Playbills speak to history

Daily Pilot

I went to the theater Sunday afternoon, and, as is my custom, took the Playbill to my office afterward and added it to a shelf in my bookcase that has been housing a steadily growing family of Playbills for the past 50-some years. They pretty much chart my cultural life for all those years and, I guess, also define the parameters of my soul.

When I added Sunday's Playbill to my collection — also as is my custom — I lingered over the shelf. That was both a mistake and a joy. It shot my evening plans, but it also transported me back to the treasures that are still almost as vivid to me as they were at the time I experienced them. Reliving them always makes me realize, once again, how important theater has been in my life. And how good and accessible it is where I live.

These shows enriched and influenced my early adult years just as the movies of the 1930s shaped my adolescence. And in some mystical way, they continue to follow a pattern my wife and I set in 1956, when I was offered a pair of fourth-row seats to "My Fair Lady" early in its run. We cleaned out our savings to fly to New York from our home in Chicago, and today I wouldn't sell for all the money in Goldman Sachs the memory of Rex Harrison standing on his doorstep only a few feet away from me singing, "I've grown accustomed to her face."

Just as vivid in reverse was "Camelot," Lerner and Lowe's first Broadway show after "Fair Lady." It had a terrific cast headed by Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, and I went looking for the same high — and lost it in the first few minutes of the second act. I saw "Camelot" three times in New York, hoping these superb craftsmen would finally fix that second act so I could sustain my euphoria. They never did.

So now I'm looking at playbills for shows long since forgotten except for one memorable number or artist or composer. Three come to mind, starting with an otherwise unremarkable bit of fluff called, "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," in which I watched an unknown 18-year-old named Barbra Streisand stop the show with her only number, which turned out to be the key to a very special career. Then there was "Once Upon a Mattress," based on the fable of the princess and the pea that launched a brash newcomer named Carol Burnett. Then a show called "The Body Beautiful" that never made it to Broadway. I saw it in Philadelphia on its tryout run and marked the young composers as too good to keep doing turkeys. And next time out Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote the music for "Fiorello," and the one after that was "Fiddler on the Roof."

Even Rogers and Hammerstein didn't always write winners. Here are programs for the only two box office flops they wrote: "Allegro" and "Me and Juliet." At the other end of that spectrum, my playbill for their "Sound of Music": was the second time I had seen the show.

The first time was the final dress rehearsal for theater folk that I was privileged to watch because I was then doing a magazine piece on Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those lovely melodies hit me absolutely fresh and washed over me for days afterward.

And there is so very much more. Plays outnumber musicals in my collection, but when I want a quick lift I go to the memory bank of musicals. To the incandescence of an already ailing Gertrude Lawrence in the early weeks of "The King and I." The incredible lung power of Ethel Merman doing "Rose's Turn" in "Gypsy." The sly and sophisticated barbs of "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May." And, finally, the rousing curtain calls of "A Chorus Line" and "The Music Man"

And that takes us to a special shelf reserved for the work of Stephen Sondheim. I firmly believe that the lyricists of the American musical theater were our finest contemporary poets. They read as well as they play, a tradition that Sondheim, who recently turned 80, carries on today.

Any lyricist/poet who can leave a final rehearsal that sorely needs a second act song, barricade himself in a hotel room and emerge a half hour later with "Bring in the Clowns" deserves canonization among us lesser mortals.

Now it is time to put away my Playbills until the next addition sends me here again. But wait. There is still the matter of finding a place on the Playbill shelf for the newcomer that brought me out here in the first place.

The name of the play is "Sick," and the playwright, it says on the cover page, is Erik Patterson.

In the "Playwright's Notes" he writes: "Enough about my imaginary ailments. Because, as the kind doctor at St. Joseph's reminded me many times, there was nothing wrong with me. He wasn't exactly correct, but what I was suffering from isn't the kind of thing you can get fixed in an emergency room. This play was born out of all that worry and fear, and I'm so grateful to be able to get this sickness out of my head and pass it along to you."

For many years, he tried to pass it along around our dinner table, and his family, in turn, is grateful he finally found bigger game that got him a place on my playbill shelf. I will expect other entries to follow.

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