An Amusement Column
By Harry Haun
THE JOYS OF JERRY: Working with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins wasn’t the easiest job in the world. It may, in fact, have been the worst. Every one of the creatives connected with Fiddler on the Roof attest to that difficulty in Max Lewkowicz’s splendid documentary now making the movie-circuit rounds, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles. . . . “My father hated working with Jerry,” declares Marc Aronson, son of Boris, the great set designer. “He also deeply admired Jerry.” . . . According to book writer Joseph Stein, “He would take a scene and say, ‘I like the scene very much. Can you change it? I’d rewrite it. He’d look at it and say, ‘This is really very good. I liked the first one better.” . . . Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock recall Robbins wanted a new opening number so the show wouldn’t get off to a wobbly, uncertain start. “We had regular meetings, and Robbins would say, ‘What is this show about?’” Harnick remembers. “We would say, ‘It’s about this dairyman and his five marriageable daughters,’ and he’d say, ‘No, that’s not what gives these stories their power.’ Ultimately, we said, ‘Oh, for God’s sakes, Jerry. It’s about tradition, isn’t it?’ and Jerry said, ‘Write that.’” A song is born! . . . Stephen Sondheim, who’d been through the Robbins mill earlier (West Side Story) and came back for seconds (Gypsy), heard the Fiddler score early and told him it was right down his alley. “Jerry is the only genius I ever met, my definition of genius being endless invention,” insists SS. “He never stopped inventing. He was just so far above anybody else who’s ever worked in movement in musical theater. . . . As difficult as he was to work with—and he could be really a mean, awful man—I would work with him any time. The end product is worth it. Some of his invention rubs off on you. You get more inventive when you work with Jerry Robbins.”
HOOK: Although he owned and operated a couple of perfectly fine high-profile theatrical hangouts (Ted Hook’s Backstage and Ted Hook’s Onstage), I somehow only encountered Ted Hook at Curtain Up! where he claimed total responsibility for the wall décor. Many a professional proofreader went mad scanning the rows and rows of star names that lined the room before a telltale stinker stuck out. Ted was a terrible speller—a terrific dancer but a terrible speller. Apparently, there’s very little currency in being Tallulah Bankhead’s secretary for five years. When he died, his claims to fame were her, the clubs, the bad spelling and the Las Vegas duration record for a dancer (64 weeks at the Sands Hotel). A dear, funny, much-missed man, Ted Hook . . .Ted came to mind because the Curtain Up! corner of 43rd and 9th has been cleansed of any unsightly misspellings, and a renovated high-end restaurant has risen there—all shiny white and Mediterranean bright—a pasta-and-seafood eatery called Esca. It starts taking reservations Monday. . . . . Brooklyn’s Brave New World Repertory Theater got hold of The Hook, an unpublished Arthur Miller screenplay that eventually became On the Waterfront and premiered it as a play in June at its site-specific Waterfront Museum Barge and Pier in Red Hook. The same playwright, the same players and the same place will come together again for 12 performances of A View From the Bridge Sept. 12-29. It will bring new meaning to “site-specific”: the setting is Red Hook. . . . The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s Olivier Award-winning gay epic, which begins previewing Sept. 27 at the Barrymore, transplants not only plot chunks of E.M. Forster’s Howards End but Forster himself in the post-AIDS era. To see Paul Hilton move gingerly about the stage as the fragile, elderly novelist, you’d not suspect his Peter Pan past. Now 49, he still feels he must be among the oldest actors ever to play The Eternal Boy. “All that flying—it was physically challenging,” he admits, “but it was great to have an opportunity to play a character I never imagined I’d get the chance to play. What was interesting in that show was we were looking at the loss of the mother figure. We alighted the Captain Hook and the Mrs. Darling characters, as Barrie originally intended.”
HAIR TODAY: Berger and Jeannie (Treat Williams and Annie Golden) will be honored guests Sept. 21 for the 40th anniversary unspooling of their Hair at the Metrograph. The special screening was set up by AMPAS—or, if you prefer the long form, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the studio that brought that film to market, United Artists. . . . Hair was a contemporary celebration of the hippie counterculture when it premiered at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in 1967. One of its earliest musical casualties was the tunesmith of Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser. He didn’t go back for the second act. He just sat on the steps, glumly realizing his style of music had become passé. . . . That cloud lifted a tad, but, by the time “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” reached movie screens 12 years later, it was an instant period-piece. Nobody was prepared for the hit it became because nobody expected a different (and “de-nuded”) plot or the imaginative, NYC-embracing sweep provided by director Milos Forman and, in her film debut, choreographer Twyla Tharp. . . . Forman attended the very first Off-Broadway performance of Hair and prevailed on the show’s creators (James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot) to let him direct the movie version of it. He even tried to stage a production in Prague the following year, but Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia crippled that deal considerably. Only when George Lucas decided to do American Graffiti instead, was Forman allowed his dream to direct Hair. . . . It was his first film since his big Oscar win four years earlier with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was a man who picked his pictures carefully. Consequently, he amassed a brief but impressive track record (Ragtime, Amadeus, Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt, etc.). . . . His choice for Claude, the lead, was his Oscar-nominated Billy Bibbit from Cuckoo’s Nest, Brad Dourif; instead, he got John Savage, who had won a Drama Circle Award doing Billy Bibbit on the road in Los Angeles and Chicago. . . . Among the actors he did recruit: Beverly D’Angelo, Richard Bright, Charlotte Rae, Miles Chapin, Laurie Beechman, Michael P. Sheridan, Charlayne Woodard and a trio of Tony winners: Melba Moore, Michael Jeter and Nell Carter. . . . Sorry, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen didn’t make the cut. . . . Forman’s major casting regret was in asking the director of Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, to play The General because his big scene called for clouds of heavy smoke. A month after the movie’s release, Ray died of lung cancer. . . . In 2007, the Public Theater decided to reclaim Hair for a 40th Anniversary Concert in the woods where it happened (Central Park). On opening night, it didn’t start raining in earnest until the finale when the cast broke into “Let the Sunshine In.” One of my fondest memories is watching Oskar Eustis join his audience on stage in what could only be called a torrential jig.