By Caldwell Titcomb
NEW YORK, NY: Founded in 1971, the Theater Hall of Fame inducted the usual eight new members at a January 26 ceremony in the Gershwin Theatre. Actress Dana Ivey officiated at the 38th annual celebration as Mistress 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 octet is here presented alphabetically.
SIR ALAN AYCKBOURN (b. 1939) was born in Hampstead, London, and educated at Haileybury. On leaving school at 17, he joined Sir Donald Wolfit’s company as a stage manager and actor, and shortly took similar jobs at the theater in Scarborough. Though he continued acting until 1964, his major tasks have been in playwriting and directing. He wrote his first play at the age of 10. His first professional commission came in 1958, resulting in “The Square Cat.” He eventually bought the Scarborough theater, where he has directed his own plays before moving them elsewhere. After 37 years, he will retire as the theater’s artistic director this March. So far he has written 74 full-length plays, winning nine Evening Standard awards (starting with “Absurd Person Singular” in 1973). One of his most brilliant achievements is “The Norman Conquests” trilogy, in which a cast of six enact the same events three times in the dining room, sitting room, and garden of a Victorian homestead (these won the Drama Desk Award in New York in 1976). Another tour de force is “House and Garden” (1999), two plays to be performed simultaneously in neighboring theaters, with the same actors and their characters moving back and forth from one venue to the other. His first play on Broadway was “How the Other Half Loves” (1971), followed by “Absurd Person Singular” (twice, 1974 and 2005), “The Norman Conquests,” “Bedroom Farce,” “Taking Steps,” “A Small Family Business,” and the musical “By Jeeves.” In addition, he has written revues, one-acts, adaptations, and plays for children. Holder of honorary degrees from a half dozen universities, he was named Commander, Order of the British Empire in 1987 and was knighted in 1997.
Sir Alan could not be present since he was busy directing a London revival of “Woman in Mind.” Paying tribute was Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, who said that at least two dozen plays are major works and that Ayckbourn shows “exceptional theatrical wisdom.” He quoted the dramatist as saying that “writing for me is merely preparation for the directing process,” whereby people “have to believe they’re going to something special.” And he tossed in a quotation from Euripides.
EMANUEL AZENBERG (b. 1934) was born in the Bronx, NY, and attended New York University. His career as a producer began in 1961 with “Rendezvous at Senlis” at the Gramercy Arts Theatre. On Broadway he was company manager for “The Impossible Years” in 1966, and thereafter has been producer or general manager for some 77 plays and musicals. He has produced all of Neil Simon’s works since 1972. Over the years he has won eight Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards. Shows that have won both are “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” (1978), “Children of a Lesser God” (1980), “Joe Egg” (1985), “Lost in Yonkers” (1991), and the revival of “Private Lives” (2002). Among his other important shows are “The Lion in Winter,” “Master Harold…and the Boys,” “Mark Twain Tonight,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” and “Rent.” He has taught at Duke University, New York University, and Yale.
He was inducted by his daughter Karen Azenberg, president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. She referred to his 62 Broadway shows, and said he is “as proud of the shows that didn’t make a profit as of those that did.” The father corrected her: “It was 72 Broadway productions. We’ll talk.” He said his “five best productions” were his five children, who represent “85 years of tuition collectively.” He added, “Thank you all for a great theatrical life.”
PATRICIA BIRCH (b. 1930?) was born in Englewood, New Jersey (some sources give Scarsdale, NY) and graduated from Bennington College. She started training in dancing at the age of 10, and in 1950 joined the Martha Graham Dance Company, where she had major roles in 1954. In 1957-58 she danced in revivals of “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “Brigadoon,” and “Goldilocks,” and was a 1960 replacement in “West Side Story.” But the bulk of her career has lain in choreography and directing. She supervised the dances in “The Carefree Tree” (1955), and her choreography later graced “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Parade.” She has received five Tony nominations and six Drama Desk Award nominations, winning the latter for “Grease” (1972) and the “Candide” revival (1974). Works that she both choreographed and directed include “Happy End” (1977), “Raggedy Ann” (1986), and “Band in Berlin” (1999). She also directed Verdi’s opera “Falstaff” at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Birch was inducted by Tony-winning dancer Ann Reinking, who said that Birch first took her out of the chorus and gave her a featured part in “Over Here” (1974) – “I want THAT girl,” Birch would say. Reinking read a statement by director Hal Prince, who lauded Birch for “the kind of goofy enthusiasm that enhances performances.” Birch herself recalled that, in “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein said “I could pretend to sing in the quintet but please be quiet.”
ROSCOE LEE BROWNE (1925-2007) was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, and in 1946 graduated from traditionally black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, followed by graduate study at Middlebury College, Columbia University, and the University of Florence in Italy. He returned to his alma mater to teach French and literature, but forsook academe in 1956 to become a professional actor. He at once landed roles with Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, starting with “Julius Caesar,” and proceeding to “Titus Andronicus,” “King Lear,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and Jonson’s “Volpone.” Off-Broadway he appeared in the long-running “The Blacks,” and won an Obie for his Babu in “Benito Cereno,” which he would later reprise several times. His Broadway credits included “The Cool World” (1960), “General Seeger,” “Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright,” “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” “Danton’s Death,” “A Hand is on the Gate” (which he devised and directed), “My One and Only,” and “Two Trains Running” (which brought him a 1992 Tony nomination). He garnered the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best actor in “The Dream on Monkey Mountain” (1970) and in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1989). He was famous for his rich, cultivated baritone voice, which was repeatedly sought for live and recorded readings of poetry (Millay, Frost), Shakespeare’s complete sonnets, and the Bible.
Browne was posthumously inducted by his great-niece Susan Fales Hill, who quoted Geoffrey Holder’s quip that “people in show biz never die, they just go on tour.” She said that Uncle Roscoe had “a baritone voice like a sable coat.” When someone once complained that he sounded “too white,” he retorted, “I’m sorry; I once had a white maid.”
(JOHN) RICHARD EASTON (b. 1933) was born in Montreal, Quebec, where he trained for the stage at the Children’s Theatre and then for several years in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Following work in Ottawa and Toronto, he moved to the United States. From 1957 to 1959 he appeared at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” In 1960 he became a founding member of the Association of Producing Artists (most of whose shows played in Michigan and then New York City), appearing in “As You Like It,” “Hamlet” (title role), “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Twelfth Night,” “Pantagleize,” “Exit the King,” “The Misanthrope,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Cock-A-Doodle Dandy,” and “Macbeth” (title role). His portrayal of A. E. Housman in “The Invention of Love” brought him both a best-actor Tony and Drama Desk Award (2001). Since then Broadway has seen him in “Noises Off,” “Henry IV” (title role), “The Rivals,” and “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy. From time to time he has taken assignments in Britain. Currently he is acting in the international Bridge Project revival of “The Winter’s Tale.”
Inducting Easton was his “Utopia” director Jack O’Brien, who called attention to Easton’s years of mentoring the M.F.A. program at the University of San Diego, where “young actors looked to him for no-nonsense advice, which they can’t always get from a director or academic.” Easton commented, “I like companies. In one small theater I once did 33 plays in 35 weeks.” Looking up at all the names on the wall, he exclaimed, “What a company this is!”
MARVIN (FREDERICK) HAMLISCH (b. 1944) was born in New York City to a musical family. A child prodigy on the piano, he was at the age of six the youngest person ever accepted by the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied for 13 years. He eventually earned a B.A. degree from Queens College in 1968. Aside from extensive work on Hollywood films, his first stage work was to provide vocal arrangements for the musical “Funny Girl” in 1964. He did dance arrangements for “Henry, Sweet Henry,” “Golden Rainbow,” “Minnie’s Boys,” and “Seesaw.” He hit the jackpot with his first original musical, “A Chorus Line” (1975), which brought him Tony and Drama Desk awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize, and ran for 15 years (6,137 performances), with a two-year revival in 2006. Later stage works were “They’re Playing Our Song” (which did well in both New York and London), “Smile,” incidental music for a “Blithe Spirit” revival, “The Goodbye Girl,” and “Sweet Smell of Success” (2002 Tony and Drama Desk nominee). With Gerald Gardner, Hamlisch wrote an autobiography, “The Way I Was” (1992).
Inducting Hamlisch was Frank Rich, former chief drama critic of the New York Times, who understandably focused on “A Chorus Line,” which he called a “seamless creation.” Hamlisch described himself as “a diehard fan of the theater,” and ended by saying, “It’s truly awe-inspiring for a composer to be inducted in a theater named for Gershwin.”
NATHAN LANE (b. 1956) was born Joseph Lane in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he attended St. Peter’s Preparatory High School and was named Best Actor in 1974. With insufficient funds in a scholarship to St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, he decided to skip further formal education and at 21 played Nathan Detroit in a dinner-theater production of “Guys and Dolls.” Since there was already a Joe Lane on Equity’s roster, he took the character’s first name for his own. His Broadway debut was as the aspiring playwright in “Present Laughter” (1982), which won him critical huzzahs. There followed two musicals, “Merlin” and “Wind in the Willows,” and two plays, “Some Americans Abroad” and “On Borrowed Time.” Off-Broadway his dazzling turn in McNally’s “Lisbon Traviata” (1989) won him Drama Desk and Lortel awards. He would appear in two further McNally plays, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1995 Drama Desk Award). Both Tony and Drama Desk awards came to him for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1996) and “The Producers” (2001). He will appear this spring in a Broadway revival of “Waiting for Godot.”
McNally inducted Lane, observing that the actor had mastered “the art of making people laugh and believe in the character simultaneously.” Lane, sporting a beard these days, commented, “I was grateful we didn’t have to go up to Cooperstown for this. For a kid growing up in New Jersey and reading Moss Hart’s “Act One,” this is incredible. Careers have ups and downs, and I’m just humbled to be here tonight.”
JONATHAN TUNICK (b. 1938) was born in New York City and earned degrees from Bard College (1958) and the Juilliard School of Music (1960). He has become the foremost orchestrator of musicals in our time, scoring his first major success with “Promises, Promises” in 1968. In 1970 he began a long association with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim: “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion” (Drama Desk Award), “A Funny Thing Happened,” “Saturday Night,” and “Bounce” (retitled “Road Show”). In 1997 “Titanic” won him the first-ever Tony Award for orchestrations, along with a Drama Desk Award. He has since received seven Tony and seven Drama Desk nominations. Other shows he has orchestrated include “Ballroom,” “Nine,” “Martin Guerre,” “110 in the Shade,” “The Color Purple,” and “The Story of My Life” (about to open).
Sondheim inducted Tunick with a salute to his “skill and knowledge” and the assertion that he is “the best orchestrator in the history of the American theater,” adding that “my reputation wouldn’t be what it is except for Jonathan.” Tunick spoke of looking back on more than 40 years of work, and exclaimed, “What an honor!” He made a point of tipping his hat to the orchestrations of his predecessor Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), who had scored “Show Boat” and a number of works by Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Outside the standard eight inductees, the Hall of Fame executive board this year voted to add to the roster in absentia DAME CELIA LIPTON FARRIS, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Christmas Day in 1923. The daughter of band leader Sydney Lipton, she made her debut at 15 singing with her father’s orchestra at the London Palladium, where she appeared two years later in the revue “Apple Sauce.” She was a hit in another revue, “Get a Load of This,” and at 20 played the title role in “Peter Pan,” soon followed by the leading part in a revival of “The Quaker Girl” and in the operetta “Lilac Time.” In 1952 she left Britain for New York, where she appeared in the musical “Maggie” (1953) and starred in the revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” In 1996 her company, Celia Lipton Productions, sponsored a national tour of “State Fair.” She married industrialist Victor Farris in 1956, and since his death in 1985 her many philanthropic endeavors have enriched the arts and other recipients. In 2004 she was named Dame of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. She recently published a lavish autobiography entitled “My Three Lives.”
Every couple of years a Veterans Committee (of which I am a member) selects a handful of long-deceased persons to be added to the Hall of Fame list. This year there were four newcomers, and these were announced by the committee chairman Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, editor of the annual “Best Plays Theater Yearbook.”
MORDECAI GORELIK (1899-1990) was born in Shchedrin, Minsk, Russia. He came to the United States as a youth, and graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1920, following which he studied design with Robert Edmond Jones and Norman Bel Geddes. He was primarily a set designer, although he occasionally designed costumes and lighting, and directed nearly a dozen productions. He started as a scene painter with the Provincetown Playhouse in 1920-21. In the midtwenties he designed “King Hunger,” “Processional,” and “The Moon is a Gong.” After two shows for the Yiddish Art Theatre, he was primary designer for the famous Group Theatre of the thirties; among his shows were “Success Story,” “Big Night,” “Men in White,” Golden Boy,” “Casey Jones,” “Rocket to the Moon,” and “Night Music.” Other important assignments included “All My Sons,” “The Flowering Peach,” and “A Hatful of Rain.” His book “New Theatres for Old” (1940) advances Brecht’s theories. He had short teaching stints at more than a dozen institutions, as well as a lengthy professorial tenure at Southern Illinois University (1960-72).
BRONSON (CROCKER) HOWARD (1842-1908) was born in Detroit. He entered Yale in 1861, but an eye ailment forced him to withdraw during his freshman year. He went home to Detroit and began work as a drama critic for the Free Press, later holding similar journalistic jobs in New York until 1876. But his true importance lies in playwriting. His first effort was “Fantine” (1964), based on Victor Hugo and staged in Detroit. Thereafter he had some 15 plays mounted in New York, enjoying his first substantial successes with the comedies “Saratoga” (1870), which was popular also in England and Germany, and “The Banker’s Daughter” (1878). He turned to more serious social subjects with “Young Mrs. Winthrop” (1882) and “One of Our Girls” (1885). “The Henrietta” (1887) made him a half million dollars and continued being staged for some years after Howard’s death. “Shenandoah” (1889) was the most important Civil War play of the century and ran for 250 performances. Widely termed “the dean of American playwrights,” in 1891 he founded the American Dramatists Club (later the Society of American Dramatists and Composers), which achieved reform of copyright laws and ended script piracy.
LOUISA (HONOR de) MEDINA (1813?-1838) was born abroad, probably in Spain. She was first published at the age of 12, and traveled and studied throughout Europe as a teenager. In the early 1830s she came to New York, where she taught Spanish and French and published poems and stories. From 1833 to 1838 she was the resident playwright for actor/manager Thomas Hamblin’s Bowery Theatre (and probably his wife as well). A precocious talent, she is credited with 34 plays, of which eleven are firmly documented and reveal that her preferred topics were history (four plays), the American frontier (three plays), and contemporary romance (four plays). Only three of her scripts are extant – one dealing with each subject. “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1835) was based on Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 historical novel. “Nick of the Woods” (1838) drew on the anti-Indian 1837 novel by Robert Montgomery Bird, and was still being staged in 1921. Both these novels were dramatized by several others, but none displaced Medina’s versions. There was no competition for Medina’s “Ernest Maltravers” (1838), based on another Bulwer-Lytton novel, which remained in the Bowery repertory for years. Medina died of apoplexy at the age of 25.
(BARUCH) BORIS THOMASHEFSKY (1868-1939) was born in a shtetl outside Kiev, Ukraine. At 12 he emigrated to New York and performed in Avrom Goldfadn’s operetta “The Witch.” His soprano turned into a beautiful tenor, and at 13 he persuaded tavern keeper Frank Wolf to let him be producer and director of a company devoted to Yiddish theater. As a teenager he spread his activities to many U.S. cities, and for years he maintained a schedule of three months in New York and nine months on tour. He staged other works by Goldfadn, along with Jewish adaptations of “King Lear,” “Hedda Gabler,” Goethe’s “Faust,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He starred as the first Yiddish-language Hamlet to great acclaim (1897ff.). Just two weeks before his death he appeared in a revival of his greatest comedy, Goldfadn’s “The Green Millionaire.” At one time he counted 46 relatives in the theater. He wrote an autobiography, “My Life” (1937).
This year’s ceremony was the 19th overseen by executive producer Terry Hodge Taylor. Inductees chosen by nationwide voting have their names mounted in gold on the walls of two rotundas in the Gershwin Theatre, which also houses in the upstairs lobby photographs and memorabilia of those elected. The thirteen persons added on this occasion bring the total membership of the Theater Hall of Fame to 488.