STAGE TO SCREENS: Behind the Scenes of Gypsy and Nine Tapings with TOFT's Hoffman

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Behind the Scenes of Gypsy and Nine Tapings with TOFT's Hoffman This month we check out the theatrical treasure trove located on the third floor of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The vision of the now retired Betty Corwin, TOFT (Theatre on Film and Tape) began in 1969 and has, according to successor Patrick Hoffman, "succeeded beyond her wildest dreams."
Patrick Hoffman.
Patrick Hoffman. Photo by Don Pollard

We chat with Hoffman, who for eight years was Corwin's assistant and became TOFT's director in 2001, and go behind the scenes for two of the archive's tapings—the current Broadway revivals of Nine and Gypsy—thus preserving the resplendent performance of Antonio Banderas as Guido and Bernadette Peters' dynamic turn as Rose.

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An affable Patrick Hoffman welcomes me to his Lincoln Center Library office, and introduces Rima Corben, senior press representative for the New York Public Library, who sits in on our interview. TOFT began, explains Hoffman, "with Betty Corwin, who had seen performances—such as Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire—and regretted that there was no permanent record of them.

"In 1969, Betty's children were grown, and she was looking for something to do. She had worked for years in a producer's office. Her sister-in-law, Helen Harvey, a theatrical agent, said, 'Everybody talks about videotaping theatre, but nobody has ever been able to get the idea off the ground.' Betty came to the Library for Performing Arts, which had opened in 1965. She was told, 'We have no money. We can give you a desk, a telephone and three months to try to make it happen.'"

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years and the first tape (an Off-Broadway rock musical, The Golden Bat) of what now numbers nearly 5,000. The delay was due, notes Hoffman, "to very tough negotiations with various theatrical unions and guilds. They were very concerned about piracy, which they are to this day. That's why we're a restricted archive. Everyone who uses the archive is vetted. Visitors must tell us who they are, and their reason for viewing. Last year, we had reservations from 45 states and 30 countries." The collection is divided into three parts: "The bulk is videotapes of live performances; next are interviews and dialogues with notable theatrical figures; the third is comprised of theatre-related films and television properties. We have all the Tony Awards [since being televised nationally in 1967], the Drama Desk, Obies, Lortels." When PBS presented a live performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner, starring Nathan Lane, TOFT acquired that tape and saved money ("which is so tight") to use for another show. "PBS is very generous in donating copies," remarks Hoffman.

Numerous preparations precede an actual taping. Everyone connected to a production must sign a release; permissions are sent out and returned prior to taping. A crew is assembled. The assigned video director and crew members attend performances of the show in question. Camera positions are arranged. A few days prior to taping, Hoffman checks on the health of the actors. "When we showed up to tape Thoroughly Modern Millie, someone said, 'Sutton Foster's been battling a cold.' But she's a trouper! She went on and was absolutely perfect; she sounded fantastic! Had I known in advance that she was fighting a cold, I could have scheduled another date."

He recalls, "The day that TOFT arrived to tape Inherit the Wind turned out to be the same day George C. Scott left the play and took a plane to the West Coast. He went abruptly that morning. Instead, we taped Tony Randall [whose theatre company had produced the revival, and who previously had gone on for Scott] and Charles Durning."

If an actor declines to participate, it usually means that the production is not preserved. Michael Moriarty refused on grounds that theatre is ephemeral and cannot be transferred to another medium. At different times, Christopher Walken turned down TOFT, but finally acquiesced for the Public Theater's production of The Seagull at the Delacorte. Should an actor prefer not to have a performance taped, it's sometimes arranged for an understudy to perform—as happened with Equus, when Roberta Maxwell chose not to be photographed in the nude.

Before working on Nine, director David Leveaux came to TOFT to view the 1982 original; while preparing for Gypsy, Sam Mendes watched the Tyne Daly tape. (The original Ethel Merman production predated TOFT; funds were not available to tape the Angela Lansbury version.)

Among the more unusual TOFT visitors was "a team of doctors who wanted to study the effects of stage fog on actors." TOFT's mission, relates Hoffman, is "to document rather than interpret [a production]. It's a constant struggle to raise money. For the fiscal year 2002, we taped 66 productions—Broadway, Off-Broadway, regionally. [A grant specifically designated to tape regional productions has been exhausted.] For fiscal year 2003, we made 65 videotapes. That's only one shy of the previous year. But I'm very concerned about 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, that puts us in the position of 'What shows do we do?' If we had limitless funds, we'd tape them all. Just recently, we regretted not being able to tape Enchanted April."

To videotape a Broadway show with two or three cameras costs "about $12,000. It was quite a bit more for the final performance of Les Miserables, for which the Shubert Organization so graciously and generously paid. With The Lion King, we had to use five cameras. Taping an Off-Broadway show, using one camera, runs about $5,000/$6,000. Theatre people think the costs are expensive; film people say, 'That's so cheap.'"

Two tapes are simultaneously shot—and edited. Due to union agreements, post-production editing is not permitted. One tape remains at the archive, while the other is stored in a Connecticut climate-controlled vault. A tape may not be viewed while the production is running—except by the cast or creative team, who may see it at any time.

Tapes are fed from the playback suite, located on another floor, to the archive's glass-enclosed screening room, which has 24 monitors. "[The suite] is a room full of every imaginable kind of deck. We can use a DVD or any size tape and send a signal to any monitor in the screening room. It was part of [the library's] recent $37 million restoration." DVDs, Hoffman points out, "are very convenient for playback purposes, but they're not approved as an archival format, because they haven't been around long enough."

It's possible for collaborators to sit side-by-side at monitors and watch the same show on two screens. With some tapes—such as those including full-frontal nudity, e.g. Love! Valour! Compassion!, Take Me Out—viewers are unable to pause or rewind. "Researchers never handle tapes; they never even see them, " says Hoffman. Helping researchers are two "very knowledgeable" technical assistants: Amy Schwegel and Jeffrey Bivens. At the busiest times, supervisor Rhony Dostaly pitches in.

Hoffman believes that 1974's Liza [Minnelli at the Winter Garden] was the first Broadway production that was taped. The next year, they taped A Chorus Line, but there were no funds to preserve the original Chicago. The first thing that professionals wishing to use the resource must do "is call the screening room [212-870-1642] and tell us the title they're interested in viewing. We may not have it." The archive operates Tuesday-Friday, from 12 noon to 6 PM, and Saturday, 1-6. PM

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Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Hoffman grew up a fan of the stage. "My parents had season tickets to the big local theatre. I got to see Angela Lansbury in Gypsy and Mame, Yul Brynner in The King and I, Katharine Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity. I often boast that I saw Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, and people say that I'm not old enough. But she toured in that [on and off] for years. Once, my family was going on vacation the same week that Joel Grey was coming in as George M. I didn't get to see that—and I was so mad! [Laughs] These days, big stars don't tour."

Prior to joining TOFT, Hoffman was associate curator of the theatre collection at the Museum of the City of New York "for about five years." In 2001, honorary Tony Awards were presented to Betty Corwin and to TOFT. "I adore Betty," Hoffman confides. "She's [now] a special-project consultant. In conjunction with the American Theatre Wing, she did a guide to careers in theatre, speaking about the job of a director, choreographer, production stage manager, box-office treasurer. . . . Every kid wants to be an actor; they don't understand that there are all these other jobs connected with theatre. Betty's [currently] working on a project about women in theatre."

Quick to praise his assistants, Wendy Norris and Greg Couba, Patrick Hoffman is A Man for All (Theatre) Seasons. He considers working at TOFT, "a real privilege. I'm aware of that, every day. Harold Prince often says, 'There's no place like it in the world'—and there really isn't!"

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Taping Nine, Friday, August 29: The TOFT crew started setting up at two o'clock to tape the evening performance. Inside the Eugene O'Neill Theatre are three cameras—one near the rear on either side of the middle aisle, another in the mezzanine's first row.

Celeste Rufo, Lisa Rosenberg and Jim Covello—each skilled in taping live events—operate the cameras. Parked in front of the theatre is "the truck," a converted GMC motor home that houses video director Richard Stucker, assistant video director Daniel Kedem, sound engineer Tom Zafian, video engineer Howie Feld, videotape operator Christopher Balomatis (who owns the truck) and Patrick Hoffman.

Inside the truck are numerous controls and monitors, a sofa, several chairs and a restroom. A 27-year veteran of TOFT, Stucker is called by his surname; Zafian has worked with TOFT a year longer. As I arrive, at 6:15 PM, Hoffman is checking for possible typos in the credits that will run at the end of the tape. TOFT always tries to tape a production with its original cast. In the case of Nine, Deidre Goodwin, who originated the role of Our Lady of the Spa, left early, in order to play Velma, opposite Melanie Griffith's Roxie, in Chicago. However, it was arranged to tape the musical before the departure, two days hence, of Laura Benanti (Claudia).

Backstage, I accompany Hoffman, who meets with company manager Nichole Larson and production stage manager Artie Gaffin. The mother of child actor William Ullrich (who shortened his vacation for the taping) stops by to report that her son has a scrape on his leg from playing baseball, and asks if it should be covered with makeup. She's told that it's a good idea.

That morning, Hoffman mentions, in checking the list of the archive's visitors for the day, he was surprised to see the names of Mrs. Raul Julia and Raul Julia, Jr. (The late Julia starred in the 1982 original production of Nine, at which time his wife was expecting their son.) Nichole Larson tells us that the Julias had been in to see the show earlier in the week, had liked it, and had visited backstage with Chita Rivera.

Ushers are busily placing inserts in Playbills, informing the audience that the performance is being taped for TOFT. We bump into Jane Krakowski, who often does research at the archive and is friendly with Hoffman. They chat about a new movie for which she just signed; she plays Liza Minnelli, and Hoffman suggests some tapes that she might want to watch. Next, Hoffman speaks with house electrician Steve Pugliese, music coordinator Martin Agee, house manager Jessica Jennen and associate manager Hal Goldberg.

We return to the truck, where Stucker converses with the camera crew inside the theatre. When I first arrived, he was transferring notes into the show's script. Prior to a taping, Stucker attends four performances of the production, and he always tries to see a show the night before its taping. The first time, Stucker makes no notes; during the next three performances, he makes notes throughout.

At 8:06 PM, a camera focuses on the Playbill cover for Nine, and taping begins. Banderas's "Guido's Song" goes well. Mary Stuart Masterson does a fine job on "My Husband Makes Movies," and Jane Krakowski expertly delivers her Tony-winning telephone number. It's a pleasure to watch Chita Rivera do "Folies Bergeres," and dance a tango with Banderas, effortlessly placing a leg on his shoulder. It's impossible to believe that this beloved legend has been dancing on Broadway for over half-a-century.

Following intermission, the trick is not to have latecomers block camera views. As with Act One, the second half is performed—and taped—without flaws. Afterwards, assistant director Eli Gonda stops by with the lovely Mary Stuart Masterson, who watches a few moments of tape, but prefers not to view herself. As a crowd gathers at the stage door for autographs, cables are disassembled. Another performance of Nine has taken place; this one was for the books (and the library).

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Taping Gypsy, Wednesday, September 3: Cameras are placed as they were for Nine. Again an operator, Celeste Rufo is joined by James Miller and Jeff Hodges. TOFT is taping the matinee. Set-up started at 9 AM; cables have been installed, sound checks made. In Shubert Alley, the truck is parked near the Shubert Theatre's stage door. Stucker and Daniel Kedem are back as video director and assistant, and Chris Balomatis operates the videotape. This time, Dale Whitman is sound engineer and Joe Rosi, the video engineer.

I arrive at 12:30. Checking the end credits, Hoffman laughs out loud at a typo: "Stephen Soundheim." We go backstage, where production stage manager Peter Lawrence informs us that the regular "Balloon Girl" (seen in the opening "Uncle Jocko" sequence) is doing a commercial, and that understudy Alexandra Stevens will sub. Bernadette Peters will run through the scene with her at 1:15.

As we speak, the dogs used in the show arrive. Usually, indicates Lawrence, dogs in Gypsy are yorkies, but Peters is allergic to their dander, and other pups were substituted. Lawrence claims that the lamb in the show should also have been changed, as occurs every four weeks, because he's grown too large and heavy to lift. (However, during the first act, as Tammy Blanchard sings the last note of "Little Lamb," the animal, as if on cue, lifts his head. A woolly, albeit pudgy, trouper!)

After consulting with associate company manager Bess Eckstein and house manager Brian Gaynair, Hoffman and I return to the truck, where Dale Whitman tells me that the most difficult time for the sound engineer is when a show begins. A sound level needs to be established, and Whitman wants researchers to know how the show sounded in the theatre.

Instead of a Playbill insert, an announcement is made that this performance is being taped for TOFT. At 2:02, with the Playbill cover onscreen, tape rolls. ("Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline, Historical news is being made!") Everyone's in top form. During intermission, Peter Lawrence comes to the truck to check on the taping. "That hardly ever happens," declares Hoffman.

Tammy Blanchard had told me (in an interview) that she'd had problems making the transition from the gawky Louise to the more mature Gypsy Rose Lee. During Act Two, it's clear that she's mastered the change. Bernadette Peters' "Rose's Turn" gets a (deserved) standing ovation. At 4:55, the performance ends. Peter Lawrence comes to the truck and says, "That was one of the best performances of 'Rose's Turn' ever!"

Ecstatic about the day's work, Stucker clearly enjoys his job: "I love it!" Julie Halston, a superb Electra in Gypsy, stops by the truck with her husband, retired radio interviewer Ralph Howard. Usually cast members listen to 'Rose's Turn' on the dressing-room microphones, comments Halston, but today most everyone had gathered in the wings—and many had tears in their eyes.

Minutes later, Hoffman and I walk west on 45th Street. As we pass the Golden Theatre, where Avenue Q is playing, an exuberant Patrick Hoffman states, "That's the one I'd like to do next!" (At press time, it was learned that, pending permissions, the taping of Avenue Q will occur October 29. "Sing out, Kate Monster! Smile, Princeton! Are you ready for your close-up, Ms. Slut?")

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END QUIZ: In which Broadway musical did Gypsy Rose Lee play a role originated by Ethel Merman: a) Panama Hattie; b) DuBarry Was a Lady; c) Gypsy? (Answer: Next column, October 26)

The August 31 question was: When John Stamos took over as Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, whom did he succeed: a) Michael Hall; b) Neil Patrick Harris; c) Raul Esparza? The answer is: c), though all have played the Emcee.

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com