by Carole DiTosti
Every now and then the stars align and I am in the right place at the right time and all is well with the planet, as my inner stars shine brilliantly to guide me into a serendipitous memorable moment. Such was an experience I had chatting with Ian McKellen walking up the crowded aisle of the Broadhurst Theatre after seeing Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy written by Nora Ephron and directed by George C. Wolf. But let me set the scene, so you “get” why this particular conversation had me walking on air for a few days.
Long before I became an Entertainment Journalist and finished my Ph.D., I was a high school English teacher. I remember it was in 1980 around the time I was taking Acting with Walt Witcover and William Hickey at HB Studios that I indulged my love of theater by treating myself to the Broadway premiere of Amadeus written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Sir Peter Hall. Amadeus starred Ian McKellen as Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart and Jane Seymour as Constanze.
Even though I was in my youth, I had perspicacity and an educational background in English Literature, Performance and the Dramatic Arts, Music and Art History to greatly appreciate the glorious production. Shaffer’s play was beyond brilliant; Mozart’s was music bar none. Peter Hall pulled out all stops in his direction, shepherding an amazing cast.
In the arc of plot development, the audience watches in fascination as the elderly Antonio Salieri relates an incredible story about his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and their relationship years before. The scene flashes back to Salieri’s youth and his time at court with Mozart. Out of jealous envy Salieri worked to poison, oust from court and psychologically destroy the genius composer and musician, and emotionally retrograde Mozart.
After Mozart dies and is venerated throughout the world for centuries to come, Salieri is the invisible one whom no one remembers. Just before the final curtain, McKellen as the Mozart- occluded Salieri begs the forgiveness of us, the audience, the “ghosts of the future.” Ironically, in his retelling of this fantastic tale, McKellen’s Salieri asks a smidgeon of remembrance that, he, too, was a “good” musician and composer, and when you consider Mozart, remember Salieri.
Everything about the production was superb. And I fell in love forever with Ian McKellen as a consummate actor, who infused Salieri with resonating power that anyone with a hint of jealousy at beholding their “better” could identify with. McKellen’s humor, grace and authenticity elevated Salieri in his confession of his gravest of sins, envy and murder, to a level of humanity that encouraged me and the rest of the audience to forgive him and ourselves. Thus, we realized that envy, itself, is oblivion. Better to seek one’s own purpose in life than be so envious as to compete with another “to the death.” It is a timeless verity that holds currency for us today.
I was so enamored of McKellen’s talent to live on stage, I returned two other times to see him. When in 1981 the production won five Tonys including Best Play, Best Director and Best Actor, I was thrilled.
One year after that I left off pursuing Acting and took another direction entirely. However, I did teach Amadeus in my Advanced Placement classes and I continued to avidly watch McKellen’s career bloom in every medium (film, television, theater) and saw him perform live every chance I got.
Fast forward to 2013 and Lucky Guy. There was the unassuming Sir Ian McKellen slowly advancing up the orchestra aisle not speaking to anyone. This was my chance! I negotiated the crowd and moved to his side. I told him I so adored him in Amadeus that I saw it three times and I looked forward to his performance with long-time friend Sir Patrick Stewart in the upcoming Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter.
McKellen smiled and thanked me. Then he said something I will never forget. He reminded me that we were in the very theater that he had performed Amadeus in thirty years before. Only this time, I was walking by his side. I was gobsmacked. Then he pulled out the script of No Man’s Land and commented on the daunting number of lines he had to memorize. I assured him he would be wonderful. He was. Then we chatted some more until his assistant retrieved him.
To all our treasures in the entertainment industry, stay safe.