A Life in the Theatre: Sorry/Grateful

A couple of weeks ago I was "awarded" a star on the sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre. This conjures up images of Lucille Ball trying to steal John Wayne's footprint outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Should I worry - are there crazed off-Bway fans who will try to pry up and run off with my piece of the sidewalk?
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I've been in theatre as a playwright for 33 years now (yikes), and I've recently started to receive those kinds of awards that come to you for being around for a while -- most notably a couple of weeks ago I was "awarded" a star on the sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York, thus joining a whole group of other off-Broadway writers whose names are also in front of the formerly named Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street. My name is Christopher, the street's name is Christopher, the theatre is now called Lucille.

This is a lovely award, though it's also a little funny maybe; and it conjures up images of Lucille Ball trying to steal John Wayne's footprint on his sidewalk star outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and should I worry -- are there crazed off-Broadway fans who will try to pry up and run off with my piece of the sidewalk?

(Proof I haven't made the sidewalk award up: Click here: Playbill News: Durang and Actors' Fund To Receive 2007 Lucille Lortel Honors)

By the way, for those who have never seen the I Love Lucy episodes because they're in black and white, I am not saying that the real Lucille Ball stole John Wayne's sidewalk-square-with-his-foot-print -- that was the fictional Lucy Ricardo who did that, who usually didn't steal things but somehow was such a ga-ga Hollywood fan that she decided the sidewalk piece would be a great souvenir. Like the recent Monica Goodling, she crossed an ethical line.

Though Lucy realized her moral mistake after Ricky yelled at her, and in part two of this episode, she and Ethel and Fred returned the sidewalk to its proper place, only to drop it en route, smashed into smithereens. And then Ricky -- who was a fictional big shot in Hollywood in this period of the show -- used his connections somehow to get John Wayne to agree to come and do the shoes-and-hands-into-cement thing again, and all was forgiven.

Anyway, these off-Broadway pieces of the sidewalk are a lot smaller than the Hollywood ones, and there are no foot prints or hand prints, just a gold star and your name; and I'm not sure who would try to steal mine.

Plus I can start feeling competitive, and wonder if it's David Mamet's star which is the more likely one to be removed. Or maybe fans of the great Tennessee Williams might steal his, partially in delayed protest at the theatre's name being changed from Theatre de Lys. Surely Williams would prefer that name, right?

Or maybe it would be fans of Charles Ludlam or Charles Busch who might arrive late at night, dressed in evening gowns and wearing size 14 high heel shoes, carrying glitter purses and a crowbar, who might then jimmy the sidewalk parts devoted to those talented gentlemen and spirit them away. Indeed I'm directly southeast of Ludlam's star... does no crazed fan wish to steal my piece of the sidewalk?

Actually, I shouldn't encourage the desecration of a sidewalk. Let's move on. (If you want to see whose off-Broadway star is where, here's the online plot of it.)

I put "Sorry/Grateful" in the title of this piece, and that's one of the songs in the great Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Company, which I saw again last Saturday night in its terrific Broadway revival starring the galvanizing Raul Esparza.

The song's title refers to one character's feelings about marriage, but I find it sums up how I feel about my 33 years in theatre. (Though I think the "sorry" is only one third, and the "grateful/happy" is two-thirds. It's not fifty-fifty.)

The "sorry" is because the reality hasn't matched what my image of a life in the theatre was when I was growing up.

Listening to those records of Rodgers and Hammerstein's series of musical hits in the 50s and 60s (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, etc.) with only the occasional flop (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream), I envisioned that if you "made it" in the theatre, you tended to have Broadway shows one after another in your career. That was definitely how it seemed from a distance in the 1950s; and I also started out in high school writing musicals with a school friend (Kevin Farrell, who is now a conductor and still composes as well).

And then there were movies like All About Eve where the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) wrote hit play after hit play, all starring the grande Margo Channing (Bette Davis, in superbly attractive-repulsive hair-do) until that young whipper-snapper Eve Harrington took over; though Lloyd Richards still had hits with her in his plays.

(Inside theatre knowledge: It's very disorienting for people in theatre to keep hearing the name of the "playwright Lloyd Richards" when they watch that 1950s film. Out in the real world, Lloyd Richards was a renowned and admired director, who ran the O'Neill National Playwrights Conferences for two decades (where he helped me), and who also directed most of August Wilson's plays, as well as the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. He died in June, 2006.)

In any case, though I've had my successes in theatre, it hasn't matched that string of Broadway or even off-Broadway hits that I envisioned. Except for my play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You which had a long off-Broadway run in the early 80s, all my other plays have had limited runs in the non-profit theatre world -- excellent productions, usually, and career visibility, but always part of a season where the play must stop after a month or so to make room for the next play.

Of course, compared to people who write plays and can't get them produced, I really should shut up. (Shut up, Christopher, you ungrateful lout!) So I will.

However, about the "grateful" part.

Good Lord, writing plays and being produced for 33 years.

The first was The Idiots Karamazov co-authored by Albert Innaurato, produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1974, immediately after Albert and I graduated the Yale School of Drama. It was very rare that student work got produced at the Rep, so this was like winning the lottery. And the lead in the play was... Meryl Streep. Really. She was a student in her final year there, and she was made up to look like she was a crazed eighty year old "translatrix" of Russian literature (so you can't recognize her in any of the photos). But nonetheless Meryl Streep was in my and Albert's first production, and she was very, very, very, very, very good (and hilarious too actually).

My two most recent plays -- 31 years later and 33 years later, respectively -- were Miss Witherspoon, in a joint premiere at McCarter Theatre and Playwrights Horizons in 2005, and Adrift in Macao, a musical written with composer Peter Melnick, at Primary Stages in 2007.

So I'm still here. Sounds familiar. Another Sondheim song.

P.S. Oh, another "grateful" is that there is still a part of me that can be a fan, an appreciator of exciting theatre. Now that I'm older and have seen 397,678 plays and musicals, I find I'm a little too savvy and a little too saturated to always lose myself in a theatre piece the way I used to.

But it still happens. I felt it last Saturday at Company. I saw the original too, my senior year of college (1971), it was fabulous. This one is darker; but I'm holding both in my head, in parallel places in my brain, as great theatre.

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