By Caldwell Titcomb
NEW YORK, NY: Founded in 1971, the Theater Hall of Fame inducted new members at a January 28 ceremony in the Gershwin Theatre. Multiple Tony-winning Tommy Tune officiated at the 37th annual celebration as Master of Ceremonies. Inductees are voted on by the nationwide American Theater Critics Association and living Hall of Fame members. To be eligible, a person must have a record of outstanding achievement spanning at least 25 years. This year’s group is here presented alphabetically.
Playwright Sir Peter Shaffer, one of the newest members of the Theater Hall of Fame
JOHN CULLUM (b. 1930) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and received a B.A. from the University of Tennessee, where he was a member of the championship tennis team. Small roles in New York led to his Broadway debut in “Camelot” (1960). He played Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (1964). “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” brought him a Theater World Award and a Tony nomination (1966). In 1975 he won a Tony and Drama Desk Award for “Shenandoah” (also starring in the work’s Broadway revival in 1989). He garnered the best-actor Tony for the musical “On the Twentieth Century” (1978). A fourth and fifth Tony nomination followed for “Urinetown” (2002) and the revival of “110 in the Shade” (2007). Notable roles elsewhere include the king in “The King and I” (1972), Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” (1973), “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” (1977), and the title role in “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1984). He recently finished playing the title role in “Cymbeline” at Lincoln Center, and has “Conscientious Objector” on his spring schedule. His alma mater awarded him its Founders Day Medal in 1998 and its theater honored him with its first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee John Cullum
Cullum was to have been inducted by producer-director Hal Prince, who was ill. So Cullum’s agent for 15 years, Jeffrey Berger, stepped in and called attention to several of Cullum’s roles over the years, noting that the inductee had to audition twelve times for “On a Clear Day.” Cullum paid tribute to his wife as an inspiration. He said, “I do care what people think about me when I’m gone, but now I don’t have to worry about it since I know that I’m a member of the Theater Hall of Fame.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Harvey Fierstein
HARVEY (FORBES) FIERSTEIN (b. 1954) was born in Brooklyn, New York. Unlike other members of his family, he pronounces his surname fire-steen. After high school, he thought he might become a painter, and received a B.F.A. degree from nearby Pratt Institute in 1973. But he had already come out as gay at 13 and wrote sketches for his teenage appearances as a drag performer. In 1971 he made his regular stage debut as an asthmatic lesbian in “Pork,” Andy Warhol’s only play, at Ellen Stewart’s avant-garde La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. Stewart took him under her wing and he acted in many plays at La Mama, including several of his own. A leap forward came with his one-act plays “The International Stud,” “Fugue in a Nursery,” and “Widows and Children First!” – gathered together as “Torch Song Trilogy” and staged to great acclaim Off-Off-Broadway, then Off-Broadway and then on Broadway (1982). Fierstein won Tonys for both writing and acting, and double Drama Desk Awards, along with an Obie citation and several other awards. He wrote the book for the Jerry Herman musical “La Cage aux Folles” (1983), winning another Tony (and getting a revival in 2004). His play “Safe Sex” (1987) moved from La Mama to Broadway, followed by the book for the unsuccessful musical “Legs Diamond” (1988). In 2003 he won a Tony and Drama Desk Award as best actor in the musical “Hairspray.” In 2005 he played Tevye in the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and later this season will star in the musical “A Catered Affair,” for which he has also written the book.
Fierstein was inducted by Ellen Stewart, now somewhat frail, who gave him his start so long ago. “I thought he was very talented, but he didn’t think so. Because of Harvey, Broadway as we know it has changed,” with gay subject matter as mainstream theater. Fierstein stated of Stewart, “Most people have one mother, but I’m lucky to have two. As a teenager I went into her basement office to draw posters and found a life.” He added, “This induction is sobering. It’s being a part of you all; my name is now surrounded by you.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Mel Gussow
MEL GUSSOW (1933-2005) was born Melvyn H. Gussow in New York City, but grew up on Long Island. After editing the campus newspaper and involving himself in variety shows, he graduated from Middlebury College in 1955 with a degree in American literature, and went on to a master’s degree in 1956 from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. After military service he was hired as a critic by Newsweek magazine, where, owing to the illness of the senior critic, he wrote his first review of a Broadway play (1962), Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which he found “an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire.” In 1969 he joined the New York Times, where he wrote more than 4000 reviews and articles until his death. He made a point of scouting talent off-Broadway, outside New York, and in England. He drew attention to such emerging figures as Amiri Baraka, Athol Fugard, Whoopi Goldberg, Spalding Gray, John Guare, Kevin Kline, Charles Ludlam, David Mamet, Joe Orton, Suzan-Lori Parks, Andrei Serban, Sam Shepard, Meryl Streep, and Lanford Wilson. He published books of his conversations with Harold Pinter (1994), Tom Stoppard (1995), Samuel Beckett (1996), and Arthur Miller (2002). He wrote an authoritative biography of Albee (1999) and, shortly before his death, “Michael Gambon: A Life in Acting.” He published an invaluable collection of his pieces for the Times, entitled “Theatre on the Edge: New Visions, New Voices” (1998). In 1978 Gussow won the annual George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism.
Inducting Gussow posthumously was actress Marian Seldes, who began by quoting Shaw’s dedication to “Man and Superman” (1903): “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap.” She cited Gussow’s colossal amount of writing, much of which helped sustain careers. “I don’t think people who write well ever die, and I don’t think Mel is dead.” Accepting was Gussow’s son Ethan, who said, “Dad would be greatly honored.” He said his father felt it was important “not to over-praise good intentions,” but also to praise what’s meritorious, and to “always be open to the new.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Dana Ivey
DANA (ROBINS) IVEY (b. 1942) was born in Atlanta, Georgia to an actress mother. In 1963 she received a B.A. in theater from Rollins College in Florida, followed by a Fulbright grant that provided her a further year of training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Before settling in New York, she did an enormous amount of acting in regional theater. She had eight roles in Memphis, including Madame Rosepettle in “Oh Dad, Poor Dad” (1964), and went on to some forty roles in Canada. After shows in Hartford, she appeared in ten Atlanta productions at the Alliance Theater (1974-79), where she played Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” (a favorite role), the title role in “Hedda Gabler,” and won a best-actress award for “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean .” Her Broadway debut came with small roles in “Macbeth” (1980). Major assignments (1982) were “Present Laughter” and “Quartermaine’s Terms” (the Derwent Award and Drama Desk nominations for both and an Obie Award for the latter). Her Lady Utterwood in “Heartbreak House” and two roles in “Sunday in the Park With George” got a Tony nomination (both 1984). The title role in “Driving Miss Daisy” brought her a Drama Desk nomination (1987), and she won this award for “Sex and Longing” and “Last Night of Ballyhoo” (both 1997) and a Tony nomination for the latter. Two more Tony nominations came for her Mrs. Malaprop in “The Rivals” (2005, also the Seff Award), and for the revival of “Butley” (2007). As Gertrude in “Hamlet” (1990) she won the Bayfield Award.
Ivey was inducted by playwright Alfred Uhry, in whose “Daisy” and “Ballyhoo” she had starred. He noted, “We went to the same nursery school, but not at the same time. Her mother was the queen of Atlanta theater for decades.” He said, “She digs and digs, and she’s so damn smart.” Ivey stated that she had wanted to be an actress since the age of six, and the biggest influence was her mother. “I am happy and thrilled at this honor, for the theater has always been the lodestone of my life.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Jack O’Brien
JACK (GEORGE) O’BRIEN (b. 1939) was born in Saginaw, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, receiving an A.B. in 1961 and an M.A. in 1962. He had stage training under the late John Houseman and Ellis Rabb. He was assistant director for seven shows mounted by the APA Phoenix Repertory Company in New York (1967-69). He had several theater posts prior to assuming in 1981 the artistic directorship of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he moved to emeritus status on January 1 of this year. He began as a full-fledged director with “Cock-a-Doodle Dandy” in 1969. His range since then has been unusually wide, embracing classics, new plays, musicals, and opera (Purcell, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Gershwin, Petrassi, Maxwell Davies). He has had some thirty productions on Broadway, many transferring from the Old Globe. His work has received ten Tony nominations, with wins for “Hairspray” (2003), “Henry IV” (2004), and “The Coast of Utopia” (2007). Of eight Drama Desk nominations he copped the prize for “The Piano Lesson” (1990), “The Invention of Love” (2001), “Hairspray,” “Henry IV,” and “Coast of Utopia.”
O’Brien was inducted by director Mike Nichols, who reported that O’Brien told his enormous “Coast of Utopia” cast, “You’re going to be together for more than six months, so proceed with caution!” O’Brien recalled that one of his early major shows was in this very theater: “Porgy and Bess” (1976, Tony and Drama Desk nominations). He spoke of society, friendships, relationships – these are “an astonishment.” “It’s this family of theater workers that I’m most proud of.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Peter Shaffer
SIR PETER (LEVIN) SHAFFER (b. 1926) was born in Liverpool, England, and graduated from St. Paul’s School in London in 1944. After serving as a conscripted coalminer for three years, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he co-edited a literary magazine and in 1950 received a B.A. in history. He held several odd jobs in New York and London, including a stint (1961-62) as a music critic (he plays the piano and has always been deeply involved with music). But he set out to be a writer, producing a television script about the state of Israel, “The Salt Land” and a radio play, “The Prodigal Father” (both 1955), followed by a television play, “The Balance of Terror” (1957). The work that established his reputation as a playwright was the drawing-room drama “Five Finger Exercise” (1958), which won two awards in London and moved to Broadway for a 337-performance run (Drama Critics Circle Award). Two double-bills proved successful: “The Private Ear” and “The Public Eye” (1962) and “Black Comedy/White Lies” (1967, Tony nomination). Shaffer’s lofty stature largely rests on three works, starting with “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” (1964), a pageantry-laden depiction of the Spanish conquest of Peru, centering on the conflict between Pizarro and Atahuallpa. Then came “Equus” (1973), about a psychiatrist and his teenage patient who has blinded a half dozen horses. This won both a Tony and Drama Desk Award, ran for three years on Broadway, and is slated for a revival there later this year. There followed “Amadeus” (1979), dealing with Mozart and his less-talented rival Antonio Salieri, which won the same two awards, along with the Outer Critics Circle and Vernon Rice awards, ran 1,181 performances, and enjoyed a revival in 1999-2000. He wrote the comedy “Lettice and Lovage” for Dame Maggie Smith, which played for ten months on Broadway and got a Tony nomination (1990). Shaffer was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1987, and was knighted by the Queen in 2001.
Since Shaffer was involved in the final rehearsals for a British tour of “Equus,” he was inducted in absentia by his sometime producer Gerald Schoenfeld, who recalled seeing the playwright formally acknowledge an ovation with a bow from a box at the London opening of “Equus.” Shaffer sent a note saying that rehearsals were for him “a compulsion” and a favorite activity. He concluded, “I am proud of my career as a dramatist, and now of my golden membership in the Hall of Fame.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Lois Smith
LOIS SMITH (b. 1930) was born Lois Arlene Humbert in Topeka, Kansas. She underwent stage training at the University of Washington (1948-50) and later with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio in New York. She made her stage debut in 1952 as Jeannie in “Time Out for Ginger” in Delaware, and her Broadway debut soon after in the same production. There followed “The Young and Beautiful” (1955), Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” (1956), “Orpheus Descending” (1957), “Edwin Booth” (1958), “Bicycle Ride to Nevada” (1963), and “Blues for Mr. Charlie” (1964). For the next couple of years she had ten roles in Philadelphia, including “Galileo,” “The Misanthrope,” “Uncle Vanya,” and “Miss Julie.” Elsewhere she appeared in “The Front Page,” “The Seagull,” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Ma Joad in the Steppenwolf production of “The Grapes of Wrath” kept her busy at home and abroad for two years, getting a Tony nomination (1990). In New York she was Cora in the revival of “The Iceman Cometh” (1973-74), and garnered a Tony nomination for “Buried Child” (1996). The off-Broadway “The Trip to Bountiful” brought her the Drama Desk, Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle awards (2006).
Smith was inducted by her “Grapes of Wrath” director Frank Galati, who saluted her “ecstatic plain spokenness” and “a kind of yearning on which she holds the patent.” “I can still hear her voice – a miracle that she alone knows.” Smith remembered being asked in kindergarten to cross the gym floor as a plodding elephant. When everyone else had reached the other side, she was left alone midway. “I didn’t stop and I didn’t hurry – and see where I am now!” What is our task? she asked. “Public pleasure is what we do.”
Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Joseph Stein
JOSEPH STEIN (b. 1912) was born in New York City. He received a B.S.S. degree from the College of the City of New York in 1934, and pursued studies at Columbia University’s School for Social Research during the next two years. While doing social work he began writing comic sketches, some of which ended up on Broadway in the revues “Lend an Ear” (1948) and “Alive and Kicking” (1950). Most of his writing career lay in providing the book for musicals. The first was “Plain and Fancy” (1955), set in the Amish community of Pennsylvania, followed by “Mr. Wonderful” (1956), a vehicle for the late Sammy Davis Jr., “The Body Beautiful” (1958), “Juno” (1959), and “Take Me Along” (1959, Tony nomination; revived 1985). Stein reached a pinnacle with “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), which won Tony and Drama Critics Circle awards, and ran for 3,242 performances – with repeated revivals in 1976, 1981, 1990, and 2004. He had some success with “Zorba” (1968, revived 1983), ”Irene” (1973), and “King of Hearts” (1978). “Rags” brought him a Tony nomination (1986), but this impressive show inexplicably folded in three days. More recently he collaborated with Kander & Ebb on “Over and Over” (1999) and “All About Us” (2007), both based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Neither has reached New York. Last November, Stein received the 16th Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.
Stein was inducted by composer/lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who collaborated on “Fiddler on the Roof.” He saluted Stein’s “craftsmanship and humor,” and recalled Stein’s once saying, “It was a great collaboration: we didn’t have one argument; we had many.” He added that Stein could also write “heartbreaking scenes,” as in “Fiddler” and “Zorba.” Stein replied that he loved nothing so much as “hearing an audience roaring with laughter.” He said that this night was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” And he added that all his writing was “not work, because it’s what I love doing.”
In addition to the regular inductees, the Board of Directors every couple of years bestows a Founders Award on a person who has made some kind of special contribution to the theater. This year the selection fell on ROY A. SOMLYO (b. 1925). He was born in Detroit, Michigan, and earned a B.A. in economics at Wayne University in 1948. He at once started as a production assistant for “Goodbye, My Fancy,” and moved up to General Manager for scores of shows from 1959 to 1988, co-producing a few along the way, including “La Tragedie de Carmen” (1983), which won him a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. He was managing producer of the Tony Awards from 1967 to 2002, and also served as President of the American Theater Wing from 1998 to 2003.
Producer Emanuel Azenberg presented the award. He amusingly recollected a time a half century ago when the two of them drove many miles in the middle of the night to “steal” rented props and costumes withheld because of an unpaid bill. “So today’s recipient is a felon,” he quipped. He said he admired Somlyo’s “theatrical sensitivity.” Somlyo commented that getting the award made him “feel humble – and I don’t do humility easily.” He said his best advice was, “Say your piece and get off!”
This year’s ceremony was the 18th overseen by executive producer Terry Hodge Taylor. Each year the inductees have their names mounted in gold on the walls of two Hall of Fame rotundas in the Gershwin Theatre, which also houses in the upstairs lobby photographs and memorabilia of those elected. The total membership of the Theater Hall of Fame now stands at 475.