By Peter Filichia
David Foubert is an excellent king, Jessica Wortham an extraordinary queen and Katie Wieland is marvelous as the woman who succeeded her.
They’re all currently performing in The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s excellent mounting of The Bard’s Henry VIII. But before Paul Mullins’ superb production took to the stage, artistic director Bonnie J. Monte told first-nighters that Henry VIII is “unfairly ignored” – probably because of the alleged curse attached to it.
During a June performance of Henry VIII in 1613, a cannonball that had been aimed to clear the thatched roof of The Globe Theatre fell a little short and hit the roof, which caused the playhouse to burn to the ground.
And that started me thinking of Rex, the 1976 musical version of the middle years in the life of Henry VIII. Despite music by Richard Rodgers (Broadway’s all-time greatest composer) and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (easily one of our finest lyricists), it too suffered from bad luck, worse choices and an incident during a curtain call that might well be the worst in Broadway history.
All these factors were responsible for the show’s closing after a mere forty-eight performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre – which, ironically enough, once had the same name (The Globe) as Shakespeare’s playhouse.
No show on which Harnick had been sole lyricist had run as short a time. More telling, no musical for which Rodgers had been the sole composer had run so briefly since his Chee-Chee in 1928. And that thirty-one performance flop didn’t sound so commercial, given that it concerned castration and eunuchs. (No, this is not the show that sports the lyric “What did I have I don’t have now?”)
But Rex has some very nice songs, as is proved by the still-in-print original cast album. The one that most everyone mentions first is “Away from You,” Henry’s love song to Anne Boleyn. Yes, it’s one of Rodgers’ bolt-of-lightning ballads but my favorite is the show’s opener, the aptly named “No Song More Pleasing.” Rodgers had always been famous for his waltzes, and here is his last fine one.
It’s supposed to be a ditty that the king himself ostensibly penned. Indeed, the actual Henry VIII genuinely fancied himself a songwriter, proving once again that everybody wants to be in show business.
Queen Catherine didn’t get to keep the king, but Barbara Andres, who portrayed her, did get to keep “At Once I Loved You,” which musicologist Steven Suskin reported was “a show-stopper” in his book Second Act Trouble. Trouble was, director Ed Sherin didn’t like it, and Rodgers did. All through the Wilmington tryout they kept tousling over it, but by the Boston tryout, the issue was solved when Harold Prince came in “to advise” Sherin. Unlike so many deposed directors of musicals – but like the failed Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) in The Band Wagon — Sherin stayed around.
Not that Sherin, best known for staging the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winningThe Great White Hope, was producer Richard Adler’s first choice; the up-and-coming Michael Bennett was. I became friendly with Adler in his final eighteen years, meeting him when he was 73 and staying in touch until his death at 91. He had the aging man’s habit of telling stories more than once, but what he said the most was admitting he’d erred in not hiring Bennett. “It was over money,” he’d say, although he never told me how far apart they were in their negotiations.
Does a show about Henry VIII seem to be one that would appeal to the future director-choreographer of A Chorus Line, Ballroom and Dreamgirls? Virtually all of the musicals on which Bennett worked were set in the here-and-now and not remotely in Rex’s 1520-1547 time frame.
However, perhaps the non-show-bizzy nature of Rex is precisely what attracted Bennett. Great artists love to try something new. And we don’t have to assume that Bennett would have had a bevy of chorus girls and boys surrounding Henry and proclaiming him “One Singular Sensation.” Bennett was too smart to razz-ma-tazz this serious story.
Adler also didn’t get any of his first three choices for Henry: Richard Burton, Albert Finney or Peter O’Toole. So he signed as the two-timing king two-time Drama Desk winner and two-time Tony nominee Nicol Williamson. Although this would be Williamson’s first musical, he’d get a nomination for Rex, too – and plenty of press. (More on that later.)
Penny Fuller had already received a Tony nomination for playing no less than Eve Harrington in Applause. She would receive another here for portraying Princess Elizabeth, who was no Eve Harrington — certainly not compared to her half-sister “Bloody” Mary, the fervent Catholic who had nearly 300 of her subjects executed for not embracing her faith.
Mary was played by a performer who’d become famous for executing a pet rabbit in Fatal Attraction – which landed her the first of her six Oscar nominations. But when Glenn Close took on this small role in Rex, her four Tony nominations (and three wins) were well in the future, too. Here’s Close on her first original cast album (of the four she’d make, including Barnum, Sunset Boulevard and a spoken-word The Real Thing). You have to wait until Tracks Ten and Eleven to hear her, and in each she’s a participant and not a soloist. But she’s there.
Also contributing to a couple of cuts is Tom Aldredge, now most famous as Narrator and Mysterious Man in Into the Woods. Aldredge, who’d already collected a couple of Tony nominations prior to Rex, was enlisted as Henry’s Jester. He told me in 2005 that during the Wilmington tryout he was given a new song that he had to learn in time for the following performance – “and when the curtain went up, there I was singing, ‘D’you think I was King Henry? I’m only Henry’s fool. And when, if ever, have fools be known to rule?’ They cut it the next night,” he recalled, “and boy, was I glad.”
Craig Lucas, one of twenty-two ensemble members, might not have guessed that he’d be a future Tony nominee for writing. In fourteen years, Lucas would receive a Best Play nomination for Prelude to a Kiss. More interesting still, Lucas received a 2005 Best Book Tony nomination for The Light in the Piazza, which had a score by Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel.
A mere eighteen days after Rex opened on April 25, 1976, disaster struck. Ensemble member Jim Litten said “That’s a wrap” during a curtain call but Williamson heard it as “That’s crap” and literally assaulted the lad right on stage.
Fuller told me in 2006 that “There’s still discussion on what was really said.” Frankly, I’ve always considered Williamson’s point-of-view. Did he not want anyone to make a statement that would affect the morale of the cast?
On the other hand, Williamson was famously difficult. (Don’t miss Paul Rudnick’s piece at www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/i-hit-hamlet) The star might have felt that Litten was criticizing his performance and he wasn’t going to stand still (literally) for that.
The rabid publicity might have helped to bring in those who were hoping to see Williamson behave even more atrociously. But Adler told me that after that he “couldn’t be bothered” keeping Rex alive in hopes that it would catch on.
Compare this to the experience that his young co-producer on Rex — a just-starting-out Roger Berlind – had in 2007 with Curtains. Early on, reviews and business made clear that this musical would not be a hit, but it stayed around more than ten times longer than Rex. As Berlind told me in 2008, the cast got along so well and no one besieged him with complaints, so as long as Curtains was financially holding its own, he’d keep it alive although he knew his investors wouldn’t get any serious return from it. If Williamson had behaved, Rex might have lasted longer, too.
Another irony: Henry VIIIturned out to be the subject of Shakespeare’s penultimate play and Rodgers’ penultimate musical. The cast album shines when Williamson’s heading a majestic “The Field of Cloth and Gold,” Aldredge partakes in an exuberant “The Chase” and Fuller solos in an earwormy “In Time.” Here’s hoping in time that Rex will get another chance, just as Henry VIII is getting one now at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.