The phone in my office rang one day in December 1982. The switchboard operator, knowing that I was a fan of Broadway, asked if I wanted to speak to some Broadway producers office. I took the call from someone there wanting to know if we had a designer on staff in our furniture store that could re-do the dressing rooms at the Mark Hellinger. I asked what show was coming and was told Merlin, starring Doug Henning and Chita Rivera. After a brief conversation, I made an appointment to be at the Theatre to meet with the producers to see what they had in mind.
When I got to the theatre a few days later, I was told that I would be doing three dressing rooms, the third one for another co-star. Nathan Lane. " Who?," says I. Anyhow, I looked at the dressing rooms, and wow, I wanted to start with a match! They were so dreary, an olive green in color, I think. Well, to make a long story short, I took the job.
While the show was in rehearsals, I was to meet with Doug Henning, Chita Rivera and Nathan Lane individually to discuss their likes and dislikes in color and furnishings. First up was Henning. I walked in his dressing room and he was sitting there in front of the make-up mirror. He was pleasant enough, introduced himself and his wife, who was also in the show. He wanted his dressing room bubble-gum pink. I just stared at him, for surely my mouth was half open. On the table was a square foot of what I thought was a piece of grassy lawn. He would reach at it, yank a piece off, and then eat it! I guess it was some kind of sea weed.
Then, it was off to meet Chita Rivera. In her dressing room was her entire family, I think. Her sister Lola was there, her manager/brother too, I think, and her mother. After brief introductions, they all had me yakking away like I was family. We discussed what we were going to do with the room and all that jazz. Walking out of the dressing room, I knew where most of the $5000. was gonna be spent.
On to dressing room number three. It's empty. All I see is a hanger with a coat on it. So, I get out the measuring tape and decide to measure the room. I'm on my knees, going around the room, and then I saw a pair of feet. I stopped, looked up, and this fellow smiles at me. I get up from all fours, extend my hand and say. "Hi, my name is John, is this your dressing room?" He says, "Nice to meet you John. Yes, it is. My name is Nathan." We discussed what we were going to do. I told him that I would like to put in some form of convertible couch so that he could have a place to nap between matinee and evening performances. He liked the idea and then was called to the stage for rehearsal.
So, I spent all the money on Chita. Well, almost all. Maybe $1500 on Henning, $3000. on Chita, and $500 on Nathan.
While I was working in the theatre I got to watch some rehearsals. That was a lot of fun seeing how a show is done, and this one had magic. Everyone in the theatre had to sign a secrecy pledge that you would never reveal how the magic acts were done. Even the ushers had to sign. Well, I saw them rehearse the numbers, and to this day, I still can't figure it out.
Henning had done The Magic Show on Broadway for four years. He played Doug Henning in that. In this show, he was to play Merlin. Chita was the evil queen, and Nathan was Prince Fergus. The storyline revolved around the King Arthur legend. The evil Queen wants to destroy Arthur who is protected by Merlin, the magician. The reason she wants to destroy Arthur is because she wants to place her son, Prince Fergus, (Nathan Lane) on the throne of England.
When the show went into previews, there were many technical problems, and the opening date was cancelled three times. The New York critics decided enough was enough, and went to review it before it's official opening date. They universally hated it. Henning couldn't act or sing. Rivera and Lane were professional enough in their acting and singing skills, and so was Rebecca Wright as a unicorn ballerina. However, it was Henning's name that brought the public in to this flop of a musical. It opened on February 13, 1983 and ran for seven months. (199 performances). A very young Christian Slater was in the cast. He was 13 at the time, and Merlin was his fourth Broadway show.
I don't think Nathan considers Merlin to be one of his finest achievements. But Merlin was a step for him. It was his first Broadway musical. And, he was good in it. His first musical number, Act 1 scene 2 was called "Anything for a Quiet Life" with the ensemble. In scene 5, he sang "Something About Palaces" with the Ladies of the Court. In act 2, scene 4, he had his third and final number, "We Haven't Fought a Battle in Years." He sang that with the soldiers of the army. My memory says Nathan was fun to watch!
Here is the biography from the Playbill:
NATHAN LANE (Prince Fergus) most recently made his Broadway debut driving George C. Scott crazy as the lovably insane playwright, Roland Maule, in PRESENT LAUGHTER. Prior to that he co-starred with Mickey Rooney in the NBC sit-com "One of the Boys." Off-Broadway credits include A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at E.L.T., the musical revue WHAT'S NEW?, and the improv group POOR LITTLE LAMBS. In stock Nathan has gone from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF to WAITING FOR GODOT. As half of the comedy team of Stack Lane, he appeared on "Merv Griffin," "Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop," and "The Tomorrow Show."
The only credit I got in the Playbill was a small mention in the back....."dressing room furnishings by Castro Convertibles". My name was not mentioned. Drat! But, I did get four free tickets and a back stage pass on opening night! And, I got to meet a pleasant young fella named Nathan Lane!
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