STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Where There's Smoke. . .

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Where There's Smoke. . . Wendy Kesselman has changed a good deal of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's The Diary of Anne Frank, but it was her tiniest alteration that fascinated me most.

Wendy Kesselman has changed a good deal of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's The Diary of Anne Frank, but it was her tiniest alteration that fascinated me most.

For in the original version, when Anne gives Hannukah gifts to her Secret Annex roomates, she presents Mr. Van Daan with a package that contains "something you want more than anything." After he opens the box, his reaction proves her right. "Cigarettes!" he exclaims.

"Two of them!" she beams, before going on to say that her father "found some old pipe tobacco in the pocket lining of his coat, and we made them."

Kesselman keeps the scene -- but cuts Van Daan's cigarette ration by half. Now each night at the Music Box, Anne gives him but one cigarette.

And in a strange way, that's a sign of the times, as everybody's cutting down on the wicked weed habit. And while I'm certainly NOT advocating that anyone take up smoking, one must admit that cigarettes used to be an integral part of plays and musicals. One of the earliest examples occurs in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack Worthing to see if he would be suitable suitor for her dear Gwendolen. Her very first question to him is "Do you smoke?" Jack, being the (reasonably) honest guy that he is, says, "Well, yes, I must admit I smoke." And while many might guess that the good Lady will then cluck in disapproval, Oscar Wilde made a good comment on the idle rich by having her say, "I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind."

Flash forward to 1961, in one of my favorite commercial comedies, Jean Ker's Mary, Mary, in which Bob and Mary got divorced a little too quickly, and now each wishes the other would make the call to fix things. When a tax examination forces them together, they spend a good deal of time looking for a cigarette, to the amazement of Tiffany, Bob's new fiancee. When they finally find a nearly-finished pack under a couch, they light up, coo delightedly over their victory, causing Tiffany to soon see they still have more in common than she thought and they realize. There's a nice joke here involving coffee that won't be repeated here -- because I want you either to read Mary, Mary, or to get some company to revive it. (I did that just this year -- and the Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ, came through nicely with a delightful production of this fine play.)

A few years ago, A.R. Gurney dealt with the new attitudes toward smoking in Later Life. There, the first guest his hero meets at a party is Jim, a man who first extols the virtues of smoking. "It's the closest we come to heaven on earth," he insists, before vowing that he is about to indulge in his last pack. And, in a twist of what happens in Earnest, when Jim is asked his occupation, he says, "What I do -- or, rather, what I did -- was smoke. I smoked, therefore I was."

The shrink in Agnes of God was a chain-smoker -- so much so that Lee Remick, the show's original leading lady, found the habit played havoc with her lungs, and had to drop out. Elizabeth Ashely took over, and inhaled away for 13 of the next 14 months.

On the other hand, Daisy Gamble, in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, went to a shrink in order to stop smoking. In fact, she told him, she smoked so much that she now had "a yellow finger."

Other examples of musicals that involved smoking. The H2$ revival stressed how office workers routinely used to light up at their desks. "Intermission Talk" in Me and Juliet -- which replicated an intermission at a musical -- had a theatergoer admit that "I love to go to a theater lounge to enjoy a noisy smoke." Both Nanette (of No, No fame) and the Cat (in that Drat! musical), though, equated cigarettes with wild and reckless living. "Has anybody got a cigarette?" asked the former, while the latter already had one: "Watch me smoke this cigarette!" she purred.

So maybe The Music Man's Harold Hill was ahead of his time when he warned River City citizens of the trouble it'd have with its youth "trying out Bevo, tryin' out Cubebs, tryin' out tailor-mades like cigarette fiends -- and braggin' how all about how they're gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen." Mr. X, too, in Fiorello -- who, when asked how he could possible afford a new yacht, explained that "for a month or two, I simply gave up smoking."

Remember, too, that Dolly sang to Horace in "So Long, Dearie" that "I'm going to learn to dance and drink and smoke a cigarette." But don't you think it's odd that she should say that she'll learn to dance, given that in the first act, she taught Barnaby and Cornelius to do exactly that? Maybe that's why, when Pearl Bailey took over the role, she changed the lyric to "I'm gonna learn to hoochy-kooch." But she still said she'd smoke a cigarette, didn't she?

Then there was that marvelous sight gag in South Pacific, often attributed to Joshua Logan, when an in-drag, grass-skirted Luther Billis, pulling forward one of the coconut shells resting on his chest and serving as one half of his bra, flicks his ashes into this "ashtray." He's soon sorry, though, when one of those ashes turns out to be a not-yet extinguished spark. Ouch!

And speaking of ashtrays -- smoking must have been somewhat on Annie Not-Yet-Warbucks' mind, for in "Maybe," she projected that her parents might collect said items. (And, to get totally off the subject for a moment, have you ever noticed that "ashtray" is pig Latin for "trash"?)

But the most delightful smoking scenes in a musical occurred in Sweet Charity. Charity Hope Valentine has just been picked up by famed Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, who takes her to his apartment. Soon after they arrive, his girfriend shows up, and Charity, sap that she is, offers to hide in the closet while they reconcile. Once stuck in there, though, Charity has the urge to smoke. She lights up, and only then realizes she's going to have a problem keeping the smoke from seeping under the door.

But then she notices a zippered garment bag hanging there, so she unzips the bag, exhales the smoke into it, zips it back up, takes another drag, re-unzips the bag, exhales into it, and zips it back up. Wonderful!

Gwen Verdon once told me that though Neil Simon wrote the book to Charity, it was Bob Fosse (when, as "Bert Lewis" he was did his first draft of the libretto) who thought of that gag. Makes sense; Fosse always seemed to have a cigarette dangling from his lips, didn't he?

Though Neil Simon knows smoking's good for a laugh. Think about all the times Felix emptied ashtrays to Oscar's consternation in The Odd Couple. Remember, too, how he had one of his writers in Laughter on the 23rd Floor enter late for a meeting, and, when he was asked where he'd been, he says, "I had to" before interrupting himself with a long series of coughs, before finishing the sentence with "get some cigarettes." Finally, Simon made smoking is an important component in the second act of The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, when Barney Cashman shared a puff with his latest pick-up. But that was smoking of a very different kind, wasn't it?

Nice plot twist involving smoking in The Seven Year Itch, when Richard Sherman, whose wife goes out of town, urges him to keep to his promise to give up smoking. Actually, he gets enmeshed with The Girl (as she is solely known in the script) who lives in his apartment building. Of course he has a number of fantasies about her. But perhaps the most delightful is that his wife comes home, finds him guilty, and has him executed in front of a firing squad -- but denying him a final cigarette.

And then there was Thornton Wilder, in concluding the 40 minutes of Our Town, has the Stage Manager turn to us and say, "That's the end of the first act, friends. You can go and smoke now, those that smoke." It's fun to hear the reaction of today's audiences when he makes this suggestion -- especially considering that we're seeing more and more signs in lobbies saying, "Warning: Cigarettes will be smoked on stage at this performance."

Actually, no matter how politically incorrect cigarettes will stay these next few decades, smoke will be on stage for years and years to come. The only difference is that we'll see it courtesy of fog machines.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com