- - Wednesday, June 24, 2015


By Peter Filichia

St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 290 pages illustrated


One of my favorite remarks about state of legitimate theater occurred in the television classic “I Claudius.” When Augustus Caesar inquired how things were in the theatrical world, a venerable actor replied that “the theater wasn’t what it was.” But the real zinger was when he added slyly: “And you know what? It never was what it was.” Well, with all due homage to the general acuity of that remark, here is a book to tell us of a season on Broadway just over half a century ago that could absolutely justify anyone saying that the theater today really isn’t what it was — then.

New Jersey theater critic Peter Filichia begins his enthusiastic, mouthwatering look back at that greatest of seasons with “Theater World” editor Daniel Blum’s annual cover list of its six most illustrious performers: Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!,” Richard Burton in “Hamlet,” Albert Finney in “Luther,” Carol Burnett in “Fade Out-Fade In,” Beatrice Lillie in “High Spirits” and Alec Guinness in “Dylan.”

Who could quarrel with this sextet lighting up everything from Shakespeare to John Osborne? But what astonishes Mr. Filichia is, he writes, “no Barbra Streisand, who officially became a bona fide star thanks to ‘Funny Girl’? On April 10, Streisand made the cover of Time on May 22, she was on the cover of Life. And she wasn’t good enough for Blum’s dust jacket?” That so big a star could miss the top rung somehow encapsulates Mr. Filichia’s problem: How can you do justice in 250 pages to everyone who “strutted and fretted” their countless hours on the boards that season?

It’s certainly a conundrum I can identify with as a reviewer, with limited space. Every time I decide whom or what to mention, I think: But what about him, or her, or them, or it, who all make me salivate? So with apologies to all those whose favorites are left out, here goes with my chosen highlights from “The Great Parade.”

Richard Burton’s stunning modern-dress “Hamlet,” directed by John Gielgud, was the only one of these top performances I was actually privileged to see for myself, admittedly in a limited-release film of the play, but it was by far the finest of the many productions of that peerless play I have attended. Has any actor compelled our attention on the melancholy Danish prince for all those hours as the casually clad Burton?

But how I wish I could have seen Beatrice Lillie scintillate in the musical version of Noel Coward’s classic comedy “Blithe Spirit.” Or the brooding, saturnine Albert Finney agonize as Martin Luther. And that enigmatic master of controlled acting Alec Guinness embrace the wildness of the alcoholic Welsh bard Dylan Thomas. Or the sheer fun of seeing Mike Nichols breathe first life into Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and seeing Robert Redford on stage rather than on the silver screen. Or breathing in the intensity of that family drama to top almost anything else in the genre, “The Subject Was Roses.” It’s the lesser-known delights, however, that make one really wish one had been there back then. Such as Enid Bagnold’s insightful play “The Chinese Prime Minister,” which has nothing to do with China or political figures but everything to do with how to deal with old age. Or Alan Paton’s “Sponono,” which drew on his experiences running a reformatory in pre-apartheid South Africa (also the basis for his great novel “Cry, the Beloved Country”). Neither lasted very long, but would they even have made it to first base today?

I did see and enjoy on the stage in London two plays mentioned here: Peter Shaffer’s “The Private Ear and the Public Eye” and Arnold Wesker’s RAF boot camp drama “Chips With Everything.” Mr. Filichia commends both, even though he twists the knife a bit by telling readers that Maggie Smith did not cross the pond from London with the Shaffer play. They would both have been worth seeing again on Broadway, I’m sure.

For those of us who love to wallow in the nostalgic Schadenfreude of remembering a bygone era just loaded with delights not found today, this is a book to be treasured and enjoyed over and over again. Since it is impossible to jump in a time machine to visit the Great White Way back in that luminous season, this marvelous book will just have to serve as the best substitute available for allowing us to enjoy, albeit vicariously, what must have been millions of magic moments.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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