"All of us who regularly attend the theatre are rich in memory. Just these past few years have supplied many unforgettable delights," says Staller. "The most memorable theatrical performance I’ve ever experienced, however, happened in Hermione Gingold’s sitting room at 405 East 54th Street. 1980. She and I had been having informal Sunday readings of plays for a few years. Mostly Shaw. Having mentioned this at a cocktail party given by Milton Goldman and Arnold Weissberger, a small group pledged to congregate that weekend. The play, chosen unanimously, was Pygmalion. Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowwright took the leads and were numbingly funny. The other roles were tossed around without concern for age or sex by Hermione, Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, George Rose, Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, Marian Seldes, Christopher Hewitt and yours truly. It started with tea, careened into cocktails, and I don’t remember if we actually made it to the final page. But it was the most vital performance of that play imaginable. The memory of that day inspired me to create the Project Shaw series for Gingold Theatrical Group. Somewhere, a photo exists…
"As for somewhat more formal theatrical events that were most meaningful to me, I’ve limited the choices to Broadway. Each production listed was a seminal theatrical experience that altered the way I view the world, and all ten were probably staged long before the birth of most of you reading this."
Nicholas Nickleby. The original Broadway run.
Though I’d been a life-long Dickens fan, I’d never prized that particular story. David Edgar, who wrote the play, and John Caird and Trevor Nunn, who directed it, created magic that has never been equaled for me. The entire production was dazzling. The inevitability of the story-telling balanced an emotional theatricality that transcended time and place. It was one of the most effective pieces of ensemble acting I’ve ever seen—they were so profoundly generous with each other—but it’s difficult not to set Roger Rees and David Threlfall above the crowd. You could hear the emotion. The cast so involved the audience that we became an active part of the experience while the almost nine hours melted away. One of the few times when a standing ovation didn’t feel like a choice but a vital need.
Follies. The original
Though I had no intention of seeing it because I’d assumed it was a sort of pastiche vaudeville, I was given a ticket and ordered to go. Afterwards, I couldn’t move. An usher finally came over and asked me to leave. From John McMartin’s first entrance through his breakdown in the middle of that musical number—devastating. His face, his hands, you could feel his pain and confusion down to his shoelaces. Still in my early teens, the notion of examining life’s choices while attempting to face the future seemed daunting enough, but the insights that Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince chose to share filtered so deeply into me that I’m still sorting out my reactions. Also, the designs by Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz were an endlessly imaginative pathway into the story, as if they existed to take our hand and walk us into this other world. Prince and Sondheim reinvented modern theatre, and everything else we’ve seen since are variations on their themes.
A Little Night Music. The original.
Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim clearly agreed on the story they wanted to tell and gleefully brought everyone along for the ride. It was a potent example of everyone involved all creating on the same page. By the time I saw it, the show was already a major hit, and the electricity in the theatre was palpable. It was shockingly beautiful. A story celebrating the need for self-discovery and truth resonated at a particularly difficult time in our history. After seeing it from the front row, the back of the orchestra and the balcony, Hermione Gingold then arranged for me to watch from the orchestra pit and then, blissfully, hidden in the wings (several times). Watching H.G. time her lines to perfection was astonishing. She later accomplished amazing feats while performing "I Never Do Anything Twice" in Side By Side By Sondheim—but in ALNM, what she could manage with an eyebrow while sitting in a rolling chair was breathtaking. Literally.
Two words: Maggie Smith. Anyone who saw her in this knows what I mean. Maggie Smith. A fearless performance. I saw it several times, and she varied her Amanda each time to suit the audience. It never took her out of the play or her obligation to her cast-mates, but she had a control of the play that’s difficult to define. It was as if she had reinvented the English language according to her own personal needs and dared us to follow her onto her own private planet. Her feet seemed always to hover just a wee bit off the ground and her arms and hands had self-generating powers. Her first sighting of her ex-husband on the balcony—an earthquake could not have inspired a more lush reaction. Amazingly, aside from being as funny as anyone ever has been, she was gorgeously touching, as well. She illuminated the concept of what an actor can bring to a play with an intrepid disregard of boundaries set by others.
Commando Kate. It was a Take-No-Prisoners-Katharine-Hepburn-Live-And-In-Person performance. She knew it wasn’t much of a show, and it didn’t matter. She had such joy sharing herself with the audience while pushing the play up that rather ragged mountain. She took care of us. It was the most archetypal definition of a Star Performance I’ve ever seen. She’d stride across the length of the stage like a hungry lioness knowing her prey would come to her when she was ready for it. The most explosive reaction from an audience ever? The suspense is set up knowing that everything is riding on Coco Chanel’s comeback fashion show. We don’t yet know how it went. Lights up. Empty stage. Suddenly, from the top of the curved mirrored stairs we realize a lone figure is sitting, knees to chin. We hear, in that ultra-Hepburn voice that gave it several syllables, “Shit.” We knew. The walls shook.
The entire play and production were so inventive, so alluring, but Ian McKellen’s Salieri was unlike any creation I’d seen on a stage. Surrounded by the 18th century grandeur, you could smell his needful hunger to share his story with each one of us. It was primal, animalistic, as if Nature had taken a U-turn into hell but with incredible wit. He was the storyteller, and his ability to exist both in the world of the play while breaking the fourth wall felt revolutionary in his hands. He seemed to inhale Mozart’s music, to taste and admire it, before spitting it out with such profound disdain that the entire concept of genius versus mediocrity became a clouded issue. The building reverberated with his longing to understand, and his God became a very present member of the cast.
Angels in America. The original production.
Like ripping off a band-aid. It was confrontational, socio-political theatre as entertainment. Challenging, frightening, shockingly of the moment. People were still afraid of an endless world of the unknown, and naming this fear suddenly helped in ways no one seemed to anticipate. With this play, Tony Kushner joined Larry Kramer as cultural and political heroes. He not only made discussion of these issues important, he provided permission to talk about them openly. It was no longer the elephant in the room, it was topic A. Guided by George C. Wolfe, the cast acted as one being: Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Wright, Kathleen Chalfant, Marcia Gay Harden, David Marshall Grant, Joe Mantello, Ellen McLaughlin and Ron Leibman.
Tom Stoppard. He is supreme, and it’s difficult to pluck one of his plays to place above others, but I first heard his voice with the original Broadway production of The Real Thing, so that’s what I’m going with. The cast was wonderful, of course—Mike Nichols led a marvelous group, but it was the play itself that hit me between the eyes. As you remember, it combines a play-within-a-play story with what may be referred to as "real life" in a particularly provocative way. For me, at that young age, it provided a clear-eyed look at love and relationships that I had not previously contemplated. Human behavior was clarified through his perspective—and with such a rich vocabulary. He writes in a manner that makes us feel smarter for understanding what he’s saying. By the way, Arcadia runs a close second for me.
Lots of Willys to choose from. All impressive. But for me, George C. Scott. Stunning. Seamless. You knew what he was like when he was out of the room. He was infused with a colorless hope that made you root for him, all the while knowing things just weren’t going to end well. I wanted to call out, to stop him, to help in some way. In other words, it was completely involving. The play disappeared in his performance, it was simply being. There was no actor, just Willy Loman. Teresa Wright played Linda and, though I’ve seen many wonderful actresses in that role, she somehow found a way to wrap her arms around her family, silently and lovingly, that made it possible for us to open the door into their world.
The Pirates of Penzance. In the park.
It was the silliest fun in the most perfect setting that ever was or could be. Okay, it’s not a Broadway production (and it never really quite worked its magic once it hit a proper Broadway stage), but that original group presented such inspired lunacy and played it with such a fervent seriousness taking everyone by such complete surprise that I’m sure it paved the way for the Broadway zaniness that has become so popular since. Kevin Kline. He was able to halt the rotation of the earth for a fraction of a second while in the middle of a leap to stare menacingly at an offending fly in a way that actually brought clarity to the story. Don’t ask me how. No matter, Wilford Leach directed a gravity-defying confection with a hauntingly perfect cast including the impossibly daffy George Rose. He made his ears funny.
Runner-up evenings in the theatre include Uta Hagen in the ’99 reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tommy Tune’s original production of Nine—all of it, Derek Jacobi as Cyrano de Bergerac, every production of Sweeney Todd (but particularly Angela Lansbury in the original), Tom Courtney in The Dresser, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the opening night of Dreamgirls.