When I was doing my Master’s class work, I had the privilege of taking classes from Oscar G. Brockett, whom some have called “the leading theatre historian of the 20th Century.” That was one of the reasons why I chose to use his theatre history text for my classes; I simply admired the man. I was also lucky enough to have him on the committee for my Master’s thesis; a study of an original promptbook of a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham, England in the mid-1800’s, which I discovered in the Lilly Library, the rare books/special collections library at Indiana University, Bloomington. I always wished that he had been my major professor on this project, but he was too busy with his PhD students. It’s probably from him that I acquired a certain interest in trying to figure out what might really have happened, etc., based on less that complete evidence. I was able to pin down the possibility that the promptbook I had MIGHT be a copy of the one for the production of that play presented (on tour) by Charles Dickens and an amateur group of his friends. I could prove that this company played in that theatre at about the right time, so the possibility that it could be a copy of their promptbook made by, or for, Mr. Simpson, the theatre manager, is not out of the realm of possibility. Nor was it out of the realm of possibility that the copy I studied actually belonged to Dickens and was somehow acquired by Simpson, whose label is on the front cover. Still, neither of these possibilities could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. At least they couldn’t be by me, at that time, under those circumstances. But, I’m digressing….
The other day, Bonnie, Maggi and I attended a performance of The Producers at the Omaha Community Playhouse. I have to confess that I wasn’t overly impressed, as I felt that the musical show is significantly weaker (as a script) than the original movie. As a 90-minute movie, I love it! As a two and a half hour musical, not terrifically well performed (not badly done, mind you, but not really what I was expecting having seen some other shows at the OCP which I though were really quite well done). But, I’m still digressing….
We got to the theatre a few minutes early, to find our seats, get settled in, look over the program, etc. In looking over the “Director’s Notes,” I ran across this paragraph:
Way back in 1968, MGM was extremely nervous about releasing Springtime for Hitler, a screwball comedy by a relatively unknown TV writer. Even after changing the title to The Producers, the studio was not willing to spend the money required to give it a wide release. It wasn't until Peter Sellers accidentally saw the film (the theater lost the reel for the Fellini flick he wanted to see so it substituted a copy of the still unreleased The Producers that was laying around the back room), fell in love with it and did everything in his power to promote it, including taking out full page ads in the trade papers and personally calling up studio heads and begging them to release it. His efforts paid off. Advertising got people into the seats for opening weekend, word of mouth and rave reviews continued to fill the seats and the film became a box office smash, won an Oscar for best screenplay and launched the careers of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder into the stratosphere (Zero Mostel was already a rising star, but I'm sure he appreciated the bump in fame).
It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes on the web to establish that Mostel had been awarded Tonys as the lead in Rhinoceros in 1961, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1963 and Fiddler on the Roof in 1965. NOTE: all of these were BEFORE the magic 1968 date indicated in the “Director’s Notes” and suggesting that “(Zero Mostel was already a rising star, but I'm sure he appreciated the bump in fame).” In other words, a THREE-time Tony award-winning stage and musical actor is being referred to (by a theatre person [!]) as a “rising star.” Personally, I find that insulting to both Tony award winners and to all of those who struggle daily, doing good, solid work, but who have never gotten an award. Is the entertainment industry so dominated by movies that Mostel can’t be considered a “star” because he never won an Oscar? Don’t three Tonys count for something? I think this suggests a lack of knowledge on the part of the author, as well as a lack of willingness to find out the facts before putting a statement like this in print.
Now, as some of you know, I’ve never been very fond of awards, in any event. I consider them to be mostly marketing tools for producers. I frequently think about an interview which Paul Newman and Tom Hanks gave to Time Magazine:
Time: Paul, you usually don't go to the Oscars even when you're nominated. Why?
[Newman makes a face like he's just taken a swig of lemon juice.]
HANKS: I think he just answered your question.
NEWMAN: I don't understand why competition has to exist between actors. Some guy starts with a marvelous character, and the script is all there. All he has to do is show up. Another guy digs it out by the goddamn roots with a terrible director and turns in this incredible performance. And someone says one is better than the other. That's what's nice about car racing. It's right to a thousandth of a second. Your bumper is here. That guy's bumper is there. You win.
I think that also means that we need to understand how we got to where we are as an art and a craft. And that means that we should take the time to engage our brains before we open our mouths (even metaphorically). All that the director had to do was a little research not to come off as a bit of a foolish jerk to at least one audience member (granted, a fairly knowledgeable one).
And THAT just may be the real reason to understand something about the history of the theatre—it can prevent us from looking dumb. Of course, having someone edit our copy for stupid grammar mistakes can be useful, too.