Playbill Vault's Today in Theatre History: November 16

Playbill Vault   Playbill Vault's Today in Theatre History: November 16
Mary Martin with the cast of The Sound of Music.
Mary Martin with the cast of The Sound of Music. Friedman-Abeles / The New York Public Library

1889 Playwright and director George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) is born today in Pittsburgh. A former newsman, Kaufman will make his mark with the comedy Dulcy in 1921, and will go on to write dozens of comedies, dramas and musicals, at a clip of two or three a year until the 1940s, often in collaboration with the likes of Moss Hart and Edna Ferber. He will win the Pulitzer Prize twice, for his work on Of Thee I Sing and You Can't Take It With You, and will win his only Tony Award for directing the original Guys and Dolls. His plays include The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers (both for the Marx Brothers), Merton of the Movies, The Royal Family, I'd Rather Be Right, Once in a Lifetime, Dinner at Eight and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

1908 Birthday of actor Burgess Meredith (1908-1997), whose long Broadway career included original productions of High Tor, Winterset, She Loves Me Not and The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. He created two memorable screen roles as well: the umbrella-wielding villain The Penguin in TV's "Batman," and the hard-bitten boxing coach who literally eggs Sylvester Stallone on to glory in "Rocky".

1922 A revival of Hamlet opens tonight at the Sam Harris Theatre. John Barrymore in the title role is "the new and lasting Hamlet," says The New York Times. This production — which was produced and directed by Arthur Hopkins with sets by Robert Edmond Jones — will run 101 performances, breaking Edwin Booth's long standing 100 performance record.

1931 Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne have one of their greatest successes in The Theatre Guild's production of Robert E. Sherwood's romantic comedy Reunion in Vienna. The story of former royals now forced to work as cab drivers and such, runs 268 performances in the depths of the Depression at the Martin Beck Theatre, and goes on a European tour.

1935 Jumbo lumbers into the transformed Hippodrome. Billy Rose paid $340,000 for a circus motif and live acts to fill the stage. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur write the book, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart the lyrics and music, Jimmy Durante stars, yet the 233 performances pay back only half the investment. Durante delivers one of his most memorable lines. When police catch the big-nosed comic trying to smuggle the title character out of the circus, they demand to know where he thinks he's going with the elephant. Durante plants himself in front of the huge pachyderm and innocently replies, "What elephant?"

1940 Theatre manager, owner, and impresario Martin Beck dies at age 71. In addition to the New York City theatre that bore his name for many years (now the Hirschfeld), he also built the Palace and State Lake Theatres in Chicago.

1959 The hills of the theatre district are alive with The Sound of Music tonight, as the musical opens at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre. Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel star in this Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II classic, with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The story follows the Von Trapp family and the appearance of their new governess, who helps the family gain courage in a time of insurmountable challenges. The show will run a whopping 1,443 performances and include the classics "Do-Re-Mi," "My Favorite Things" and "Edelweiss." This original production ties for the 1960 Best Musical Tony Award (with Fiorello!). A movie would be made in 1965 starring Julie Andrews and a 1998 mounting will again get nominated for the Tony Award, this time for Best Revival.

1964 A musical version of the 19th century melodrama The Drunkard, retitled The Wayward Way, opens at the New Lyric, Hammersmith. Jim Dale is in the cast.

1968 Opening night of Zorba, John Kander & Fred Ebb's musical adaptation of "Zorba the Greek." Onetime Fiddler on the Roof leads Herschel Bernardi and Maria Karnilova reteam for the musical, which 305 performances at the Imperial Theatre.

1981 Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical Merrily We Roll Along opens on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre. Directed by Harold Prince, it stars Jim Walton as Franklin, Ann Morrison as Mary, Lonny Price as Charley, Jason Alexander as Joe, Terry Finn as Gussie and Sally Klein as Beth. The production runs for 52 previews and 16 performances. In later years, Merrily We Roll Along will be revised multiple times for productions regionally, Off-Broadway and in London.

1989 A revival of Gypsy, starring Tyne Daly as Rose, opens at the St. James Theatre. The show, which co-starred Crista Moore, was Frank Rich of the New York Times' favorite musical, so a review from him included the words "goose bump-raising torrents of laughter and tears." Other critics were lukewarm, but the show ran for 476 performances, plus 105 more in a return engagement at the Marquis Theatre.

2000 British actress Janie Dee makes her New York stage debut in the role that won her London's Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards, playing a futuristic robot-actor in Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy, Comic Potential, opening tonight at Manhattan Theatre Club. The play, set in the future, offers a world where actors and "actoids" are indistinguishable. An aspiring screenwriter gets more than he bargained for when he finds himself smitten with his almost-human leading lady.

2014 Hugh Jackman returns to Broadway in Jez Butterworth's The River, opening at Circle in the Square. Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo co-star in the mysterious drama about a man who brings his new girlfriend to a remote cabin for a night of trout-fishing.

More of Today's Birthdays: Halliwell Hobbes 1887. Elizabeth Perkins 1960. Michele Pawk 1961. Martha Plimpton 1970.

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