stars Ron House as a nightclub owner whose family poses as famous stars to entertain the customers. It will run for 1,114 performances at the Mercer Arts Theatre in New York.

1976    Opening night of legendary flop Rockabye Hamlet, Cliff Jones' rock musical version of Shakespeare's tragedy, which has a 7-performance run at the Minskoff Theatre with a cast that includes Larry Marshall as Hamlet, Beverly D'Angelo as Ophelia (who commits suicide by strangling herself with her immense microphone cord), and Meat Loaf as a Priest.

1977    The success of three inept thieves out for a major score is the starting point for American Buffalo. Robert Duvall, Kenneth McMillan, and John Savage thrash through the drama that marks David Mamet's Broadway debut. It will run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for 135 performances.

1982    Instructor-teacher Lee Strasberg, the foremost advocate of Method acting, dies at the age of 80. "Art is longer than life," he once said, and his style of acting lives on at his Lee Strasberg Institute of the Theatre, in both New York and Los Angeles.

1983    Hoping to follow up his success in The Magic Show, magician Doug Henning plays the title role in the musical Merlin at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The show runs six months, and is regularly stolen by Chita Rivera, who plays the villainous Queen, and by a young actor named Nathan Lane, who has just his second Broadway role, as her son, Prince Fergus.

1984    Stage legend Ethel Merman, Broadway's original Mama Rose in Gypsy dies in her hometown New York City at 76. The actress' other memorable works include Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue!, Something for the Boys, Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun.

1989    Pauline Collins stars on Broadway at the Booth Theatre as Shirley Valentine opens. The one-character play by Willy Russell will earn a Tony nomination while its star wins the Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle Award.

1995    On Valentine's Day the premiere of Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Joe Mantello directed the production, with actor Nathan Lane among the cast.

1996    Jonathan Larson's alt-rock musical Rent opens Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop. The show by the late playwright transfers to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre where it garners Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. It also is awarded the year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

1997    An all-star Broadway revival of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, opens at the Criterion Theatre. The cast features Amy Irving, Lili Taylor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Calista Flockhart, Billy Crudup, David Strathairn, Jerry Stiller, and Eric Stoltz.

1998    Composer Frederick Loewe, half of the famous Lerner-Loewe musical team, dies at the age of 87. He brought us such musical classics as My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot and Paint Your Wagon.

1998    Also today, Eve Ensler's award-winning play The Vagina Monologues gets a starry reading to benefit breast cancer research as part of an event called "V-Day." It's the first in an annual series of Valentine's Day readings of the play that highlight a range of women's issues, particularly violence against women. In less than a decade, the event, dubbed "Victory Against Violence Day," spreads to more than a thousand cities worldwide.

1998    Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS presents its first annual "Broadway Bears" event. The fundraiser auctions off little stuffed bears designed to look like famous performers in theatre roles. Among the first ursines are a Funny Girl Streisand bear, a Once Upon A Mattress Carol Burnett bear, a Ben Vereen Pippin bear and a Julie Andrews Victor/Victoria bear.

1999    The Drama Desk organization officially celebrates its 50th anniversary. Six years after its inception, the Drama Desk Awards were created to recognize excellence in not only Broadway but Off-Broadway theatre as well.

2002    Edward Albee's controversial play The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? begins previews today. Telling the story of a man whose attraction for the ungulant of the title destroys his marriage, the drama goes on to win the Tony Award as Best Play.

2003    The New York City Council overrides a mayoral veto and bans cell phones in Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres, and other public cultural events. Offenders can face a fine of $50 and eviction from the venue in question. Pagers are also banned. Mayor Michael Bloomberg objects that the law will be impossible to enforce.

2007    Ellen Hanley, 80, the musical theatre actress best known for playing the wife of Fiorello H. LaGuardia in Fiorello!, dies of a stroke in Norwalk, CT.

2007    Sheridan Morley, the larger-than-life London theatre critic, author and a long-time Playbill writer, dies in his sleep at age 65 at his home in London.

2011    Following their 2009 Broadway production of Exit the King, Australian theatre company Belvoir returns to New York with an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Diary of a Madman, starring Geoffrey Rush. Performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the production reunites Rush with his Exit the King director Neil Armfield.

More of This Week's Birthdays:  Jack Benny 1894.  Cesar Romero 1907.  Arthur Kennedy 1914.  Hal Holbrook 1925.  Gretchen Wyler 1932.  Florence Henderson 1934.  Barry Humphries (Dame Edna) 1934.  Alan Bates 1934.  George Segal 1934.  Stockard Channing 1944.  Gregory Hines   1946. Teller (Raymond Joseph Teller)  1948. Cris Groenendaal  1948. Don Scardino 1949.  Jane Seymour 1951.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that happen this week in theatre history, that post would be WAY longer than this one. To see more check out the "Today in Theatre History" blog posts on


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