by Michael Elihu Colby
Part 19: That Mug Is Mine
They all advised against it. My grandmother and grandfather didn’t want me to work off-off-Broadway, especially for no money. My Uncle Andrew concurred, even though he was supportive of cabaret performers who worked for no money in far worse places. But I was willing to defy them all when I read about a new organization—the first of its kind—founded expressly to develop original musicals.
Stuart Ostrow, producer of Pippin, 1776, and The Apple Tree, announced that he was setting up “The Musical Theatre Lab” at St. Clement’s Church, the building on West 46th Street off 9th Avenue. St. Clement’s had its own thriving theatre program including two stage spaces: a small cabaret theatre on the first floor; and a larger main stage on the second floor—where the musicals would be presented. While Ostrow was busy on other projects, the Lab was administered by artistic director, Stephanie Copeland, an expert on non-profit theatre who’d been personal assistant to Nancy Hanks, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
It was as if I’d been offered a wish by a genie (Or was it Lucifer?). I mustered the courage to write a note to Stephanie, met with her, and talked my way into a position as her personal assistant—my apprenticeship in professional theatre. Even though I didn’t expect to make a dime, I probably gained more valuable theatre experiences in my months at the Musical Theatre Lab than in all my college years. Stephanie, who looked like Joanne Woodward—dangling cigarettes like Bette Davis—taught me everything I needed to know about producing musicals in not-for-profit theatre. The Lab’s first produced musical was one that would later move to Broadway, The Robber Bridegroom. Based on Eudora Welty’s novella, the show had music by Robert Waldman and a book/lyrics by Alfred Uhry. The team might have never placed the show if not for the determination of their agent—Flora Roberts (also agent to Stephen Sondheim). In fact, Alfred was on the verge of quitting theatre after a succession of disappointments. There was no inkling, at the time, that his stage work would lead to a Pulitzer Prize, two Tonys, and the Oscar. Uhry, who’d been a protégé of Frank Loesser and made a living as a high school English teacher, never forgot his first experience on Broadway. He, composer Waldman, and librettist Terrence McNally (along with Alex Gordon) collaborated on Here’s Where I Belong, a musical version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, (produced by music-man Mitch Miller). The show was savaged by critics and closed in one night. Uhry and Waldman were devastated, but no more than Terrence McNally, who’d already written And Things Go Bump in the Night, a Broadway play that had previously bombed in the night. Fortunately, the collaborators all persevered, McNally going on to write numerous award-winning hits (both plays and musicals) such as Master Class, The Fully Monty, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Ragtime. Uhry would write the hits, Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, both with incidental music by Waldman.
In the meantime, Uhry and Waldman continued to struggle. I happened to see a backer’s audition of another early show of theirs, Full Circle. That saga, about generations of one family, was slated to reunite John Raitt and Jan Clayton (original stars of Carousel). If I remember correctly, it contained lyrics like “I’m going to the grasses of Paradise, where nobody mows the lawn.” The show never got past backer’s auditions.
Accordingly, Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman seemed overjoyed having The Robber Bridegroom chosen as the inaugural show for the Musical Theatre Lab. Actually, another show, Apple Pie (by Myrna Lamb & Nicholas Meyers), was originally planned, but replaced when the latter was offered a higher profile production at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. This proved fortuitous: Apple Pie was badly received and might have been a major downer at the start of the Musical Theatre Lab’s history.
Every day, I expectantly took the 15-minute walk from the Algonquin to St. Clement’s for my professional indoctrination. Once there, I read and evaluated their submitted scripts, helped with clerical duties, and then assisted on productions. Even though the actors and staff were being paid little to nothing, this venture attracted A-talents who knew that economical sacrifices were a feasible trade-off for unpressured creativity and innovation (At least, that’s what we all hoped). When auditions began, I was amazed, and sometimes saddened, by the Broadway veterans who appeared before us, alongside bright, wide-eyed newcomers. On one hand, there were past-their-prime actors valiantly auditioning with songs they’d sung on original cast recordings (when their voices were stronger). Then, there were promising newcomers who weren’t always the best auditioners (Kevin Kline was turned down as being “too stiff” to play the lead; he did, however, play it later on). There were performers of all ages who, eager as they were, just weren’t right for this project. But, finally, an extremely talented cast was assembled, including many who’d later do the show on Broadway.
The story of The Robber Bridegroom is a mix of Eudora Welty whimsy, Grimm’s Fairy Tale, and Mississippi folklore. In it, half the fun is how characters try to bamboozle each other—even during the main love story—with tall tales. First choice to play Jamie Lockhart—the suitor of an heiress and secretly a bandit of the wood—was Barry Bostwick (Broadway’s original “Danny Zuko” in Grease). When Bostwick was unavailable, the role went to someone you wouldn’t usually cast as a Southern country boy, Raúl Juliá (later of Nine and filmdom’s “Gomez Addams”).
There would be no real sets for the workshop, just props and minimal costumes, plus a cast of fourteen actors and five on-stage musicians. The director was Gerald Freedman, the original director of Hair and future artistic director of Cleveland’s Great Lakes Festival (where he’d oversee the George Abbott Centennial). He staged “Robber Bridegroom” as an ongoing square dance, integrally pausing for songs and book scenes. Much of the stage business and some of the lines were improvised during rehearsals—so Alfred Uhry spent a lot of time in the Lab’s second floor office retyping pages. Since supplies were limited, I volunteered my own electric typewriter for office use. I can now brag that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alfred Uhry rewrote part of his play on my typewriter (my earliest professional claim to theatrical immortality).
The first public performance of The Robber Bridegroom would be on November 4, 1974. There were three weeks of rehearsals, almost half of which were spent on the opening number, “Look At Me,” in which characters would swagger, preen, and brag about themselves. The fact that everyone seemed enthusiastic rehearsing this number proves you never really know what you’ve got until you play in front of an audience. After the overlong first public performance, “Look At Me” was the first thing to be cut. Another scene I remember vividly from rehearsals was one in which Jamie Lockhart, disguised as the bandit, flirts with the all too willing heiress Rosamund, while stealing her clothes. During rehearsals, it was decided that Rhonda Coullet, the blonde former beauty queen playing Rosamund, would openly doff her clothes at the end of the scene (which wasn’t a big deal for Rhonda, who’d previously been in Hair). So, yes, I was there the day the nude scene was invented for The Robber Bridegroom. Rhonda had just sung “Nothin’ Up” and soon afterwards there was “Nothin’ On.” It was one day I was especially glad to be in a theatrical setting other than the Algonquin Hotel.
The show was presented for six evening performances—with rewrites implemented every day. Yet it wasn’t until the final performance, a black-tie special event, that a producer offered to option it. Fortunately, that producer was John Houseman, representing The Acting Company. I had arranged all the seating plans that night and—like Goldilocks—must have found the seat that was “just right.” The Robber Bridegroom toured for a year as part of The Acting Company’s rotating repertory—with company members led by the young Patti Lupone and (no longer rejected) Kevin Kline. Finally, it landed on Broadway with a cast including Barrry Bostwick (who won the Tony), Rhonda Coullet, and other original cast members.
I have two other special memories of The Robber Bridegroom. One of my ulterior motives in joining the Musical Theatre Lab was to interest them in producing my musical Where There’s a Will. Within a short time, it became evident that wasn’t going to happen. I discussed this with Alfred Uhry, posing the possibility of my leaving the position—with few opportunities as a writer. Alfred gave me very sage advice: “Be patient and stay. I wish I could have worked at a place like this when I was young.” He validated my job at the Lab in a way my family hadn’t, and I couldn’t have been more grateful (Incidentally, in the small world department, it turned out that Alfred’s composer, Robert Waldman, was married to a cousin of my future wife, Andrea).
The other memory occurred after the closing of the workshop of The Robber Bridegroom. The story’s writer, Eudora Welty, was staying at the Algonquin. Since she’d been unable to attend the workshop, I arranged for her to be part of a cast reunion for evening cocktails in the lobby. It was the closest thing the hotel ever had to a company hoedown, as Welty had the show evoked by cast members including Raúl Juliá, Rhonda Coullet, John Getz (later seen having “his hand melted’ in the film The Fly), Ernie Sabella (the voice of “Pumbaa” in The Lion King), and Stephen Vinovich (for whom Uhry and Waldman would later write a musical about Al Capone). Incidentally, Eudora Welty did see later productions and adored the show.
The creativity seemed nonstop at the Musical Theatre Lab. Right after we wrapped up “Robber Bridegroom,” we were packaging our next show, the rock musical Joe’s Opera. This show was written by Tommy Mandel and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, whose Broadway credits would include Bent, starring Richard Gere. The cast included Victor Garber (Godspelll, Sweeney Todd, TV’s Alias), Armelia McQueen (future Tony nominee for Ain’t Misbehavin’), and Paul Kreppel (TV’s It’s a Living). It’s hard to believe now that actors of this caliber worked on the show virtually volunteering their time.
In between musicals, I became a theatre factotum, working on play productions at both St. Clement’s spaces. As an expert spotter (someone who recognizes celebrities in the room), I was an attendant at the gala party marking their new theatre season. There, I served champagne to Lillian Hellman, as well as mingling with playwrights like Leonard Melfi (Oh, Calcutta!), Jean-Claude van Itallie (America Hurrah), and John Guare (who exuberantlybrecognized ME!). Months later, I house-managed the New York premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Enter a Free Man with David Rounds, Alice Drummond, J.T. Walsh, and (as an ingénue) Swoosie Kurtz. I’d been a huge fan of Stoppard’s ever since his Tony-winning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I’ll never forget how, around 6 PM one night, I rushed to unlock a buzzing front door at St. Clement’s. As I opened up, there was Stoppard himself outside (I immediately recognized his Rock star-type features). I didn’t even know he was in town—staying, of course, at the Algonquin. Feeling like the official St. Clement’s guide after only three months there, I led him backstage to meet with the impressive cast.
Meanwhile, I didn’t dare discuss my house management gig with Grandma Mary. She would have freaked out knowing I was walking through dicey New York neighborhoods starting at 46th Street & Ninth Avenue, after locking up the theatre between 11 PM and midnight. It was the same neighborhood where, years later, I’d be mugged at gunpoint and pistol-whipped. Yet, from what I’d heard, going out of town with a show, or facing some critics, could be even worse.
From my first day at St. Clement’s, I felt like part of the family among its theatre staff. The cast of off-stage characters was headed by Executive Producer, Lawrence (Larry) Goosen. Always instructive on the ways of cutting costs, he’d previously produced Stoppard’s Inspector Hound and After Magritte. Outside of work, he was the companion of actor/director Brian Murray (Broadway’s “Rosencrantz” in the Stoppard play), who directed Enter a Free Man at St. Clement’s. Protectively shadowing Larry Goosen, like a loyal secretary in a noir detective flick, was “coordinator” Jean Halbert, a willowy, silver-haired earth mother; Jean was always waxing poetic about her grown children or some new off-off-Broadway show, the centers of her world. Prominent as well was Artistic Director, Kevin O’Connor, a Humphrey Bogart lookalike who actually played “Bogie” in a 1980 film, when he wasn’t performing at St. Clements or elsewhere off-Broadway.
Then there was the younger generation: bushy haired assistant Jeff Wachtel (now Co-President of USA Cable Network) and wiry Steve Kimball, assistant to Stuart Ostrow. At the time, Stuart Ostrow was helping Bob Fosse prepare for an upcoming musical titled Chicago. One day, Steve Kimball visited St. Clement’s, talking about a new Chicago number called “Cell Block Tango.” He cited some of the killer ideas being considered for the song, including one that wasn’t used: a merry murderess’ claim that she and her lover made a suicide pact to jump off a cliff, but—after helping him plunge—she decides to just leap for his money.
The next show presented at the Musical Theatre Lab was frame-worked as a Grand Old Opry presentation, just like The Robber Bridegroom was done as an ongoing square-dance. This musical, entitled The Red Blue-Grass Western Flyer Show, was by Conn Fleming and Clint Ballard Jr. (composer of the Linda Rondstadt song “You’re No Good”). I made all kinds of valuable connections on this show. The project producer—working side by side with Stephanie Copeland—was Steven Woolf. He’d held the same position on The Robber Bridegroom and would one day become the artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. A production assistant was the late Dan Mizell; he would later represent me as an agent at William Morris. Finally, this production marked the first time I met costumer Michele Reisch who would become my most frequent costume designer (on Charlotte Sweet and four other musicals).
Probably, my favorite personal memory of “Flyer Show” involved a coffee mug. The plot of the show depicted members of an ordinary family with dreams of glory days in Nashville. During a kitchen scene, the mother (played by the uproarious Barbara Coggin) grabbed a coffee mug while having a family discussion. I wanted to make sure it was just the right mug to demonstrate this family had a television mentality, susceptible to anything pitched by TV ads. I scoured the city and then I found it: a big mug with the “Maxwell House” logo printed on it. Every night when Barbara Coggin lifted that mug, caressing a hot cup of coffee so lovingly she sometimes got a laugh, I felt a special pride. No matter how incidental the moment, I felt like I was creatively contributing to professional theatre at last.
Months later, I had an even more rewarding opportunity to work on a show at St. Clement’s. It was a new mini-musical, independent of the Musical Theatre Lab. Presented at the theatre’s cabaret space, Olmsted! was based on the life of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—who designed New York’s Central Park. It was written and directed by Jeff Wachtel in collaboration with Clark Kee (another Yale graduate). Olmsted! featured two other Yalies in the cast, Steve Kimball (Stuart Ostrow’s assistant) and Robert Picardo. I was asked to write lyrics to a key song composed by Clark, titled “What’s the Use?” My recommendation for this project came from members of St. Clement’s who’d read Where There’s a Will, even though the latter show never was presented there. I was so glad I’d followed Alfred Uhry’s advice, “Be patient and stay.” The song was delivered by Robert Picardo, my first leading man, playing “Olmsted.” He was incredibly funny and charismatic, stopping the show with the song. It was no wonder Picardo went on to originate the lead in the hit Gemini (in which my “mug” lady Barbara Coggin also appeared), then played Jack Lemon’s son in Broadway’s Tribute; his TV credits would include China Beach, The Wonder Years, and Star Trek: Voyager. It was thanks to Picardo that I felt like the toast of St. Clement’s for a few days, as people congratulated me on that number. It might have been just a small triumph during a little showcase run. Yet, for the moment, I was a validated off-off Broadway writer, not just a scion of the Algonquin Hotel.
After Olmsted!, Robert Picardo got a major break in another show having its New York premiere at St. Clement’s. I, myself, was asked to audition for the role he won. The play was written by a newcomer from Chicago, his name—David Mamet. Scruffy and casual, Mamet virtually took residence at St. Clement’s. frequently talking politics and world affairs with the actor J.T. Walsh (who later appeared in the Mamet plays, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, and films like A Few Good Men, and Sling Blade). Listening to the scope of their conversations, I was envious, even intimidated by how knowledgeable they were.
As for me, I was flattered but flabbergasted when asked to audition for Mamet’s first show in New York: Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Larry Goosen was presenting the non-Equity production, which needed to cast the role of “Dan Shapiro,” a slightly naïve Jewish fellow (for which I had many qualifications). Notwithstanding, the title of the show gave me pause about auditioning. Ditto the thought that, with limited acting skills, my audition for Sexual Perversity in Chicago would be more like “Theatrical Ineptitude in Manhattan.” In a moment of questionable judgment, I decided the audition just wasn’t worth it. Still, it was probably for the best: I’d never have to say those Mamet lines—like “I’m a lousy f***” and “no sh**”1—in front of my grandmother. As it turned out, Robert Picardo was fantastic in “Sexual Perversity;” and the play received raves. Coupled with the short play The Duck Variations, it moved off-Broadway to a long and prosperous run at the Cherry Lane Theatre, as produced by Larry Goosen and Jeff Wachtel.
It was great to feel like I was now officially part of the theatre community in my own right. I now gaze at my old diaries and am awestruck by some of the events happening at this time. For instance, there’s the day I took a break from the Lab to visit my grandparents for lunch in the Oak Room. There I was, this rarely paid theatre assistant, eating alongside such newsmakers as Grandpa Ben, Louis Nizer, Irving Caesar (lyricist of “Swanee”), Otto Preminger, and Max Gordon (Broadway producer of The Band Wagon, Roberta, and The Great Waltz). The big surprise for me was director Otto Preminger, the bald and scary Austrian Jew known to play Nazis and “Mr. Freeze” on Batman. He was quite friendly to me discussing the psychology of why audiences love disaster movies: “Zay like to see UZZAH people suffah.” Years later, I would have a very different meeting with him to discuss one of my shows, whereupon he rose menacingly from the shadows of his dusky office and in his stentorian voice declaimed, “VHUTT DO YOO VANT?!” In my inner mind I said to myself “I vant to be alone!”
By May, there had been some layoffs at St. Clement’s and I, too, decided it was time to move on. Though I periodically continued to house-manage for their main theatre program—even getting remunerated!—I wanted to focus more on writing. In addition, I was preoccupied with my final research for Dorothy Hart’s book. On my last official day at St. Clement’s, they threw me a surprise party in which I was offered at least two substances I wouldn’t touch, but I felt blissfully stoned anyway. And I will always be thankful to Stephanie Copeland and others there for the master course they gave me in working off-off Broadway. These skills would prove essential to me in the next couple of years.
About two years later, on October 9, 1976, I enjoyed an especially celebratory reunion with Stephanie and her husband James when we together attended the Broadway opening night of The Robber Bridegroom. It was like old times as we cheered on the show and many of the actors from the Musical Theatre Lab version. A final nostalgic note: some of the show’s ensemble characters had names based on company members of the first two productions (e.g. “Kyle Nunnery” named for performers Dana Kyle and Bill Nunnery at St. Clement’s; “K.K. Pone” named for Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone of the Actors Company version).
During the summer, I continued researching Dorothy Hart’s book (to be published by Harper and Row) and took a whirlwind 20-day trip to Europe (Paris, Rome, London, Athens). The trip culminated with ten glorious days in Israel, where nobody quite understood what I was doing when I felt inspired to sing songs from Jerry Herman’s musical about Israel, Milk and Honey.
When I returned home in late August, Grandma Mary phoned me constantly to see what I’d be doing next. One morning she phoned around 7 AM, asking “Are you asleep.” I answered, “Not anymore. Why do you ask?” Said she, “I didn’t want to wake you.” Also awaiting me was another writing offer. It was from an Algonquin regular, Penny Singleton. Penny had been the voice of wife “Jane” on The Jetsons, replaced Ruby Keeler in No, No, Nanette, and was best known for playing “Blondie” in 28 movies based on the Chic Young comic strip. Despite the ditzy characters she often played, Penny was a shrewd businesswoman who was the first female president of an AFL-CIO union, specifically AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists). She spearheaded the first strike of Radio City Rockettes,2 greatly improving their working conditions (I would have loved to have watched that picket line). Penny admired my work and made many introductions for me. This eventually led her offering me a writing assignment in Baltimore—a tribute to the AFL-CIO, the labor union—titled A Salute To Labor. Starring Phyllis Diller, Melba Moore, Theodore Bikel, and Penny (who also produced it), the event played September 1, 1975. It was the beginning of countless benefits for which I would write continuity—even if the stars at this benefit often strayed from the script and improvised many lines. Still, I had a wonderful weekend accompanying Penny on the train from New York, driving Penny in a car float at the Baltimore Labor Day Parade (the only time I’ve ever felt like a Rose Bowl attraction), and learning a new skill. You see, Barney McNulty (Penny’s brother) was also there. Known as the “Cue Card King,” Barney was acknowledged as “the first person to use cue cards on TV.” He’d flashed—cards that is—for Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Monty Hall, Fred Astaire, and the Smothers Brothers.3 In fact, he’d saved Bob Hope’s life this way, according to the Los Angeles Times:
The bomb in the Saigon hotel, Gen. William C. Westmoreland later said, was meant to kill Bob Hope and his entertain-the-troops troupe. But Hope’s motorcade arrived 10 minutes after the bomb exploded. Members of the group credited their tardiness to the cue-card man, who was delayed in moving Hope’s 5,000 pounds of cardboard cheat sheets. When the comedian learned about his narrow escape, Hope told the cue-card man: “Saved by the idiot cards again.” 4
It’s not every day you get to work with someone who preserved our Hope against a would-be assassin. Suddenly, I was there in Baltimore, jotting out—and holding up—cue cards with the man who’d virtually invented them. I was learning from a nonpareil, the forefather of the teleprompter. Our teamwork held up so well that afterwards, I stayed in touch with Barney, watching him flash at several other TV tapings. A Salute to Labor was one of my most unique theatrical experiences, helping create a benefit for labor unions where no one noticed that this writer was non-union.
I’d soon be writing more full-length shows, but first I concentrated on the research that would refine and inform my lyric writing through my career: marveling at the life and lyrics of Lorenz Hart.
Next part: Getting to the Hart of Things
1Mamet, David. Sexual Perversity in Chicago & The Duck Variations. New York NY: Samuel French. © 1974.
2Bergan, Ronald. Penny Singleton obituary in The Guardian, London England. November 15, 2003.
3Martin, Douglas. Barney McNulty obituary in The New York Times, New York NY. December 26, 2000.
4Oliver, Myrna. Barney McNulty obituary in Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles CA. December 22, 2000
© 2014, Michael Colby
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
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