Jordan Schildcrout has two eye-opening surprises for us in his marvelous new book IN THE LONG RUN.
In his analysis of fifteen of the twenty-six Broadway plays that have managed to run over 1,000 performances, Schildcrout gives us two little-known facts about DEATHTRAP.
Both involve Marian Seldes.
No essay on Ira Levin’s terrific thriller would be complete without a reference to Seldes, who played Myra Bruhl. Her husband Sydney was a once-esteemed playwright who hasn’t had a hit for years. When Myra sees Sydney murder a young playwright whose thriller he wants to steal, she has a heart attack and dies.
What made Seldes famous was that she never missed any of the six previews or the 1,763 performances that the play was amassing. In fact, when New York Magazine had a contest where it asked for a quotation that someone was highly unlikely to give, a wag wrote in “‘I quit!’ – Marian Seldes.”
Now here’s Schildcrout’s first surprise: “Since her character was killed at the end of Act One, Seldes often caught the second act of other plays.”
Wow! It’s one thing for Mary Flynn in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG to admit to “sneaking in at intermission to the plays you wish you could afford” but to know that the oh-so-grand Marian Seldes second-acted too is quite a revelation. She apparently rebutted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous remark that “There are no second acts in American lives.” For all we know, she might have seen 1,799 of them during her February 21, 1978- June 18, 1982 stint in DEATHTRAP.
Today of course second-acting is a thing of the last century; since 9/11, everyone has become more cautious, and that includes Broadway. Still, in those comparatively innocent times of the late seventies and early eighties, it was a case of right this way your seat is waiting.
Schildcrout only stated she saw “plays,” but we’ll consider that a generic term. Surely with all the wonderful musicals playing during that fifty-two-month span Ms. Seldes wouldn’t solely restrict herself to non-singing dramas and comedies.
That’s especially likely considering that so many musicals have galvanic second-act opening numbers to get the audience back in the mood after those intermission drinks.
Ms. Seldes undoubtedly dropped in on WORKING, because Patti LuPone was in it – and Seldes gave her one of her first jobs when she directed the 1974 production of NEXT TIME I’LL SING TO YOU.
Was Ms. Seldes disappointed that the second-act opener didn’t feature LuPone in “It’s an Art”? Stephen Schwartz’s song – one of his best – concerns a waitress who loves her work. It would have been a natural for LuPone, although, as you can hear from the original cast album, Lenora Nemetz tastily served it up.
Little girls have little shoes, little socks, little bloomers and little teeth for only so long. Thus, Ms. Seldes may have visited ANNIE every few months to see the new kids on the block perform the show-stopping Act Two opener “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
Was Ms. Seldes so entranced with the Charnin-Strouse-Meehan musical that when their (very) ill-fated ANNIE 2 was being readied a dozen years hence, she decided to join it?
(In case you’re wondering, Ms. Seldes’ role was Marietta Christmas, who, despite the surname, didn’t show up at Daddy Warbucks’ mansion to give him a gift. On the contrary, she represented the United Mothers of America who wanted to take Annie away from him because he wasn’t married.)
If Ms. Seldes was depressed that she was the only one of the five DEATHTRAP performers who didn’t make a second-act appearance, a second-acting of BARNUM would have immensely cheered her. Some advice here for you: when you think you’ve hit the bottom and you’re feeling really low, you must play “Come Follow the Band.” You’ll find that staying in a funk is virtually impossible after hearing this most joyous of second-act openers.
EVITA opens its second act with a rouser of a much different type: “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” which became its most popular song. However, Ms. Seldes must have enjoyed the extraordinary songs that followed: 1) “High Flying Adored” (in which Evita feigns modesty before sharply adding “But one thing I’ll say for me”); 2) “Rainbow High” (which stresses her Hollywood standards of fashion); 3) “Rainbow Tour” (really an incredible success); 4) “And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)” with its tension-filled measure where the music just stops; during those bars, we can’t wait for it to start again.
Marvelous opening numbers couldn’t have been the only asset that induced Ms. Seldes to second-act; midway through many Act Twos, she also saw and heard the great songs that followed.
For the first three weeks of DEATHTRAP’s run, Ms. Seldes could have witnessed the last three weeks of SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM. She’d enjoy three marvelous songs from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, just as many from FOLLIES and one each from COMPANY, GYPSY, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, THE MAD SHOW, PACIFIC OVERTURES and WEST SIDE STORY.
The one that might have been brand-new for her was “We’re Gonna Be All Right,” semi-dropped from the unfortunately underrated DO I HEAR A WALTZ?
If you’re wondering what “semi-dropped” could possibly mean, both Sondheim’s hellishly clever verse and the melody that Richard Rodgers had set to it were discarded by the latter long before the show reached Broadway. Sondheim then produced a dumbed-down lyric to please his composer.
The unexpurgated lyric (which included “Sometimes he’s homosexual”) wasn’t heard until 1973 via SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE, but that was merely a one-night benefit. Ms. Seldes had as many as twenty-four chances to hear it in all its glorious wit.
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY had opened just days before DEATHTRAP, so Ms. Seldes would have had a year to see the marvelous production number “She’s a Nut.” It referred to Oscar Jaffee’s supposed benefactress Miss Primrose. Although today you can no longer see Madeline Kahn, John Cullum and Kevin Kline running helter-skelter all over the train, you can hear them – and the train, too – roar through the fun-filled number.
Did Ms. Seldes climb the twenty-two steps and enter the now-razed Princess Theatre to see the sleeper hit PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES? If she did, she might well have been contemptuous of Prudie and Rhetta Cupp. Each sang “(I Need a) Vacation”; Ms. Seldes apparently didn’t.
Better that she experience the joy of The Nazi Captain (Ron Holgate) deciding that he’d been narrow-minded in his feelings towards a Jew (Joel Grey) and now it was a case of “You I Like!” in Jerry Herman’s THE GRAND TOUR.
Carol Channing brought her first revival of HELLO, DOLLY! to town some weeks after DEATHTRAP had opened, so Ms. Seldes might have made an effort to see one of the greatest production numbers of all time. (That title song, of course.) But Seldes had another treat in store: “So Long, Dearie,” one of the great eleven o’clock numbers.
There’s another asset of second-acting: you get to hear eleven o’clock numbers. Here’s betting Ms. Seldes returned time and time again to see Dorothy Loudon pour her heart and lungs out in “Fifty Percent.” If the Statue of Liberty could have sung in 1979, she’d have only had the second-greatest torch song in town.
The two performers who delivered the eleven o’clock number of WOMAN OF THE YEAR each won a Tony. To be sure, Lauren Bacall won for her entire seldom-off-the-stage performance, but ol’ pro Marilyn Cooper only had one scene and this one song to grab the voters – which she most assuredly did.
Their duet “The Grass Is Always Greener” joined glamorous Tess and hausfrau Jan who’d envied each other’s life. Bacall got an enormous laugh when she sang a Fred Ebb lyric about Tess’ ex-husband but Cooper got a bigger one when she stated almost the same words about her current husband.
Did not a day go by when Ms. Seldes didn’t see the second act of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG during its fifty-one days in late 1981? If so, she might have enjoyed it more than the many nay-sayers at the time, for Act Two is the more pleasant one where Frank, Mary and Charley get along splendidly.
When Ms. Seldes heard “Our Time,” in which the kids sang about starting their careers, she might have recalled her own modest past as “Serving Girl” in the 1947 Judith Anderson revival of MEDEA. At least things were looking up two years later when the Greek tragedy was revived; Ms. Seldes had moved up to “Second Woman of Corinth.”
Even if Ms. Seldes were inclined to see plays, that might have changed if she’d dropped into 42ND STREET where Julian Marsh instructed young Peggy Sawyer that “musical comedy” are “the two most glorious words in the English language.”
All these take care of Schildcrout’s first surprise. And what’s the other? His footnote at the end of page 170 states that despite the hype, Ms. Seldes did indeed miss one performance somewhere in the run.
Well, we can understand why. She took the night off to see A CHORUS LINE. After all, it has no intermission.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at