I never planned to become a theater reviewer or historian, but in retrospect it seems like all of my life until the launch of nytheatre.com was preparation for this vocation. I have very little formal education in the field: a quarter of a semester in drama in 9th grade, a summer school class before that, and a total of three drama classes in college.
Instead, I learned about theater by seeing it, and by soaking it up in the very limited ways that were available to me as a kid in the Washington, DC suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s.
Every summer from about the time I was 4 years old until I was about 10, we would see two or three musicals at Shady Grove Music Fair in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This was, in the beginning, a real tent theater (in later years it transformed into an indoor venue); it was an hour-long car trip and these outings were tremendously special for all of us. Shady Grove was part of a circuit that booked touring summer stock, usually recent musicals and comedies with name casts.
Here are the shows I remember seeing there:
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Jayne Mansfield
- A Joyful Noise (pre-Broadway, I think) starring John Raitt (with a dancer named Tom Tune in the chorus)
- Camelot starring Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt
- Mame starring Edie Adams
- Hello, Sucker! starring Martha Raye (a musical about Texas Guinan)
- Peg starring Eartha Kitt (this was a musical version of Peg o’ My Heart)
- Cabaret starring Leslie Uggams
- Golden Rainbow starring Gordon MacRae
- How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee
- Sweet Charity starring Chita Rivera
- Gypsy starring Ann Sothern
- Fiddler on the Roof starring Theodore Bikel
It was here that the magical intimacy and mystery of theatre started to work its spell on me.
Shady Grove was a theater-in-the-round, which meant among other things that actors always entered and exited from aisles that ran through the audience. We always sat on an aisle, and we were always in one of the first four or five rows; so it was here that the magical intimacy and mystery of theatre started to work its spell on me. Intimacy because you were right there, so close to the flesh-and-blood actors that you could practically reach out and touch them; mystery because you were just an ordinary person sitting in a seat while they were these amazing beings who wore exotic costumes and layers of makeup and who possessed these special powers–they could sing and dance and totally transport and delight everyone in the room.
I remember the most thrilling part of any Shady Grove performance was watching the actors make their initial entrance, in the almost-darkness during the overture, standing or crouching in a line in each aisle waiting to go on stage; every once in a while acknowledging the cute child who was sitting awestruck next to them (my sister and I were both exceptionally cute kids).
And the second most thrilling part was getting autographs after the show. My sister remembers vividly meeting Jayne Mansfield, gloriously beautiful and glamourous and accompanied by a pair of puppies, as she signed both of our programs “Love! Jayne Mansfield” in sweltering summer heat. (I do not remember this, unfortunately.)
I DO remember going backstage (when Shady Grove was no longer in a tent) and getting Eartha Kitt’s autograph. She told me I was very handsome. (Many years later my sister and I saw Ms. Kitt at a DC nightclub. We went backstage after the show and reminded her of this previous meeting, when I was eight. She was more than gracious.)
I also remember getting Rudy Vallee’s autograph, at the rear of the auditorium, after How to Succeed. He signed our programs perfunctorily but politely, all the while engaged in conversation with (I imagine) friends or acquaintances, talking very fast and incomprehensibly–it felt like he was still J.B. Biggley, saying “ding ding dang” or whatever in that stentorian voice of his.
I wish I could remember the shows themselves as vividly. Weirdly, I can conjure snippets of song from the musicals that DIDN’T become Broadway hits (remember, I was no more than 8 years old when I saw these shows, and I’ve never heard the scores again)–John Raitt singing the title song of A Joyful Noise, Eartha Kitt singing “Sing Me Sunshine” in Peg, and especially Martha Raye in little moments from Hello, Sucker, particularly the 11 o’clock number, which was called “If Momma Could See Us,” in which she pretty much stopped the show when she lifted the hem of her gown during a dance sequence and raised a cloud of dust that made everybody in the room laugh.
From all of this I learned to appreciate, more than anything else, the gift that performers bring to audiences. That ineffable spark that they give off–and that is then shared among everyone in that dark room–is the reason live theater will never disappear.