Broadway and 47th as a runner at tkts, one of the hottest shows was the revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner. There was no way this show was ever going to be on the half-priced board but I had to see it. The King and I was the first live theatre I’d experienced almost twenty years before when Dad had brought me to that summer stock matinee and there was no way I was not going to see this. I had some classmates who wanted to see his performance too but I was the one living in the city so I had to do the leg work and front the bucks for the seats. We exchanged some letters about the theatre party and even spoke long distance. Hey, this was a long time ago. I knew I had to pay full price so I asked one of the ticket sellers who knew everybody if he had a good friend in the Uris box office. If I had to pay top dollar I wanted the best seats I could get. Yeah, he knew a guy and after a phone call I was told I should get there before curtain tonight. The seats would be good, great really but then I heard the price. Ouch.
Well, I thought back to my senior year when Ralph Pendleton, who’d created our theatre department, came out of retirement for a three hour, once-a-week seminar. He’d chain smoke and we took notes while he reveled in his rapt audience. He told us of seeing Nazimova in Ghosts, Barrymore, Gielgud, Evans, Howard, Guinness and most lately Burton as each had done his Hamlet. He’d seen the Lunts often. He told us, “Whenever you have a chance to see any of the great actors in those roles that made them in their careers, you must by all means see them, no matter what.” I heard Ralph telling me this again as I walked up Broadway and turned onto 50th Street to get to the theatre and made my way to the Advance Sales window. I asked for the ticket seller and gave my name, handed over the cash, it had been payday and trusted my friends would keep their word and they did. I got my expenses back. Our seats were front Loge, center, fourth row and were $60… for all four tickets. Amazing now to think that $15 was the full price for a Broadway ticket and that I had to think twice before spending “all that money” but I did. I’m not sorry because it was important, as Ralph had told us to see actors recreate the roles that made them.
The Broadway economy is a very different animal now. Hey, box offices are their own scalpers since The Producers. It changed even when I was there thanks to David Merrick with the first $50 Saturday Night ticket. The prices only got, and now get, ever higher. Still, there are more ways of finding less expensive options to see a show. I’m not going to be a commercial for the numerous offers to be found online but they’re out there. Especially in these hard times Broadway is finding ways of filling houses and letting the savvy get to see the show. Standing Room has come back to Broadway, so all the Eve Harrington’s can see every show before being noticed by the stage door. Lotteries for tickets are deeply discounted, but that’s still more than I used to pay for full price back when. Off-Broadway and further the chance to usher will give ways to see shows, and more than once too, so what’s really going on can be absorbed. I ushered two seasons for the long ago Phoenix Theatre and saw some great actors and watching an actor act is a great lesson. Watching an actor and not noticing the acting is a greater lesson, so ushering is an easy, inexpensive way to watch again and again and learn and learn.
What did we do in Scene Study classes anyway? We’d act, sure but we watched the other scenes too and talk about it. I recall one dear pal I did several shows and loads of scenes with who did the Balcony Scene from R&J. First time the class saw the scene he’d arranged for it to be played in the grand room of one of the frats that was much like a Shakespearean stage so he could climb up to her. By the last time that scene was brought back to class it was played on a flat stage. It was a great journey for all of us. When we’d be going back from our theatre day in NYC to Tenafly as we wound up rehearsals for what, by the way was called, The New Jersey Festival Festival, we took turns taking apart and putting back together each actor in each scene of each show, especially as we ended the night walking back to NJ over the GWB. We were so excited to see actors getting to act that it inspired us all the more. We were enthusiastic if not great critics but we learned something new. I recall enjoying a wonderful character actor who used initials in his name. I thought it looked good in the program… I learned that, anyway.
See shows! In between seeing shows? See more shows! There are now DVDs available of some great Broadway performers from their TV versions of the shows. I grew up with Mary Martin in Peter Pan. Watch any and all of these! Again, my favorite place to see actors from the past is TCM. Watch classic films! If you have a chance to go back to campus and see what your department is turning out these days, do it. When you find yourself home and your old community theatre group is having a show, see it. You may well find you’ve out grown them but maybe seeing people doing it without a paycheck might remind you of how important it is to have passion for being on the stage. Because after all, even the smallest bit player on the creakiest amateur stage isn’t working for free because if there’s nothing else, there’s always applause.