The Brits on Broadway: Daniel Massey waxed lyrical about American actors, Stephanie Beacham praised the regional theatres, and Nicky Henson blasted backstage conditions. These were the main topics of discussion among five British performers, gathered for the Drama Desk's first seasonal luncheon, Dec. 5, at the Roundabout Theatre's second floor cafe.
Seated in front of the room's large, cheery windows were Michael Gambon, currently starring in Skylight, Daniel Massey, the Wilhelm Furtwangler of Taking Sides, and Stephanie Beacham, Kim Hunter and Nicky Henson, all of An Ideal Husband.
The afternoon's first question was the obvious one: are American audiences different from the British? Michael Gambon answered that they're essentially the same, except that geographical references in Skylight no longer get the laughs they received on the other side of the Channel. He also said that during the first six weeks of Skylight's run in New York, the audience was extraordinary -- more responsive than in London, and that they listened with "a velvety quiet." He does feel that's no longer the case, because the audience has shifted more towards "the bridge and tunnel crowd."
Nicky Henson, starring as Lord Goring in Ideal Husband, said that his experience was dramatic and abrupt. "I was playing the show in London on a Wednesday night, then, on the following Monday, I was in America, playing the same show with an entirely different cast in an entirely different place." Henson did say that American audiences were much quicker and brighter than their London counterparts.
Daniel Massey, head shorn, eyes bulging and looking like a thin but intense Uncle Fester, told the Drama Desk members in attendance that he loved the London production of the show, and that the New York staging may be totally different but is still wonderful. Why different? "I feel my character is more pre-judged here. New York is a Jewish city, so they come in expecting to tear Furtwangler down for being a Nazi sympathizer. It wasn't so clear-cut in London. Americans aren't used to living under those situations, or used to having to make compromises yet resist in other ways. And they just don't respond to the devastation, or the fear of an occupying force. Meanwhile Ed [Harris] is sensational, but he's like Babe Ruth going to bat for America. It's so weighted here." One critic, indeed, was ready to challenge Massey's impassioned defense of the controversial conductor, noting that in the late 1930's, Furtwangler was offered the top slot at the New York Philharmonic -- which he turned down (an issue side-stepped by Ronald Harwood's drama). Massey replied that you can't make a condemning judgment without all the facts. "You want me to say Furtwangler was evil, that he should have taken the job? It's impossible to say without knowing more. For how long would the engagement have been? A year? Two years? What were the other conditions. No, Furtwangler didn't go, and that was his tragedy."
Tragic was also the word to describe backstage conditions at the Broadway theatres. "The backstage is a slum!" Massey railed. "It's appalling, and to subject actors to these conditions . . ."
Nicky Henson, starring as Lord Goring in Ideal Husband, agreed: "The backstage areas in New York are not as well-kept as they are in London, which shocked me."
Co-moderator Leslie (Hoban) Blake, of Theatre Week and Encore magazines, brought up the next trans-Atlantic question: the difference between American and British Equity actors' unions.
Stephanie Beacham, best known for her television work in American soaps ("The Colbys"), surprised the crowd by saying that it was UK Equity that started the punishingly restrictive rules for bringing English actors to American stages and vice versa. Henson added, "There was a point in the late 1950's when you couldn't walk down Broadway without seeing show after British show. That's no longer the case."
Massey had been under the impression that American Actors' Equity was behind Broadway's inability to bring an entirely British cast to its stages. "I remember when lots of London shows were here, and all these Broadway and American actors marched in protest. Both organizations are retrenching constantly and it's a disaster. There must be a flow back and forth. We must bring English companies to America, and New York companies to Britain. Let them stay and learn, and then start incorporating local actors."
Henson said that would be improbable as there are 47,000 members of Equity in the UK, "and 50,000 Actors Equity members in New York alone."
Kim Hunter, best known as Stella in the Broadway and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and now playing Lady Markby in Husband, noted that Canadian Equity behaves the same way about its territoriality. "They protect their own."
"Is it easier to get a new British play on Broadway than an American play, because of snob appeal?" asked David Sheward, President of the Drama Desk.
"The situation is different in London," Henson replied. "We have millionnaire playwrights -- Ayckbourn, Pinter -- which you don't really have in America. There's a breed of English dramatists who make a good living in the theatre. Then again, unlike America, there's no money in TV, and we don't make movies anymore."
"What's worse," continued Massey, "is that repertory doesn't exist in this country anymore. Where you can do two Shakespeares and another play in the same week."
Stephanie Beacham did counter that America cares more about its regional theatres than Great Britain does. "We [the UK] really don't have those kinds of professional local companies across the country."
When another critic reminded the assembled that New York boasts a number of repertory companies, including Jean Cocteau Rep and Repertorio Espanol, Massey seemed heartened but added, "Culture here is a luxury, but in Europe it's a necessity, it's like food. Which, of course, has to do with subsidies; those are tremendously important, and both countries are suffering terribly. Margaret Thatcher is the blight of the century."
"Well, Ronald Reagan killed the arts in this country," Hunter bitterly added. Both statements were met with hearty applause -- a sign that in some ways, at least, Americans and Brits are very much in the same boat.
-- By David Lefkowitz