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Ron Fassler Brings Back the Musical Memories By Peter Filichia

Ron Fassler undoubtedly agrees with John Rushton, the little tyke who insists, “Gee, it’s neat to be a newsboy,” in Working.

For many of his early teenage years – roughly late 1967 to early 1973 – Fassler did that same job. Rushton never told us how he spent his earnings, but Fassler has: he attended Broadway shows, often once a week. The highest reaches of the balcony were the most he could afford, but he was there.

Up in the Cheap Seats has Fassler telling of his two hundred peregrinations from the wilds of Long Island to Midtown Manhattan. The book is a delightful stroll down Memory Lane for those who were there – and one that will convince younger readers that they missed out on plenty from Ari, a lip-smackingly bad flop, to Zorba, John Kander’s foray into Greek music (which sounds more authentically Greek than the music that genuine Greek native Manos Hadjidakis’ provided for Illya, Darling).

Early in 1971, Fassler did the math and carefully calibrated that on July 21, Fiddler on the Roof would break Hello, Dolly!’s record as Broadway’s longest-running musical by virtue of performance 2,845. He was there, and at the end of the performance, was one of the thousand-plus to see 2,845 balloons released from the ceiling. Free hot dogs followed.

(Were they kosher?)

Fassler also interviewed a number of creatives who worked on these shows. Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick told him of the musical’s recording session when Zero Mostel “did ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ in one take – and then wouldn’t let any of the other actors forget it.”

1776 was a particular Fassler favorite, so he hunted down Peter Hunt, who directed the 1969 masterpiece, and a few others who were with it from day one. Hunt revealed to Fassler that he was a novice without an agent, so he called one only to hear that she wasn’t interested in him – until he mentioned that producer Stuart Ostrow wanted him to stage a Broadway musical. My, did she then come around quickly …

William Daniels – the original John Adams – told Fassler that when the company of 1776 was invited to the White House, he refused to go because of his feelings for then-President Nixon. Ostrow told him that his not doing the performance would cost the rest of the cast an additional salary. That was enough for Daniels to relent. “Only I never got any extra money,” Daniels said. “They all did!”

Fassler also heard directly from Ostrow that Stephen Sondheim saw the Washington tryout and urged that Ken Howard be replaced as Thomas Jefferson. Fassler then asked Sondheim if this were true and indeed heard that it was. Sondheim also thought the show was “okay” until the ending, when orchestrator Eddie Sauter provided the robust music as the delegates signed the Declaration. “My hair stood on end,” said Sondheim, “and I started to cheer as the curtain came down.”

(Well, don’t we all?)

Clive Barnes, then the theater critic for the all-important New York Times, almost missed that moment. Fassler learned that in Barnes’ haste to write a (rave) review for the next morning’s paper, he rushed up the aisle before the Declaration was to be signed. No less than Onna White, the show’s choreographer, stopped him in his tracks, turned him around and made him watch it.

The most surprising remark Fassler heard while interviewing? Some may think it’s Sondheim’s statement that Alfred Drake in Kismet and Alan Alda in The Apple Tree are the two best performances he’s ever seen a man give in a musical. But perhaps even more unexpected is Hal Linden’s “If I do my job well, this show will not be a success.”

Such was Linden’s observation after he won the part of Mayer, the paterfamilias in The Rothschilds – the oppressed Jew who didn’t merely want to make a pile for himself, but also yearned to use the money to liberate his people from their walled-in ghetto which was literally locked up at night by German Gentiles.

Historical accuracy demanded that Mayer die at the point where Act One would end. Linden’s quotation reveals his awareness that if the audience fell in love with him – and indeed, it would because he was playing such an indomitable take-no-for-an-answer achiever – then a Mayer-less Act Two would be a letdown.

The seemingly oxymoronic statement didn’t turn out to be moronic. Once the authors saw what Linden had inferred from the outset, they rewrote to let Mayer live until the middle of the second act.

(Frankly, I’m sorry that they didn’t say, “History, be damned!” and keep him right up to the final curtain. The von Trapps took a train and climbed no mountain out of Austria, you know, and few have complained since its 1959 debut.)

Only four years after The Rothschilds’ closing, Linden would become a household name as a result of playing the title character on the ABC-TV series Barney Miller. Fassler was surprised when Linden told him that the musical was a vital component in his being cast. The sitcom’s creator-writer Danny Arnold had seen him in The Rothschilds and now envisioned him as the ideal police captain – because, Arnold explained, he “wanted to imbue Barney with a sense of Talmudic justice” – which, of course, Mayer had had.

Long before Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat started having Johnny Q. Theatergoer writing his opinions online, Fassler was putting his views of what he’d seen in notebooks filled with college-ruled white paper. He’s allowed some of his juvenilia to be photo-copied into the book; many of these reviews now, needless to say, make Fassler smile, shake his head and reassess them with a shaker full of salt. He deemed the supporting performers of George M! as “second rate,” which meant he wasn’t much impressed by Bernadette Peters.

And then there was his statement that a certain composer-lyricist had written “some (italics his) good numbers but his dramatic ones are bland and dull.”

The songwriter and the show?

Stephen Sondheim.

The original Follies.

Everybody has to go through stages like that …

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.