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Broadway 101


"A Bright Golden Haze"
1940 - 1950

Part Four

The 1945-46 season had other treats as well. Laurette Taylor returned to the stage as the mother in Tennessee Williams', The Glass Menagerie. Julie Haydon shone as Laura. Theater critic, George Jean Nathan, living up to his reputation, is said to have sent Miss Taylor a bottle of Scotch as an opening night gift. Miss Taylor had withdrawn into an alcoholic seclusion after the death of her husband some years before. Miss Taylor replied with a thank you note for Nathan's "confidence and support". As it turns out, Taylor, …Menagerie, and Williams were simultaneously acclaimed.

Anna Lucasta, about a waterfront prostitute opened in August for a very successful run of over 950 performances. The play with an all Black cast headed by Hilda Simms and Earle Hyman will be filmed in 1958, starring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. Song of Norway, a biographic play of Edvard Grieg and featuring Grieg's music was also a successful production of this season, logging 860 performances.

Beside their phenomenal successes, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein were also producing I Remember Mama, and will soon acquire Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley. And Mr. and Mrs. Al Hirshfeld announced the birth of their daughter Nina in October. Jerome Kern died in November just weeks before the opening of the 1946 revival of Showboat.

For whatever reason, there was a sharp increase in demand for shows and movies as a source of entertainment. In the spring of 1945, with a recognized shortage of available theaters, the list of running plays for which the agencies could not obtain tickets included Harvey, I Remember Mama (in which Marlon Brando made his acting debut in the role of Nels), A Bell for Adano, The Late George Apley, Song of Norway, On the Town, Dear Ruth, Bloomer Girl, Up in the Park, and Oklahoma!. In spite of this desire for more productions, the number of plays on Broadway decreased. One reason is the finances involved. A fair estimation of production costs for a full-scale production during this time is between $165,000. and $300,000. The competitive return of a theater's movie rental was much higher than the corresponding return of a fully mounted stage production, and a large number of theaters continued the transition from stage to screening houses. Rising to a post- depression high of 97 productions in the 1943- 44 season, the number of productions began to decrease through the rest of the decade to a low of 57 in the 1949-50 season.

The 1946 season saw the Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman, and Judy Holliday gave her break-through performance as the (not so) "dumb blonde" in Garson Kanin's comedy, Born Yesterday. Miss Holliday had replaced Jean Arthur who left the show in New Haven due to illness. Rodgers and Hammerstein had originally contracted Jerome Kern to write the score for Annie…, but his untimely death from a stroke sent them to Irving Berlin.

Ossie Davis will make his Broadway debut in the play, Jeb. The play deals with the return and adjustment of a Black serviceman. Co-starring as his girlfriend was Miss Ruby Dee. The match has become a life long collaboration. Another Black production from 1946, is St. Louis Woman, by Howard Arlen and Johnny Mercer with a stellar cast that included Juanita Hall, Rex Ingram, Pearl Bailey, Ruby Hill and the Nicholas Brothers. The show was almost a "No Show" when members of the cast objected to the inclusion of demeaning stereotypes in the script. Director, Rouben Mamoulian and Miss Bailey manage to calm the cast and salvage the show which has given us the classic, "Come Rain or Come Shine".

Antoinette Perry, who had worked so tirelessly for the American Theater Wing died on June 28th, 1946, just weeks before the Wing began its professional training program. Students in that first class included Tony Randall, Pat Hingle, and Charlton Heston who studied their art under Alfred Lunt, Eva LeGallienne, Martha Graham, Jose Ferrer and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ferrer, who was to give what critics called the definitive performance in Cyrano de Bergerac in that same year, also took up the cause for an end to racism in the theater. In an article for Variety he stated that Black actors had virtually no chance of obtaining major roles, but foresaw a future where that was not the case. To encourage that change he vowed never again to appear in a theater that segregated the audience, and called for his colleagues to do the same.

In April of 1947, the first of a new collection of awards were given out by the American Theater Wing at the Waldorf Astoria for "outstanding contributions" to the theater. Among the recipients of these first twenty awards was Jose Ferrer along with Ingrid Bergman, Agnes DeMille, Helen Hayes, Arthur Miller, Patricia Neal, Kurt Weill, Elia Kazan, and Fredric March. The new awards were called "Tonys" after Antoinette Perry. The awards were presented at a dinner party attended by more than one thousand devotees, and top ticket for the evening was $7.50.

After the success of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams had a second smash hit with A Streetcar Named Desire. Opening in December of 1948, Streetcar… starred Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanche, with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden completing the cast. This was also the month that saw the production of The Lamp at Midnight by Barrie Stavis, in a small new theater on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village; the first of a number of small theaters that collectively will become "Off Broadway". The theater will eventually become the home of Circle in the Square.

Post war drama based on war-time experiences was well represented by the end of the decade. Arthur Miller's All My Sons starring Ed Begley and Arthur Kennedy, Mister Roberts starring Henry Fonda and David Wayne, and Command Decision starring Paul Kelly are examples of the genre, and all will eventually be filmed for a larger audience. The most telling show of the genre was Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific which opened in April of 1949. Following their one disaster as musical collaborators (the musical Allegroin 1947) with this musical version of James Michener's, Tales from the South Pacific, the pair re-polished their image as the reigning kings of Musical Theater. Not the easiest task, since they are getting strong competition from duos like Lerner and Lowe Brigadoon and Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's Finian's Rainbow and the popular Kiss Me Kate.

Not all of the Broadway news for the 1940's is positive. Because of the political atmosphere of the 1920's –30's and the assumptions of the social responsibilities of the Roosevelt policies under the New Deal, Congressional conservatives rallied behind Congressman Martin Dies of Texas and set up a "temporary" committee to investigate the "extent, character, and object of un-American propaganda" in the United States in 1938. This House of Un-American Activities Committee gained permanent status in 1945. Though it is generally known for the havoc it created in Hollywood, it also did considerable damage to the theater.

Actors and writers were among the first to publicly demonstrate for social change, be it unionization or sexual and racial equality. Theater was a very vocal platform for the inequalities of the class structure. As a result, theater was also one of the first institutions to be scrutinized. A classic example of the type of investigation to which these people were subject is the FBI dossier of Lillian Hellman which was begun in 1938. It includes such "facts" as that she spoke to rally support for the American volunteers to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War in 1938. In the same year she added her name to a list with 36 other writers encouraging Roosevelt to ban importation of German made goods into the United States. She was a sponsor of a suspect organization known as the League of Women Shoppers and attended a testimonial dinner for Theodore Dreiser. She, along with Dashiel Hammett, her companion, composer Marc Blitzstein, playwright and director Clifford Odets, and writer Richard Wright, were noted to be "extremely close to the Communist party in recent years".

While on a flight to visit Dash Hammett in Alaska where he was serving in the army, Miss Hellman's luggage was searched and the books she was carrying (The Little Oxford Dictionary, and H. W. Fowler's The King's English) were noted in her dossier. Hellman's works, Watch on the Rhine, Little Foxes, and The Searching Wind were also scrutinized, and it was observed in the dossier that Watch in the Rhine was reported to have "great social significance" and had received an "extremely favorable review" from The Daily Worker. There was even a reference to Miss Hellman as a sponsor of a group in Greenwich Village that had turned the stage into "a social weapon". She, along with Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway were condemned for participating in the film The Spanish Earth which served to raise money for the Spanish Loyalists.

Hellman wasn't called to testify before the Eisenhower Era when the Committee was chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1950-54), but when we get to the roll-call of those subpoenaed, those whose careers were jeopardized, victimized or destroyed, we must remember that the foundations for the subpoenas were laid during one of the most fruitful eras in Theater, and often the crime was social conscience.

Coming Soon - the next installment of Broadway 101
"The Golden Age of Musicals"
1950 - 1960

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