A Life in American Theatre.

January 6, 2016

If you go to any college orientation, it’s easy to pick out the theatre major wannabes.  While the business majors are making contacts and the proto-engineers are using their smartphones to game and/or calculate maximum spillage in their latest prank, the theatre majors are busy being theatrical.  Other students wear clothes; the theatricals show up in layers. Layers and layers of rehearsal outfits which can be removed or rearranged as needed, along with an overly large carrier of some kind that also looks like a refugee from the consignment store.  Once inside, it’s hard to get theatre majors out the door again.  They aren’t friendly during interviews, they are effusive (or moribund, if they’re channeling a Method Actor).  An English Major is ten minutes late for class; the Theatre Major appears just before he/she is declared dead.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And, concealed into the folds of rehearsal layers or tucked into the overlarge carrier are the proto-drama major’s tools of the trade: their Starbucks card, a few B&W headshots, a book on acting by Stella Adler (read), another by O’Neill on masks (not read) and Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One.   When you see one of these young and theatrical types, knock them down, grab their copy of Act One and run for the exit.  They can draw on the memory of you mugging them to prepare for some future role and you can get a good read.  When it comes to a life in the theatre, there is no better story than this one.

Hart was the Horatio Alger of 20th century American Theatre, a child of immigrants from the poorest slum in New York whose success and drive allowed him to build the kind of life that (according to one critic) God would have built…if he only had the money.  But it didn’t come easy.  There was no Julliard at that time, no AADA, or film school for those who wanted a life in the industry.  There was only the stage and how you got in depended on connections or drive.  Moss got there by drive, first taking the worst jobs in the least stable productions (where getting paid was still a gamble) and then inching his way up to something better.  Along the way he saw the Catskills resorts at its best and some declining stars at their worst and realized that he needed a life behind the footlights.  Hart was a director and a playwright but not an actor.  His idea of how sound would affect silent pictures became a satire on Hollywood that attracted the biggest playwright on Broadway at that time: George S. Kaufman.
It’s difficult to describe Kaufman in terms of contemporary theatre.   He started out as a journalist and drama critic (like Shaw) and became a playwright, someone infatuated with the rhythm of a spoken line as well as the idea it presented.  He was a sought-after play-doctor, for his ability to see the structural flaws in developing vehicles and correct them.  Harvey Fierstein does some of that these days and, like Fierstein, Kaufman was known to act, on occasion.  He was a fearsome director, a tireless worker and the most intimidating person in the world, according to Moss Hart but he was also a generous collaborator and, as Act One shows, a firm believer in the practice of “Kill Your Darlings.”
Kaufman and Hart’s first comedy, “Once in a Lifetime” is a study in Hollywood excess and early performances included a third act in an expensive, bird-themed nightclub set that was hilarious to look at but it stopped the action cold.  Another Broadway legend, Sam Harris (the man who partnered with George M. Cohan for years) mentioned after one dreary, show-killing point how loud and tiring the whole show was.  There was never a scene where a couple of the actors could simply talk over the events, he said and give him a chance to rest.  Hart took the suggestion seriously and rewrote the entire act, scrapping the expensive, already paid for set and adding the quiet interlude needed before the mayhem of a finale begins.  That quiet, third-act moment is necessary for the audience and whenever I’ve seen one in other productions, I know it was put in because the playwright heeded the advice of Moss Hart and Sam Harris.  George Kaufman agreed and when “Once in a Lifetime” opened to rave reviews, Kaufman made sure Hart got most of the credit (financially and publicly) for the hit.

The plural of genius: Kaufman & Hart

It’s a shame Hart never wrote the follow-up to this vivid theatrical autobiography because there was so much for him to cover: the string of plays and musicals he wrote and/or directed, his screenplays (including Garland’s “A Star is Born” and “Hans Christian Anderson), but it wasn’t in the cards.  Moss Hart died when he was still in his fifties and two of his shows (Camelot and My Fair Lady) were still running on Broadway.  Instead, he left behind a widow, two children, the theatrical legacy of a wunderkind and an autobiography theatre majors still pore over.  Let the sagacious and elderly rethink their lives reading Shakespeare; Act One is when you need to feel young.

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