The Play’s The Thing

Now I tell you that I consider the people of the east side of New York City are the finest, the kindest, the most intelligent people in the world. People who are not afraid of no word like.. like, anarchist.” So began the opening lines to a play that debuted on Broadway in late March of 1968 and lasted about a month before closing.

In the mid 1970’s, I belonged to a community organization that decided to put on this same play for four benefit performances on two successive Saturday and Sunday evenings. Among other energetic amateurs, I volunteered to play whatever part was deemed appropriate for me. Being in my early twenties and among the youngest among the volunteers, I was given the role of Jimmy the Anarchist. It was by no means a lead part but it was significant because the character spoke the opening lines to both the first and second acts. I had to memorize about ten sentences in all plus sing background in the chorus. In both scenes my character had to interact with a street cop. The officer was to bark at me and make an effort to put me under arrest. The fellow who was given this part looked it perfectly when he put on the uniform. He was the nicest guy but he just could not remember his lines. It ended up practically each time I had to say both his and my lines to get through the exposition.

In one exchange, I was supposed to say, “I hear they’ve taken Charlie McKenna off the machines and into the hospital. Are we gonna stand for it?” The copper was then supposed to say, “hear, now! You come over here, lad.” Except when the curtain was up, lights dimmed with a live audience hovering over every word, he froze and mumbled a bit. So I said, “what’s that, copper? You want me to come over to you?” And all he could do was shake his head yes.

This was not the first time I had tasted applause while strutting on a stage. Our high school senior class in the Spring of 1970 put on our own customized version of My Fair Lady. I had just a bit part playing a henchman of the scheming drunken father of Eliza Doolittle. Besides being again in the chorus, my one big scene was in a song and dance number while Eliza’s father tried to vocalize “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.” I say “tried” because he was tone deaf besides being a lousy dancer. And he was about four inches shorter than me which made it difficult to match his small step strides. Nevertheless, it was loads of fun. Everyone should get their taste of standing in the footlights.

I hung up the amateur performing bug by the late 1980’s when a community center put out a call for actors for a musical collage that was done for fund raising. They hired a tough talking director who had apparently done this type of thing before. She had no patience for anyone who wanted to joke around. Some of us looked at it a social event to get to meet new people. For her, it was her reputation on the line.

She decided I was not the handsome leading man type which was fine by me. She had me read for a scene out of Neil Simon’s, “Come Blow Your Horn”. It was where the father goes to visit his no goodnik older son who was now teaching the baby in the family how to waste away his life as well. In the movie version. Lee J. Cobb plays the exasperated father perfectly as he berates Frank Sinatra for corrupting Tony Bill. In my audition, I imitated Cobb’s voice and inflections as I could think of no better way to do it. That in a nutshell was my problem in being an actor. I was a natural– a natural mimic. The bossy director said I would do but she obviously had misgivings in my ability to do the scene in my own true voice. Heck, she was asking me to play someone twenty-five years older than myself at the time. Give me a break!

The production was a hodgepodge of Broadway play scenes. Besides the Simon play scenario, there would be a portion from The Fantasticks. The play had introduced a great song, “Try To Remember The Kind of September” The boss lady gave each of the males a chance to sing the song in tryout so she could evaluate who would end up doing it. At that point I had already taken voice lessons and was somewhat familiar with looking at a musical score sheet and singing accompanied by a piano. However, I was also prone to tightening up. To be kind, let me just say I was awful. I could not sing in the pitch she expected nor catch on to the pacing of the musical accompaniment. I did what any self-respecting gent would have done. I threw a tantrum and quit the show. She wasn’t happy but then I didn’t need the pressure and insults. It also ended my need to fulfill a desire to be in a production for good or at least for the next twenty-five years.

Speaking of The Fantasticks, it reminds me of the time it was put on by the drama department at North Eastern Illinois University while I was attending it during the early 1970’s. Out of curiosity I went to see it. After all, how often would I get to see a live musical play done at least by semi-professional performers?

Around that same time span, a buddy arranged for the two of us to double date. He chose for me his cousin. I thought I was getting a good deal at the time but then he mentioned to me just before we picked her up that she had just gotten over mononucleosis. Not that I was expecting to have a marathon make-out session with her on a first date, but it left me with a feeling as if she had the bubonic plague and to keep my distance. Still, my buddy also arranged for us to go see Promises, Promises. It had great songs but I already knew the plot since it was a stage adaptation of the hit Billy Wilder movie, “The Apartment”. It didn’t hold any more interest to me than my date and I’m sure she felt the same.

Anyway, in the college production, the lead actor in The Fantasticks had such a clear articulate middle American voice. I thought to myself, “not only is he a good actor, but he enunciates so well. That must be a result of a good Speech and Performing Arts department at Northeastern.”

The play inspired me to finally take a Speech class as part of the electives obligation. Whom should I see in the class but the same fellow who starred in the play. The professor asked us to participate in the class discussion. The actor raised his hand and was called on. Lo and behold, he was talking with a thick Irish accent. After class I approach him and asked him where he was born and he mentioned Ireland. I then asked him if he was indeed the fellow I saw on stage. He replied in the affirmative. I then mentioned that he didn’t seem to have any trace of an Irish accent while playing in the Fantasticks. He replied, “that’s acting.”

It sure was. Years later in the late 1980’s I saw the then-hit movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, a mixture of live action and cartoons blended together in a very entertaining film. The lead human was played by Bob Hoskins. He was instantly likable and so I made an effort to try to see other movies he would be in. It was not until a few years later that I saw him on a talk show and he was speaking to the host in a thick English Cockney accent. It was then that I learned that he was born in England. That’s acting, too!

Recalling all this has me now thinking of moving to England and starting over in a career as an upper crust but lovable and older but wiser British peer in the local movie industry. I’m counting on you to not give away my identity, okay?

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