An Amusement Column
by Harry Haun
BYE BYE BETTY: A modern-day theatrical heroine has just passed—Betty Corwin at the gloriously overripe age of 98. Her claim to fame is that she dreamed an impossible dream and made it happen. . . . She grew up with show-savvy parents who exposed her at a young and impressionable age to the likes of Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Harry Richman, et al. “Even then,” she once said, “I had a thought in mind that some day—some day—someone will record these artists,” but it took time and detours for her to realize she was that someone. . . . A late-bloomer in the ways of Broadway and Off-Broadway, she spent most of her life as the wife of a Connecticut dermatologist, raising their three children, perfectly content to be a stage-loving civilian. Her eureka moment occurred when she applied for a volunteer job, and the assignment for it was to write her autobiography. “Suddenly, I found myself typing, ‘The most exciting time of my life is when I worked in the theater.’ Then, I stopped and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I never finished that autobiography. I said to the woman in charge, ‘Agnes, thank you so much for helping me find out what I really wanted to do.’” . . . An ex-sister-in-law naively suggested a direction—“to film theater”—and Corwin took that idea to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which eventually put her to work preserving American theater for archival use. She swung her broadsword through so much union red-tape she could have qualified for a seat at the Round Table. . . . The Golden Bat, a swiftly-forgotten Japanese rock musical done Off-Broadway in 1970, got her going, and now—with her successor, Patrick Hoffman, continuing her handiwork–8,127 recordings have found a place in Lincoln Center’s Theater on Film and Tape Archive. Because Betty Corwin had a dream, we have a theatrical past at our fingertips. . . . On the other side of the footlights, another great lady of the theater has died—Phyllis Newman at 86—and she took her laugh with her, that wonderfully human and alive laugh. Like Corwin, she successfully juggled a myriad of roles: actress, singer, comedienne, wife and keeper-of-the-flame of lyricist Adolph Green (of Comden and Green legend), mother of performer-lyricist Amanda Green and writer Adam Green, TV panelist and cancer survivor who founded The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. . . . She found a lot to laugh about in life, but not David Merrick. The producer of Comden and Green and Jule Styne’s Subways Are for Sleeping made her audition five times–the last time in a blonde wig and towel–before giving her the role of the Southern-belle beauty contestant among eccentric New York slackers. . . . Merrick also found time that season to make life miserable for Barbra Streisand, Broadway-debuting as Miss Marmelestine in his I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Both wound up Tony-contending for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and Newman wound up at Merrick’s table on the big night. Literally moments before the winner was announced, the producer leaned over to Newman, patted her hand and said, “Barbra’s gonna win. I voted for her.” He actually smiled. . . . And the winner was—Phyllis Newman for Subways Are for Sleeping! We all should have moments like that.
ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER SHOW: Broadway’s Beetlejuice, Alex Brightman, is used to fan clusters by now, but he was absolutely gobsmacked when–while waiting in line for the Men’s Room at the opening of Derren Brown: Secret–a patron asked him if he were in Glory Days. (Full disclosure: c’est moi.) Somewhat stunned, he stammered out that he was. In fact, he and his three twenty-something co-stars made their Broadway debuts in that 2008 show, playing high schoolers who reunited after a year away at college. Unfortunately, Glory Days never made it to plural, closing ignominiously on opening night. The first sign there might be trouble ahead was at the after-party when Kathie Lee Gifford, usually a sunbeam supporter of shows, fell into cautious wording. . . . Nowadays, or at least since 2015, Brightman only plays (and substantially fills) the huge Winter Garden–first in School of Rock and now in Beetlejuice–convincingly approximating on that stage the far-out, frenetic film work of Jack Black and Michael Keaton. It took him a while to master Beetlejuice’s gleefully sick-and-sinister rasp, so he doesn’t do it on command in public, choosing instead to save it for the stage. . . . That’s probably a smart move. Johnny Weissmuller went through life doing his trademark Tarzan yell on request—it was his way of getting love and touching his past—but, coming as a jarring jolt in the dead of night, it got him kicked out of the Motion Picture and TV County Hospital. . . . Derren Brown’s secret is one that audiences willingly keep. A stylish and flashy British mind-reader, he had his pick of celebrity minds to read on opening night, but the biggest name he brought to the stage was a featured player in the recent War Paint. His cerebral razzle-dazzle concludes at the Cort on Jan. 4. . . . Producer Kevin McCollum was talking up a couple of Broadway-bound hopefuls he has on the griddle out of town. Come November, he’ll dispatch Rob McClure, the musical Chaplin, to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater to try out the musical Mrs. Doubtfire, a drag role for Robin Williams. Like Brightman, McClure doesn’t shy away from filling big shoes. Lately, he’s been resting in a non-title role in Beetlejuice, but now he has been replaced by his old Honeymoon in Vegas co-star, David Josefsberg, so he can bone up for his new world-premiere. . . . I love the ad for McCollum’s other project, Six–three words, stacked on top of each other: DIVORCED BEHEADED BROADWAY. Yep, it’s about the ill-fated lives of Henry VIII’s wives, written and performed in England where they understand such parting-of-the-ways. “Toby [Marlow] and Lucy [Moss] wrote it in school,” McCollum cheerfully reports. “They came up with the idea to take modern contemporary pop and apply it to the six wives.” The resulting hybrid earned five Olivier nominations including one for Best New Musical. Wo-manned by the same cast that played Chicago (Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour, Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Brittney Mack as Anna of Cleves, Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr and Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard), Six will begin a U.S. tour next month, reach the Brooks Atkinson the day before Valentine’s Day and premier there March 12, 2020 . . . . Lending some silver-foxed dignity to the evening was Victor Garber, actually looking like the slick DuPont attorney he plays in Todd Haynes’ upcoming Dark Waters. “It’s a really disturbing movie,” he insists, “and it’s based on a real thing,” that “real thing” being an environmental lawsuit that exposed a chemical company with a long history of pollution. Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo star. . . . Composer David Yazbek, a Tony contender all five times he’s gone to bat and a winner once (The Band’s Visit), didn’t have much to say about his current efforts to musicalize The Princess Bride, with a little book-writing assist from The Prom’s Bob Martin and The Cher Show’s Rick Elice. When it was attempted before—with the original novelist and screenwriter, the late William Goldman, and composer Adam Guettel—it never got off the ground. . . . Yazbek has no qualms about wearing his hat to openings. He wears it everywhere. Why? “The publicist of my first Broadway show, The Full Monty, saw me wearing a hat one day and said, ‘You gotta keep it in,’” he explained, “and I have.” . . . He spotted that particular publicist—who has been MIBA (missing in Broadway action) for a few years–across a crowded room and went over to give him a welcome-back bear-hug. Michael Hartman gave up theater promotion and went West—well, to Austin—to seek his fortune running an ice cream company. Now he’s back among us, sitting pretty at Serino Coyne, the marketing/advertising firm, and grinning that grin from ear to ear.
ALL HAIL HAL: Just like one of his shows, that superb (and free!) Hal Prince exhibit at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts previewed the day before its official Sept. 18 opening to a select crowd of theater enthusiasts with First Look privileges. The exhibit is open thru March 31, 2020. Even ahead of them–if only for a tranquil half-hour of leisurely perusal–were three of his key collaborators: multiple Emmy recipient Carol Burnett, the thrice-Tonyed Tony Walton and Tony/Oscar winner Joel Grey. . . . Burnett represented the tragedy mask, the rare straight-play side of Prince, via the quasi-autobiographical account of her impoverished childhood (1941-1951) in Hollywoodland. Her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, saw a play in Burnett’s memoir, One More Time, and the two turned it into Hollywood Arms. “My daughter and I were over the moon when Hal read it and said, ‘I’d like to do it.’” Sadly, Carrie succumbed to cancer before Prince could get it onto a stage, but Burnett pressed on with rewrites and made the play a tribute to her daughter. “It was great working with Hal,” she said. “We had fun. Of course, he was a taskmaster—in a good way. He was very encouraging. I loved his direction of the play.” Hollywood Arms folded after only 76 performances at the Cort, but there was a cherry on the sundae after that: Prince got a Tony-winning performance out of Michelle Pawk, playing the alcoholic mother who aspired to be a movie-magazine writer. . . Walton, who had a field day designing the sets, costumes and projection for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, represented the “Comedy Tonight” faction, and Grey was a little of both. He credits Prince with helping him nail the icky extremes of Cabaret’s seductively seedy emcee. “I tried out some bit of business in rehearsal and told him ‘I could never do this to myself,” he recalled. “And Hal said, ‘That’s it!’” . . . . Now 87 and primarily an actor-turned-director, Grey “is working on two theater pieces for the future, and it looks like we’re going to Australia with Fiddler.” (He helmed the much-applauded Yiddish-with-English-subtitles Fiddler on the Roof, now packing ‘em in Off-Broadway at Stage 42) . . . The heiress apparent, Daisy Prince, isn’t abandoning the family business. She’s “about a year away” from directing The Connector, Jason Robert Brown’s new musical about—thank you, Mr. President—Fake News. Producer Dasha Epstein hopes to get it up on its feet at New York Theater Workshop. . . .Composer Brown entertained a bit with Carolee Carmello, performing her number from his (and Prince’s) Tony-winning Parade. It was Carolee’s farewell appearance for a while. She’s off to replace Betty Buckley in the Hello, Dolly! tour. . . Karen Ziemba, bound for Detroit and the Michigan Opera Theater in November to do Mrs. Lovett, opposite Stephen Powell and Ron Raines, in a Sweeney Todd conducted by Rob Fisher, counts herself lucky to have been aboard Prince’s 52nd and final Broadway opus, Prince of Broadway. . . . This extraordinary exhibit—titled In the Company of Harold Prince: Broadway Producer, Director, Collaborator—has been designed to be one of his long-running crowd-pleasers. You have till March 31.
MORE OPENINGS, MORE SHOWS: Film Forum, a haven for movie nostalgists, opened its doors for business at 209 West Houston Street exactly 29 years ago this month, and the first retrospective out of its hopper was titled “Written and Directed by Preston Sturges.” It was the most complete retrospective ever accorded that ’40s filmmaker. This little film factoid was revealed the other night when the theater’s proprietor-programmer, Bruce Goldstein, hosted a special screening of Sturges’ classic comedy, The Lady Eve. Attending was the writer-director’s youngest son, Tom Sturges. He brought along his son, Sam, who’d gone through 21 years without ever seeing one of his grandfather’s films with an audience. His reaction? “There are tears streaming down my face with pride, knowing that I was related to him.” . . . The press-and-industry screenings for the 57th New York Film Festival got rolling with a real eye-opener—beaucoup frontal nudity from a 26-year-old erstwhile unknown named Tom Mercier, making a vivid film debut in Synonyms as an Israeli in Paris. It’s not a particularly pretty face, but the boy has Presence.