I’ve always loved Broadway theater, especially musicals. I went to my first show in sixth grade (more on that below) and haven’t stopped since. When I was in high school and college, living in dorms in Washington Heights, I often would go to revivals at City Center (where I saw “The King & I” and “Brigadoon,” among other great old shows), sitting in the nosebleed seats for about $2.50. Indeed, my wife and I did not meet for the first time at one of those shows. (No, that’s not a typo, but it’s a story for another time.)
The summer after we were married, we spent a week in London, where we saw eight shows for an average of about $5 each — still usually sitting way up high, though moving down at intermission if possible. We didn’t go on Shabbat, of course, but matinee days were, for us, two-show-a-day days.
Our visits to Broadway continued when we lived on the Upper West Side, with TKTS becoming a second home. I often would go to Duffy Square at lunchtime and could usually get something decent for that evening. After (a) the arrival of kids, (b) moving to Teaneck, and (c) sharply increased ticket prices, theater became more difficult and expensive, so our show- going tapered off somewhat. But it never stopped.
Now, however, with the advent of lotteries, rush tickets, TDF (I have two daughters who are teachers), and retirement — and having raised children to love Broadway as much as we do and who know that birthday or anniversary presents of tickets are always appreciated — our visits are on the upswing.
And so, two weeks ago I had good news and less good news. The good news was that I won the lottery. The less good news was that it wasn’t for umpteen hundreds of millions of dollars, but rather for two tickets (at $39 each rather than for the list price of $182) to the revival of “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center. I’d been playing that lottery for a while, so we were pretty excited.
When we got to the theater, though, our excitement abated a bit. The role of Eliza recently had been taken over by Laura Benati, who’d received rave reviews. In fact, my nephew Steven, a theater professional, had seen the production when it first opened, and he is planning to see it again. She’s supposed to be that good. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to go on that night and was replaced by her understudy.
The production was in many respects top-notch, with a majestically beautiful Lerner & Loewe score and lyrics, great featured actors (Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Higgins were portrayed wonderfully, as the two formidable women they are, and Alfred’s “Get Me to the Church on Time” and Freddy’s “On the Street Where You Live” brought down the house), a rousing ensemble, and (here my wife dissents) divine costumes (except for Eliza’s ball gown, which was a sickly shade of peach and didn’t come close to the wow factor of her stunning red satin ball coat and the Ascot gowns).
Henry was disappointing, though; the actor playing him was much better suited in his role of assistant private secretary to the queen on “The Crown” (which, now having Netflix, I’m up-to-date on).
And then there was the Eliza understudy. If this were the plot of a movie, or, indeed, a Broadway show, we all know the ending. She would have seized her big opportunity and been a smashing success, going from understudy to star in one performance. Indeed, a star would have been born before our very own eyes. (Hey, with a bit of massaging that’s not a bad title for a movie, don’t you think?)
But it was not to be. The understudy, with a pleasant enough soprano voice, was no better than adequate. She knew the score (as do I, though my wife, wisely, still refuses to allow me to sing or even hum along), was a decent actress, and if it had been summer stock we would have enjoyed it well enough. But there was no oomph, no charm, no personal magnetism, no charisma, none of the oh-so-difficult to describe star power that you know when you see it.
So back to my first Broadway show. It was, of course, “My Fair Lady.” I didn’t see it with the original cast, Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. My Eliza and Henry were Sally Ann Howes and Edward Mulhare, two young actors, worthy successors to Julie and Rex, who went on to very successful careers. And having seen Rex light up the screen in the movie version and Julie being simply enchanting on stage in “Camelot,” I know how a true star could have brought Eliza to life and energized the audience — which our understudy simply didn’t do.
Other headliners I’ve seen on stage — like Zero Mostel, Danny Kaye (even playing Noah with a broken leg), Lauren Bacall, Ethel Merman (with a voice as recognizable and spine-tingling on the telephone as it was on the stage), Patti Lupone, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones, Mary Martin, or, as I saw just recently, Janet McTeer — not only take over the stage but their characters fill the theater, transporting the audience to another level of consciousness. Moments spent with such artists in live theater are memorable and endure for years. The only thing from the show that I saw a few weeks ago that will live on for me is, well, this column.
And so I learned once again that life is not a Broadway musical or a movie. In real life, the guy who loses the girl doesn’t always get her back; happily ever after can turn into divorce; the rookie sometimes strikes out in the bottom of the ninth with the championship at stake; Jimmy Stewart’s bank can go bust; and, yes, the understudy can be a dud.
But who would want to live in a Broadway musical or, for that matter, in a Hallmark movie, where all I need is about 60 seconds to know exactly who is going to marry whom after the obligatory problems arise and are then resolved, often at the Christmas gala. In these types of shows, there’s rarely true suspense or the possibility of ultimate failure; hearts may be broken but they’re repaired by the final commercial or bow.
Success, though, is worthwhile only when there can also be failure. It’s no big deal that in the show “42nd Street” the understudy didn’t return to Allentown (hi Tara!) but went on stage and was a hit. Her success was writ in stone; good music, great dancing, but no real possibility of failure.
Some day in the future it will be truly meaningful when an understudy in real life will give a spectacular performance, deserve the standing ovation she receives, and launch a glorious career. But it will be meaningful only because we know that, like in the “My Fair Lady” we saw, she could have failed.
I love musicals for entertainment, but give me real life for living.