AUGUST IS FOR THE AUGUST By Peter Filichia
Now that August has arrived, let’s look at those who have been august on Broadway.
Yes, August/august has two meanings. In Eight B.C., the Roman Senate honored its first emperor, one Augustus Caesar, by changing the month “Sextilis” to “Augustus.” It was later shortened to “August.” Along the way “august” also came to mean “someone to respect; one with great qualities.”
So which performers and characters in the Masterworks Broadway catalogue deserve the adjective? Shakespeare, who wrote about Augustus Caesar’s great uncle Julius, certainly qualifies. He’s never been out of the public’s consciousness in more than 400 years. During that span, we had another august gentleman purvey The Bard’s words: John Gielgud in his AGES OF MAN, which won a Special Tony “for contributing to theatre his extraordinary insight into the writings of Shakespeare.” The recording, which features selections from twelve plays (and a few sonnets too) will show you why.
If the name Gielgud sounds familiar but you just can’t place it, the explanation could be that you know it from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG’s “Bobby and Jackie and Jack.” In that witty replication of a cabaret song, Stephen Sondheim rhymed “Gielgud” with “feel good” and “real good,” which was indeed really good wordplay.
Certainly Noel Coward qualifies as august, not only for the multitude of excellent songs that he wrote (which the cast album of COWARDLY CUSTARD nicely proves), but also for appearing as the aforementioned Julius Caesar in ANDROCLES AND THE LION.
Two august collaborators wrote the 1967 TV musical version of the famous George Bernard Shaw play: Peter Stone, soon to be the librettist of 1776, and Richard Rodgers, who, for the fourth time in five years, wrote lyrics to his music.
A few years later, Stone and Rodgers would write TWO BY TWO, a much-underrated musical. It concerned Noah, who must be considered august, given that he was no kid when he had to build and maneuver an ark.
In TWO BY TWO, Danny Kaye as Noah was hardly august during the run. He shamefully ad-libbed, spouted anachronisms and tortured his fellow performers. Luckily, the cast album was recorded long before he started misbehaving, so it admirably captures the strong Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin score.
Speaking of 1776, Benjamin Franklin was the most august presence in that Tony-winning musical. Howard Da Silva originally played him, although you wouldn’t know that from the cast album. Da Silva, sad to say, suffered a heart attack during the preview period and although he insisted on performing straight through the opening, he went to a hospital moments after as he took his first-night curtain call. Rex Everhart, his understudy, did the recording.
Says album producer Thomas Z. Shepard, “The sessions were officially scheduled and filed with Local 802, and I don’t know what might have been involved if we had asked for a postponement. The likelihood is that (producer) Stuart Ostrow was left to make the final decision. As far as Columbia Records or I were concerned, we were perfectly content to move forward with Everhart.
“Also, this was before the days of the overdub – not because we didn’t know how to do it, but because the American Federation of Musicians wasn’t permitting it. So we didn’t have the nice and easy choice of recording everything that was all around Da Silva and then bring him in to overdub later.”
Shepard also pointed out that no one knew “how long DaSilva might be hospitalized. As you know, we worked terribly hard to get these records in stores within a couple of weeks after the recording session.”
Sure! 1776 was such a surprise smash-hit with critics that Broadway aficionados didn’t want to wait any longer than necessary to discover why it had received raves.
In 1954, when Hal Holbrook was twenty-nine years old, he decided to celebrate the man who’d been born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in MARK TWAIN TONIGHT. Because Holbrook chose to perform him as a septuagenarian, he needed a good two hours to put on much make-up and gray his hair.
In 2017, the final time that Holbrook performed the show, he said he needed only a half-hour to resemble the man – but now, as a nonagenarian, he had to make himself look younger.
Holbrook recorded MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! in 1959. Seven years after, Holbrook brought the piece to Broadway and was Tony-nominated for a Best Actor in a Play. The smart money was on Nicol Williamson, who was giving a yeoman’s performance in INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE. However, the smart money suddenly looked stupid once Holbrook was announced the winner.
Although Twain hasn’t been with us for more than 110 years, many of his perceptions of government, politics and race relations are still – for better or worse – amazingly relevant. If you have any doubts, hear for yourself.
Will Rogers was so famous for saying “I never met a man I didn’t like” that his 1948 postage stamp made in his honor even had that quotation printed under his portrait. So how could lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green not write a song by that title when creating THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES with Cy Coleman? August individuals all.
James Dobson made the fine observation that “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Well, who in all musical theater history did that better than Daddy Warbucks? After he comes to love Annie, she tells him she doesn’t want him to adopt her because she only wants her actual parents. That’s when we see his love is true; he isn’t able to move heaven and earth to find them, but he certainly moves enough of this country in hopes of getting Annie what she wants.
Many who have played Annie and Miss Hannigan have been justifiably celebrated for their achievements. Let’s not neglect Reid Shelton’s august performance as Warbucks.
Lady Bracknell in ERNEST IN LOVE – the fetchingly clever musical adaptation of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST – certainly must be part of this list. After all, her first name is Augusta. Listen to “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother” and see how well lyricist Anne Croswell captured the character.
Mother in RAGTIME shows herself to be august when she finds an infant in her tony New Rochelle backyard – an African-American one, to boot. Then she sees that the police have captured the mother who’d abandoned her child. Most women in 1906 (and decades beyond) would have turned the kid over to the authorities and would have never given the incident another moment’s thought. Not this woman, who becomes a surrogate mother to both Sarah and child. No wonder that she’s en route to realizing “We can never go back to before.”
Alfred Drake played fascinating characters in KEAN, KISMET and KISS ME, KATE but his only truly august one was Honore, the nice elderly gentleman in the 1973 stage adaptation of the 1958 film GIGI.
Here Drake had the unenviable task of replacing the iconic Maurice Chevalier. What helped him avoid comparisons was getting a nice new song (“Paris Is Paris Again”), a terrific new double-entendre-laden encore for an established song (“I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”) and a big part of Lerner’s last great lyric: “The Contract.” It’s nine minutes long, and, to paraphrase a famous GIGI song that Drake also got to sing, thank heaven for it.
There are many others, including one and only one of the title characters of JEKYLL & HYDE. But do you know what’s rather funny? Not one of these august performers or characters was born in August.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.