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A Top 40 Life in The Theater

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Let me tell you something, it's easy to laugh at Britney Spears, but I for one applaud her adherence to the Method. One so rarely sees that kind of dedication anymore. I still remember my first year at the Studio. It was 1963. Bobby Rydell and Fabian were doing a scene from "Streetcar" -- I think Bobby was playing Blanche and Fabian Stanley, but it may have been the other way around -- and Bobby reached so deep into himself that Lee actually had to stop the exercise and breathe into a bag. (As it happened, it was the bag Connie Francis had brought her sausage and peppers sandwich in. Lee used to yell at her for that, but Connie claimed it helped her get in touch with sense memories of being a little girl at the San Gennaro Festival. Me, I always thought it was because she had a tapeworm. That girl could eat.) Later, after class, I heard Lesley Gore telling Bobby that she was so moved she wanted to switch scene partners. As I recall, she was paired up with Trini Lopez that year. Sweet boy, but a little facile in his improvs, plus he had a tendency to break into a chorus of "Lemon Tree" when he got the flop sweat.

Another time -- this would have been about '66; I'd moved over to Stella by then -- I was free-associating in a group that included Marty Sheen, Roy Scheider, Tommy Roe, Chad & Jeremy and a young Bobby DeNiro. (Stella used to give it to Chad & Jeremy something fierce. "You I like," she'd trumpet, pointing at Chad. "You not so much," she'd add, pointing at Jeremy. Poor Jeremy was prone to indicating, plus he used to bring his autoharp to class and it drove Stella crazy. One time Holland Taylor stepped right on it and got her feet tangled in the strings and almost tripped, but God bless her, that wily old pro, didn't she turn right around and start doing "I do mistake my person all this while" from Richard III. Stella was so moved she practically hugged Nancy Sinatra.) Anyway, there I was, sitting right between The Young Rascals and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and if you think that was a fun job, well, you just don't know the theater. Felix Cavaliere got the nod to be a tree, so of course Herb decided he had to be a bigger tree, and before you know it he's stomping around the room screaming "I'm a Northern Red Oak, behold my mighty branches" while the TJB, yes-men that they were, desperately tried to improvise something out of Copland or Charles Ives. It just ended up sounding odd, of course. The marimba was all wrong. Shortly after that Stella suggested to Herb that he might be happier behind the scenes. He went right out that night and founded A&M Records. True story.

I have so many memories like this. They sustain me now in the winter of my career, a time when my beloved Broadway is practically unrecognizable to me, a husk of its former self, desperate and afraid, like Bobby Vee doing the "Woods are burning" scene from "Salesman." I never cared for Bobby's interpretation. Now, the Dovells... They did a Willy that would tear your heart out. But that's a story for another day.