Category Archives: History

MORE THAN THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: 8 ACTORS ON EMILY IN ‘OUR TOWN’ ·

(Laura Collin-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/6; via Pam Green.  In a Broadway production of “Our Town,” Helen Hunt, right, played Emily Webb with Jason Gedrick, left, as George Gibbs and Don Ameche as the Stage Manager.Credit…Brigitte Lacombe, via Lincoln Center Theater.)

With a history of the Thornton Wilder classic coming soon, we talk with performers who found personal inspiration in the play’s beating heart.

Life is a quiet affair in Grover’s Corners, N.H. Its citizens don’t do drama or fuss. But Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” set amid the mountains there, is no folksy paean to simplicity. It’s a boldly experimental play about the beauty of the everyday, and human beings’ tragic propensity to look right past that.

When that realization lands, late and joltingly, it arrives by way of a character we may have underestimated: Emily Webb, the brainy daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. She vows that she’ll make speeches all her life, then falls in love with George Gibbs, the boy next door. If the storytelling Stage Manager is the play’s marquee role, Emily is its beating heart — and a rare complex canonical part for young actresses just starting out.

After “Our Town” made its premiere on Jan. 22, 1938, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., it swiftly moved to Broadway, and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. In the decades since, it has gained a reputation for fusty sentimentality, a misperception that Howard Sherman’s new oral history, “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century” (out Jan. 28 from Methuen Drama), debunks through discussion of a dozen productions.

The New York Times chatted recently with eight actors who have played Emily: on Broadway and Off, in London and regional productions — two of them bi- or multilingual. Lois Smith, now 90, did “Our Town” a mere dozen years after its debut, on a college stage. Their thoughts on the role suggest just how capacious Grover’s Corners can be. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

(Read more)

ROBOT WARS: 100 YEARS ON, IT’S TIME TO REBOOT KAREL ČAPEK’S ‘RUR’ ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/17.  Photo:  Satirical … a sketch for Karel Čapek’s RUR by Bedřich Feuerstein. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images.)

The play Rossum’s Universal Robots clearly belongs to the 1920s but its satirical take on the meeting of humans and machines is all too relevant today

Not many plays introduce a new word to the language. One that did was Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots that had its premiere in Prague 100 years ago this month. Every time we use the word “robot” to denote a humanoid machine, it derives from Čapek’s play, which coined the term from the Czech “robota” meaning forced labour. But a play that was hugely popular in its time – its Broadway premiere in 1922 had a cast that included Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien as robots – has now fallen into neglect. Given our fascination with artificial intelligence, it’s high time we gave it another look.

But what kind of play is it exactly? A dystopian drama attacking science and technology? Up to a point, but it’s much more than that. It starts almost as a Shavian comedy with a do-gooding visitor, Lady Helen Glory, turning up on an island where robots are manufactured out of synthetic matter. She is amazed to discover that a plausibly human secretary is a machine and is equally astonished when the factory’s directors turn out to be flesh and blood creatures rather than robots. With time, the play gets darker as the robots prove to be stronger and more intelligent than their creators and eventually wipe out virtually all humankind. Only a single engineer survives who, a touch improbably, shows two robots transformed by love.

The late, great critic Eric Bentley called Čapek’s play “a museum-piece”. And it is true that it belongs to a 1920s genre of expressionist drama about the threat of dehumanising technology: in 1923 Elmer Rice wrote The Adding Machine about a repressed clerk who, when replaced by the instrument of the title, murders his employer. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, in her excellent book Science on Stage also implies RUR may have had its day in that theatre now eagerly embraces science and technology.

(Read more)

MABOU MINES/BECKETT: ‘IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE’–DIRECTED BY RUTH MALECZECH (12/21-12/17) ·

MABOU MINES/BECKETT: ‘IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE’–DIRECTED BY RUTH MALECZECH (12/21-12/17)

Ruth Nelson (Voice) & Clove Galilee (Figure)
__________________________________

Light, voice, hologram and music play against one another in undulating patterns. Beckett himself could have been describing the eerie effect of Miss Maleczech’s stage piece when he wrote in his text about the striking contrast between the ”absolute stillness and the convulsive light.” ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ lasts only 14 minutes, but it is a paradigmatic example of the Mabou Mines mastery of technology in the name of art.

– Mel Gussow, NY Times 1

**Streaming access can be purchased between 12/21 and 12/27. Once your order is processed you will receive a viewing link to watch anytime through 12/27.**

SAMUEL BECKETT’S

IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE

DIRECTED BY Ruth Maleczech

WITH

Ruth Nelson (Voice)

Clove Galilee (Figure)

PREMIERE

The Performing Garage – NYC , 1984

Running time 17 min

See full production page here. 

BUY TICKETS

SAMUEL BECKETT’S

IMAGINATION DEAD IMAGINE

DIRECTED BY

Ruth Maleczech

” the equivalent of hearing poetry read to sculpture … “

MEL GUSSOW – NEW YORK TIMES

TRIPLE THREAT: ANN REINKING IN ‘OVER HERE!’ AND ‘ANNIE’ (1949-2020) ·

More than forty-six years ago, the Sherman brothers’ Big Band musical Over Here! (they had written the scores for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, and the song “It’s a Small World,” for the 1964 World’s Fair) opened on March 26, 1974, at Broadway’s Schubert Theatre.  Hoping to do for the ‘40s what Grease had done for the following decade (that ’50s-inspired show originally opened theatrically in 1971), Patty and Maxene Andrews starred (LaVerne, the third and oldest of the trio, died in 1967). Directed by Tom Moore, with choreography by Patricia BirchOver Here! is about a trip, by train, across the contiguous United States, as well as through America’s heart, memory, and consciousness, and its cast included stars, who had yet to break out: John Travolta, Treat Williams, Marilu Henner, and Samuel E. Wright.  From the distance of so much time, however, what was most bamboozling for me, as a suburban teenager, was a transvestite bride, dressed in white and carrying a bouquet, who sat toward the rear of the mezzanine with her groom.  (Whether related or not, one song in the vehicle, is called “Wartime Wedding”—and the Vietnam conflict would continue until 1975.)  Under the proscenium itself, a young dancer  appeared to be swimming across the stage, like Esther Williams–we could barely take our eyes off of her.  Ann Reinking was her name, and she died on December 12, at age 71.

My brother and I had actually seen the future Tony winner before, in  Pippin (1972)—and, at a Wyoming movie theatre, ten years later, she appeared on celluloid, as what’s best, in Annie—a movie that was too big for its story.  In an interview with The New York Times, in 1991, Reinking comments on what theatre was like in the late 1960s and 1970s—she called it “sophisticated and adult.”  And among the shows, flowering in Sondheim’s “city of strangers,” were: Cabaret, Pippin, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Dancin’—five of which she appeared in. During that era, when we caught the theatre bug, dance was becoming a necessary part of the actor’s toolkit, as show people talked intimidatingly about triple threats—and Reinking was probably the best example of the breed, able to dance, act, and sing, with a smoky voice.  Before too long, we would be playing in those shows she helped define and create, in college and community groups. Performers were different then: tougher, alienating, and asocial, as was that transvestite. Theatre, was a societal revolt—and to Reinking, who could dance strong or elegant or shaded, every step was as meaningful as a word in a line of dialogue.

 

The superagent Robert Lantz told me a change occurred with the opening of Annie on Broadway (1977). The audiences would be younger now, the themes, in the work, less complicated.  Reinking’s talent is validated in that she could play in both spheres: the darker musicals, which the culture was moving away from, and those demarcating a new age (that would welcome the British theatrical invasion). Ironically, she might be remembered best for a movie that was antithetic to her most challenging roles (not unlike the actress Gloria Grahame, who today is best-known for being Ado Annie, in the film of Oklahoma!, rather than for her Oscar-winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful). Reinking probably bridged the genre gap better than the noir star, but the profound, hard cynicism and sarcasm of her working-class characters, may garner less understanding today.  Perhaps, for good reasons,we prefer comic escapism–and have lost too much of an affinity for Brecht.  Reinking’s likeable, balletic dancing in a “soft, floating” yellow dress in Annie, however, is a mirage.

Rest in Peace.

–Bob Shuman

(c) 2020.  All rights reserved.

AUGUST WILSON, AMERICAN BARD ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/4/2020; via Pam Green. To accompany this essay, the Baltimore-based artist Jerrell Gibbs painted “Portrait of August Wilson” (2020), exclusively for T.Credit…Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim. Photo by Joseph Hyde.)

Perhaps no playwright has asserted the richness and complexity of everyday Black lives and language so deeply. Now, two screen projects affirm his legacy for new audiences

IN THE WOODS of Barnesville, Ga., two Black men are running, barely visible in the dusk. There are crickets chirping, dogs barking in the distance and, more immediately, the urgent pants of their breath. This seems to be a familiar horror, but the men aren’t being chased; they’re heading toward a tent. Inside, Ma Rainey — played by Viola Davis, her lips painted burgundy, eyelids smoked with black, cheeks stained merlot — beckons the audience in a royal blue dress. “Daddy, daddy, please come home to me,” she sings, shimmying in the heat.

 “Anytime you see two Black people running in the South, you think the Klan’s somewhere, but, no, they’re not running from something. They’re running to something — to this woman whose voice is telling their story,” says George C. Wolfe, the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Netflix film version of August Wilson’s beloved play, which debuts this month. The scene feels appropriate for the opening of a Wilson adaptation: One of the most acclaimed Black playwrights in America, he spent more than three decades telling the story of Black America with pride and verve, with language that beckoned like Ma’s voice in that tent.

The play, first produced in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., is a fictionalized account of a famous blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, who is in Chicago with her band in the 1920s to record a few songs. Ma’s musicians rehearse in a back room, or at least talk about rehearsing: There’s the sensible Cutler (played in the film by Colman Domingo), the laggard Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the thoughtful Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman, who died in August, in his final film role), a young and impetuous trumpet player with an idea for what a new sound might be. Ma finds herself at odds with Levee, as she does with her controlling white agent and the white studio owner, both of whom she knows are exploiting her. That’s the conflict, but much of the play’s pleasure is its dialogue: the characters gabbing, joking and arguing. Accordingly, the pith of the show is Ma’s voice — not just her husky murmur but the sound of a Black artist singing her story to and for her community. “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the play. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.”

(Read more)

 

ANCIENT STATUE OF HERMES DUG UP IN ATHENS ·

(via AFP. Photo:  © Provided by AFP This handout picture released by the Greek Culture Ministry on November 15, 2020, shows the head of an ancient statue of the Greek god Hermes, in Athens, which has been unearthed during excavations for sewage system improvements in central Athens, the ministry of culture said on November 15, 2020.)

The head of an ancient statue of the Greek god Hermes has been unearthed during excavations for sewage system improvements in central Athens, the ministry of culture said Sunday.

The “original artwork dating late 4th century BC or early 3rd century BC” is in good condition, a statement said.

The marble head, found just 1.3 metres (four feet) under the pavement on the busy Aiolou street on Friday, “depicts the god in a mature age and is obviously a part of a herm”, the statement added.

Herms or Hermas are sculptures, usually of the head of Hermes, and sometimes a torso, which were set on a squared column erected at road crossings as signs.  

(Read more)

EMILY WILSON ON AESCHYLUS’ ORESTEIA ·

(Wilson’s article appeared in the London Review of Books, 10/8; via Norm Silverman.)

Aeschylus’​ Oresteia begins with the story of a grieving, righteously angry woman seeking justice for her daughter. The child was killed by her father, the woman’s husband, in order to enable a vast war. Each of the three plays is radically different in style, mood and action. But each centres on female anger and female grief at violent loss of life and the willingness of family members to kill one another. The trilogy is about language and the mysterious will of the gods, about tyranny, freedom and political change, and about a slow path to maturity for one young man (Orestes) and an entire culture. That ‘maturity’ turns out to involve the subordination of women and of the family, which is conceived as feminine, to enable the creation of a political community like real-life historical Athens, in which male citizens use the law courts and the institutions of democracy to legislate for structures of power that can contain, marginalise and silence other members of the community – women, immigrants, enslaved people. All the plays’ intertwined elements are knotted into a central set of questions about how to suppress, silence or pacify female rage, and how to reconcile the close kinship of the household with responsibilities to the larger community or city-state.

In Agamemnon, the long first play, the mood is dark and the language is dense, metaphorical and hard to parse. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, has set up a relay of torch fires to bring her news of her husband’s victory at Troy, and the image of the relay signal also connects to the play’s larger story: the way events from far away and long ago still haunt the house of Argos. At Aulis, on the way to Troy, Agamemnon was forced to choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia or abandoning the war to recover his brother’s wife, Helen. ‘Which of these is free from evil?’ he asks, in Oliver Taplin’s translation. Jeffrey Bernstein has the wordier ‘Which of these two ways is without evil?’ David Mulroy, the punchier ‘Can either choice be right?’ Agamemnon is in a position where there is no right answer, no guiltless way to act.

The terrible moment is figured as in part a choice, in part an act of compulsion: Agamemnon ‘placed his neck beneath the harness/of what had to be’.* The ambiguity of his freedom, or lack of it, is compounded by further mysteries, such as when the cycle of violence began. Was it with the killing of Iphigenia? Or longer ago, when Menelaus married Helen, taking a ‘lion cub’ into his house? Or was it when Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, tricked his brother into eating his own children? Or further back still, in the dark plans of Apollo, god of light, and the will of Zeus, ‘whoever he may be’, the god who killed and usurped his own father? The play’s riddling language hints at the way one word, phrase, action or body can turn into another, often at a terrible price. The death of Iphigenia becomes the death of Agamemnon. More broadly, in one of the Chorus’s most powerful images, Ares, the war god, is presented as a money changer who ‘trades men into jars’ filled with ash. The living become the dead, who in turn haunt the living.

Despite the first play’s title, Agamemnon – a flustered, confused, fragile conqueror, who sees himself as a victim even before his wife axes him to death in the bath – plays a relatively small part in it. Two extraordinary female characters dominate its action. Clytemnestra, a wonderfully intelligent, articulate, determined strategist, is described as a woman whose heart ‘organises like a man’: she has spent the past ten years plotting her husband’s murder, which will allow her (along with her feeble lover, Aegisthus) to seize the throne. Greek tragedy almost never shows violent action; the killing is represented by screams from the wings. But Clytemnestra’s triumph over her husband is represented on stage verbally and dramaturgically, above all in the great central scene in which she persuades the reluctant victor to enter the house and trample on the rich red tapestries looted from Troy, providing a visual acknowledgment that his victory has involved an assumption of infinite privilege (‘and who could drain it dry?’) and the ‘crushing underfoot’ of precious things, starting with his own child – ‘the treasure of my labour pains’, as Clytemnestra puts it. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars in which Athens and other Greek cities fought off attempts at invasion by the Persian army; he is clear-sighted about the greed and egotism of this conquering hero. Clytemnestra hides her intentions in elaborate riddling before the murder, but once her husband is dead, she presents it as orgasmically thrilling: he ‘spouted out a jet of blood/that showered me with a drizzle of dark dew’, in Taplin’s lushly alliterative version; Mulroy has a rather less sexy interpretation of the verb (ἐκφυσιάω, which suggests ‘to snort out’ and is used elsewhere for snoring, and elephants squirting water from their trunks): ‘he vomited a shining clot of blood.’

The second great female character in the Agamemnon is Cassandra, who seems, on her first entrance, to have a non-speaking role. In 458 bc, tragedians had only recently begun to use three actors rather than two, and Aeschylus brilliantly exploits the audience’s expectations to create surprise and confusion when the third actor, playing the foreign woman enslaved by Agamemnon, speaks. Still more surprising, the outsider turns out to know far more than any native-born Greek about the house of Argos – where, as she well knows, she will die alongside her captor. Queen Clytemnestra’s aggression, deceit and violence are counterbalanced by the insight and courage of Cassandra, who is blessed and cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy; she sets aside grieving for herself and her ruined city to step towards a death that will, as she also knows, bring down her killers.

The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the trilogy, centres on the tomb of the dead Agamemnon and his surviving daughter, Electra. As in the first play, there are contrasting female characters: Electra, driven to murderous plots by long-standing grief and rage, and Clytemnestra, who becomes desperately aware that, like Cassandra before her, she is on the way to death. Electra’s brother, Orestes, returns from exile and, urged on by his sister, his friend Pylades and the oracles of Apollo, steels himself to kill his mother and Aegisthus.

These murders echo those of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the previous play, though they are represented very differently. Clytemnestra luxuriates in the bloody slaughter of her husband, but Orestes hesitates, especially when Clytemnestra bares her breast to remind him that the body he threatens to kill is the source of his life. At the play’s end, Orestes presents the murders as an act of political liberation, freeing Argos from a ‘pair of tyrants’; but he begins to see visions of the Furies, the doglike, snake-haired goddesses who pursue and torture those who shed the blood of their own family members.

In the final play, The Eumenides (‘Kindly Ones’, a traditional euphemism for the Furies), the goddesses are visible to the audience: they serve as the hissing, violent chorus, in contrast to the human choruses of the first two plays and most other Athenian tragedies. Whereas the earlier plays were set in the distant city of Argos, The Eumenides is set where the play was performed: in Athens, on the hill of the Areopagus, a stone’s throw from the Theatre of Dionysos. The dominant characters are not humans but gods. Orestes has come to Athens for sanctuary, to beg Athena for absolution from matricide. Athena, like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, is the hyper-intelligent, scheming ruler of her city. But unlike Clytemnestra, she is not mortal, angry, grieving or murderous: she has no personal interest in the case, but turns out to have a particular fondness for the democratic institutions of Athens in the fifth century. She organises a trial by jury.

The Furies accuse Orestes of the ultimate horror in shedding his mother’s blood; no matter his justification, they insist that he is polluted and cannot return to Argos or belong to any religious or family community. Apollo speaks in his defence, arguing that matricide does not count as the murder of a family member, because, according to one of several competing medical theories circulating in Aeschylus’ time, women’s bodies provide only a container for the embryo, which is formed solely of material from the father’s body. The jury is split, and Athena breaks the tie in favour of Orestes. Whatever may be true of human biology, she at least is entirely her father’s daughter, born from his head: ‘And so in every way I’m for the male.’ Clytemnestra was accused of having a heart like a man. Electra, in desperate grief, obsessed over her dead father and absent brother, and resented her mother. Athena takes the pattern of female male-sympathisers even further: she has the militaristic, dominant heart of her father Zeus, and insists that the sunlit, male-dominated world of politics will, from now on, prevail over the underground, ancestral blood-rights of the female Furies. The Furies are, understandably, furious. But Athena restrains their anger by promising them a permanent, if subordinate place in the ritual life of the city – something analogous to the political status that resident aliens (‘metics’) had in real-life Athens.

(Read more plus

BLACK LIVES MATTER IN “TITUS ANDRONICUS” (INTERVIEW WITH DAVID STERLING BROWN) ·

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 155 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

In his classes at Binghamton University, David Sterling Brown and his students examine Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of Critical Race Theory. You might have heard about Critical Race Theory lately: put simply, it’s a way of looking at society and culture that focuses on the intersections of race, law, and power. Ever since George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis outraged much of the nation, Critical Race Theory has taken on a new urgency for millions of Americans examining race, law and power with new eyes. Meanwhile, millions of other Americans, pointing to the realities of their own day-to-day lives, are basically saying: “I told you so.”

What does it mean to read a play like Titus Andronicus with questions of race in mind? Brown, who has written extensively about that play, joins us on the podcast to discuss the ways that such a reading reveals an entire dimension of racial imagery and racial violence. We also talk about what it means for theaters and cultural institutions to engage in anti-racist work. David Sterling Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

(Read more)

 

10 SOVIET ACTRESSES YOU SHOULD KNOW (PHOTOS+VIDEOS) ·

Vasily Malyshev/Sputnik; Sputnik

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared on Russia Beyond, 11/6.)

 
These committed movie stars became symbols of their era, setting silver screens alight with their charisma and beauty.

 

1. Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975)

Soviet cinema queen Lyubov Orlova is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful women in the film industry. The blonde bombshell was descended from an aristocratic Russian family on her mother’s side.

The star of 'The Circus', Lyubov Orlova.

Lyubov was a good girl. She studied music at the Moscow Conservatory, showed considerable talent and soon became a member of the Musical Theater led by none other than Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Her parents, meanwhile, wanted their daughter to become a professional pianist. But it was only a matter of time before Orlova addressed her biggest passion, cinema.

Lyubov Orlova starring in 'Springtime'.

 

Lyubov ascended to stardom in 1936 as Marion Dixon, an American circus performer who gives birth to a mixed-race baby in ‘The Circus’, directed by Sergey Eisenstein’s best student and Orlova’s second husband, Grigory Aleksandrov. Orlova lent her talent to brilliant roles in Soviet film classics, such as ‘Jolly Fellows’, ‘Volga-Volga’, ‘Shining Path’, ‘Springtime’ and ‘Meeting on the Elbe’, all directed by Aleksandrov.

Lyubov Orlova in 'Volga-Volga'.

For good or bad, Joseph Stalin was deeply fond of the actress and particularly liked Orlova’s portrayal of Dunya Petrova in one of the first Soviet musical comedies, ‘Volga-Volga’. After her death, Orlova’s cinematic legacy did not just disappear beyond the horizon. In 1976, a Soviet astronomer discovered a new planet she called ‘3108 Lyubov’, in homage to Orlova. 

 

2. Faina Ranevskaya (1896-1984)

Faina never took herself too seriously, although she acted in plays by Chekhov and Tolstoy. She was born Faina Feldman into a prosperous Jewish family in the city of Taganrog. Faina’s memorable stage name, Ranevskaya, was inspired by her love of Chekhov’s play, ‘The Cherry Orchard’.

Faina Ranevskaya acted in plays by Chekhov and Tolstoy.

Her name became a byword for wit and wisdom. Ranevskay’s catchphrase from the 1939 comedy ‘The Foundling’ —  “Honey, don’t make me nervous!” — became a common household phrase in the USSR. Ranevskaya was volcanically funny and her quotes were legendary. 

“All my life, I’ve swam in the toilet butterfly style…” 

“Optimism is the lack of information.”

“Lesbians, homosexuals, masochism, sadism are not perversions. In fact, there are only two perversions: hockey on grass, and ballet on ice.”

“Honey, don’t make me nervous!” Faina Ranevskaya in 'The Foundling'.

The actress adored theater and poetry and was friends with Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. According to Anna Akhmatova, Ranevskaya was a kid that is “now 11, and will never turn 12”. 

(Read more)

 

PATTI LUPONE WAS A CONSTANT. THE OTHER INGREDIENTS NEVER COOKED. ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/4;  Photo: Patti LuPone, left, as the title character and Chaim Topol as her husband in the pre-Broadway tour of the musical “The Baker’s Wife.”Credit…Martha Swope, via New York Public Library; via Pam Green.)

With a marquee creative team, this romantic musical should have been a sure bet. One great song survived the out-of-town turmoil.

The producer David Merrick was no slouch at offstage drama. With a new musical in rough shape on the road, he devised an audacious caper to fix it.

The place was the Shubert Theater in Boston, the year 1976, the show “The Baker’s Wife” — with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, a book by Joseph Stein and a cringe-making trail of reviews that seemed only to be getting worse.

At the start of the five-city, six-month Broadway-bound tour, in May, the Los Angeles Times had kindly deemed the show “not an embarrassment.” By September, The Boston Globe declared acidly that it didn’t “have a prayer.”

To Merrick, the song “Meadowlark” — sung by the title character, played by a not yet famous, 27-year-old Patti LuPone — was part of the problem. It was more than seven minutes long, and he wanted it out. So after a Wednesday matinee, he ordered the conductor, Robert Billig, to pull all of the sheet music for the song and bring it to the stage.

“I did as I was asked,” Billig recalled by email this week, “and Mr. Merrick put the music in his attaché case and departed for New York.”

The notoriously combative producer left the others to figure out how to make the evening performance work around the hole he had just smashed in it.

UNOPENED

“This could all just be myth,” LuPone said by phone the other day, hushing her voice for effect, “but let’s hope it’s true: He was heard in a bar the night before saying, ‘I’ll get that song out of the show if I have to poison the birdseed.’”

“Meadowlark,” which went on to become a cabaret standard, a popular audition number and one of LuPone’s signature solo songs, didn’t stay cut. Billig got on the phone to Schwartz, Schwartz called his agent, threats were made. The orchestra got its music back the next day.

“By that point in the proceedings,” Schwartz said recently by video call, “this is why we couldn’t fix it.” Meaning the show, that is. “Because everything had sort of descended into chaos. Nobody was making really rational decisions.”

(Read more)