Alexander Cohen Remembered at O'Neill Theatre Memorial

News   Alexander Cohen Remembered at O'Neill Theatre Memorial Alexander Cohen, the legendary theatrical producer known for bringing quality plays to Broadway for six decades, who died at 79 on April 22 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, was remembered on May 24 at an 11 AM memorial service. The event took place at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway (230 W. 49th Street).
Alexander Cohen.
Alexander Cohen.

Alexander Cohen, the legendary theatrical producer known for bringing quality plays to Broadway for six decades, who died at 79 on April 22 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, was remembered on May 24 at an 11 AM memorial service. The event took place at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway (230 W. 49th Street).

A capacity audience listened to a dozen speakers share their memories and experiences with Cohen. Among the orators -- who sat on the O'Neill stage, filled by the set of Waiting in the Wings, Cohen's last production credit -- were director and producer Harold Prince, producer Robert Whitehead, critic Frank Rich, actress Ellen Burstyn, Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson, publicist David Rothenberg and producer Jeffrey Ash.

One of the first speakers was one of the least known -- Kiersten Mikelas, Cohen's assistant during his last year alive. Speaking of her professional trial by fire at the hand of Cohen, she noted that he schooled her in such minor, but apparently important, matters as placing stamps on envelopes ("There's a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way could ruin a deal.") and answering the phone. After Mikelas greeted four callers on her first day in what Cohen deemed an unsatisfactory manner, the producer instructed, "Kiersten, You have such a lovely speaking voice. But put a little life into it. We're not selling pencils here."

Others shared Mikelas' view of Cohen as a challenging and sometimes difficult personality, but a man of great passion for the theatre and greater devotion to those he respected and loved. Though he disagreed with Cohen most of his life, Whitehead admitted to missing his colleague acutely.

Others spoke of Cohen's boundless generosity. Rothenberg remembered that when Cohen brought over the company of the Italian musical, Rugantino, he told his staff to treat the cast and crew with consummate deference and courtesy. His order was carried out to such a degree that, later on, when word got out that Rothenberg was vacationing in Rome, the Italian theatre community rolled out the red carpet for the Cohen ambassador. Time did not diminish the Italian artists' gratitude; when Cohen died, they took out a commemorative ad in Variety. Burstyn appeared in two productions backed by Cohen, 84 Charing Cross Road and Sacrilege. Neither was a hit, and the latter had a particularly short run. On the final night of the show, Burstyn recalled, Cohen visited her dressing room. "How are you doing?" asked Cohen. Burstyn, not doing well at all, replied sadly, "I'm thinking I lost you a lot of money, Alex." Cohen said, "You shouldn't be thinking of that. You should be thinking about what we should do next."

Rich noted with regret that he had few opportunities to review Cohen's shows favorably in his 13 years as chief critic at the New York Times, but noted that people like Cohen were "what made the street tick." Cohen, of course, wasn't without his salty side. In his days as producer of the Tony Awards broadcast, he routinely settled upon a theme for the show. One year, Rich heard, Cohen told the Tony staff that year's theme was "Get Frank Rich." "Only," added Rich, "he didn't use the word `get.'"

Tom Dillon, president of the Actors' Fund of America -- to which organization Cohen devoted much energy -- remembered, "Alex often made fun of my being an Irish tenor. But he did so with affection, whereas others treat being an Irish tenor as an affliction." He then serenaded Cohen with an improvised ballad.

--By Robert Simonson