One of Neil Simon’s biggest hits celebrates an anniversary this week.
Fifty-one years ago – on February 14, 1968, to be exact – PLAZA
SUITE debuted. It was an evening of three one-act plays, the second
and third of which were quite funny.
Audiences had come to expect as much from Simon’s previous five
hits. However, the first play, VISITOR FROM MAMARONECK, wasn’t a
laff-riot – and was never intended to be.
It dealt with Karen Nash, whom Simon described as “forty-eight
years old and makes no bones about it.” This is in stark contrast to
her husband Sam, who “has just turned fifty and has made every
effort to conceal it.”
They’re in the Plaza Hotel room where they’d spent their wedding
night twenty-three years ago. Karen thought it would be a nice way
Then Sam takes a call from his secretary Jean McCormack. Some
business trouble demands Sam’s immediate attention. He must leave
and won’t be back for some time.
“Look,” Sam says, “I could call downstairs and get you a ticket for a
show tonight. Is there something you’d like to see?”
Karen answers with a good bittersweet joke: “Yeah – what you and
Miss McCormack will be doing later.”
Well, what good is sitting alone in your room? Karen should have
taken Sam up on his offer. For during the run of PLAZA SUITE (which
lasted until Oct. 3, 1970), some pretty great shows played.
For pure escapism, Karen would have done well by PURLIE. Seeing
Cleavon Little and Melba Moore in their Tony-winning roles – and hearing the latter become a star with “I Got Love” (put in only days
before the official opening) – would have given her a needed lift.
At the beginning of PLAZA SUITE’s run, Pearl Bailey was starring in
HELLO, DOLLY! If she hadn’t come in, the show mightn’t have
surpassed MY FAIR LADY as Broadway’s then-longest-running
musical. Bailey, Cab Calloway and the entire African-American cast
were such a sensation that they recorded their own NON-original cast
album. (Many say it’s their favorite rendition of the score.)
Later, Karen would have seen Phyllis Diller as Dolly. I know at least
two dozen discerning theatergoers who saw Diller; every one said
she was terrific. When I once mentioned this to Diller herself, she
acknowledged that she’d surprised many by playing the character
that Thornton Wilder, Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman wrote and
dropping her trademark acidic housewife persona.
Finally, Karen might have even seen Ethel Merman as Mrs. Levi. If
she missed it, she – and you – can be somewhat assuaged by
hearing Merman warble the two songs that Herman had written for
her. They’re included on the Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition of
the original cast album.
Herman’s MAME was still on the boards during some of PLAZA
SUITE’s run. Karen would have been too late to delight in Angela
Lansbury’s stage-career-making performance, but we still can on
record. Lansbury sent Gwen Verdon to her first-ever Tony defeat
after four consecutive wins – although she was brilliant-as-usual in
SWEET CHARITY. (While we’re at it, so was Barbara Harris that
season in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER).
Or Karen could have caught Lansbury’s next Tony-winning role in
another Herman show: DEAR WORLD. It has his most haunting
score, with enough Parisian atmosphere to fill every inch of the Eiffel
Tower. Considering what was going on in Karen’s life, she might also
have enjoyed seeing Countess Aurelia sending businessmen to their
Similarly, seeing businessmen as buffoons in HOW NOW, DOW
JONES might have hit the spot that night. Besides, the show has an
underappreciated score that should at least be heard for Carolyn
Leigh’s sparkling lyrics.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was still around, although Zero Mostel
wasn’t. Sheldon Harnick says that after Mostel’s final performance, he
told the star that everyone would be sorry to see him go. Mostel
rebutted with “You’ll be sorry to see the grosses fall.”
Karen might have picked CABARET, which had established Kander
and Ebb as a team with which to be reckoned. Joel Grey had left by
then, but he’d soon be GEORGE M! This happy-go-lucky show made
Mr. Cohan’s songs still sound fresh and inviting. It would have been a
good pick-me-up for Karen.
For most of 1968, Kander and Ebb were also represented with THE
HAPPY TIME, their most sensitive score. Has there ever been a better
swirling waltz than the title song that opened the show? Robert
Goulet and his distinctive voice can be heard doing it beautifully on
the original cast album. That’s also true of his other five songs. No
wonder that Bebe Benzenheimer was crazy for him – at least until
she saw Steve McQueen. Karen might have been more appreciative.
Although 1776 relies far less on love than many other Broadway
musicals, the Jeffersons and the Adamses are shown in happy
marriages. At the time, Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy had one as
well. Karen could have seen them in MAGGIE FLYNN where they sang
an underrated score. (The first two songs are especially fetching.)
But seeing any happy husband and wife might have been painful.
So I DO! I DO! which shows a fifty-year marriage that was
successful, wouldn’t have been for Karen, either. We, on the other
hand, can still savor Mary Martin’s charming performance and Robert
Preston’s Tony-winning one on the original cast album.
Karen might have been even less happy at JIMMY, for it specifically
involved a cheating husband. He was that supposedly lovable rogue
Mayor James J. Walker, who served (can we call it that?) New York
City from 1919 to 1925 – substantially longer than JIMMY lasted at
the Winter Garden.
And yet, this is an album that many of us admit we play more than
many others. The term “guilty pleasure” is not one I like; let’s just
say that JIMMY is pleasure and that James J. Walker was guilty.
So where does that leave COMPANY for Karen? Despite its brilliant
George Furth book and breakout Stephen Sondheim score, would it
have been too painful for her to see those horrible marriages? Well,
they do say that misery loves company. (Hell, we ALL love
Karen would have only had a month’s window of opportunity to catch
DARLING OF THE DAY. Too bad she didn’t see it, not only because it
has some of the best work from composer Jule Styne and lyricist E.Y.
Harburg. It would have shown her that love can strike comparatively
late in life.
On the other hand, maybe the right show for Karen would have been
HAIR. The joy of Galt MacDermot’s music and the freedom that the
cast displayed might have moved her to have a mid-life crisis and
join a commune.
Here’s a better scenario: Karen should have gone to Abe Burrows’
FORTY CARATS. This comedy had a woman approaching fifty meet a
handsome, strong and sensitive twentysomething who fell deeply in
love with her. Such a situation might have opened a whole new world
It apparently did for Phyllis Rogers Stone. As she sings in FOLLIES,
“Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass? Bet your
ass!” Your turn, Karen!