Friends and Colleagues Remember Producer Ted Mann at Broadway Memorial
By Robert Simonson
There was never any question where the May 1 memorial for late theatre producer-director Theodore Mann would be held. Of course it would be at Circle in the Square, the Broadway theatre named for the famed Off-Broadway theatre company he co-founded in 1951. He and his collaborators changed the course of American theatre history.
Several of the colleagues, friends and family members who spoke from the famous in-the-round Broadway stage (where Godspell is playing) commented on the enormous contributions made by Mann, who died on Feb. 24 at the age of 87, and is regarded as one of the fathers of the Off-Broadway movement.
"At Columbia University, when I went, you couldn't say the name Eugene O'Neill," remembered playwright Terrence McNally. "He was over and done with. And you couldn't read him. He was out of print. Ted mattered. He made a difference."
McNally was referring to the great number of lauded productions of O'Neill plays Mann staged with his Circle in the Square co-founder, director Jose Quintero — including a 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh which did much to revive the reputation of the playwright, and the original staging of Long Day's Journey Into Night. As a young man, James Earl Jones saw Iceman, which made a star out of Jason Robards, Jr. "It was the first Off-Broadway play I saw," Jones recalled. "Jason was amazing." Seventeen years later, Mann asked Jones to play traveling salesman Hickey in a Circle in the Square Broadway production. "When he asked me, I said, 'I couldn't do that! I saw Jason. How could I ever do that? Besides, I'm the wrong color for that part. Hickey is a Hoosier. Hoosiers don't look like me. They look like Jason.' But Ted just said, 'Well, just do it because I asked you.'" Jones thanked Mann "for a part I never would have been thought of for, and never would have thought to approach otherwise."
Actor Robert Klein remembered meeting Mann while still a student at Yale University. He had taken a summer job acting in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of My Fair Lady at Mount Holyoke College. "Everyone was whispering, 'Do you know? They got Theodore Mann to direct this show? Theodore Mann is coming. Theodore Mann!' Well, he showed up and I looked at him. I thought he was a bookie! I thought he could take me!"
Klein confided in Mann at the time that he was unsatisfied with the education at Yale. "He said, 'Leave! You should be working. Leave!' He gave me the courage to do what I had been thinking, but dare not act on." When Klein moved to New York, Mann gave him his first acting job.
Later on, Klein acted in Morning, Noon and Night, an ill-fated trio of one-acts by Terrence McNally, Israel Horovitz and Leonard Melfi, which ran a few weeks in 1968 and was directed by Mann. The production was plagued by comic mishaps. Klein recalled an angry Horovitz getting into a fistfight with Mann. And at one point, star Charlotte Rae fell ill and couldn't perform. There were no understudies. So Mann turned to his wife, Patricia Brooks, an actress and leading lyric coloratura soprano for New York City Opera. Brooks remonstrated, but eventually relented, playing the part with book in hand. She expressed her displeasure by appearing under a choice pseudonym: Virginia Cuntsworth.
"There were a lot of blue words in the script," joked McNally, "but I don't know how we got away with that one."
Mann's close relationship with Brooks, who predeceased him, and the rest of his family, was mentioned by several. "He was a real family man, and a real theatre man," said McNally. "He got his priorities right."
Mann produced McNally's first Broadway play, a flop called Things That Go Bump in the Night. The reviews were awful, and McNally expected it would close after one performance. "Then I got a call from Ted. He said, 'Here's what we're going to do. We came in under-budget. I think if we charge only one dollar for weekday shows and two dollars on Friday and Sunday, we can run three weeks.' I said, 'Who will come?' He said, 'Well, it's an experiment.'" People did come. "If he hadn't done that," said McNally, "I don't think I would have written another play. I think he knew that having a play run one night for a young playwright would have been a death knell."
Klein also read letters from Al Pacino, who acted at Circle in the Square many times, and Campbell Scott, whose parents, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, were stalwarts are Mann's theatre. "He was that man who is so rare," wrote Pacino. "He was totally devoted to theatre, and at the same time could make it happen… He just kept the ball spinning. He did something I find profound. He kept learning."
"There were certain people that my parents spoke of in a certain tone," remembered Scott. "This tone was reserved for people they truly respected. Usually they were certain producers. Robert Whitehead, certainly. Joe Papp. And Ted Mann."
Nick Wyman, president at Actors' Equity Association, joked that Mann "looked like a gangster. But he had the soul of a poet under a rough exterior. A lot of us come to New York with a love of the theatre. But we get over it! Ted didn't." At Circle, Mann produced classics by O'Neill, Miller, Williams, Shaw, Moliere, and others, giving those playwrights a living presence in the theatre. "For decades — back when Lincoln Center was still flouncing; when Manhattan Theatre Club was just a blip on the Upper East Side; when the Roundabout Theatre Company was bargaining to get into the basement of a grocery store — there was Circle in the Square, creating great theatre. For decades. Ted kept that dream alive."
Last to speak was Paul Libin, Mann's partner in running Circle in the Square for decades. "He was the last of the Mohicans," Libin said of his longtime friend and colleague.
The memorial ended with a film of Mann speaking at his induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2009, followed by a recording of Brooks singing an aria.
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