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Broadway Bound

Episode 51

THE STING

Shubert Alley
Saturday Morning, January 16, 1999

Just one short year ago . . .

"Where are we going?"

Bring your tall latte - yes, in a cardboard cup, if you must - and come stand with me in Shubert Alley. What? Yes, that's who you think it is, dressed in fake fur and five minutes late for rehearsal at the Plymouth. Don't ask her for an autograph now. Time for that later. Now we are here to watch the tourists. Yes, tourists. You'll see what I mean in a minute. Give them time to waste a roll of film on Duffy Square and realize the Tkts booth isn't open yet. Of course it's cold. It's January. Here they come now. No, I don't know why they travel in packs. Yes, they are dressed funny. (Perhaps plaid is the epitome of sophistication in Omaha. But is it really any more bizarre than head to toe black?) Watch for the ones who break away from the group. That one. And there's another. These two have just realized where they are. They hold back as the rest of their group crowds into One Shubert Alley, eager to buy tchotchkes. (No, I intend to die without ever owning a Phantom refrigerator magnet.) Keep your eye on these two young people standing quietly in the alley, taking in the atmosphere, as if they were in church. The girl is staring at Sardi's. She knows about the orange walls and the portraits. She has seen the movies and read the books, and has talked her parents into taking her there for lunch today. That lunch will be a disappointment, for she dreams of catching sight of powerful and famous people - she wants to be one of them - but is unaware of the upstairs dining room. Do you think she will ever learn what happens on the upper floors of that building? The boy is mesmerized by the show posters on the east wall of the Shubert's flagship theater. Like someone slowly wandering through a gallery at the Met, absorbing the beauty of great paintings, he stands before each in turn. The saturated colors must hurt his eyes in this bright morning sunlight. He dreams of his name on one of these posters, above the title of a Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber musical. Sadly, no matter how talented or dedicated or lucky he proves to be, contract negotiations, billing practices, and even Equity rules will conspire to see this small detail of his dream will never come true. Why have I brought you here today? To see the future of Broadway. This young girl has the talent and vision to outshine Julie Taymor and Hal Prince. This boy, after his face clears up and he learns how to walk across a stage without bumping into the set, will make his name by playing Cuccioli's role in the revival of Jekyll & Hyde. You're smiling? It's impossible? My friend, we are on Broadway. Impossible things are happening every day. What this boy and girl share with all the other young hopefuls is more than a dream. It is a painful mental and physical longing which draws them from all parts of the country to New York. It is the knowledge, terrifying in its certainty at such an early age, that to fill the void and become whole, they must pursue a career in the Theater. Some, the lucky ones, will make it. Would you please stop giggling? Yes, I am aware that speech is hackneyed, having been used in some version in every movie and play about Broadway for the last 60 years. But it touched something, a memory, deep inside you, didn't it? Trite as it is, that speech still holds a kernel of truth. Unfortunately, the overly romantic implied concept of what it takes to make it on Broadway is all that most people have to work with. Is it any wonder that most aspiring actors, writers, composers, lyricists, and producers don't stand a chance? At least not until someone knocks all those stupid myths out of their silly little heads and explains how things really work.

"Where are we going?"

We're here. Shubert Alley.

"I mean for lunch?"

I've booked a table at Sardi's. However, we've got a little while. Let's enjoy the sunshine for a few minutes.

"So, are you going to tell me where you've been hiding for the last couple of weeks?"

I haven't been hiding anywhere. I've been working at my apartment on details and paperwork for the museum and revising the paperwork and budgets for Neverland and the new theatre.

"You never answered the phone. I've been trying to get in touch with you a dozen times a day."

Why?

"Well, for one thing, we've lost Jonathan Frank."

Pimpernel?

"Hollywood."

Movies?

"Television. They offered him a series."

Pity. What's it about? Do they have a storyline yet?

"He plays an angel who returns to earth as a has-been Vegas lounge singer and lawyer, who, when he's not performing, rescues couples who have been tricked into drunken, loveless marriages by an evil Elvis impersonator - played by Nathan Lane - who's running a quickie divorce racket on the side. He gets to drive around Vegas a lot, in his classic ‘62 flamingo pink Cadillac convertible, with his trusty sidekick, an 800 pound albino tiger named ‘Sweetiepie' - played by Judi Dench - riding gunshot."

Sounds like a winner. What else?

"Robin has disappeared again."

She has a talent for it. What happened?

"When I went back to your apartment for her New Year's eve, and she told me about you being her father and everything . . . well, she didn't want to stay at your place. I offered to let her stay at my place until she could decide what she wanted to do. But, the next night, when I got home after talking to you at The Lighthouse, she was gone."

Yes, I figured she would be at your place. She's probably back on the ranch in New Mexico.

"Do you have a phone number? I'm worried about her."

I'm sure she's fine.

"The police came around a couple of days later."

The police? Asking about Robin?

"Yep. I guess someone had seen her and reported it."

Did . . . did you tell them she'd been staying with you?

"I wanted to. But, I got to thinking that then they would want to know why I hadn't reported that she was back, and . . . well, it seemed easier not to say anything."

Good. Did they buy that she hadn't been there?

"Yes."

Excellent!

"At least for about a week."

What do you mean?

"The same detective that was asking about Robin showed up again. Are you all right? You look pale, like you're not feeling well."

It's just the cold. What did the detective want?

"I thought he had more questions about Robin. But this time - "

Then the visit wasn't about Robin?

"No."

I see.

"This time he wanted to ask about Bob."

Bob Fosse?

"Yes. He's dead."

I'm sorry to hear that.

"Remember that guy dressed like Peter Pan they found hanging behind that big sign in Times Square on January first? That was Bob."

I'm sorry. I know the two of you were friends.

"Good friends. Anyway, the detective said it was murder. He said that in the struggle Bob had ripped the coat of whoever murdered him. The police put out the word they were looking for a damaged black wool coat. When I went to buy a new coat - to replace the one you accidentally had ripped New Year's eve - I was wearing the old one, and the clerk put two and two together and reported my name and address to the police. The detective wanted to know if I still had the damaged coat so they could compare the cloth to fibers found under Bob's fingernails."

Did you give it to them?

"Are you sure you're feeling okay?"

Yes. Damnit, did you give it to them?

"I told them I'd thrown it away."

They believed you?

"Yes. When they showed me Bob's picture, I didn't even let on I knew who he was."

Thank you.

"That's why I was so glad to get your message to meet you here today. I wanted to hear what you had to say about all this - before I go back to talk to that detective again."

What?

"It's the funniest thing; I thought I had thrown that old coat away, but when I opened the closet, there it was!"

No! You can't!

"I can and I will. You murdered Bob that night, didn't you? That was why you couldn't make Jonathan's opening, wasn't it?"

Don't be foolish! You don't understand!

"I think I understand all too well. Did you murder Bob?"

No.

"So you have no objections to my giving the coat to the police?"

Yes. Damn you! But, it wasn't murder. He fell . . . we were arguing and he fell. It was an accident. You've got to believe me.

"I do."

Then . . . you won't give the police the coat?

"First, tell me about what happened to Robin."

You said yourself she disappeared. She's probably back in New Mexico and -

"Shut up! When the detective came back to ask about Bob, he also told me that they were closing Robin's case. It seems they found her body down in the village. She had been shot at close range with a small caliber pistol. They estimate her time of death at somewhere in the early hours of the morning, the second of January. There was no sign of a struggle at my apartment. I'm guessing that you figured out where she was and got to her at my apartment before I got home that morning. If you said the right things, she would have left with you, to . . . what? Go out for a cup of coffee? You murdered Robin, didn't you? You murdered your own daughter. Or, was that an accident too?"

You . . . fool. You . . . stupid . . . little . . . fool. You realize, of course, that now I can't let you live either. You'd just start talking, wouldn't you?

"Say it. You murdered Robin, didn't you?"

Yes. Yes, I shot Robin and yes, I pushed that idiot Fosse and, yes, now it's your turn. I'm not going to take what I'm holding in my hand out of my coat pocket for you to see. You'll just have to accept the fact that it's a loaded gun.

"The same one you shot Robin with?"

As a matter of fact, yes. No, turn around and start walking. We're going back to your apartment, where you, for some unknown reason probably having to do with the death of Robin and Fosse, are going to commit suicide. I'm going to be sorry to see you go. You were a good partner.

"Okay, guys. I hope you got that on tape. I don't think I'm gonna get another chance. I could sure use a little help right about now, if you're listening."

What are you babbling about? Move!

"Guys? I think he really has a gun. You can come out now."

Who are you talking to?

"The police. If everything worked right, this whole conversation is on tape. See, the microphone. And, it looks like it worked - here come the cops! Looks like your time is up."

Not quite, my foolish young friend. I still have time to pull the trigger . . .

How in four years Nazimova went from being an unknown actress who spoke no English to an American star for whom the Shuberts named a theater is an amazing tale, and Gavin Lambert, in Nazimova, a gracefully written, highly entertaining, surprisingly poignant biography, makes the most of it.

All but forgotten today, Alla Nazimova (1879 - 1945) was one of the most powerful actresses on Broadway and in silent-era Hollywood, able to name her terms and maintain artistic control of her films. Lambert handles a melodramatic life full of violence, scandal, and the kind of sudden reversals of fortune that would have killed lesser talents with considerable aplomb, and Nazimova's sexual orientation with even greater composure, without a hint of Hollywood Babylonish sensationalism. Incidentally noteworthy are the fascinating portraits Lambert provides of the Moscow Art Theater in its first years, of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, and of the American theater during the fervent years of the Depression.

Born Adelaida Leventon, she hated her brutal father and adored her mother, who vanished when she was five. After years of paternal beatings and ridicule, young Alla found liberation as an acting student at Moscow's Philharmonic School, then as a minor player at the Moscow Art Theatre during its first season (1898 - 99). Nazimova moved up to co-starring roles on tour in the Russian provinces with her lover, the brilliant but alcoholic actor Pavel Orlenev. When they played a Russian language season in New York in 1905, critics lavishly praised her emotional power in Chekhov, Ibsen, and Gorky. Her 1906 English-speaking debut, Hedda Gabler, and subsequent successes in A Doll's House and The Master Builder, remain legendary among theater people. But in 1917 Nazimova went to Hollywood (for $13,000 a week) and spent a decade making movies that capitalized on her "exotic" qualities. It was during those years that her bisexuality tilted toward lesbianism. Lambert paints a juicy portrait of Tinseltown's sexual underground, with its marriages of convenience, and depicts with sympathy Nazimova's relationships with various "proteges." He continues with her triumphant return to the stage in 1928 in The Cherry Orchard, and her work at the Theatre Guild in A Month in the Country (1930) and O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).

Actress Alla Nazimova rode unto Broadway from the East, bearing lightning bolts. Her experience in the legendary Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavsky made her a goddess in the eyes of the first generation of fully professional American actors. (Nazimova's acting was considered by contemporaries a revolutionary brew of powerful emotion given direction by sharp intelligence and profound understanding of the classic modern drama texts.) Lambert's remarkable feat of theatrical history recaptures the puissant mystique of Nazimova (true believers knew her only by that name, and rolled it off their tongues like an incantation). She introduced many of the primary Ibsen and Chekhov roles to America, introducing in the process a new standard of realistic performance that swept away the wildly melodramatic style of the late 19th century. Nazimova's choice of roles and standards of performance have become so encoded in the DNA of new actresses that they all strive to be Nazimova - whether or not they even know who Nazimova was. Thanks to Lambert, they can again.

Nazimova: A Biography
by Gavin Lambert
List Price $32.50
Knopf
ISBN 0679407219


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