While playing Littlechap in Stop The World, the Bromley Repertory Company – just outside London – accepted a revue I had written for production there. We sat down to discuss possible directors. My barely concealed scorn for most of the names mentioned finally impelled the Boss there to say between clenched teeth: “Then you’d better direct it yourself.” So I did. And immediately discovered how much I didn’t know about directing. The one thing that saved me was the fact that the work was mine and I knew exactly how it should swing.
My old school the Webber-Douglas in Kensington invited me to work with the kids there on a couple of projects. One was James Bridie’s SLEEPING CLERGYMAN. An agent happened to see it, though it was not a ‘passing out’ production to which agents were invited. He took a shine to one of the boys and came back to see him in his ‘passing out’ play, which I did not direct. Lost interest in the kid completely. I realized then that I could make people excel themselves and how important it was to take responsibility for the actor’s performances. Something that Lindsay Crouse, a splendid actor, said I did when she played Linda in HOLIDAY for me at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She also said I was the first director who had stepped into her work and collaborated with her. She was smart enough to listen and talented enough to take the stage thereafter and make it shine brighter.
Also in HOLIDAY, a small actor who smoldered from the first. “I have to go to commercial auditions, I have to earn a living so that I can afford to do this stuff.” I was patient. We rehearsed. One day in a car on the way to a joint radio interview he said to me: ”You’ve restored my faith in the theatre.” Or words to that effect. The small in stature, tall in talent actor was W.H. Macy: superb in the play.
My lifelong friend Frank Hauser who ran the Oxford Playhouse, an English repertory company of considerable distinction saw my efforts with the school kids at the Webber-D and asked me to direct Hay Fever for him. I read it. It’s by Noel Coward incidentally, and I was dismayed by its paper-thin texture. Tiny little sentences, tiny little actions by tiny little people.
As soon as rehearsals began the awful truth broke over me: this play was written to be spoken, not to be read. Forgive me my friends, I know this is a supposed to be true of all plays but plenty of authors myself included, cannot resist trying to write LITERATURE at the same time. Noel couldn’t be bothered with that. His plays are meant to be spoken and when they are… fountains sparkle, laughter ripples, glamour ensues. More lessons learned.
Second show at the Oxford Playhouse: ROMEO AND JEANETTE. Starring Judi Dench. Yes, I knew exactly who she was even then. So I fell in love with her and said one day: “I think we should get married”. She rightly ignored such a lame invitation and later went off and married the right guy. And became a Dame and the rest as they say is history. I still love her.
IN NEW YORK
For JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLORED DREAMCOAT… Two Tony nominations. Director/Choreographer.
Id seen this show in Philadelphia with two nice looking white boys as Joseph and the Narrator. Didn’t know which one was supposed to be the star. Someone did it in Brooklyn with a black man playing the narrator, so that’s what we looked for. Believe it or not could not find the right one in New York City. Bring in the girls I said. We found Laurie Beechman with the soaring, searing voice and we had it made. Sweet relationship between nice white boy and nicer white girl. No confusion in the audience.
Later the producer of the show claimed the idea, since adopted by all subsequent producers of the show, as being his. It wasn’t.
That same season A TASTE OF HONEY, starring Amanda Plummer, which I first mounted at the Roundabout theatre and which was then moved to Broadway was nominated as best revival. At one point the leading lady, perfectly amenable in rehearsal went to the producers and complained that I was dictating her performance. Interestingly enough this complaint was not passed along to me by those gentlemen. They never mentioned it. I think they knew something she apparently did not know. She was later nominated for a Tony award for her performance in the play. And did not complain thereafter.
SOMETHING’S AFOOT starring Tessie O’Shea.
PRINCE OF CENTRAL PARK starring Joanne Worley.
CLASS ENEMY With Max Caulfield
FORTY DEUCE was a tough little piece about male hustlers on forty-second street. It was not liked by the critics who – whilst contemplating the degradations so graphically delineated in the play – missed completely its shining moral tone. However… while crossing Seventh Avenue one day during rehearsal, after a lunch break, I said to the leading actor at my side: “ You were born to be an actor. Never doubt that and never give up.” I’ve only said that once in my entire, life. The actor I said it to was Kevin Bacon. Also in the cast, one of the lights of my professional life: Orson Bean. Already a friend, he serviced this difficult play with absolute fidelity.
PREPPIES The Musical
A victim of the New York Critics inverted snobbery. I didn’t point this out in print, the San Francisco Chronicle did.
LONDON’S WEST END
LITTLE LIES With Sir John Mills
They say don’t they ‘The bigger they are, the easier they are to work with.” I don’t know that I altogether agree with that assessment but in the case of Sir J. I have to concur. A twinkling septuagenarian at that point he brought happiness with him every time he came into the room. Also starring Connie Booth of Fawlty Towers fame. An absolute darling.
THE CLUB With Linda Thorson
This was a weird one. All the women dressed as men. England loves to see men dressed as women but balked at this reversal. Only one major critic ‘got it’.
MACBETH Stratford Connecticut
THE TEMPEST & TWELFTH NIGHT Washington Shak. Festival
KING LEAR Cal. State University, Northridge CA.
HAMLET Alliance Theatre, Atlanta
HAMLET West Coast Ensemble.
ROMEO & JULIET West Coast Ensemble.
STRAW HAT CIRCUIT
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE With Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross.
DONKEY’S YEARS With David McCallum & Carole Shelley
STREETS OF NEW YORK With Orson Bean & Farley Granger
The more I catalogue, the more I remember. I’m beginning to feel very old and very tired, so I’ll stop right here.
PS Was directing THE LAST SWEET DAYS OF ISAAC at the Happy Medium in Chicago. The producers wanted to sack the lead man after the first ‘put together’. I’d left him alone to find his way, something I did not usually do. ‘Give me three days’ I told them. He was not given the sack. Months, even years later, this same actor met the Music Director from the show in L.A. “I still believe if Tony had let me alone the show could have been a success”, he said plaintively.
Actors. And you wonder why I never had children. I’ve had children.