At this blessed time of year, we traditionally haul out the ledger to determine which members of the theatrical community have been naughty over the last 12 months, and which have been nice. The former are not to our purpose. The latter may, under certain conditions, qualify for a Humbug Award.
Rotten performances don't usually rate a Humbug. As Harold Clurman used to say, the untalented are already cursed. Half-hearted performances by the talented do qualify. Peter O'Toole, for instance, walked through "Pygmalion" on Broadway last summer as if trying to recall whether he had packed all his shirts for his pending trip back to London. Mr. O'Toole, would you please assume the position?
Boring productions likewise tend to be exempted from Humbugs, on the grounds that nobody has ever set out on purpose to present one. Too many snorers in a row, however, starts to look like a policy decision. If there's anyone over at the Ahmanson who isn't on sabbatical or on his way to greener pastures, please leave a message on the machine and we'll mail you your award.
Temperamental actors are Humbug-exempt, unless they actually start breaking things. For example, we had no problem with Mickey Rooney's bawling out the critics, as he did every night at the curtain call for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" this summer at the Pantages. He wouldn't be Mickey Rooney if he weren't acting-out.
But when agent Ruth Webb claimed to be responsible for Rooney's recent success, as she did in a recent Calendar letter--Humbug! Webb may have got Rooney some jobs. But it was Rooney who did them. Agents have got to get over believing that show business is about them.
All we fringe-people consider ourselves central to the theatrical process--agents, press agents, stage hands, head ushers, rest-room attendants, dramaturgs, critics. The critic stays humble by considering how many factual errors he makes in a year--nay, a week. For example, last week this writer identified playwright Jon Robin Baitz with an imaginary person named Robin Lee Baitz. Mr. Sullivan, would you please assume the position?
Other 1987 Humbugs go to:
The Nederlander Organization, always a big winner, for making its Civic Light Opera subscribers sit through "Me and My Girl" again this winter (a show they had already seen in '86) if they wanted to see "Les Miserables" next summer. CLO's brochure also contained the following remarkable disclaimer: "Canceled checks do not guarantee seating." Are you allowed to stand in the lobby?
The Music Center, for handling the problem of what to put in the Ahmanson, by deciding to put up a new $50-million concert hall across the street. The object was to relieve a "booking jam" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The jam may be so effectively relieved that the Pavilion ends up with as many dark weeks as the Ahmanson. Wouldn't it be funny if they had to invite the Nederlanders back to the Hill to take up the slack?
The Los Angeles Theatre Center, for adding an extra week to its run of "Come Back, Little Sheba," and later announcing that its stars couldn't play the extra week, what with a directors' strike in Hollywood coming up. Subscribers could get their money back, but individual ticket holders couldn't. Not quite Nederlander treatment, but verging on it. Luckily, the understudies were pretty good.
The Mark Taper Forum, for celebrating its 20th anniversary so strenuously that the rest of the year was largely an anti-climax.
Fred Croton, who left his job as chief of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department when accused of having given himself more credits on his employment resume in 1980 than could be substantiated. This is a common practice in Hollywood, but it is frowned upon in real life. Croton's record at City Hall isn't too easy to substantiate, either, but he was usually in a fight with somebody. The Federal Communications Commission, which campaigned to remove the equal-time provision from the broadcasters' code on the grounds that it was incompatible with freedom of speech, yet sent dark glances in the direction of KPFK radio for having broadcast a graphic play about gay life called "Jerker." Why doesn't freedom of speech apply to playwrights?
The press agent who composed this handout for an Equity-Waiver client (copy on file): " 'If I have to urinate on a wall to get a laugh, that's exactly what I'll do,' says actor Tim Blank. 'And that's exactly what Blank does in his new show at the Blank Playhouse.' " Sometimes it's better not to get the reader's attention in the first paragraph. Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, whose groupies keep insisting that he wrote Shakespeare's plays for him. Three U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled in a mock trial in September that De Vere was too well educated to have written the plays, but that won't shut up his advocates. All this suggests a great movie idea for Woody Allen: "Ye Front." We open with Woody parking people's horses outside the Globe Theatre. Hey, Willie, want to make some easy money?
The Royal Shakespeare Company, whose forays into the commercial theater grow ever bolder. Its latest venture is a new musical based on Stephen King's shocker, "Carrie," staged by artistic director Terry Hands, with a half-American cast. The show will do a four-week tryout at Stratford-Upon-Avon and immediately emplane for Broadway. Why is the RSC doing Broadway musicals? Hey, it's the '80s. For the money.
Designer John Napier--while we are on the subject of visiting Brits--for receiving his Tony for "Les Miserables" with this comment: "It seems a little peculiar to me that 'Starlight Express' wasn't nominated. I'd give this back to you but it would be a little rude."
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, whose performance at the Iran-Contra hearings was both plausible and deniable, easily the most effective public appearance of the year. But by December the Ollie dolls had become Gorby dolls. How soon they forget.
"Excremental theater," a new wrinkle from Oulou, Finland, as reported by Reuters. It features actors coming out on the stage naked and throwing waste products at the audience. The danger here is that the audience will counter-attack.
ANTA-West, whose July newsletter had an article entitled "Three Who Make Things Happen at ANTA-West." But what does happen at ANTA-West?
The Beverly Hills Playhouse, for the tangiest title of the year: "Dead Puppies." Perfect for Oulou.
And finally your correspondent. We have mentioned certain factual errors. We were also guilty of bad grammar ("flaunting the warrior's code" for "flouting the warrior's code") and sexist remarks ("a song about a woman who keeps saying goodby but doesn't leave, a trait common to the sex").
In such circumstances, we once again call up the hallowed shade of Harold Clurman. Asked what he did after staging a real bomb, the great director replied: "I forgive myself."
Let's get on with it in '88.