Archive for August, 2021

Walden, TheatreWorks Hartford, 26 August 2021

Lawrence Harbison, the Playfixer, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since the New York theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, in this column Larry reports on a show you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo. 

And now for something completely different: TheatreWorks Hartford is streaming their production of Amy Berryman’s Walden but unlike other streamed productions I have seen during the Pandemic, this one takes place outdoors. The set is a cabin in the woods with actual woods as its backdrop, with an adjacent chicken coop. The audience (socially distanced, of course) is given headphones. It’s a brilliant device which greatly enhances the intimacy of this very intimate play.

The play is set in the near future and focuses on two sisters – Stella, a “space architect” and Cassie (short for Cassiopeia), an astronaut. Stella and her boyfriend Bryan, whose cabin we peer into, are endeavoring to make a brave, sustainable new world. There have been major advances in space exploration as well as a burgeoning environmental movement called Earth Advocates, and much of the play concerns arguments about how to save our planet, the merits/demerits of space colonialization and synthetic foods, and if it is more ethical, even possible, to live with no electricity.

Director Mei Ann Teo has created a unique form of site-specific theatre, assisted brilliantly by her designers, most notably You-shin Chen, whose cramped cabin set greatly enhances the intimacy of the play and sound designer Hao Bai, who makes you feel almost as if you are in the cabin with these fascinating characters. The actors, Diana Oh (Stella), Jeena Yi (Cassie) and Gabriel Brown (Bryan) are all first rate.

While we wait for live, indoor theatre to get going again, you couldn’t do better than stream Walden. Tickets: Buy: Walden (IN PERSON) (force.com)

 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

Share

Ann Crumb (from my Memoir, “200 Times a Year. My Life In, At and Around the Theatre”)

Ann Crumb

From my Memoir, 200 Times a Year. My Life in, At and Around the Theatre

I first saw Ann during the summer of 1972. I was working on the University of Michigan grounds crew, starting grad school in the fall. I was on the grass cutting crew, but it hadn’t rained for eight weeks so there was no grass to cut. When we came in every morning, essentially we were told to go someplace and lay low. I chose the Undergraduate Library, where I sat and read plays all day. One day, tired of all that reading, I moseyed over to the Theatre Dept. to scope it out and heard a rehearsal going on in the Trueblood Auditorium, so I slipped in and sat in the back to watch. An energetic little man (more about him in another chapter) was staging a scene from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. It was the scene at the house of Marcus Lycus, with the three courtesans. I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl playing Tintinnabula, who was a wonderful dancer and very beautiful. Of course, this was Ann.

Ann was not a theatre student — she was getting a degree in speech pathology – but she was one of the stars of the Ann Arbor theatre scene. I didn’t really know her very well, though,  until after I moved to New York. I went to see a children’s play by David Mamet, REVENGE OF THE SPACE PANDAS, at St. Clements, to see an actress who was in a play I had directed off off Broadway. Ann came to the play, too, to see her friend Margo Martindale (more about her in another chapter), and we reconnected. She invited me over to her apartment for dinner, and we really hit it off. I lived nearby, so I started spending most evenings there when I wasn’t at the theatre.

After finishing her degree, Ann had moved to Philadelphia to work at a hospital there, treating aphasia in people who had had a stroke. She missed the theatre, though, so she auditioned for a class at the Hedgerow Theatre. This was typical of her, thinking she needed to take a class. Ann had a huge inferiority complex. Well, after her audition they offered her a job on the faculty, so she taught at Hedgerow for a while in the evenings, after a full day at the hospital. Then a non-Equity touring production of EL GRANDE DE COCA COLA in Philly lost an actress, so the producer called the Hedgerow and asked if they could recommend anyone. They recommended Ann and she got the job. From that, she went into a production in Philly of STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW, a revue of the songs of Richard Maltby and David Shire, which got her her Equity card. She then did a couple of seasons at the Philadelphia Theatre Co., playing Ophelia opposite John Glover’s Hamlet and several other roles, before moving to New York. When I reconnected with her, she was working as a secretary in a law office. She wasn’t even auditioning. Well, I viewed this as a huge waste of talent, so I made it my obsession to help her believe in herself again, and to get her back to the theatre. She was full of excuses. She said she couldn’t audition because she had a lousy headshot, so I gave her money for a new one. Then she decided she needed her hair styled before she could go to a photographer, so I gave her money for that. She spent my dough on vet bills for dogs she had rescued. She was an indefatigable dog-rescuer. Finally, she got her hair done and her new headshot, and started going to Equity open calls, mainly for musicals. In those days, open calls actually could lead to a job.

By this time, I was head over heels in love with her.

Around about then, she got her first agent. I took her to a French restaurant, A La Fourchette (which closed many years ago, alas), to celebrate. Bob Bennett, a stage manager friend of mine, had told me I had to see a show which was getting a lot of buzz, playing late nights after his show at what is now the Westside Arts Theatre, a revue about the Boswell Sisters called THE HEEBIE JEEBIES, so we went to see it. This turned out to be PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES. What a night! After it transferred, I saw the show several times. It’s one of my all-time faves.

Ann finally got a Big Break when she was cast as Andrea Marcovicci’s understudy in the title role of the musical NEFERTITI, which was to open in Chicago before coming to Broadway. Alas, the show closed in Chicago. When she got back to New York, she decided she needed a vocal coach. Bill Schuman, one of the top ones, told her she had to audition for him. At the time, Bill was the vocal coach for EVITA, which was casting its first national tour. After hearing her sing, Bill called the casting director and said he had in his studio one of the greatest voices he had ever heard. She auditioned, but the producers decided to go with an actress who had done the role on Broadway since there was only going to be a week of rehearsals. Harold Prince’s assistant was starting to direct productions around the country, though, and he started to cast Ann; so she played Eva Peron at several theatres. I saw her at Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island. She was astounding.

Lest you think that Ann only did musicals, early on in her career she played in a terrific production of Witkiewicz’ THE MADMAN AND THE NUN at Theatre Off Park, for which she got her first NY Times review – a rave – and played Miss Scoons in the NY premiere of Sam Shepard’s ANGEL CITY at the Impossible Ragtime Theatre, directed by Ted Story (more about my involvement with this in my chapter on Samuel French). I recommended her for both roles. She also played Maggie in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Tennessee Rep.

Her next Big Break came when she was cast in the ensemble of LES MISERABLES, understudying Randy Graff as Fantine. When Randy left for a week’s vacation, Ann went on. She invited me, and this was one of my greatest nights at the theatre. I still get chills when I hear her voice in my head, singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” She did the show for several months, then Trevor Nunn cast her in the ensemble of CHESS, understudying the roles of Florence and Svetlana. Marcia Mitzman (Svetlana) was sick during most of the preview period, so Ann did the role, wonderfully. She then was cast as Fantine in the first national tour of LES MISERABLES.

While she was at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, she got a call to audition for a supporting role in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which was opening in the West End, so she came back to New York for her audition. Her vocal coach prepared a medley for her of Lloyd Webber’s hardest songs, and while she was singing who should barge in but Lloyd Webber himself, wanting to know who that voice was. He took her into another room, played the score of ASPECTS OF LOVE and asked her to sing the songs he had written for Rose Vibert, the female lead. A week later, her agent called. She was cast in the role, starring opposite Michael Ball.

ASPECTS OF LOVE was a huge hit in London, and Ann was the toast of the town. Well into the run, she was injured when a treadmill came on too early in a blackout while she was changing costumes. It caught the heel of her shoe and dragged her across the stage, jamming her foot into where the treadmill went back under the stage, mangling it. She was rushed to a hospital, where she got a big surprise: her insurance through American Equity wouldn’t cover her because she was not acting in an American show. She was part of the exchange program between the Equities. When the unions had set up this program, apparently it had never occurred to them what would happen if someone got hurt.  She was told her only option was to sue the producer, Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company, and the theatre owner, Cameron MacIntosh. MacIntosh pulled her out of a National Health Hospital and got her into a private one in St. John’s Wood. The Really Useful Company paid for everything, including several operations on Ann’s foot. Eight months later, she opened on Broadway, wearing special orthopedic shoes designed for her foot. In London, the stage floor had been cobbled. On Broadway, the cobbles were two-dimensionally painted so Ann could walk.

By this time, Frank Rich of the NY Times had decided he had had it with “bloated British mega-musicals,” so he panned the show – quite ironic when you consider that ASPECTS OF LOVE is a small scale, intimate musical. Despite Rich’s pan it held on, building an audience, so the Times began running negative pieces about it, trying to twist the knife. Although the show was nominated for a Tony Award, Ann herself was snubbed. Ann’s contract for Broadway was for a year, but for 8 performances a week, which Ann couldn’t do, not only because of the difficulty of the role but also because of the pain in her foot, which Lloyd Webber considered to be a violation of her contract. That was the excuse. The reason was that he had decided he could turn the show into a hit by replacing Ann with a star. The role was offered to several stars, one of which was Patti Lupone, who told the casting director that she was unavailable as she was in a TV series and, anyway, she couldn’t sing the role. She said she knew of only one actress who could sing it. “Who?” asked the casting director. To which Lupone replied, “Ann Crumb.” She then called Ann and told her about this, which is when Ann learned that she was being replaced, although she had heard rumors. Then Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber’s estranged ex-wife who had become a star when she played Christine in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, decided she would like to play Rose. She was angry that the film of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in which she was to play Christine was delayed and Andrew wanted to mollify her as the couple were in the midst of a contentious divorce, so he gave her the role. He then closed down the production and rehearsed Sarah for three weeks with a full orchestra and cast. He also re-orchestrated the role, lowering it so she could sing it. It was the most expensive cast replacement in Broadway history. When Sarah was ready, critics were re-invited. They were unimpressed (particularly, Rich), so the show closed a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, Ann decided to accept a settlement offer rather than sue, concerned that if she sued this might harm her career, and rightly so. Word got out about this settlement anyway and she became persona non grata to the casting directors, who were afraid of incurring the wrath of Lloyd Webber and MacIntosh. Was she blacklisted? It’s hard to say, but it is undeniable that she went from being considered for every show to having no auditions. She received a big chunk of money, though, which she used to buy the second floor of an old church in Brooklyn Heights, which she converted into a fabulous loft with stained glass windows and a cathedral ceiling.

A year or so later, I got a call from Nancy “Pinkie” Bosco, Circle in the Square’s literary manager (as well as the wife of the great actor Philip Bosco). Pinkie told me that the theatre was going to do a production of a musical version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and asked me if I could recommend anyone for the title role. They had done a workshop of the show with Melissa Errico as Anna, but had decided she was too young for the role. They had considered several actresses recommended by their casting director but felt none were suitable. Mind you, this was at a time when the casting directors seemed to have “forgotten” about Ann. Pinky hadn’t, though, and when I told her Ann was perfect for the role she agreed, and Theodore Mann, the theatre’s Artistic Director (who was directing the show) cast her. The show wasn’t very good, partly because Ted Mann was not an experienced director but mostly because the two guys who wrote it hadn’t seen LES MISERABLES. How can you do a musical adaptation of another great 19th Century novel without having bothered to see LES MISERABLES? Although the reviews for the show weren’t very good, Ann’s notices were excellent and she received a Tony nomination. Alas, ANNA KARENINA was Ann’s last Broadway show.

In London, though, she was still a star from ASPECTS OF LOVE. She played Louisa in the London premiere of NINE, opposite Jonathan Pryce as Guido Contini. There is a recording of this production on You Tube, so you can hear her thrilling renditions of Louisa’s two songs, “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own.” She also starred in the London production of THE GOODBYE GIRL, in the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters. Back in the U.S., she did tours, most notably a hugely successful one of MAN OF LA MANCHA, in which she played Aldonza opposite John Cullum’s Cervantes/Quixote. I saw it in Baltimore and Ann received a screaming standing ovation at her curtain call. She was offered the role in a Broadway revival starring Raul Julia but then the offer was withdrawn when the producers decided they needed a bigger “name,” who turned out to be singer Sheena Easton. The show flopped.

Ann also did some work Off Broadway. She was excellent in a revival of RAGS at the American Jewish Theatre, in which she played the role originated on Broadway by opera star Teresa Stratas and was hilariously evil in a musical version of the film Johnny Guitar, although one legacy of that was that she injured her knee during a fight scene and eventually had to have knee replacement surgery. She played in an ensemble musical about women in group therapy at the Cherry Lane Theatre, produced by my friend Carol Ostrow (more about her in a suubsequent chapter). About this time, she started doing shows in the Philadelphia area, where she was sort of “local girl makes good.” She did GOBLIN MARKET at the Wilma Theatre and several shows at the Media Center for the Performing Arts, where she played Florence Foster Jenkins in SOUVENIR and Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS. The last show she did there was a scaled down production of SUNSET BOULEVARD, as Norma Desmond, a role she had played two or three times before at theatres around the country. Anne was a coloratura soprano, but in “New Ways to Dream” she went down into the depths of her range and was astounding. I blurted out, “Oh my God!” when she did this. I couldn’t help it. When she came out afterwards, she asked me “Was that you? I knew that was you!

At this point, I have a few personal anecdotes about Ann to share with you. Ann loved Snickers bars. I always brought her a couple of them when I took her to the theatre. One night about eleven o’clock, early on in our relationship, my phone rang. I was in bed, asleep. I picked up my phone and heard, “Snick! Snick!” I got dressed and went out into a driving rain to find her some Snickers bars figuring, finally, this was gonna be my night. The entrance to Ann’s apartment was in the rear of a house. There was an alleyway which led to a heavy, black, steel door which opened onto the street. I rang her buzzer and heard her walking down this alleyway. Then the black door opened with a creak and I heard, “Did you get them? “Yes, Ann,” I said, and held up the bag of Snickers bars. A hand reached out through the door opening and took them. “Thank you,” she croaked, and then the door slowly closed with a creak and a clang. I trudged back in the rain to my apartment.

Ann could be quite a handful. She was, to put it mildly, time-challenged. Whenever I took her to the theatre she would always ask me what time she needed to be ready, and I would always tell her fifteen minutes before the actual time, in order to get to wherever we were going on time. She and her boyfriend Vince lived together when Ann moved to Brooklyn Heights, and he became one of my dearest pals, almost like a brother. Once, he told me, Ann was flying off to do a show, but she dithered and dithered. Vince kept silent, knowing if he bugged her about the time she would Just. Go. Slower. Predictably, she missed her flight. Vince helped her book another one, which was four hours later. Then he wished her a good flight and turned to leave. Ann was flabbergasted. “Aren’t you going to wait with me? She asked. “No, Ann,” Vince replied. “I want you to sit there by yourself for four hours and think about why it was that you missed your flight.”

As I mentioned earlier, Ann was a dedicated dog rescuer. She always had a least two – sometimes, three — dogs living with her. She would find dogs on the street, pay vet bills for them and then place them far and wide. She spearheaded the rescue of the dogs orphaned by Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of them, organizing caravans to deliver them to new homes all over the country. One day, I went over to her apartment to visit her and she asked me to drive her around Brooklyn Heights to look for a stray she had seen earlier in the day. After about two hours, we were unsuccessful in our search – but she wanted to keep going. It drove her nuts that she never found this dog. She paid thousands of dollars to kill shelters to hold off euthanization until she could find dogs homes. Let me tell you, there is a special shrine in Doggy Heaven dedicated to Ann Crumb.

Ann’s father, George Crumb, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. He began writing vocal music, and Ann sang it all over the world, recording Grammy-nominated albums. She also had an act in which she sang jazz, performing this worldwide and recording an album, “A Broadway Diva Swings.” You can hear her on You Tube singing some of her father’s compositions as well as the best songs from her jazz album.

In 2017, Ann was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She had it all cut out and went through chemotherapy. Finally, it was in remission; but in 2019, it came back, spread all through her. She started hemorrhaging and was taken to the emergency room, but it was too late. She was brought home to her parents’ house in Media to die. I drove out there to see her one last time. She weighed less than 90 pounds and was so heavily-sedated it was like she was in a coma. I sat vigil along with Vince, her family and several friends. A day later she died, never regaining consciousness.

When I get to Heaven, I plan to look for her. I’ll just listen for the sound of barking dogs.

 

“She walks in beauty, like the night

   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

   And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

— Lord Byron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share