Rex...or Turkey Supreme
The advance word in New York brought the smell of turkey to my nose. I was off to the box office immediately for this one. Richard Rogers picked Sheldon Harnick as his lyricist and the direction was credited to Edwin Sherin. Sherin's only Broadway experience was that he had been recently fired as the director of Seesaw. In Boston, Harold Prince was called in to take over, yet the Playbill listed Sherin, and not Prince.
In the cast was the tempermental Nicol Williamson as Henry VIII, Penny Fuller as Princess Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, Glenn Close as Princess Mary and a special mention to Jim Litten in the chorus. More on him later.
Rosalie Joesph and I had orchestra seats and sat through act one. When it came time for intermission, we went out front for a smoke and to become instant critics. I say, "my God, isn't this the worse thing you have ever seen?" "It's so heavy, who the hell is who? I can't keep up with the wives." "The set stinks, the choreography is awful, the acting is non-existant, I am so glad we came." Rosalie laughed at my critiques. I mean, everyones a critic right. And ol' V.J. would certainly never be a phony, or would he?
Out of the blue, a voice, "John Dahling!" Rosalie says, "It's Joe Vispi!"
Joe Vispi was from Kingston, Pa. and he owned a very elegant theatre bar called Vispi's. It rivaled any bar in the county. It was lavish with no expense spared with a gorgeous bar, and banquettes for seating. It was like an elegant living room. Broadway music was always on the speaker system. And, he made every single customer feel like family. At Christmas time, because of space limitations, Christmas trees were hung from the ceiling upside down. Anyone, and everyone connected with theatre went to Vispi's. He was also a big cheese at the Kenley Players, the largest summer stock theatre circuit in America. Actors of the highest calibre played this Staw Hat operation in Ohio during the summer months. Auditions were held in New York each Spring for this coveted acting job.
Joe was, in a word, elegant. Everything about him was elegance, even his radiantly beautiful wife, Anne. He dressed impecably, and spoke eloquently with a host of superlatives. He was a very unique person, some said phony, but he was the real thing. In short, Joe Vispi was theatrical!
I spun around, "Joe! What a perfectly marvelous surprise! (kiss, kiss) You remember Rosalie? Don't you?" "Dahling Rosalie, of course, Wilkes-Barre's own Fanny Brice! It's simply a pleasure to see you both. What do you think of the show?" Before I could say a word, Joe cut me off with "isn't it wonderful? It's exactly what Broadway needs right now. Oh, the music is fabulous. The sets! It's just incredible, what do you think?" Rosalie nudged me to speak. "Well, well...(pause) yes, it's, it's (thoughts of summer stock racing through my brain) it's quite entertaining. I, uh, I love it! You're right, it's exactly what Broadway needs!"
We chatted about theatre and what's happening in Ohio, auditions and other small talk. The house lights dimmed. As I sat down, Rosalie poked me. "You are the biggest phony I know!" The second half of Rex was half as good as the first half. Seems like ol' Henry went through two wives during intermission. The sword dance was meant to be a skilled piece of dance with 6 dancers doing dangerously exotic moves with the swords. It had me in stitches. It was just so, so, so bad.
It was certainly an interesting evening in the theatre! And, Rex closed in six weeks after 49 performances. It had opened on April 25, 1976 at the Lunt-Fontanne and is now known as one of the biggest turkeys to hit Broadway. Years later, I smelled turkey again with Carrie, but that's another story.
Rex made history in another way too. On May 13th, at the curtain call, Nicol Williamson slapped dancer Jim Litten. As I recall, he smacked him across the bottom with the flat side of a sword. Williamson claims to have heard Litten say during the bows, "That was crap." Litten says he said "That's a wrap." Littens rump was sore for weeks!
I never regretted seeing Rex. There is something perverse about the desire to say "I saw Moose Murders", or "I saw Carrie" or "Frankenstein" or "Marilyn", but I saw em all and loved every minute of them!
To me, it's Turkey Supreme!