STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Summery Proceedings: A look at June September 1999

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Summery Proceedings: A look at June September 1999 "So how was your summer?"

"So how was your summer?"

You've been asked that question quite a bit since Labor Day, haven't you? Funny how no one ever asks, "How was your winter?" or "How was your spring?" But summer is the one season that makes people ask the question -- probably because we thought of it as a clearly-defined season when it represented summer vacations from school.

I've lately been asked, "So how was your summer?" too. So, as someone who makes his living writing about theatre, here's my composition on "What I Did on My Summer Non-Vacation."

Summer starts for me the day after the Tonys. Maybe some people are unduly influenced by the Awards, but looks like our President isn't. For when he came to New York to see a show that week, he chose five-time Tony loser The Iceman Cometh. He attended alone, making us all wonder if he didn't want his wife to witness a plot that centers on a fast talker who cheats on his wife. And for all those stories about what the president will or will not do when leaves office, now that we know that they're going to be living only 45 minutes from Broadway, how about Bill starring in a revival of I Love My Wife? Can't you hear him now singing, "Monica, love ev'ry move she makes ... those aren't buns -- they're cakes."

The night after the Tonys, we had that nice shindig for David Merrick. I do believe that Phyllis Diller's line -- that if she ever needed a heart transplant, she'd want Merrick's heart, because it had never been used -- is her second-best of all time. My favorite quip from the marvelous comedienne (and the sixth Broadway Dolly) was one she said on TV, on "Laugh-In" in the early '70s: "I flew an airline so cheap that, instead of showing you a movie, they put on a high school play." In July, during a trip to the library on the campus of Montclair State University before I went to see Barnum at TheatreFest, I was perusing the stacks, when I found a bunch of bound volumes of Variety's obituaries. Could I locate the one that so amused me back in the early '60s? It didn't take me long to find it -- from Nov. 25, 1964. CHOP CHOP, it said in upper case boldface type, followed by, "Chop Chop, 63, of Chop Chop and Charlie, Chinese magicians, died Nov. 12 in Suva, Fiji Islands. Formerly known as Tung Pin Soo, his real name was Al Wheatley."

And speaking of obituaries, I saw one in the Harvard University Gazette for esteemed poet William Alfred. When it listed his achievements, it mentioned that he wrote a musical called Who to Love. Well, yes and no. In 1970, Alfred wrote the book and lyrics for a (dull) musical version of his play Hogan's Goat that opened in New Haven and New York as Cry for Us All. But between those two stops, in Boston near Harvard, the show changed its title to Who to Love, the first words of Joan Diener's big song, "Who to Love, If Not a Stranger?" After many people pointed out the grammatical error to Alfred and his collaborators (La Mancha alumni Mitch Leigh, Albert Marre, and Joan Diener), they changed it back for the 9-performance New York run that closed on a Wednesday.

What I'll always remember what happened the morning after I saw Who to Love in the Hub, when, I'll admit, I was humming "Who to Love, If Not a Stranger?" I was teaching then, and when I arrived at my classroom, I heard my students commiserating about the previous night's hockey game, when one of the Boston players was called for penalty after penalty for roughing up a New York player. "It wasn't fair," they told me. To which I said, "I agree. Who to shove, if not a Ranger?" No one, of course, got it.

I also spent some of the Summer of '99 at Summer of '69. Nicely done, but not my music. I made my two annual trips to Central Park, to see The Taming of the Shrew and Tartuffe. Each time I was there, I kept wondering why the newly built movie theatres are making such a big deal about their having stadium seating. We've had it at the Delacorte for decades.

I ate at the Playwrights Tavern on Eighth Ave., and had The Hemingway Hero. Should a sandwich in this place be named for a novelist? Yes, Hemingway makes the cut because he did write one play, The Fifth Column, although it must have needed a little work. For when the Theatre Guild produced it in 1940, it was billed "adapted by Benjamin Glazer, from a published play by Ernest Hemingway." Glazer apparently didn't have all the answers, for the show ran 87 performances.

Or could the sandwich be named for The Hemingway Hero, the play that A.E. (Welcome to the Club) Hotchner adapted from Papa's main characters? Gary Merrill starred as Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls, Charles Aidman directed, and you had to be at the Wilbur in Boston in March, 1967 to see it, for that's the only city it played. I actually did, but don't remember a single thing about it.

Summer reading? I picked up a copy of Seymour H. Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot. Was I disappointed! It turned out to be about the more sinister aspects of the Kennedy administration, and there I was, thinking it'd be all about Camelot's torturous out-of-town tryouts in Toronto and Boston. Equally disappointing was Charles W. Kadlec's new book that predicts the Dow Jones average will one day hit 100,000. Do you know the guy didn't make one mention of How Now, Dow Jones -- in which the main character announced that the Dow hit the then-unthinkable 1,000. What a lost opportunity!

Then I read Michael Korda's Another Life, because the flyleaf said it "did for the publishing industry what Moss Hart did for Broadway in Act One." Not quite, but I adored the story Korda told about Gypsy Rose Lee, just as her memoir, "Gypsy," was about to be published by Simon and Schuster. Lee expected that Dick Simon and Max Schuster would throw her a big launch party and was devastated when they didn't. To mollify her, Billy Rose said he'd take her to '21' -- where they wound up being seated near Schuster. Lee took the opportunity to march to his table to give him a piece of her mind, but before she could, Schuster said, "Gypsy, I've been thinking of you a lot lately. One of these days you ought to write a book."

I came home and played Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after I saw the headline "Bye Bye Bibi" on the Post, after Netanyahu lost the Israeli elections. I suffered through a woman who, while on "Jeopardy," was asked to identify the noted pair of stage stars who were awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1964. The fool answered "Who are Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?" while the other two contestants had no idea. What a slap in the face to Lunt and Fontanne!

I went to many a video store, too, and saw that the new release of that 1965 Disney musical, "The Happiest Millionaire," had the effrontery to call itself "one of the best motion pictures of all time." Don't believe me? I don't blame you. Check it out yourself this autumn. I'm sure you'll find plenty of them left on the shelves.

And now the summer's over. But I'm not sad. The autumn has meant learning that Judith Light is extraordinary in Wit, and no one who attends will be a whit cheated or dsiappointed. I went to the Dramatists Guild's dispensing of the Madge Evans and Sidney Kingsley Awards. Kathleen Chalfant said she'd spend her $25,000 to pay for her son's wedding, while Chris Durang said, "I don't have a son, so I'll spend the money on myself."

Evans and Kingsley, by the way, were husband and wife. Dramatist Guild president Sheldon Harnick noted that we probably remember Kingsley as the playwright who wrote Men in White, Dead End, and Detective Story, but we might not know who Evans was. So he showed a clip of her performing in "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" with Al Jolson. She played a young woman who lost her job and boyfriend, and jumps off a bridge, to be rescued by Jolson. When she awakens, she can't remember a thing. She was so moving and touching that I hope we always remember her.

Whatever the autumn brings, it'll take a great deal to eclipse my interview with Dame Edna. I was salivating for this meeting, for when I saw her in London in 1988, I was dazzled by her performance, and so impressed that the most homogenized audience -- blacks were sitting next to whites next to straights next to gays next to young people next to old codgers -- were whooping it up and having the same great time.

As my interview with the Great Dame was wrapping up, I did take a moment to ask one last question: "Dame, did you ever think of appearing in a book musical, and playing the great roles: Dolly. Mame." And as she took an intake of breath to answer, I slipped in "The undertaker in Oliver?" -- a role that was originated in London in 1960 by one Barry Humphries.

She exhaled, and lowered her voice substantially. "The undertaker from Oliver," she snarled, "is not a great role."

Dame Edna sure is. I attended the third preview at the Booth, where blacks were sitting next to whites next to straights next to gays next to young people next to old codgers -- and everyone was whooping it up and having the same great time. Don't miss it.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com