by Andrew Barrett
The house lights dim. The orchestra begins the first four memorable chords of the overture to My Fair Lady. In the audience a young boy wonders if he is about to see a movie. When the lights reveal a live actor moving behind a scrim, and then the flower stand at Covent Garden - suddenly this young boy's life is never the same. For so many men and women, there is a moment just like this that defines their life as "Before Theater" and "After Theater". For me, it was Sandy Duncan flying over my head in Peter Pan at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. For Peter Filichia, theater journalist and critic of the Newark Star Ledger and the website Theatre.com, his "Before Theater" became "After Theater" when his mother graciously took him from their home in Boston, MA to New York City to see My Fair Lady.
Peter recalls, "I played the record of My Fair Lady so much that my mother said, 'Well this year we will go to New York and we will see it.' In those days movies opened in New York much sooner than they did in Boston. So the point is, the day I went to see My Fair Lady I thought I was going to see a movie. I didn't know they did this. No one ever told me. My parents never went to the theater. School plays we had, but that's what you do in school. I remember the night before we left for New York; Trevor Howard was on "The Jack Parr Show" talking about how he was making a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty - this is important because when we got to the Mark Hellinger Theater and I saw 'Michael Allinson and Margot Moser in My Fair Lady' I was confused. I thought, 'Where are Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews?' I figured it out because Trevor Howard was remaking 'Mutiny on the Bounty - this was already the remake of My Fair Lady! New York is so far ahead of Boston, so far ahead that they already have the new and improved remake of My Fair Lady. So I went in expecting a movie.
"It was not until I actually got seated and I heard an orchestra tuning, and I read in the program 'Understudies do not substitute unless ... '. I turned to the woman next to me - it was a Wednesday matinee and I was going to ask her, 'Are there actually going to be people up there?' I thought, 'This woman is going to think I'm a moron.' I was used to the fact that I had to be in a specific seat. Big movies in Boston, - Cinerama movies, you had to have a specific seat. So that did not surprise me. And then there was a power failure. I thought, 'Oh, god, we're all going to be given our money back.' It was the house lights dimming! I thought it was a power failure. And the overture started. The curtain went up and there was a scrim. It looked like a big movie screen. My heart sank and I thought, 'You damn fool- how could you ever expect, for a tenth of a second, that there really would be people up there?' And then a guy is lit from behind the scrim and he starts to move ... and that was the beginning. With a start like that how could I not be the person I turned out to be?"
So who is Peter Filichia? Who is this man who encourages readers to cross the waters and see quality theater in New Jersey? Who is this man who ventures every year to The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to meet with and encourage the young talent about to brave New York? Who is this divorced man with a son, Jason, and a girlfriend for 23 years, Linda Konner, who loves Baseball as much as he loves theater? Who is this man who is as old as the Tony Awards (he was born exactly nine months after World War Two ended)? In 1994 I met Peter for lunch in a Chinese restaurant as he was about to interview me for a TheaterWeek (the now defunct theater magazine) article. We have been friends ever since. So one Saturday afternoon in February of 2001, we meet again for lunch and it gives me great pleasure to introduce him to you now, in his own words.
In musical theater terms Peter describes himself as follows, "If I could be any character in a musical I would like it to be Bill Stimpson from Me and My Girl. He's a guy, who once he gets wealthy, doesn't change all. He's still a very nice person and he shows his love for his woman no matter what. It would be very easy for him to drop her and he doesn't. At the moment I am, as Sky Masterson says, 'Healthier than I've ever been.' So as a result, nothing has changed - paying off my mortgage, stuff like that. It would be easy for a lot of people to change as time goes on and I've tried to be the same old guy for a long, long time."
I ask Peter who he thinks should play him in the musical version of his life. He is left speechless. Eventually he confesses, "The best performances I have seen, in this order, were William Daniels in 1776, Robert Lindsey in Me and My Girl, and Zero Mostel in Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Any one of those three is fine by me. And I see parts of me in all three of those guys."
It is this kind of "nice guy" style that got Peter the job as theater critic for The Newark Star Ledger. During his years at TheaterWeek magazine, Peter found himself praising the quality at theatres like Paper Mill Playhouse, The McCarter, and The George Street Theater. The Editor of the Star Ledger wanted the arts in New Jersey to thrive and this lead them to Peter. Humbly, Peter gives great thanks to Michael Sommers, who had the job before him, for making the recommendation. "God bless Michael Sommers. I really feel I'm doing good work there in the sense that, it would be so easy to do, as so many critics do, 'Oh, it's not NY.' But, you know, the talent pool is so good now and there are only so many Broadway shows. A lot of good people cross the river. I believe something that The New York Yankees used to use as their big ad campaign, 'At any moment, a great moment!' Meaning, it could be 9-0 at the bottom of the 9th and you might see a catch unlike any you have ever seen before.
"I have long learned that I can have experiences out of town that are just so amazing. I first realized that when I went to Providence, RI, in 1967 to see The Grass Harp which, lord knows, has its problems as a musical, but boy was it directed with energy and style and gusto by a guy named Adrian Hall. And that was what really opened it up to me. Once that happened to me I started to go to any regional theater I could find. Within weeks I was at Long Wharf, Center Stage, Arena Stage - any place my car would take me."
Though Peter chooses to fly to Ohio, his highly anticipated trip to meet with the students at The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music is a great example of his continuing faith and love of the musical theater. Peter explains, "Well to be frank, the guy who runs the program, Aubrey Burg, is truly a musical theater genius. Every time I go there I know I'm going to see something better than the original Broadway production. And the kids out there are amazing. They're very bright, so interested in musical theater. The level of talent is amazing. I will never forget seeing this girl in 'Oklahoma' and I couldn't wait to get to the talk back session afterwards- who is the girl with blue ribbon in her hair- and the girl was astonished anyone would notice her. Since that kid got out of school she has worked steadily- her name is Sarah Gettelfinger (currently in Seussical). And frankly, I think Aubrey will tell you this, he's very demanding, very tough because it's a tough business. I don't mean he abuses them, but he is tough on them. So it is wonderful to get someone out of the blue to say, 'You kids are sensational'. And they truly are."
The first time anyone ever recognized Peter's writing as sensational was when he was penning reviews for a Boston magazine called Boston After Dark. He boasts, "When I was studying at U-Mass in Boston to be a teacher I ran into a kid whom I had known in high school who said to me, 'I just became editor of the school newspaper (The Sentinel). Why don't you write reviews of plays?' So my very first review was of that musical I had seen the previous week in New York, Hair. And then there was a newspaper called Boston After Dark and I went to them and I said, 'Listen, I'd love to review.' And they said, 'Okay'. I wrote the first review for Butterflies Are Free while it was out of town - raving. They gave me that because they had heard it was about a blind boy who fell in love. They said, 'Send Filichia.' I remember driving down from the cape and adoring it. I went back and wrote this rave and they said, 'Oh Christ, what did we hire? This guy likes a play about a blind boy!' And then Arthur Whitelaw, the producer, called me out of the blue, saying, 'Thank you so much! We're raising money with that review. We're going to Broadway!' And two months later they did. And I was vindicated. So I knew I was doing all right."