If the walls of Broadway's fabled theatres could talk, they'd tell amazing stories. And historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper shares them with flair. As she never tires of pointing out, the physical setting of a theatre--everything from modern sounds and lights to a creaking infrastructure dating back decades--can play as much of a role in shaping productions as the actors onstage.
There may be no better example than the surreal opening night of "Once in a Lifetime," a comedy written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which debuted at the Music Box Theatre in 1930. As the show began the cast realized that something was gravely wrong. Surefire laugh lines were falling flat and the audience was silent. It hadn't heard one word. In his memoir, "Act One," Hart remembered looking wildly toward Kaufman to see what was amiss, and the panic ended only when a voice in the balcony rang out: "It's the fans--turn off the fans!" In the excitement of opening night, an electrician forgot to shut them down. The fans were silenced, the actors began again...and a hit show was born.
It sounds like a freakish event, but as Tepper made clear in the second volume of her masterfully assembled "The Untold Stories of Broadway," it's not the only time that air conditioning, or lack of it, determined a show's fate. Forty-five years later the "Chorus Line" creative team, parked in the back of the Shubert Theatre during performances, couldn't hear Paul's searing monologue over the roaring air conditioners. They finally solved the problem by shutting them off after "The Music and the Mirror." But this didn't simply quiet things down. The hotter temperatures increased tension in the audience, boosting the drama of the scene.
Classic stories like these and more pack the pages of Tepper's third and newest installment, released this week by Dress Circle Publishing. And with a growing audience ("I'm enjoying every chapter," said the New York Post's Michael Riedel") her multi-volume project is taking its place as one of the most important and original works of oral history about the Broadway stage.
Tepper, who is Director of Programming at Feinstein's at 54 Below, leaves no stone unturned and the intensity of focus comes across loud and clear in her latest book. Like its predecessors, "The Untold Stories of Broadway Vol. 3" focuses on the history of eight theaters, and the author has by now interviewed a prodigious number of people--more than 250 actors, writers, directors, producers, stagehands, office managers, musicians, designers, ushers and others--whose memories are lovingly recounted.
To be sure, there is no shortage of books detailing the history of Broadway houses. It's been a fertile subject for scholarship and memoirs. But Tepper's approach is unique and rewarding: She tells her stories in chronological order, going back to the early 20th century and ending in the present day, reconstructing the birth of legendary hits, the stories of appalling flops, memorable encounters and the people who made them all come alive.
The latest edition takes readers inside the walls of the Broadhurst, the Belasco, the Edison, the Lyric, the Majestic, the Schoenfeld, the Walter Kerr and the St. James. Each chapter is brimming with history and personal testimonials, featuring contributions from the likes of Barbara Cook, Patti Lupone, Harold Prince, Richard Frankel, Jordan Roth, Susan Stroman, Tom Viertel, Marsha Mason, Fritz Weaver, John McMartin, Julie Halston, Charles Busch, and Elizabeth Ashley. The new volume also focuses on the sagas of women and people of color, whose stories have not received the attention they deserve.
Take the St. James. You may have seen many shows there over the years, but you might not have known that:
• In 1941, the theatre was rocked by the opening of "Native Son," a play based on Richard Wright's novel. The show offered a brutally honest view of American racism, years ahead of its time, and was fiercely controversial. It featured a scene in which a black man was in bed with a white woman, sparking ripples of discomfort in the audience. The play closed prematurely after three months at a financial loss, even though New York critics showered it with praise.
• The Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS campaign was kicked off at the St. James, with Marvin Hamlisch opening the drive by playing the overture from "A Chorus Line."
• President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, loved Broadway and wanted to fit in one last night in Manhattan before his 1961 inauguration. They attended "Do Re Mi" at the St. James, and Tepper writes: "At intermission, when he went to smoke a cigar in the St. James' gentlemen's lounge, JFK was gawked at by crowds of female theatregoers."
• Producer Tom Viertel recalled an unforgettable moment in "The Producers" when, two-thirds of the way through "Springtime for Hitler," an 80-something-year-old man who was offended by the portrayal of Hitler angrily confronted Mel Brooks in his seat and began to attack him. Audience members managed to push the man out the exit door into the lobby, and when Viertel asked General Manager Laura Green why the man remained in the lobby, she said: "Because his wife's in the front row and she's having a ball!"
• Mel Marvin, a Broadway writer and arranger, said the St. James is popular "because of how shows sound in that space...None of the big musical theater houses on Broadway were built for the technology we have today. They were built to have really good acoustics so that you could hear singers live, without microphones or speakers, (but) the St. James sounded great back in the day, and it sounds great now. There's just a way that sounds fit together well in that space."
• The St. James has been home to hits like "Oklahoma!" "The King and I," "Hello Dolly!" and "The Pajama Game," but it's also has had its share of disasters. "Broadway Opry '79" hoped to package country songs for New York audiences. But the show closed after only two performances in 1979, the house's shortest running production.
The St. James chapter, which opens the book, paints a vivid portrait of a theatre beloved for its intimate connection with audiences--and cursed for its shallow stage depth (only 23 feet). You could get lost in all of the stories, but the best part is that it's just one of eight love letters to the Temples of Broadway in Tepper's latest edition. And there are more volumes to come.
Like the passionate artists on whom she shines a light, the author was bitten by the drama bug early. She moved to New York City at 18, and fell in love with the Great White Way. In the introduction, Tepper pens a moving tribute to that lifelong attraction:
"In a world where historic places are destroyed every day to make room for the new, New York City has the privilege of having dozens of 100-year-old Broadway theaters where show folk and audiences today do the exact same things they did a century ago," she writes. "A kid hands their ticket to a Shubert usher and walks inside to have their life changed forever. This happened in 1913, and it happens today."