27 September 1981 | "I Always Wanted To Be on Broadway"
First published in The New York Times
Exactly a year ago, I arrived in New York to start rehearsing for Amadeus. Now, as I prepare to leave the play and the city, this month also marks my 20th anniversary as a professional actor. Looking back, I realize that I always wanted to be on Broadway, right from the beginning.
Like everyone else brought up in postwar Britain, my childhood was surrounded by American culture. "Got any gum, chum?" we asked of exiled G.I.'s. Kellogg's and Heinz on the kitchen table, Sinatra, Clooney and Crosby over the loudspeaker at Woolworth's. Hollywood dominated the cinema and the playground; cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians.
We lived in the industrial north of England, five hours by steam-train from London. Each year my father traveled south on business, fetching goodies from the capital. Clothes for my mother and sister; and, for me, already mad about the theatre, souvenir programs from American musical comedies, then playing in the West End.
I marveled at the glossy photos of Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma! How superior they were to the local shows I had seen - amateur, repertory, or touring productions of the English classics, with the occasional new play. All fine in their way, but those West End imports from New York were the thing, as out-of-reach and as magnetic as the metropolis always seems to the provincial.
Throughout my youth I was stage-struck, not really as an actor (although I did lots of plays at school) but as a theatergoer. Each summer, there was our school camp at Stratford-upon Avon, where I saw the festival of Shakespeare's plays in the 1950's. I slept in line all night to see my idols Olivier, Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft. One season, there arrived Laughton's King Lear (grizzly as a bear) and Robeson's Othello (a rogue elephant) all the more heroic because they'd come from America.
My earliest and most formative theatre visits were to the Grand Theatre in Bolton, my hometown. The Grand was one of the last resting-places of "variety." Low comedians and high crooners capered twice-nightly; tap dancers and animal trainers; magicians, jugglers and freaks. Spellbound I watched them; and all for free, because my father knew the theatre-owner. Some of the acts were quite famous; I might have heard them on the radio. Once the marquee boasted "Direct From a Season on Broadway." (Broadway is also a tiny village near Stratford!)
Wherever these romantic strangers were from and wherever they were going, I wanted to be with them. Week after glorious week, I stood in the dust and dark backstage, comparing the tawdry reality with the glamorous illusion onstage. It's a contrast that still absorbs me. It holds a secret and a mystery that I never hope to solve.
Then I forgot about show business. I went to university. The joy of my acceptance at Cambridge is recalled in my one-man show, Acting Shakespeare. Suffice that it involved my leaping onto a chair and blasting my examiner with "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!" fortissimo. That association of the academic and the histrionic persisted through my three years study of English literature and some 21 undergraduate stage productions. After that, I landed my first job with the repertory company at Coventry in the Midlands.
I didn't go to drama school. Call me university-trained. There is no drama faculty at Cambridge. However, 21 plays in three years taught me something. And in the study I had learned a respect for the written word, which I transferred to the rehearsal-room. I accepted the playwright's preeminence in the theatre's hierarchy. You might think that should be obvious, but through the centuries the dramatist has had a raw deal. At the hands of the actor-manager, even Shakespeare was abused. Then the old theatre-owning impresario was more taken with figures than with words. Nowadays in Britain we live in the age of directors' theatre.
After World War II, British governments and local authorities had begun to accept new social responsibilities. Up and down the country, civic theatres were built and subsidised by public funds. The first of these was in Coventry, where I started work. The latest will open next year, as the new home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the City of London.
There is now a generation of British theatre-people who have been sheltered most of our professional lives by subsidised theatres. We work for low wages - like most civil servants. We are proud to avoid the crassness of fully-socialised theatre on the Soviet model. We are angered by any attempt at censorship. We insist that, should the government withdraw its patronage, the best of British theatre would die overnight.
Outside the West End, the power of commerce is almost gone. A new boss has emerged - "the Director of Productions." No subsidized theatre, from Coventry to Stratford, is complete without him. He chooses the plays, casts and rehearses them. He administers and supervises. He decides the policy and persuades his governors and his staff to carry it out. He hires the plumber and the actress, the hat-check girl and the star. And he gets a coronary every 10 years.
Most of the British directors you have heard of, have been directors of productions. Trevor Nunn and John Barton at Stratford; Bill Gaskill and Anthony Page at the Royal Court: the Peters Brook, Hall and Wood everywhere. All these studied at Oxford or Cambridge. So did many of the actors they like to employ. So did many of the critics - and indeed the audience - who now assess their work.
This common background is not often noticed but it is important because it characterises the prevailing attitude of the established theatre in Britain. We share a preoccupation with the word, written by the playwright and spoken by his actors. We believe above all, that we are in the theatre to present the dramatist to the audience. Everything else is incidental.
Sometimes even a director of productions want to release his power, dreaming of foreign notions like fame, money, success and good old show business. Dreaming of his name on the marquee and a percentage of the gross, he will come to Broadway. Last season the director of the National Theatre of Great Britain won the Tony Award for Amadeus. Will the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company get it next year for Nicholas Nickleby or for Cats? Don't detect a lack of faith in the British way of theatre. Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn, like me, are from the postwar American-influenced generation, just standing in line in Shubert Alley and pleading "Got any gum, chum?"
The gum's worth chewing on. Broadway salaries can be 10 times the London norm. Our American colleagues may see us as alien pirates raiding their rightful booty. When I first worked here in 1967, at Henry Miller's Theatre, we were picketed by local actors who resented our intrusion. (Our play lasted 10 nights and Henry Miller's is now a discotheque.) Although it rejected me, Broadway had lived up to my expectations. I had seen my first Broadway musical, Cabaret, at the Broadhurst. I was spellbound, like a child at a variety show.
This last year I've been working at the Broadhurst myself. My motives have not just been financial - fortunate that I am, in an industry where there is constant unemployment at about 75 percent. I simply wanted, in the spirit of the Grand Theatre, Bolton, to step out from the dust and the dark and put on a show.
I had just completed five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and needed a change of direction. Amadeus seemed a suitable vehicle. It's been thrilling to face a Broadway audience, often in the manner of a stand-up comic, to cajole and joke and shout and terrify. Peter Shaffer (another Cambridge man) writes tremendously wide-ranging challenges for his leading actors, on the thesis that, if the actors are fulfilling themselves, so will their audiences.
Full-blooded theatricality reigns on Broadway. Look at the posters. Nicholas Nickleby and Lena Horne shake their fists at you. Evita reaches out for adoration and the "Woman of the Year" brandishes aloft her Tony. Broadway's stars, like New York's buildings, reach for the heights. It is certainly more invigorating to be an actor here than anywhere else I know. One is recognised - even by people who haven't seen the show - as a symbol of everyone's own desire for success. How else to explain those excitable audiences, so ready to cheer and to congratulate? Might it also explain the amazing dominance of women on Broadway? Last season belonged to Lena, Lauren, Evita, Piaf - Annie even - all renowned survivors in a man's world, where gutsy success is even more remarkable when it is contrasted with the frailty of feminine beauty.
This celebration of success, survival, achievement, of "I'm still here," is often expressed in lyrics, though not much in speech. How few straight plays there are to be seen and heard. Broadway declares itself not in words, but in music and noise and physicality. Where else do dancers cavort and leap so high? The chorus lines are superhuman. It's true that last season there was a contrary fascination with a legless man, an Elephant Man, and every hit from Amadeus to 42nd Street seemed to star a wheelchair. But then, bodies and emotions stretched to their limits must sometimes break. Always, on Broadway, things are larger than life - and louder. Even the tap-dancers are miked. Well, there's no business like it and I revel in it as much as the next man with $35 for a front orchestra seat.
But a puzzle. Why is Broadway obsessed with the past? Why is its most potent message nostalgic? In an era when vaudeville and the circus are in decline, Barnum and Sugar Babies pretend that nothing has changed. Why give the middle-aged middle-class customers not only what they want, but what they've already had? The really original shows run so long that even A Chorus Line looks dated. Does it matter if Broadway is not the fount of the avant-garde? Shouldn't there always be a central position for the old-fashioned, for yesterday's hits? Anyway, hasn't Wilford Leach made Gilbert and Sullivan look modern? Won't Sondheim and Prince work similar magic for Kaufman and Hart?
I can't complain that Broadway keeps looking back, because I do a lot of the classics myself. But what a pity that it hardly looks anywhere else. Where are the new plays? Walter Kerr had similar worries last month, when he urged new dramatists not to abandon the theatre for Hollywood. He might have said the same thing to young actors and directors.
But what are they to do? Theatre people work within a system which individually they cannot change. Take economics: it has a stranglehold on Broadway. Inflation soars; so do new hotels, destroying old theatres in the process. Unions fight for their demands. Seat prices go through the roof. Hit shows are blockbusters. Anything less bombs. Violent clichés, to describe an extreme situation. On the whole, economics is best understood by businessmen. And so it is that Broadway is controlled by the impresarios and the theatre-owners. It is their names that star above the title.
A visitor like me, who has been much welcomed even as he has taken advantage of Broadway's beneficence, can't properly analyse the situation. It's time for me to return home. I am glad to be doing my show Acting Shakespeare before I leave. In it, I talk about a playwright who loved actors; I do some of his speeches, which 20 years ago I studied at university. Incidentally, I'm helping raise money for the Second Stage, an Off Broadway company that gives recent modern plays a second showing. They put the dramatist first. Hurrah!