Celeste Holm performing "I Cain’t Say No"
In 1993 I attended a star-studded 50th Anniversary Celebration of Oklahoma! and witnessed Celeste transport the audience back to 1943 with her ageless and show-stopping rendition of "I Cain’t Say No." It was peerless and thrilling.
It was summer 1971, Columbus, Ohio, at Kenley Players. I was in junior high, and my parents took me to my first Neil Simon play. Paul Lynde was superb with his comic timing and characterizations, especially in the third play of the trilogy, where he portrayed a beleaguered father trying to get his daughter Mimsy to come out of the bathroom on her wedding day. His yelling, "Mimsy, open the door" will always haunt me!
My great Uncle Hymie Gates was the oldest member of the stagehands union, and they had to specially manufacture a 75-year pin for his retirement dinner. When I visited New York from Ohio, he arranged for me to see Liza in Chicago during the month that she took over for Gwen Verdon. The combination of her vitality, charisma and awe-inspiring talent remains one of my favorite live theatre experiences.
Tony Azito in Happy End Most people remember this show because it was a springboard for Meryl Streep, who was formidable in this Kurt Weill classic, but Tony Azito was the standout for me. He was, to use an archaic term, an “eccentric dancer,” and at 6’3” was dazzling, dangerous and indelible.
Millicent Martin in Side By Side By Sondheim My first major exposure to Sondheim was this musical revue assembled by Ned Sherrin, and it remains my favorite compendium of his work. Millicent’s singing of "I’m Still Here" will always be, for me, the definitive performance, and I still get chills just thinking about it. She subtly built her rendition and there were no histrionics as is the tendency now, and it was honest and true to the climax. I feel lucky to have witnessed it.
Kevin Kline in On The Twentieth Century Discovering both Judy Kaye and Kevin Kline in this show was pretty exciting, and I remain devoted to both. The thing about Kevin’s performance is that to this day I have never seen anyone else engage in such astounding physical comedy as he did. His body contorted like a pretzel while he acted the hell out of his egomaniacal role as the lover of Lily Garland.
Jon Peterson in George M. Cohan Tonight! In 2007 the Irish Repertory Theatre presented this autobiographical show written by Chip Defaa featuring Jon Peterson portraying Cohan with élan and power. His flawless tap dancing consists of that rare combination of athletic precision, superb technique and emotional fluidity. Truly a world-class artist.
Ethel Merman at the Hollywood Bowl (1977) Shortly after moving to Los Angeles I went to see La Merm at this cavernous 17,000-seat venue, and I received a lesson in performance technique and style. She reminisced about her early days with Johnny Green, who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and had been her pianist in the early thirties, and then she sang. And sang. It was watching living history, and she was charming, sometimes casual but always a musical powerhouse. Irving Berlin famously said: "You’d better never write a bad song for Ethel because if you do, you’ll hear it!"
Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens There are some performers who are gifted with an organic, God-given eclectic ability, and Christine is one of them. A consummate artist, she can sing any kind of music, any kind of song and make it sound better than practically anyone I can think of. She is always inspiring, and was superb in Grey Gardens. Christine’s rendition of “With You” made it an immediate theatre classic, and I think I’ve listened to her recording of it a thousand times.
Elaine Stritch singing "Fifty Percent" In 2008 Alan Bergman and I performed an evening of his songs at Feinstein’s at The Regency, and every night during the run we had a special guest who sang a Bergman song. On May 11th, Elaine sang “Fifty Percent” (by the Bergmans and Billy Goldenberg), accompanied by Rob Bowman at the piano. As many times as I was lucky enough to hear Elaine sing, that moment was Elaine at her most honest, vulnerable and magnificent. She tore our hearts open as she, at first, quietly, then ferociously sang of her sometime lover and never-to-be husband. Afterwards I told her that I thought it was spellbinding and perfect, and she shot back, "I can do it better." Oh Elaine, we miss you.