Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jerz(ey) Boy

I'm a big fan of the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center podcasts. I've probably listened to half of the nearly 200 interviews with actors, playwrights, directors and others connected with the theater. As someone who doesn't have years of Broadway theatergoing behind her, it's great to hear actors talk about how they got started in the business, some of their earlier shows. There are always at least a couple of stories or quotes that stick in my mind.

Last week, I listened to an interview with Nathan Lane, currently starring as President Charles Smith in David Mamet's Oval Office satire November, which Lane describes it as an "absurdist political cartoon in the form of a play."

He reminisced about one of his first professional acting jobs, for a small theater in East Orange, N.J., called the Halfpenny Playhouse. It was around the time of the bicentennial, and they were putting together a musical revue about the history of New Jersey, called Jerz, which was performed at school and colleges around the state. Lane's big number was called "The Statue of Liberty Lives in Jersey City."

And file this story under "They'd never do it today." Lane said that in 1972, when he was in high school, he saw the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with Phil Silvers in his Tony-winning role. The show wasn't doing good business so as a publicity stunt, the producers had a free Fourth of July matinee. "I stood on line in the blazing sun and I was the last person let into the theater," Lane recalled, "and then they closed the doors."

Apparently, giving away tickets didn't help. It closed on Aug. 12, after 156 performances. (The second revival, for which Lane won a Tony award, did much better, running from 1996 to 1998, with more than 700 performances.)

Still maybe that experience is why Lane has a soft spot for matinees:

"Those are the best shows, the matinees. I love the matinees. The matinee people, they want to be there. They haven't been dragged by a spouse or they're not there on a business trip of some kind. They're there to see the play or the people in the play and they want to have a good time. Very often in the evening, they're a little more judgmental, or you know, go ahead and show me, prove to me how hilarious you are. But the matinees are always great."


Anonymous said...

Esther: Thanks for your good words about "Downstage Center." So glad to know you're enjoying our programming -- and we hope you've also discovered the "Working in the Theatre" video podcasts. Thanks for helping us to let people know about the material we offer. -- from your friends at the American Theatre Wing.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment, American Theatre Wing! I have watched one of the Working in the Theatre podcasts (with Kevin Spacey, naturally!) and it was great, too. I highly recommend both programs.

Tipitina said...

Thanks for bringing up 'Jerz' - for a long time I thought I'd conjured it in my mind. Nathan and crew came to my school in Union, NJ to perform, and his talent made a huge impression on me. When he gained acclaim, I kept mulling over where I'd seen him before, and nobody would believe it was Burnet Junior High.

Esther said...

Hi Tipitina, thanks for the comment! That is so incredible that you got to see Nathan Lane before he became a big Broadway star. You should definitely check out that Downstage Center podcast. I'm looking forward to seeing him on Broadway next spring in The Addams Family.