Category Archives: Events


(Adam Kirsch’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 1/16.

The intelligent, human-like machines long promised by science fiction still don’t exist, but they’ve played an important role in the modern imagination.

In 2021, robots can be forklifts or machine tools, surgical instruments or bomb defusers. As a viral video showed this month, a new, human-shaped model from Boston Dynamics can even dance to the Motown song “Do You Love Me?” But when the Czech writer Karel Capek coined the word “robot” in his play “R.U.R.,” which made its debut in Prague 100 years ago this month, he had something much grander in mind: a new, man-made species, capable of tireless labor but also love, hope and self-sacrifice. As a robot declares in the play’s last scene, “We’ve become beings with souls.”

Actual robots may be a letdown by comparison, but over the last century, imaginary robots have become one of our best tools for thinking about fundamental questions: What is it that makes us human? How can we be sure of what’s going on in other minds? Do the benefits of progress outweigh its dangers? These used to be problems for religion and philosophy; thanks to robots, we now often approach them through science fiction.

Humans have always worried that the machines we make to serve us could eventually turn on us.

People told stories about mechanical men long before 1921. The Argonautica, a Greek epic from the 3rd century B.C., includes the story of Talos, “fashioned of bronze and invulnerable,” who guards the harbor of Crete. A 16th-century Jewish legend tells of the Golem, a huge man of clay made to protect the Jews of Prague. Both of these proto-robots are built with a kind of kill switch, giving humans a way to keep them in check. Talos is deactivated when the thin skin on his ankle is punctured, allowing the fluid that gives him life to run out; the Golem can be stopped by erasing the Hebrew letter written on his forehead. Clearly, humans have always worried that the machines we make to serve us could eventually turn on us.

Not until Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” however, did a man-made creature become an object of sympathy. Dr. Frankenstein makes his monster out of body parts scavenged from “the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse,” and it turns out to be all too human. Indeed, the monster is driven to violence because people refuse to acknowledge that he has human feelings, especially a need for love. “Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” he rages.

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Vin Morreale, Jr. (book & lyrics) and Eric B. Sirota (music) are pleased to announce the release of their new full-length musical comedy, “A Day at the White House,” on podcast and streaming platforms.  “A Day at the White House” is a timeless yet very timely musical romantic comedy, set on Inauguration Day.


After a close national vote is deadlocked in Florida, Crenshaw Sparx is appointed President of the United States, surrounded by all the clowns, comedians, and con artists that not-so-subtly reflect today’s political environment. 


A “radio-play” full-length musical which includes 16 songs is now available to be streamed for free here. Pay what you can.  Donations are greatly appreciated to help with production costs. 


The cast includes:  Sarah Turner Holland, Dwight Turner, Beau Solley, Will Adams, Chauncey E. Arnold, Rick Bucy, Gary Crockett, Randy Davidson, Amber Hurst, Vin Morreale Jr., Barb Polk & Steven Preston.


Imagine the mayhem when the American political establishment is thrown together with classic comedians of the early 20th Century–and be prepared for ultimate slapstick zaniness.

Vin Morreale, Jr. and Eric B. Sirota began to work together in 2012, when they were paired to work on a short musical in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival in New York.  This was Sirota’s first work professionally produced.  Morreale was already an established and highly produced playwright, but had yet to write a musical.  Sirota wrote the music and a 12-minute version of A Day at the White House was produced at that festival.   Over the next few years, Sirota became established in the musical theatre world, writing music, book and lyrics, with productions of his full-length musicals including Frankenstein, which has been running for almost 3 years Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre (with a pause for COVID).  In 2018, Morreale and Sirota returned to A Day at the Whitehouse, where Mr. Morreale updated his full-length script, and Sirota wrote the music for the 16 songs.   Working remotely during COVID, with Sirota in New Jersey and Morreale in Louisville KY, the score was prepared, and the entire work was recorded in Louisville, just barely in time to be released prior to the presidential election.  

Recordings by Fred Bogert (Briarcliff Recording Studio), and one song by J. D. Miller.  Kim Aberle was the rehearsal pianist. Produced by Mandy Morreale.



A Day at the White House – a new full-length musical comedy


Audio podcast (“radio-play” musical)



Cost:  Free (optional donation)

Vin Morreale, Jr. (book & lyrics) is a published author, award-winning screenwriter and internationally-produced playwright.  He was named to the INTERNATIONAL SCREENWRITERS ASSOCIATION’S TOP 25 WRITERS in 2017 and 2018, as well as THE BLACKLIST’S TOP TV WRITERS STAFFING BOOK over thousands of writers considered. He was recently inducted into the KENTUCKY FILM AND TELEVISION HALL OF FAME.

He was awarded the prestigious Al Smith Writing Fellowship, and his scripts, stage plays and radio comedy have received hundreds of productions around the world, and have been translated into Italian, Russian and Spanish.

Vin was a founding member of the San Francisco Playwrights’ Center and the Senseless Bickering Comedy Theatre. He has more than a dozen plays in print, as well as three highly acclaimed acting resource books drawn from his nationally known acting workshops; 300 MONOLOGUES, TWO CHARACTER CHAOS and 150 ACTING SCENES, available through


Eric B. Sirota (music) is a composer, playwright and physicist.  He studied music composition at Brown University and received his PhD in Physics at Harvard.  His musical, “Frankenstein”, based on Mary Shelley’s novel, has been playing Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre for almost 3 years.  Your Name on My Lips, a musical about following one’s passion with obsession and commitment, was produced by Theater for the New City.  He is currently developing Go, My Child, a musical about leaving one’s parents, infertility and the search for truth, set against a background of xenophobia – an original account of the early lives of familiar biblical characters. 

He was honored to receive the Denis Diderot Artists-in-Residence grant to attend the Chateau d’Orquevaux artist’s residency in 2019, where he had the opportunity to work on a new musical, A Good Day, about the power of music to rekindle memory and awaken the mind, which is now in development. (



(Rob Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; Photo: Dynamic duo … Tim Rice, right, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images.)

As the great songwriter prepares to take Jesus Christ Superstar on a 50th birthday tour, he talks about penning hits, his idea for a new musical – and drinking from Lloyd Webber’s Georgian wine glasses

 Tim Rice had a hunch the Oscar was in the bag. After all, he and Elton John had been responsible for three of the five nominations in the best song category. But, as he walked on stage that night in 1995, after Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King won, the tall, slightly awkward-looking English lyricist had no idea what he was going to say. So he drew a breath then decided, on a whim, to thank his childhood hero, Denis Compton. No one in the Hollywood audience had heard of the England and Middlesex cricketing all-rounder and his words were greeted with a bemused silence.

Rice laughs at the memory and puts on a throaty American drawl to recount the scene back stage when reporters swarmed. “What movies was this guy Compton in?” “Oh, I said, he was in The Final Test.” “But what part did he play?” “Well, he played Denis Compton – and frankly, I thought he captured the character very well.”

He chortles away, still roguish at 76 and ever the raconteur. But then Rice is at his best telling stories. They’re the key to his craft. “A good story always inspires good words,” he says. And, over the past six decades, Rice has written some very good words for the biggest names in music, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna. Mention his name, though, and people are likely to think of him as part of a duo alongside – or even eclipsed by – Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet as a lyricist, Rice has won three Oscars, two more than Lloyd Webber.

Why isn’t he more of a national treasure? “I really don’t like people saying everything is wonderful,” Rice says, when I suggest that he may be a bit too, well, self-effacing for someone with three Academy awards. “I don’t want to completely put myself down – because there’s the frightening possibility that people might agree.” Is there anything he will say? “I think I’m quite good at judging my material, partly because it’s only half mine in most cases.”

He’s speaking to me from his six-acre country home near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a leafy retreat he moved to three years ago. Outside, the afternoon light’s fading and his dog is impatient for a walk. Rice has spent the day organising all the songs he’s ever written – putting his house in order “in case I get hit by a bus next week”. He’s been struck by how many never appeared in films or shows: 145 in all. Most are pretty average, he says, particularly the early ones. “It’s made me realise just how much a show helps a song.”

I like a perfect rhyme. I don’t like time and mine, or girl and world

None more so than the hit musical Evita. A “bonkers” idea, he says, that came to him after hearing a radio programme about Eva Perón, the glamorous wife of Juan Perón, three times president of Argentina. The show made him drop everything and jump on a plane to Buenos Aires to do some research. “The best stuff I’ve written is when I have characters and I know what situation they’re in – and I think, ‘What would I say in that situation?’”

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(Paul Davenport’s article appeared on the AP, 1/14; via the Drudge Report; Photo: Sigfried, left, with tiger:

Siegfried Fischbacher, the surviving member of the magic duo Siegfried & Roy who entertained millions with illusions using rare animals, has died in Las Vegas, his publicist tells The Associated Press. He was 81.

Fischbacher died Wednesday at his home from pancreatic cancer, Dave Kirvin of Kirvin Doak Communications said Thursday. The news was first reported by German news agency dpa.

Fischbacher’s long-time show business partner, Roy Horn, died last year of complications from COVID-19 at a Las Vegas hospital. He was 75.

The duo astonished millions with their extraordinary magic tricks until Horn was critically injured in 2003 by one of the act’s famed white tigers.

In a statement announcing Horn’s death in May, Fischbacher said, “From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried.”

He later told Germany’s weekly Bild am Sonntag newspaper his best friend would always stay by his side.

“For dinner, I will continue to have the table set for him, too. Like it always was the case. I’m not alone,” dpa quoted Fischbacher as telling the newspaper.

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(via John Wyszniewski, Everyman)

Highlights include 9th Annual PROTOTYPE Festival, Soundwalks in Harlem and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Online Premieres

The OBIE-winning HERE (Kristin Marting, Founding Artistic Director) is proud to announce programming for its HERE There Everywhere winter and spring 2021 season. 

The season launches with the ninth annual PROTOTYPE: Opera | Theatre | Now (January 8–16), the premier global festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre which has been completely re-envisioned in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Co-produced by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects, this year’s festival responds to the seismic events of 2020 and features a series of multidisciplinary, cross-platform events that expand the technological boundaries of the artform. The festival includes two in-person, world-premiere experiences in New York City: Times3 (Times x Times x Times), an immersive sonic experience in Times Square by Geoff Sobelle & Pamela Z; and Ocean Body, a multi-screen film and music installation at HERE by composer/vocalists Helga Davis and Shara Nova and director-filmmaker Mark DeChiazza.

In addition, PROTOTYPE will feature the world premiere of MODULATION, a musically rich, self-guided digital exploration of isolation, fear, and identity by 13 commissioned composers; plus, three digital U.S. premieres from abroad – Ben Frost & Petter Ekmann’s The Murder of Halit Yozgat, Garin Nugroho and Septina Rosalina Layan’s The Planet – A Lament, and Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists – which explore themes of racial violence and institutional blindness, environmental disaster, and the unsettling nature of change. All festival offerings are free, except for MODULATION. Tickets to Ocean Body must be reserved online at

Building on their success with Cairns (included on the New York Times’s Best Theater of 2020 list), composers Joseph White and HARP Artist Gelsey Bell premiere Meander, a co-presentation by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and HERE. This soundwalk, which launches on January 29, 2021, guides listeners on a meditative stroll into the natural landscape of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Inspired by the appearance of a one-antlered deer in Harlem in 2016, The Visitation is a site-specific soundwalk created by Stephanie FleischmannChristina Campanella, and Mallory Catlett. Launching in March 2021, the audio premiere takes listeners on an urban odyssey in Jackie Robinson Park via geo-located songs that conjure a series of encounters with the buck.

HERE’s season also includes the world premiere of part 1 of No One is Forgotten, a radio opera play in discovery by Winter Miller and Eve Giglotti adapted from Miller’s 2019 stage play. This musical work about intimacy, surrender, and the will to live features the vocal talents of Kathleen ChalfantHelga Davis, Gigliotti, and Zainab Jah with music and foley by Paola Prestini and Sxip Shirey and direction by Elliott Forest and Kevin Newbury.

Melisa Tien’s live, online song cycle Swell, created by 26 artist-collaborators, weaves together ten original, new music compositions by ten composers. The works, running March 17-21, 2021draw from their personal histories as immigrants and children of immigrants hailing from Mexico, India, Israel, Japan, Trinidad, the Philippines, Russia, and Taiwan. The composers’ unique, surprising, and deeply human stories are expressed through voice, piano, cello, and violin.

Released digitally over the course of five months from February through June 2021, Janessa Clark’s Communion features 40 dancers from around the world whose video duets explore the isolation and uncertainty individuals face in the wake of the pandemic.

Additional online events include Shakuntala Awaits by Isheeta Ganguly which ponders how two people can “see” each other if they never “see” each other and features performances by Purva Bedi and Samrat Chakrabarti. And HARP resident artists Baba Israel and Grace Galu, along with their bandmate Sean Nowell, use music and spoken word to explore the history of cannabis in Cannabis WIP.

Please visit for more information.


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(Photos: Mabou Mines)

By Bob Shuman

Some of us had never seen Lee Breuer, who died January 3, working without a stocking cap—but what is probably most surprising is that we saw a playwright, this hands-on, at all.  In 2010, upon early audience entry, at New York Theatre Workshop, he clarified tech, behind a huge plywood board, for his double-bill of monologues Pataphysics Penyeach (Summa DramaticaandPorco Morto”).  In 2013, with La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog, at La MaMa, there was a question as to whether he might even be seen, as press performances were canceled due to his illness.  He appeared, hustling through the impersonal subway tracks of the set, though, where a dog had been abandoned.  That animal, Rose, a puppet, also the star of the show, caused a visceral reaction, when she began eating “poop,” a polite way of naming the grotesque situation—one this reviewer categorized as an aberrant absurdist element, while still shuddering.  Much later, now the owner of two Jack Russell terriers, one who had been deserted on a highway in South Carolina, the truth of the writing emerged.  Although our dogs are now ensconced in Massachusetts during the pandemic, for several years, Breuer remained on my mind often, his visual observation about pets acute, disgusting, and pervasive.

He was part of the East Village zeitgeist—I should say he was our Peter Brook. Mabou Mines offered performance based on hard theatrical theory and experience, not simple propaganda, although clearly leftist. Breuer volunteered at the Berliner Ensemble, under Communism, worked with Grotowski, adapted Beckett, and more, to give his work an international edge. It’s impossible to think of the American avant-garde, without him.  Tracking our way back from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, along Seventh Avenue to Forty-Second Street, in 1988, someone, talking about the chorus, was saying how you weren’t “going to ask those big, mature Black women to do a lot of choreography,” as we understood musicals then, when someone noted the stately stage progressions, in The Gospel at Colonus.  The voices moved the audience, and caused them to dance, instead.  Lee Breuer was, almost inarguably, America’s finest theatre practitioner at the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic was so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that it seems an injustice to say that he was an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one.

In a July 2020 Zoom interview from Segal Talks, hosted by Frank Hentschker, with Maude Mitchell, Breuer macrocosmically talked about playwriting, music: 

“I wanted to get this feeling of everyone contributing their melody to a larger whole, and that there would be a form that would arise from it.  I think music is the key to it.  I think if we can feel that all the currents–political, aesthetic—are joining together to make a statement–and if you can discern what that statement is–that you will have achieved a tremendous revelation about what our times and what our lives now are all about.”

Breuer’s statements could expose internal horror about the American and human condition, combining humor with the monstrous, as he did with Pataphysics Penyeach, which used children’s storybook  and cartoon characters facing contemporary political and sociological existence.  Back in 2010, he seemed to pinpoint how we had been overwhelmed by the technological: “Reality is not real,” a distinguished professor, a cow, tells us “—it’s virtual.”  The play demonstrated a “spin” on French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics (a “send up of metaphysics”). 

According to Breuer, in a 2007 video conversation at Towson University,  theatre only exists half the time on the stage; the other half takes place in the head.  The viewer is choosing the play’s message after “balancing the work’s thesis and antithesis.”  The synthesizing process is apparent in a work like Pataphysics Penyeach because, through the ridiculous and cerebral, one attempts to decipher the meaning, to make sense of the divergent inputs, holding on in the hope of unmasking the secret of the piece.  Steadily looking for metaphor, in “Porco Morto,” the second one act in the evening, Breuer turned the concept of “capitalist pigs” into a playlet about a piglet, who talks like Porky Pig.

For those drawn to the stage of Lee Breuer, part of its appeal must be his interest in the viewer as thinker, not simply as blank page—he was an intellectual theorist himself, not only a defender of theory, whether Marxist, Feminist, Market, or other.  Breuer’s is a formidable intelligence to be openly missed; irreplaceable, still to be reckoned with, and learned from. 

Don’t cover it up.

© 2021 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit Mabou Mines.


Two Breuer Reviews from Stage Voices:

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(from Mabou Mines) 

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Mabou Mines co-founder Lee Breuer on January 3, 2021. He died peacefully at home surrounded by love and loved ones. Lee is survived by his wife and artistic partner Maude Mitchell, daughter Clove Galilee, sons Lute Ramblin Breuer, Alexander Tiappa Klimovitsky, Mojo Lorwin, and Wah Mohn and grandchildren Bella, Ruma and Jack Breuer.

Numberless are the world’s wonders
But none more wonderful than man
Words and thought rapid as air
He fashions for his use
And his the skill that deflects the arrows of snow
The spears of winter rain

From every wind he has made himself secure
From every wind he has made himself secure
From all but one … all but one
In the late wind of death he cannot stand 

Sophocles, Adapted by Lee Breuer for The Gospel at Colonus

For more information about Lee’s life and career go to website.

(Photograph: The New York Times.)



(Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/31; Photo: Tammy Faye Messner with Jim Bakker. Photograph: Associated Press.)

Writer says singer’s cancelled farewell tour resulted in ‘real progress’ on stage project

For writer James Graham, one plus side from the grind of 2020 was being able to work with Elton John and Jake Shears on a new musical telling the wild story of televangelist turned gay icon Tammy Faye Bakker.

Graham has written the book, John the music and Shears the lyrics. The project has been brewing for two years and because John had to cancel his farewell tour this year he had more time to get it finished. “We’ve made real progress and we got a workshop together in November,” said Graham. “We hope we might get it in to a theatre second half of next year.”

It was John who thought Bakker, a big-haired, shoulder-padded embodiment of 1980s televangelism, would make a great musical. “She became basically a gay icon because of her liberal support for the gay community during the Aids crisis.”

Graham said he was also interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and Reaganism and how that happened again with Trump. “That sounds really boring and dry doesn’t it,” said Graham. “But it’s with some kick-ass tunes by Elton John!”

Working with John and Shears provided some welcome relief from what was a rollercoaster year for Graham, who was a passionate and vocal campaigner to get government help for the Britain’s threatened performing arts sector.

His high-profile involvement was an accident of timing in a way, Graham says, in that his ITV series Quiz, telling the story of the coughing major on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was broadcast in April meaning he had to do lots of publicity and interviews.

Graham also donated his TV fee from Quiz to a fund helping freelance workers. The drama came from a stage play with actors and creatives helping to develop it, he said. “I just felt that was a clear example of my profiting from something that was made collectively.”

In May he appeared on Question Time, powerfully articulating the case for investment. He’d been warned that arguing for arts funding at a time of global financial collapse might bring a social media backlash. “To my absolute surprise it was way more positive and receptive than I thought and I think that was partly because people had really valued drama and entertainment, in whatever form, during lockdown.”

It was not until July that the government finally announced its £1.57bn rescue package for arts and heritage.

Many saw it as long overdue. On the Sunday it was announced, Graham was at his lowest ebb because of newspaper stories suggesting a secret plan to mothball theatres. Whether that was a strategic move by Dominic Cummings, “to puncture our faith, makes us grateful hours later” he does not know, but if it was the strategy “it worked”.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, spoke to Graham directly to reveal the deal. “I was so surprised at the number and so grateful and so relieved. It certainly wasn’t perfect. I had huge fears about how it would filter down to the freelance artists. But because it was of a scale I knew thousands of jobs were going to be saved and it would make a difference.”

Graham has fears and optimism for the future of theatre, a sector which pre-pandemic was one of Britain’s shining success stories.

“I don’t want to romanticise it to say that we’re going to come out of this stronger or we’re going to build back better like that’s an inevitability, because I don’t think it is. It is going to be incredibly tough for buildings and theatre companies to get through the next few years.

“We’ve lost tens of thousands of freelance artists and technicians who have had to leave to find work elsewhere and they won’t come back and we don’t know what is going to happen to audiences, how hard it will be to bring them back to physical proximity with each other.

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(Berlind played a role in producing more than 100 plays and musicals. And while he kept an eye on the bottom line, he could be seduced by sheer artistry; Photo: Even as he experienced flops, Mr. Berlind had many successes, like the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” starring Bette Midler. He had “enormous fortitude and persistence,” said Scott Rudin, one of his co-producers on this and many other shows.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Success on Broadway came slowly. Mr. Berlind’s first production, in 1976, was the disastrous “Rex,” a Richard Rodgers musical (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) about Henry VIII, which the Times theater critic Clive Barnes said “has almost everything not going for it.”

As it happened, the music of Mr. Rodgers bookended Mr. Berlind’s career. His last show, of which he was one of several producers, was the darkly reimagined Tony-winning 2019 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” (That show made Broadway history when the actress Ali Stroker became the first person who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony.)

After “Rex,” Mr. Berlind co-produced six other shows before he had his first hit with the original 1980 production of “Amadeus,” in which a mediocre composer burns with jealousy over the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play, written by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall and starring Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, took home several Tonys, including best play.

Two more successes quickly followed: “Sophisticated Ladies,” a 1981 revue with music by Duke Ellington; and “Nine,” a 1982 musical based on the Fellini film “8½” about a tortured film director facing professional and romantic crises.

Along the way were plenty of flops. Producing on Broadway is always risky, with no surefire formula for a hit. It became even more challenging in the late 20th century, as theater people migrated to Hollywood, labor and advertising costs soared and high ticket prices discouraged audiences. Getting shows off the ground required more and more producers to pool their resources, and even then they were unlikely to recoup their investments.

One of Mr. Berlind’s achievements was staying in the game. Despite the challenges, he took chances on shows because he believed in them, and because he could afford to lose as often as he won.

“I know it’s not worth it economically,” he told The Times in 1998. “But I love theater.”

His successes included “Proof,” “Doubt,” “The History Boys,” the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

Scott Rudin, who produced about 30 shows with Mr. Berlind, said that Mr. Berlind was propelled by “enormous fortitude and persistence.”

“He was not dissuaded by the obstacles that dissuaded other people,” Mr. Rudin said in an email. “He had enormous positivity, which is much, much more rare than you might think.”

That became evident after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Broadway went dark for 48 hours, a sign of the economic uncertainty that hung over the city.

At the time, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged theaters to reopen quickly, and they did. But a half-dozen shows closed, and one on the verge of doing so was “Kiss Me, Kate,” in which Mr. Berlind had been deeply involved and of which he was enormously fond. He was enthralled with Cole Porter’s music, and everything in the show had clicked. The winner of five Tonys, including best revival of a musical, “Kate” had been running for nearly two years and was not scheduled to close until Dec. 30, 2001.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/28. Photosgraph: Debonair … Noël Coward. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock .)

A new exhibition is devoted to the visual flair of a debonair playwright whose tastes are almost impossible to define

Noël Coward was the epitome of style. Fittingly that is the subject of a major exhibition opening at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, containing costumes, set designs, paintings and production photos. Brad Rosenstein, its curator, says Coward is “especially celebrated for his verbal wit” but that the exhibition “will remind us that his original productions were also visual feasts for their audiences”.

That sounds tempting – but it raises several questions. What, actually, do we mean by style? And how has it changed over the years? In Coward’s case, style consisted of the effortless projection of a unique personality. You see that clearly on an album cover of a 1955 LP, Noël Coward at Las Vegas, where he stands in the Nevada desert immaculately clad in dark suit and suede shoes while clutching a cup of tea. I only saw Coward once in the flesh and that was at the first night of a compilation show, Cowardy Custard, at the Mermaid theatre in London in 1972. Although visibly aged, he seemed immensely debonair. But my chief memory is of how John Moffatt dried in the middle of a Coward song. With superb insouciance, Moffatt simply asked the conductor to go back to the beginning of the number. That’s what I call style.

But while some aspects of style are permanent, its visual manifestation alters with time. You can see that by tracking the radical changes that have overtaken one particular play, Present Laughter. First seen in 1943, it is one of the five canonical comedies – the others are Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living and Blithe Spirit – that constitute Coward’s main claim on posterity. Patently autobiographical, it is about a star performer, Garry Essendine, who uses his instinctive charm to protect himself against the clamorous demands of lovers, friends and the world at large.

Coward wrote Garry as “a bravura part” for himself and there’s a photo of a 1947 revival that shows exactly how he must have played it. While being harangued by an angry young playwright from Uckfield (Robert Eddison), Coward – in polka-dotted bow-tie and striped dressing-gown – leans back in his armchair, looking on with amused indifference. That set the pattern for future revivals until Albert Finney played Garry at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 1977. There’s a wonderful photo of Finney, sporting a tweed suit and brown trilby, confronting the camera with jutting-jawed resolution. Finney banished the idea that Coward must be played with lacquered suavity and gave us a robustly butch Garry who used funny faces and joke voices to ward off ghastly intruders. As Irving Wardle wrote in the Times: “it is as though Lucky Jim had wound up in No 1 dressing-room.”

Sometimes the attempt to escape the Coward imprint can lead to grotesque exaggeration: that was the fault of a Sean Foley Chichester revival in 2018, which I cordially detested. But Andrew Scott in last year’s Old Vic production brilliantly showed that elegance can be combined with innovation. Where Coward’s Garry is first seen in his pyjamas, Scott entered sporting a piratical eyepatch and a brocaded waistcoat as if he had come from JM Barrie’s Neverland. That exactly made the point that Garry, like his author, is a lost boy. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1953: “Forty years ago Coward was Slightly in Peter Pan and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since.” But Scott, along with the rest of a talented cast including Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson, proved that style is both innate and a quality that needs to be redefined with each decade.

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