Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

caravantoozAnyone who has ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into Caravan to Oz, a splendid history of one family’s journey into a most exciting period in the American theater in the Big Apple. Anyone who hasn’t ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into the book all the same. And in any case, this two-hundred-and-seventy page tome laden with stunning photography, emerges as a wondrous history lesson even to those not necessarily theater-oriented. To be succinct, it’s nearly impossible to put down once begun reading. The book bears vague similarities to Edie, the smash recounting of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, except that in this case the story is actually told by the subjects in question, along with additional input by such legends of the Off-Off-Broadway scene and the cultural world at large as Tim Robbins, Bob Heide, Robert Patrick, Crystal Field, Mike Figgis, Mark Lancaster, Ritsaert ten Cate, and the late Ellen Stewart.

The caravan begins its initial drive down life’s highway in the Westchester, New York enclave of Bronxville, where actor-writers George Edgerly Harris II (hereafter referred to as George Sr) and his wife Ann launched a family of six eventual children, namely and in order George Edgerly Harris III (hereafter referred to as G3), Walter Michael Harris, Frederic Joseph Harris, Jayne Ann Harris (today Harris-Kelley), Eloise Alice Harris (today Harris-Damone) and Mary Lucille Harris, hereafter referred to as Mary Lou. After the family relocated to Belleaire, a suburb of Clearwater in Florida, and spent several years there in which all six of the children proved themselves extremely adept at both performance and self-producing various extravaganzas, the family once again headed north and took up residence on the Lower East Side, slowly assimilating themselves into the world of Off-Off-Broadway which had already begun coming into its own ten or more years earlier with the advent of LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company, the Living Theater, and the Caffe Cino. By the late 1960s, Walter Michael (not merely an actor-singer but a very impressive and self-taught musician) had established himself as the youngest original cast member of the hit musical Hair on Broadway, while George Sr took a role in The Great White Hope and subsequently took the show on the road, and mother Ann assumed a featured part in the classic horror film The Honeymoon Killers, alongside Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco. G3, meanwhile, trotted off to San Francisco to find his own path and, aside from being reportedly the first person to stick flowers into the gun barrels of the police during the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury while living on a commune, also began exploring drag artistry under the name Hibiscus as a founding member of the pioneering troupe The Cockettes. Upon his self-imposed termination in Hair, Walter Michael also ventured to Northern California to join his big brother but opted for a more spiritual path, ultimately becoming a monk of the Holy Order of MANS (although he did eventually return to the theatrical fold after a fashion). Once reborn as the theater company The Angels of Light, the girls of the family along with their mother settled into a happy existence as literally the First Family of Off-Off-Broadway besides appearances on a triumphant tour of several European countries.

The story also has some disturbing twists and turns. Hibiscus ended up as one of the earliest-known victims to succumb to the AIDS crisis. It’s also notable that brother Fred offers no input to the book whatsoever, leaving a reader wondering exactly what his side to the story might be. The Harris Sisters, however, continued to find fame as a trio within the cabaret club spectrum during the 1980s and 1990s (occasionally making appearances with the renowned downtown actor-singer Bobby Reed), and the entire book is interlaced with lyrics written by mother Ann for such shows as The Sheep and the Cheapskate, There Is Method In Their Madness, and Sky High. It’s almost a little too much to take in upon just one reading, to realize exactly how incredible this superb family of eight managed to accomplish in one lifetime together. But by the last page, one can’t help but feel a sense of peace, as well as the hope that anything in life is truly possible given the right brand of dedication and talent.

Caravan to Oz is available by ordering here. Do yourselves a favor and grab a copy.

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The first time I even heard the name Julie Wilson, I was twelve. I’d begun saving my allowance every month to make a trip to the old Disc-O-Mat record store in the city on 58th and 3rd because they sold Broadway albums for $3.99 apiece, so I’d buy three or four at a time. One of the first was Gypsy, and the liner notes explained that countless tours of the show had also starred such women as Mary McCarty (of whom I knew because I was a big fan of the TV show “Trapper John MD,” and I had no idea she was also a singer) and Julie Wilson, who I’d never heard of at all. So I just sort of put her name on a back burner and figured I’d get around to her eventually. I had a lot of learning to do, after all.

A few years later, in my late teens and when I started getting into cabaret proper, was when I really started learning exactly who Julie Wilson was and what she meant within entertainment circles. From what I could gather aside from her sensational facial beauty and perfect physique, she’d been somewhat of a big Broadway star and did a few movies, married a big Broadway producer named Michael McAloney and had two sons with him, went through a messy divorce, and all the while maintained a career as a major cabaret star at clubs like La Maisonette and The Persian Room. And was particularly known for wearing her hair in a beautifully-coiffed chignon with a gardenia attached over her left ear, much like Billie Holiday. Nice. But by the time I came along, apparently her voice wasn’t nearly what it had been in her heyday, and what she relied on most was talk-singing her way through the songs and managing to still thoroughly communicate the essence of the lyrics. By that point I’d still never seen her on stage, although I heard a few albums and honestly couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. That, clearly, was the naivete of a precocious seventeen-year-old who believes they know everything.

juliew02In 1990, I got my very first job as an entertainment journalist, for a magazine called Night & Day. And my debut assignment was covering the MAC Awards, which at that time was presented at Symphony Space. Receiving the Henry Luhrman Memorial Award that year just happened to be Julie Wilson. I didn’t know Hank (Henry) at all, he was before my time and had just died of AIDS sometime shortly prior. But in the course of her speech she revealed that she’d been in semi-retirement out of town and that it was Hank and his longtime partner Hilary Knight (best known for illustrating the “Eloise” series of children’s books) who had convinced her to come back to NYC and start over. Well, she started over but good; she got booked at the Carlyle and stayed three weeks. Bear in mind that up to this point I’d still never seen her perform on stage.

Well, I guess my coverage of the MAC Awards must have been pretty good, because three days later they had me sauntering off to the Ballroom to review Peggy Lee. Which was excellent. Then to the Duplex to review Judy Carne’s comeback show. Which wasn’t so excellent. Then I got wind of the fact that Mollie Taylor Martin (no relation to me) would be doing a show at Don’t Tell Mama that weekend, so I asked my editor John Hammond for clearance and he said yes. Mollie and I had done summer stock together on the Bucks County/Pocono/etc circuit in ’86. You can imagine my surprise walking into the club and literally smack into Julie, looking very beautiful with her chignon but no makeup and no gardenia and ordinary street clothes. She smiled at me, and I said, “Oh! Miss Wilson! Congratulations on the award the other night!” and kissed her hand. She said, “Well, aren’t you a gentleman! Although you look about twelve. What’s your name?” I said, “It’s Andrew Martin, but you wouldn’t know me.” She said, “Oh, but I do! You’re that new young man who writes the reviews. Are you reviewing our Mollie?” I said, “Well, yes. What brings you to see Mollie?” She said, “I dated her uncle for a time. Have you seen her perform?” I said yes, she and I had done summer stock together. Julie took my arm and said, “Well, then we have to sit together and you tell me all about yourself!” and steered me into the room to a table. But I didn’t tell her all about myself, because she did all the talking. She talked about how her older son (Mike) was planning to move into his first apartment on his own but she wouldn’t let him because it had no refrigerator, and how her younger son (Holt) was trying very hard to have an acting career and make a living, and the whole thing was frankly dizzying. So that was really the beginning of the beginning. We became friends and always had a wonderful time talking together. But she wasn’t like this “mega-star Julie Wilson person,” she was just Julie. And she was fabulous.

juliew03A couple of years later, at someone’s show at Eighty Eights (I can’t remember whose, I apologize), I brought my mother as my date (which I was wont to do when she was still mobile, because she loved going out to shows in the city). And Julie happened to be at the show, so we all had a drink downstairs afterwards. The meeting between Julie and my mom went off like a Roman candle. As many know, my mom was on TV a lot when she was a kid, so she and my grandmother were always running to coffee shops for snacks and stuff in between shoots, and there was this one day when they stopped in at (I think) Child’s around the corner from the Roxy. And of course Julie worked at the Roxy as one of the showgirls. My mom told Julie, “You know, this one day when I was eight or nine, you stopped in at the coffee shop around the corner from the Roxy and ordered a coffee to go. And I told my mother, ‘Mommy, I think that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my whole life.'” Julie, of course, dissolved in peals of laughter when she heard my mother tell her this. So then, of course, THEY became great friends. In a lot of ways, Julie was like a second mother to me in that respect; if the three of us were hanging out at a show together and I said something to my mom in a snappy tone, Julie would say, “Andrew, don’t TALK to your mother that way!” and my mother would say, “Yes, you LISTEN to Julie!” So it was a lose-lose for me, but it was brilliant.

I was on my hiatus from cabaret during my marriage, we’re talking between 2001 and 2008, so other than occasionally attending a show if I had to cover something for New England Entertainment Digest or a similar publication, I really sort of kept my nose out of it. But I did know that Julie suffered her first stroke at that time. I didn’t see her again until the autumn of ’08 when I came back onto the scene, and even though she walked and spoke more slowly and seemed a bit feeble, she was the same old Julie when I ran into at Joan Crowe’s show at Metropolitan Room. And it was NOT like having to talk to an old lady who’d lost her marbles; she’d have suffered none of that gladly. Her first words when she saw me (even if a bit slurred) were, “Andrew, where’ve you been and how’s your mother?” God bless her.

juliew04She did a brand-new show in ’09 at the Met Room, and by then she couldn’t sing anymore at all; she performed the songs more or less as monologues. But even that was unequivocally brilliant and the utter essence of cabaret communication. I brought my cherished friend Alice Kane with me, and we had the most marvelous evening, slurping down Grasshoppers and watching Julie. Her eleven o’clock number, as I recall, was Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” and by the time she got to the end of the final verse, screaming, “TAKE THAT PIPE OUTTA YOUR MOUTH, YOU RAT!!!” we were all absolutely mesmerized. THAT was Julie as only Julie could be on a stage, musicality or not.

The very last time we got to speak was (I believe) at the ’13 MAC Awards. The afterparty, specifically. I don’t know what prompted me to bring it up, but I asked if she knew that my then-husband and I had seen “Below,” a thriller that just happened to star her son Holt as the captain of a doomed submarine (my ex was crazy about submarines, don’t ask). She smiled and said, “You know, Holt brought me to the premiere. They treated me like a queen, which was very nice, and then the movie started. And it wasn’t very good. And then came THAT SCENE. You know the one, where he’s in the shower.” (There’s a scene where Holt is in the shower, fully naked from the back. Which for me was the best part of the movie, but I digress). She continued, “I was horrified. The lights finally came up when it was over, I slapped him on the arm and said, DON’T YOU EVER DO ANOTHER MOVIE WHERE EVERYBODY GETS TO SEE YOUR TUSHIE!!!”

Oh, my darling Julie. I can’t believe you’re gone today. Go with God, my sweet gardenia-bird.

elly01Elly Stone would most likely be the last person on earth to ever call herself a living legend, either publicly or privately. But she is indeed. And how. Best known as the definitive interpreter of the English translations of songs by Jacques Brel, finding fame as the star of the theatrical hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and the film version that subsequently followed (both with lyrics by her late husband Eric Blau and contributions by Mort Shuman), Stone today, at the age of eighty-eight, often refers to herself as “just another grandma in Manhattan.” And even with a career which, to date, has spanned nearly seven decades and from which she removed herself completely from the limelight some time ago, her fan base continues to grow by leaps and bounds completely and utterly unabated.

A Brooklyn native, Stone was an introverted, abused child who chose to escape within her own thoughts rather than interact with those persons surrounding her. Her vocal prowess, however, showed promise and she possessed a keen ear, and while a student at Junior High School 50 in Williamsburg, a teacher introduced her to a vocal coach named Lillian Strongin, who retains the distinction of being the person that would truly unleash Stone’s instrument as it was intended. Strongin, who Stone has always considered her true mother, helped organize her audition material for the famed High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello LaGuardia High School), where she was accepted as a voice major. After graduation, Stone opted to marry at the tender age of seventeen, divorced her first husband shortly thereafter, and began a lifelong residence in Manhattan, rarely ever looking back upon her outer-borough roots. However, after a foray into folk music, she would meet Eric Blau, at the time a published poet, who had written a campaign song for a candidate seeking election as Brooklyn Borough President; Stone was engaged to sing it. He later told an interviewer, “I thought she was kind of cute.”

Blau and Stone began a whirlwind romance very soon thereafter, and this was a heady time for her. She’d phased out of folk music and into theater, first as a standby for Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962, and then in Blau’s Off-Broadway revue O, Oysters! in 1964, by which time they were married and she’d given birth to their son Matthew. At this time, Blau’s friend Nat Shapiro (the head of International A&R for CBS/Columbia Records), introduced the two to the songs of Jacques Brel, which blew their minds. He also introduced them to Mort Shuman (a wunderkind composer in the 1950s of such classic pop tunes as “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “Teenager in Love”). Shuman was also a big fan. Jacques Brel, at that point, was only a star in Europe (particularly in Paris and his native Belgium), but the three saw a clear course. Brel was obviously as powerful an artist at the time as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and deserved adaptation into English. One thing led to another, and by 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was opening at the Village Gate. What followed, aside from the recording of the original cast album, were productions in every possible corner of the globe and truly a worldwide miracle. As Stone says, “Not a day has gone by since the show’s inception forty-seven years ago, without the show being played somewhere on the planet.”

While all of this was transpiring, Stone was working diligently into the late nights in the studio after getting off stage at the Gate to record her first album, the self-titled Elly Stone, which emerged on CBS/Columbia. Although not a commercial success, the record did include several translations of Brel that weren’t included in the original show (among them “My Childhood” and “Song for Old Lovers,” interpreted from “Mon Enfance” and “Chanson Des Vieux Amants” respectively) as well as the extremely-poignant “Alexander’s Song,” a tribute by Blau to his father, who made a living as a New York City taxi driver. Her large cult following rushed to purchase copies, and it still remains a favorite among her fans. Several selections on the recording were developed in tandem with orchestrator/arranger Ralph Affoumado, and Billboard Magazine referred to it as “one of the best undiscovered albums of the year.”

Once freed from having to star in Brel on stage as a full-time occupation (by 1973 the show had closed at the Gate and moved to the Astor Place Theater with a cast that featured Teri Ralston among others), Stone set about a separate career as a concert artist. She’d appear with a full band in venues ranging from Lincoln Center to The Bottom Line from that point on, as well as such out-of-town locales as Wolf Trap, and recorded a second album, Spirit of ’76, as a celebration of the Bicentennial year. Here, while Brel interpretations were again evident, she and Blau worked with David Frank to develop such songs as “Mr. Williams” (for which Stone herself wrote the music), “Soft Shoe Routine,” “Snows of Fifth Avenue,” and “New Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Old Soldiers in the Chinese Restaurant” (both with music by the aforementioned Affoumado). Again, among her fans, the record sold like hotcakes. However, a year or so earlier, she and Shuman (and Joe Masiell) were cast in the film version of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which also featured a cameo by Brel himself. It has been a cult hit for years. And, she’s never seen the film.

Her last appearance on the legitimate stage came in 1977 at the Astor Place, in another Blau musical called The Cockeyed Tiger. But he started creating a new work and consequently stumbled upon composer/lyricist Elliot Weiss, who had only recently graduated from Juilliard and had written the music for a short song cycle. Blau wrote the lyrics and entitled it The 104 Bus. It premiered in 1982 as the second act of one of Stone’s concerts at The Bottom Line, and featured such vocalists as Joseph Neal and Kitty Hendrix. Later, when Stone premiered a concert at Symphony Space in ’83, it emerged as her opening act.

It was shortly thereafter that Stone drew the professional veil as a stage presence for the most part, and expanded her work teaching voice. She’d inherited valuable manuscripts that Lillian Strongin had inherited from her own teacher, William Earl Brown. These were the sayings and teachings of Giovanni Battista Lamperti, the nineteenth- century master, whose name is synonymous with Bel Canto. He and his father, Francesco Lamperti, are still revered as being among the greatest teachers of all time. Stone feels that in teaching and editing the manuscripts for publication, she found her calling.

She has also directed quite a few legit stage productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for over the last three decades, including one at Town Hall in 1983 which starred Karen Akers. Another most notable of these was in 1986 at the Beacon Theater, where the show opened with her singing “My Childhood” as an unannounced surprise on the first night, and drove the crowd to stupendous ovation. And there was her handling of the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the show at the Village Gate in 1993, starring Karen Saunders, Gabriel Barre, Joseph Neal and Andrea Green.

Though Elly Stone will never confess to having no regrets, she does look back on her past with nonchalance. “It’s life,” she says. “All I did was live it.” And live it she has indeed. Thank goodness.

godspellexpI’m writing this piece in the first person, which many know I’m not usually wont to do. It simply isn’t my way as a journalist, because I was taught that the best way to express reportage was to keep oneself out of it completely, other than being the mechanism that moves the narrative along on its literary way. But this time around, I have no choice. As many know, in the late fall of 2011, I saw the publication of my first book, All for the Best: How Godspell Transferred From Stage to Screen. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this was borne from an article I wrote here on The Andrew Martin Report earlier that year. At the same time, an author named Carol de Giere was also very hard at work on a book of her own, entitled The Godspell Story: Inside a Transformative Musical (presented by Scene 1 Publishing) which, unlike mine, covered not merely the way the book transferred from a stage musical that began as a college play and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon before a cult film, but every possible aspect of the show from its earliest germination to how it’s viewed today. De Giere, it should be noted, is quite possibly the globe’s greatest expert on the work and life of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (her previous book, Defying Gravity, is also a masterfully academic glimpse into the career of this wonderful creator of musical theater for Broadway and beyond). And as such, besides including Schwartz to supply an in-depth Foreword, she has, through almost-unfathomable research, managed to create a tome that could best be described, pardon the pun, as the definitive Bible of the entire Godspell journey. I should note that I was among those persons singularly honored to be interviewed by de Giere for her project and I’m thrilled to have my book listed in the Bibliography as a resource. But this is, for me, small potatoes compared to the privilege of reading the book and soaking up such voluminous knowledge, to which I and so many others were so previously unexposed. Reporting from the very first nanosecond of the show’s development by John-Michael Tebelak in 1970, de Giere wondrously illustrates Godspell‘s conception and the winding path it took from Carnegie-Mellon University to Cafe LaMaMa to the Cherry Lane Theater to a planetary success which continues to this day. She has left absolutely no stone unturned, not merely by dint of her in-depth interviews with members of the original company and the creative team (including profiles of those who’ve since left us, including the late great Lynne Thigpen). But this doesn’t even begin to describe what the book delivers, namely an entire and oft-staggering treatise which at times can leave the reader gasping for air. DeGiere’s attention to detail is overwhelming, and whether the reader is a newcomer to the show’s flock of die-hard fans or a longtime member of same, it all transpires to be most brilliantly educational. In point of fact, Carol de Giere and The Godspell Experience are but two of all good gifts around us, sent from heaven above. So thank the Lord. Thank the Lord for all his love. And purchase a copy!

ethelsingsEvery once in a while, one happens upon an evening of theater that might be described as “a most unlikely formula.” So it goes at the heavenly Off-Broadway theater Walkerspace, at 46 Walker Street in TriBeCa, with Joan Beber’s new two-act piece Ethel Sings, directed by Jules Aaron. A superb play-with-music, the title initially makes one think of a one-woman evening showcasing the career of Miss Merman, possibly embodied by Rita McKenzie or Kristine Zbornik,  when it’s actually a riveting slice-of-life drama depicting the marriage, trial, conviction and ultimate execution of the husband-and-wife spy team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Hence the play’s subtitle, Espionage in High C).

For those unfamiliar with modern history, we’re shown a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rosenberg marriage and the raising of sons Michael and Robby, as well as their foray into Communism and eventually selling bomb-making secrets to the Soviets. The trial that ensued was one of the most sensational stories of the early 1950s (with prosecution by a young Roy Cohn and defense by Manny Bloch, who would die of a heart attack not long after the couple was executed). We also see the curious dysfunction of Ethel’s family the Greenglasses, including her very uninterested mother and both the brother and sister-in-law (David and wife Ruth), who turned key evidence against Julius and Ethel. Add to this that Beber has chosen Joan of Arc (Ethel’s personal heroine) as a sort of Greek chorus to help move the action along, and all of the brilliant musical compositions (ranging in a variety of styles) make this truly unlike anything the New York theater scene has experienced in many a moon.

The actors herein are not merely a top-notch team of thespians, but a true ensemble.  As Ethel, Shelby Kocee could not be more perfect, embodying a woman alternately defiant but vulnerable, cunning but oblivious, and above all else completely in love with her husband at all times. Dan Sykes similarly brings spectacular passion to his portrayal of Julius. Ben Goldsmith (who also composed the string music and provides the guitar accompaniment) and Ross Alden provide performances as the Rosenberg sons Michael and Robby, and are never less than utterly purposeful. As Mrs. Greenglass, Julia Silverman does a job that is never less than riveting. Alan Aymie’s David brings just the right touch of odiousness to the character, and Penny Peyser (in her triumphant return to Off-Broadway after nearly forty years on the Coast in film and television) is equally sensational as Ruth. Manny Bloch, interestingly enough, is portrayed by Greg Mullavey, who most remember as husband Tom on the 1970s Norman Lear series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and proves himself equally at home on a stage as in front of the camera. And as Roy Cohn, Richard Chassler’s work borders on other-wordly; there are moments it’s almost possible to forget that we’re watching an actor. Rounding out this incredible bunch is Stasha Surdyke as Joan of Arc; she’s a lithe beauty with definitive presence who simply owns every moment of her time on stage.

Producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger (who also designed the impeccable sets) have also chosen the best crew imaginable, including  Max Kinberg on sound design (and music), the lighting by John Eckert, and Michele Young’s costumes.

Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C will continue to run at Walkerspace through Sunday, July 21st. This most unlikely formula would have a much longer run in a just world.

marieannIt was an unusually-warm Wednesday night in April of 1990 when your humble reporter stumbled into the now-defunct Broadway Baby, a wonderful piano bar on Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets on the Upper West Side, and met singer Marieann Meringolo for the first time. There was already scuttlebutt about her; she was known for having the potential to become the likes of another Jane Olivor for her incredible vocal precision and carriage on a stage. Like the aforementioned, she wasn’t exactly the prettiest peach on the tree (although undeniably glamorous) and in fact was quite aloof and somewhat mistrustful of someone she’d just met for the first time. But when she sang…oh, when she sang…she transformed instantly into a Botticelli angel. It was a mere two seasons later that she had a bonafide cabaret hit on her hands with the brilliant Wonderful, Wonderful: The Songs of Johnny Mathis in New York City besides Fire Island and beyond, and has since gone on to phenomenal glory in the arena whether at Feinstein’s with a wonderful evening of the music of Michel Legrand, or her Ladies tribute concert honoring the ouevres of such giants as Streisand and Warwick. However, it is with her most recent offering, Orchestrated!, which features her alongside a seven-piece band replete with lush ornamentation including a full section of brass, that the lady has completely come into her own as a major cabaret star with which to be reckoned. In point of fact, if this show doesn’t cement her success and elevate her to the stardom previously achieved by someone along the lines of the late Nancy LaMott or Eva Cassidy, there is simply no justice in this world. Yes, it’s THAT good.

It should be noted right off the bat that the majority of Meringolo’s selections mostly comprises material she’s done in previous shows, which (as she explains, are being done because while she’s been making her most-recent living as a headliner on cruise ships, are showcased with a full orchestra in tow, and she wanted to bring the beauty of the sound to the cabaret world) are really not the sort of catalog that others might choose to bring to a new cabaret act. This, however, is no obstacle to the miraculous Meringolo; it’s material that might otherwise crumble in the hands of a lesser-accomplished artist and yet somehow she’s owning every moment. In the more-than-capable sight of musical director Doyle Newmyer, she manages to take such songs as “Thou Swell,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Fever” and “I’m a Woman” and transform them instantly into personal anthems. And a favorite old standby of hers, “Italian Menu,” is rendered into genius. More than this is her tribute to Dionne Warwick in a medley of no less than eight songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a tribute to Streisand that features a coupling of “Where Is It Written?” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” And Meringolo does include new music, notably two tunes by Marsha Malamet, “Crazy Love” and “I Am Blessed.” In point of fact, she couldn’t possibly have gotten any single element of the show more pointedly correct. It was certainly no secret in the nightlife world that she was already on a path to greatness, but Meringolo now possesses a maturity previously unwitnessed, not to mention an ability for sustaining an important note in a song, that trumps every possible ace .

And then there’s the band. Oh, goodness, where to begin? Aside from the aforementioned Newmyer, she’s got the legendary John Loehrke on bass, the brilliantly-animated Ayodele Maakheru on guitar, Sipho Kunene doing a wonderful job on percussion, Richie Vitale blowing on the trumpet, Jonathan Kantor on alto sax (who is REALLY outstanding), and the terrific Charlie Gordon on the trombone. The fact that JP Perreaux is loaning his eye to technical direction is merely the icing on the cake.

Marieann Meringolo and Orchestrated! will return to the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on Friday, August 2nd at 7 PM for one night only. Run. Do not walk. And run QUICKLY!!!

stadlenLewis J. Stadlen is one of those legendary entertainers of Broadway, film, television and the international cultural sphere, whom it is simply impossible to forget for his over four decades delighting audiences of all ages. It may well be possible that most remember him for the first season of the sitcom “Benson,” in which he co-starred alongside Robert Guillaume, James Noble and Inga Swenson, but those truly in the know will equally remember his sensational work as Groucho in the 1970 cult Broadway musical hit Minnie’s Boys, with star Shelley Winters and fellow Marx Brothers Danny Fortus, Irwin Pearl and Alvin Kupperman. Later, he would portray Groucho again in a critically-acclaimed national stage tour, and fall into the hearts and minds of legions of fans. Before, after, in the meantime and in between, he would create the part of Ben Silverman in the original company of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, receive a Tony nomination for being Pangloss in the 1974 production of Candide, portray Lupinski in Mel Brooks’ 1982 celluloid remake of the classic film To Be Or Not to Be, play a featured role in Neil Simon’s The New Odd Couple in 1985 (which starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, along with Stadlen and budding newcomer Tony Shalhoub as the male Latino love interests from upstairs), and find himself at this writing back on Broadway in Douglas Carter Beane’s play The Nance at the Lyceum, with Nathan Lane. Stadlen may not have picked up a heavily-deserved and unfairly-ignored Tony nomination in the process, but he remains one of the finest thespians of the last forty-plus years; the son of renowned voice-over artist Allen Swift always seems to roll with the punches regardless of the trappings of awards and tinsel. He’s even published a memoir, Acting Foolish, available at Amazon. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that he took time out of his schedule to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: If your father hadn’t been Allen Swift, do you think you would have followed a career path into acting regardless? And what was it like having him as a dad? Can you discuss your childhood?

LEWIS J. STADLEN: There is, of course no way to know.  It was my mother who discovered a theater camp, Gray Gables Theatrical Workshop, in Kitchawan, New York, for me to attend when I was fourteen. She sensed I had a creative bent. It was the first time that I felt self-confident about anything. I made my acting debut as Petrovin the artist, in a remarkable teenage production of Anastasia (Marta Heflin played the title role). My chief motivation, which continues to this day, was that girls took a greater interest in me. I attended the camp for two summers, and my social life revolved around a Saturday dance class during the school year that was attended by many of the campers at the wonderfully-atmospheric rehearsal studio, Variety Arts, across the street from the Forty-Sixth Street Theater. The Gray Gables Choreographer, Joe Vilane, who to this day is the best choreographer I have worked with apart from Agnes DeMille, taught the class. So because of that experience, I glimpsed the possibility of leading a useful life. That said:  I was extremely insecure about everything, and without my father’s unending knowledge and support, and the future rejection I was to later experience in the “real” grown up world, I’m certain my early enthusiasm would have been nipped in the bud. He was instrumental in every way in helping me to navigate the minefields of an exceptionally cruel and capricious business. He was instrumental in my ability to land my first job, which was the first national company of Fiddler On The Roof when I was nineteen. By that time, I had had the good fortune of NOT being invited back to the Neighborhood Playhouse, owing to the presence of one of the all time sadistic- bastards Sanford Meisner, who was probably responsible for destroying the confidence of thousands of talented, but all-too-trusting and self-critical souls. It was the first major rejection I experienced and with the help of my father, I was able to overcome it and by chance fall into the nurturing embrace of the great Stella Adler, who actually taught me the fundamentals of my craft which I use to this very day.  As I review a career that is into it’s forty-seventh year,  I realize I’ve mostly learned my survival skills from my actor-father, while my over all sense of choice and sense of esthetics have been gleamed from my college-professor mother, Vivienne Schwartz.  I would not have survived in my profession without either of their support.

AM: What are your thoughts about Minnie’s Boys, both the fact that you were so young to make your Broadway debut and also playing Groucho? (We’ll come back to the Groucho factor later). And was it surprising that even though the show retains a cult status, it really didn’t run very long? Also, what was it like to work with Shelley Winters?

LJS: Well, cult status is highly subjective. It’s rarely revived because the libretto is terrible, and as absurd as the creative experience turned out to be, I can only be grateful for what turned out to be my entree into the theatrical community.  I no longer had to introduce myself. (Be careful what you wish for.)  There were many reasons why Minnie’s Boys failed.  Shelley Winters was a disaster, but mostly, the story was thought to be in the same vein as Gypsy. But Gypsy was not about Gypsy Rose Lee’s attainment of fame as much as it was the story of her ambitious stage mother. Rose was a very human monster, and the show’s conflict had to do with the effects her behavior had on her children. Minnie’s Boys was about a show business family, devoid of any conflict. Everyone loved Minnie, and it was hardly a mystery as to whether the Marx Brothers would eventually overcome the obstacles before them and become a success. The original director and choreographer were two of the most inept individuals I have encountered in my forty-six years in Show Business; the choreographer is, ironically, a member of the Theater Hall Of Fame, which is a credit to her political abilities and certainly not her talent. Shelley Winters, a terrific film actress, was completely over her head in a musical comedy. You will observe that in most of her film performances she is usually murdered by her leading men, be it drowned, choked, stabbed, run over by a bus, etc. She was one of those performers who had the ability to throw her weight around, thinking only of herself, but in this case she did not possess the requisite skills to selfishly get what she wanted and wound up thoroughly subverting herself and the entire project. She was actually fired in previews, but her contract was such that the producer’s could not afford to pay her off for a year and hire another star performer. One being Kaye Ballard, who I performed with in a subsequent production at Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera in 1972. She was wonderful, but the role had already been cast in stone due to Shelley’s many deficiencies. As for the show running for some eighty performances in previews and another eighty after we opened, everyone wanted to bend over backwards to make it a success with the exception of the critics. It just wasn’t good enough, even though it possessed a mostly-winning score and had some excellent performances.  As they say, “The fish stinks from the head down.” That said, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and Danny Fortus (Harpo), Irwin Pearl (Chico) and Alvin Kupperman (Zeppo) remained friends from that day on.

AM: What were your thoughts on being cast to create the role of Ben in The Sunshine Boys? Was anything particularly intimidating (be it creating a role in a play by Neil Simon, working with Jack Albertson or Sam Levene, etc)?

LJS: It was very intimidating being cast in The Sunshine Boys. For the first few days of rehearsal, I was certain I’d be fired. I was a twenty-five year old actor with limited acting chops.  The person who most intimidated me was our director Alan Arkin, who I more than admired. A strange, brilliantly talented man whom I felt I rubbed the wrong way.  Neil Simon, who I got to know a great deal better during the next three decades, was at the top of his form in 1972.  (I have since done three more of his plays from scratch.)  A brilliant artist and craftsman, who I’ve come to realize always brought an operatic element to the productions of all his plays. He suffered not only from fear of failure, but also from success anxiety. A combustible combination. Jack Albertson was a wonderful actor, and it was a pleasure to perform with him. His Willie Clark is still the best performance in that role. But, the person who had the most lasting influence was the GREAT Sam Levene, who to this day I consider one of my foremost mentors, although he would probably cringe at that description. Besides being a great actor, he was incapable of dissembling in an industry that encourages an interactive fraudulence that erodes your soul. He taught me much about onstage comportment, consistency of performance and how to survive in life with your sense of integrity and self-worth intact. For a time, I felt I was actually turning into Sam Levene, who did have a propensity for falling on his own sword. Hopefully, I have taken all that was true in the man and learned to suffer not quite as much.

AM: What was it like to do Candide, and how did you feel about the Tony nomination?

LJS: Candide was, unfortunately, an unhappy experience. I did not get on with Hal Prince, and I don’t care to elaborate as to the reasons why. Let me take some responsibilities for my own actions; I was only twenty-seven at the time, and felt I had to be the spokesman for everyone’s discontent as well as my own. Perhaps I hadn’t quite perfected the good Sam Levene within myself. Based on some very legitimate contractual grievances with Mister Prince, I made the naive mistake of taking him on as a peer, and was crushed in the exchange. At this stage of my short career I believed that doing a Broadway show a year was my birthright, which proved to be a ridiculous assessment. That I could not enjoy the experience is unfortunate, since I have been told by many people that the production itself, and my performance in it, was one of their most enjoyable  theatergoing experiences. As for my Tony nomination, the cast was done no favors by Mister Prince, who would not allow any of the Tony voters to come to individual performances.  Instead he scheduled a ninth, a Sunday evening performance for all the voters to sit in judgement.  We were all nervous and exhausted and, as it turned out, Candide won a flock of Tony Awards, but none for the actors who were nominated from the show. It was par for the course of how the cast was presented, as if we were street urchins turned magically-professional by Hal Prince’s brilliant direction. (He DID win the Tony that year). The experience was instructive in many ways; I lost to the great Christopher Plummer, who probably shouldn’t have won for his performance in the musical Cyrano, but to lose to an actor of such brilliance was an honor in its own right.

AM: We all know that you took a little break from Broadway to play the featured role of Taylor in the first season of the sitcom “Benson.” First of all, what was your experience of that? Secondly, what led to your separation from the show, and was it very harsh? Similarly, did you know that Rene Auberjonois would be replacing Taylor with his own character of Clayton? How did that feel?

LJS: “Benson” was the epiphany needed to figure out what I wanted from my profession. My dear Stella Adler had posed a question to our acting class years before, whether our priority was to become an ACTOR or a STAR? I thought the question daft. Obviously, a star would get the opportunity to play the best parts. Why wouldn’t one aspire to stardom? “Benson” allowed me to fully appreciate the distinction. It was a thoroughly loathsome experience. Even when one is engaged in a poorly conceived theatrical endeavor, there is some flicker of idealism that one might be creating something of worth. Commercial television is about selling beer and cornflakes; the entertainment exists to serve the product. Everybody in charge of bringing “Benson” into the public sphere lied about everything. Our two crass producer’s were thrilled that the show wasn’t in the top ten in the Nielsen ratings because we had “no place to go but down.” Every week we were told to go out and beat the pants off of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” I didn’t sign my contract until the fifth show, I hated the character I played, and was petrified I’d be typecast as the same sniveling asshole who was only around to be the butt of the joke. Apparently, Rene Auberjonois had no such concern. He was only hired to replace me after I had screamed my way off the show. I remember one of the producers telling me that they would let me out at the end of the season as long as I didn’t expect to get paid in return.  He simply couldn’t conceive that I wanted no part of his money.  Several months later, I was performing a one-nighter of my two person Groucho show in Mansfield, Ohio. A rather slow young man, who was running the spotlight, approached me at a Ham & Egg just before the performance. “Do you mean to tell me that you would rather be here in Mansfield than in Hollywood doing Benson?” In a flash,I recognized the significance of his question. “YES!” was my immediate reply. And if you notice, I don’t even list my television credits in my Playbill bios. Ever.

AM: In 1982, you were more or less rediscovered by the public by your portrayal of Dr. Gruber in The Verdict. Can you describe that experience?

LJS: It was a terrific experience. Sidney Lumet was a great director and it was an honor to work with Paul Newman, and be a part of the same project as James Mason, Charlotte Rampling and Jack Warden. We rehearsed the film for two weeks at 890 Broadway, as if it were a play. We’d run through the screenplay twice a day. In my scene with Paul Newman, I had ninety percent of the dialogue. It would be a three-minute tracking shot when we filmed it up in Boston, but for the process of rehearsing, Sidney had us walking around the rehearsal studio with me taking the lead and Paul trying to catch up. Because I was in awe of Paul, I’d slow up so I could be face-to-face while we conversed. Sidney kept telling me that he wanted Paul to chase after me because I was a big-shot doctor and his character was a down-in-the-heels lawyer, a drunk. But I kept slowing up due to my respect for Paul, until Sidney took me aside and said, “Listen, you’re fucking a twenty-two-year-old intern across the river in Cambridge. You’ve got three hours to get to her apartment, and then back to Boston before your next operation.” From that moment on,   I walked very fast. Giving an actor an “active” motivation is the mark of a great director.

AM: In 1983, the public at large once again got to enjoy your gift of comedy when you portrayed Lupinski in To Be Or Not To Be. What was it like to work with Mel Brooks and company? Were there any standout moments? In particular, what was it like to do the Shylock monologue?

LJS: It was very difficult. Mel Brooks can be a delightful, always hilarious man when he is feeling secure about a project’s prospect for success. In the case of To Be Or Not To Be, he knew he was competing with the original film, which in my estimation is a comic masterpiece. The director of the original, Ernst Lubitsch, was a genius, and Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were brilliant in their respective roles. Because Mel was afraid, and rightfully so, to be compared to Lubitsch and Benny, he pretended that we was not the director of the film. (He was.)  Instead, he gave the directing credit to the film’s choreographer, Alan Johnson.  This created a dysfunctional working relationship that was very hard on the actors. Mel was especially hard on my interpretation of the Shylock speech, which was a work-in-progress until we finally shot it, seven weeks into the shoot.  A large part of being a good director is instilling an actor with confidence, and Mel did the opposite. In retrospect, I realize that Mel was as petrified of performing Shakespeare as I was.  The night before the scene was to be shot,  I smoked a little grass and came to the conclusion that Lupinski’s motivation had to do with kicking ass for the Jews. But the next day, what I didn’t realize, was that the shot before had me rushing out of the theater men’s room straight at Mel, who was dressed as Hitler, while surrounded by several big, strong, blond body guards in SS uniforms who grabbed me by my arms and hurt me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just emoting Shakespeare’s prose, I was fighting for my life. It was a terrific acting lesson. It’s never about the words; it’s about the subtext you create underneath. Mel was more then pleased, thank God, because you don’t want to get on his bad side! Essentially, with the exception of my rendering of that speech, I was too young for the part. Felix Bressart, who was in the original, was much better. As was everything else in the original film. There was to be plenty more Mel Brooks in my life, but two decades later.

AM: It’s absolutely amazing to think that when the The New Odd Couple came to Broadway in ’85 at the Broadhurst, with an all-female cast featuring Rita Moreno, Sally Struthers, Marilyn Cooper and Jenny O’Hara among others, you played one of the Latino love interests along with Tony Shalhoub, who was making his Broadway debut at the time. What was that situation like in general, first of all with the ladies as the leads and secondly to be working with Shalhoub?

LJS: It turned out to be a turning point. I was thirty-seven, and in a depression over what to do with the rest of my life. I think it’s becoming clearer after the re-telling of these experiences that an actor’s life is not a walk in the park. It’s a roller coaster ride complicated by the need to re-invent yourself every decade, as you morph from flavor of the month,to being a character actor who now appears too young for the roles he might be considered right for. If you’re lucky. The original roles of the Costazuela Brothers (the male re-imagining of the Pigeon Sisters), was written for two middle-aged bald Hispanic actors, and I wasn’t bald, Hispanic or middle-aged. The only reason I was asked to audition for the part was, because as desperate as I was to find work, I had invited the show’s casting director to a Mets game the night before. Having nothing to offer me, she threw me a bone and scheduled an audition the next day for a role I wasn’t remotely right for. That afternoon I found myself in a room with about twenty middle-aged, bald Hispanic actors wondering what the hell I was doing there. I even expressed that sentiment aloud to the actors in the room. One of my many complaints that I voiced at the time was that Raul Julia, who spoke with a decided Spanish accent, seemed to be immune from type. He had recently been cast in Noel Coward’s comedy-drama Design For Living, playing an Englishman with a decided Spanish inflection. Seconds before I was to go into audition for the director,  Danny Simon (Neil Simon’s older brother), I decided that if Raul Julia could play Noel Coward,  I could play Raul Julia. So that’s what I did. It was a wicked take-off , and it proved hilarious to the powers that be. The next day, I was asked to audition for Neil and I turned the audition down as a waste of time. Some poor bastard had already been cast in the role of the other brother, and there was no way I could appear to be his brother. I received a conference call between the producer Manny Azenberg and Danny Simon that morning, begging me to come down to the Alvin Theater and audition for Neil. The moment I auditioned with the  bald, Hispanic actor cast in the other role, I knew I was going to get the part, and that the other actor was screwed. (I never found out what happened to him. He must have been bought out). Neil came down the aisle of the theater, and asked me if I was “fucking nuts” for turning down the audition. When I mentioned the plethora of bald jokes, he told me he would rewrite the part. I was astonished that I had gotten the role, and saddened that it had come off the back of the other actor. But…that’s show business!  The moment I walked out of the stage door of the Alvin (which has since been renamed the Neil Simon), a pigeon shit all over my new suit. A woman passing by assured me it was a sign of good luck and I told her I hoped so. After I was cast in the role of Manolo, Tony Shalhoub came in and blew them away as Jesus. It was his first high-profile role, in what has turned out to be an elegant career. Neil Simon rewrote the roles so that the two of us were sexually appealing, and the build up to our characters was so artfully written, that the moment we appeared in the doorway midway through the second act, carrying roses and boxes of candy, the audience was in hysterics. We had great chemistry together. Unfortunately, I got a bit distracted by falling in love with Rita Moreno.  But that’s a story for a different time.

AM: How did you come to play Groucho later Off-Broadway and on tour? Was it as a direct result of Minnie’s Boys, or were you just sort of “that Groucho guy?”

LJS: I didn’t play Groucho Off-Broadway. After Minnie’s Boys, I was offered all the plays and sitcoms that had a Groucho character. While Groucho was alive, I was the only actor he allowed to play him. I was super-sensitive about being typecast as his imitator, and tried everything in my power to choose roles as far away from that image as possible. In the 1970s, during a serious lull in my career, I put together a two-character play which I produced, Groucho, which I co-wrote with Denny Martin Flinn, who directed. We performed it for four weeks at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, and three weeks at the Tower in Houston, and were courted by several Broadway producers who wanted to bring it to Broadway. I refused for reasons I listed above, preferring  to play one-nighters and split weeks all over the country for three months a year, from 1979 to 1982.  I loved playing Groucho Marx, and the show we wrote was funny and literate, but I was happy to do it out of the New York public eye.

AM: You had a relatively-small but absolutely-memorable role on “The Sopranos.” What was that experience like?

LJS: My time on “The Sopranos” was very nice.  It was a show I actually watched religiously.  James Gandolfini was a remarkably generous actor to work with. The shooting schedule was more like a movie than a TV show; everyone involved seemed aware that this was the greatest gig of their lives. They actually wrote a segment about my character that I couldn’t do because it was the first week I was performing as Max Bialystock on Broadway in The Producers. They just renamed the character and got another actor.

AM: So many people, myself included, feel a regrettable loss from the cancellation of “Smash,” in which you’ve had a recurring role. Can you possibly share what the experience has been like, and why you think it’s hasn’t been able to hang on?

LJS: I watched the first twenty minutes of the first episode I was in and turned it off. I thought it was pretty bad. They wanted me to return for a fourth episode, but I turned them down. When you’re a recurring character, your time is not your own. You’re at their disposal at all times, and I don’t choose to live my life that way. Also, to be perfectly honest, I have memorized books of dialogue in my time, but for some reason I have a hell of time keeping disposable dialogue in my head. When you’re doing a recurring role, you’re usually the last person to be put on camera.  Instead of knowing what you’re doing and why, you’re trying to remember the verb that connects the sentence. I am in the fortunate position of not having to take every job that comes down the pike, which is mostly due to my three unions and their generous pension plans. Tell that to those asshole Republican governors from Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond.

AM: How are things going with The Nance?

LJS: I love doing The Nance. It’s a wonderfully ambitious piece. Nathan is his usual brilliant self.  Jack O’Brien is a terrific director. The cast is made up of kind and accomplished actors. The Lyceum is my favorite theater that I’ve played on Broadway. That said, it’s exhausting. I used to poo-pooh actors who complained about doing eight performances a week. That I’m jumping around out there like a teenager out there–I can almost see their point.

AM: Finally and honestly, Lewis, where do you see yourself ten years from now?

LJS: That’s a good question. I’ll be seventy-six.  Hopefully, I’ll be dining at the Edison coffee shop between a matinee and evening performance of a new play. Along with my old friends (and I MEAN old), Chip Zien, Mark Blum and Lee Wilkof (in their respective shows). With my ten-year-old grandson and Mary Macleod at my side.

Well, hopefully most of us will also all be around to meet them there for a good ol’ Edison corned beef on rye and a coffee. Until then, we’ll all continue to enjoy Lewis J. Stadlen on and off stages and screens, and wish him continued great good luck.