PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 27-Oct. 3: Death of a Director

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 27-Oct. 3: Death of a Director
Elia Kazan died on Sept. 27 at the age of 94. Though he hadn't directed a stage play since 1964, as long as he lived, he ranked indisputably among the century's great stage directors.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman are routinely named as the greatest American plays. Kazan directed the original productions of two of them, the Williams and the Miller. He staged the premieres of two other Miller dramas and three Williams plays, and his role in establishing the careers of those writers can not be underestimated. His staging of Salesman became so iconic, few subsequent productions strayed from it until recently. And the performance he extracted out of a then-unknown Marlon Brando continues to shadow all revivals of Streetcar. He further influenced generations of performers by co-founding of the Actors' Studio in 1947.

Kazan's 1952 appearance as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee assured that any mention of his achievements will forever be accompanied in the history books by the taint of an asterisk. (Few discuss his career without their forehead first knitting in troubled thoughtfulness.) Yet, his towering talent was still so undeniable in 1963, that when Lincoln Center was putting together their model of an American national theatre, Kazan was the institution's first choice as artistic director. It didn't work out. He left after a year or so, and the man never came back to the stage, spending his final energies on films. About a decade later, he left Hollywood behind as well. For the final 25 years of his life, all that remained was the debate of the Kazan's legacy. It began afresh after the publication of his 1988 memoir and with the 1999 decision to honor him with a special Oscar. It was hashed out again in his obituaries. The dialectic will continue as long as his art is discussed—which will be for some time.

Also passing during the past week was a giant of the London stage. Broadway has known plenty of flamboyant showmen like David Merrick and Florenz Ziegfeld. In London, such beasts are rarer, but Harold Fielding was enough of a character to command the nickname "The Guvnor," and enough of an dyed-in-the-wool independent to fund all of his enterprises with his own cash. He was primarily a musical man and, because of him, London theatregoers were introduced The Music Man, Sweet Charity, Mame and Barnum. He also nurtured English entertainments like Charlie Girl and Half a Sixpence.

Speaking of American musical, the first Broadway production of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman's Off-Broadway smash, Little Shop of Horrors, opened on Oct. 2 to a mix of positive and negative reviews. The show keeps former Hairspray star Kerry Butler in the early '60s and reaffirms former Urinetown star Hunter Foster's persona as the unlikely hero of cartoonish, science fiction-like worlds. Little Shop also shares with Hairspray and Urinetown the new Broadway penchant to self-consciously quote musical history. (The invoked show will not be disclosed in this column.)

Elsewhere, on Broadway, the William Nicholson play Retreat from Moscow began previews at the Booth and the Off-Broadway hit Golda's Balcony commenced its run at the Helen Hayes. Off-Broadway, the Off-Broadway 9/11 drama Portraits posted a closing notice of Oct. 5. Finally, The League of American Theatres and Producers and the American Theatre Wing decided their stormy, decades-long marriage was still worth saving, if only to protect the welfare of their cherished child, the Tony Awards. For years, a tug of war has raged between the League's wish to use the awards as a commercial tool and the Wing's desire to preserved the Tony's identity as an artistic honor. For now, however, the two sides have put aside their differences to extend the partnership until 2008.

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