14 July 2008 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
My hit Broadway smash
For two decades beginning in the 1970s, I was privileged to spend a portion of each year working in the London or Broadway production offices (or both) of Alexander Cohen, one of the most dynamic and successful producers in theatre history. For much of that time, Alex Cohen also served as the producer of the annual Tony Awards ceremony, televised live in the USA and then (later, via recording) in Britain. During his reign, the Tonys were consistently the classiest awards show on television. Regrettably, the American Theatre Wing (the sponsors of the Antoinette "Tony" Perry Awards) forced Mr Cohen out of participation after he made a pungent comment about the New York Times theatre critic ... and the comment didn't even go out on the air!
I was an all-purpose 'go-fer' and flunky at the 1982 Tony Awards. The big prestige productions on Broadway that year were 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby' -- an astonishing Dickens marathon -- and the musical 'Dreamgirls', directed by Michael Bennett. Straight away there was trouble. Alex Cohen insisted on maintaining the Tony Awards as a high-class event. Anyone who could afford the pricey tickets could attend the awards ceremony, but formal attire (black tie) was mandatory. When the TV cameras panned the seats in whichever Broadway theatre housed each year's event (it was the Imperial, this time round), Mr Cohen wanted the viewing audience to see every seat filled, and every occupant in strictly formal attire. However, Michael Bennett arrogantly decided that he was too important for such things, and he showed up in a baseball jacket (he never played baseball) and trainers. Bennett was a multiple nominee that year, and he knew that Alex Cohen wouldn't dare keep him out of the Tony Awards.
Since many people in the front rows of the stalls were also participants in the awards show -- as presenters, performers or nominees -- there were plenty of occasions when somebody had to vacate their seat. Mr Cohen appointed several youngish men and women on his junior production staff as substitutes who, at the drop of a hat, had to occupy a seat that some celebrity had vacated, then relinquish it when the celebrity returned ... all so that the television audience would never be subjected to the horrifying sight of an empty seat at the Tonys. Alexander Cohen chose me as one of that year's substitutes ... which I thought was an honour, until I realised I'd have to wear black tie throughout the entire event just in case some celebrity took a trip to the men's room and I had to keep his chair warm until he was finished.
The big hit of that year's Tony show was Jennifer Holliday singing her rousing quasi-gospel hit from 'Dreamgirls': "And I Am Telling You that I'm Not Going". I dislike song titles that begin with "And", but her performance was unforgettable ... although I wish she'd used less melisma. (I'm not rating this TV special, since I was marginally involved in it.)
The 1982 Broadway season was more emotional than usual, because a couple of beloved theatres -- the Morosco and the Helen Hayes, plus the less-beloved Bijou -- were being torn down to make room for a (choke! gasp!) hotel that would attract (shock! horror!) tourists. There had been a long campaign to stop the bulldozers, but ultimately the theatres fell. Playbills for a weird Broadway musical starring Jeff Goldblum -- 'The Moony Shapiro Songbook' -- became highly prized, merely because this flopperoo revue (that folded on opening night) was the last-ever show to play the Morosco. (I preferred the West End version, 'Songbook', that ran at the Globe Theatre in London two years earlier, starring Anton Rodgers and Gemma Craven.)
Anyhow, during the tech rehearsals for the 1982 Tonys at the Imperial Theatre, I was backstage worshipping Lillian Gish while Milton Berle was onstage bullying a stagehand. The terrified stagehand dropped a heavy object. There was a loud crash ... and in the silence that followed, I quipped "Are they tearing this one down, too?" The silence lasted a beat longer, then several dozen people laughed.
The next morning, Alex Cohen called me into his office above Shubert Alley. It seems that "Mister Berle" had overheard my line, and he wanted to "ad-lib" it during the live broadcast. In recognition of my contribution, Mr Cohen wanted me to be the person who would "accidentally" cause a crash backstage during Berle's onstage speech, giving him the excuse for the ad-lib. So, I got to experiment with various objects to see what made the best possible crash, and I finally plumped for a half-filled keg of eightpenny nails topped off with stovebolts, flung onto three-ply plywood.
The American Theatre Wing still have a videotape of that year's Tony Awards. About midway through the festivities, Milton Berle is doing his schtick onstage when suddenly there's a loud noise behind the proscenium. Without batting an eye, Berle inquires: "What ... are they tearing this one down, too?" I'll give him credit for adding that "What".
The audience, of course, fell for it. They were thrilled to be present at a live-theatre event at which something went WRONG backstage, and even more thrilled to see a seasoned pro like Milton Berle turning the situation round and making a joke out of it. But that smash Broadway hitting sound which the audience heard that night was no accident. Reader, 'twas I.