The year was 1979. I was 20 years old, a few months away from my professional acting debut. I was living in my parents’ home in Detroit and had immersed myself in theater. That immersion had begun in the fall of 1978, when I had consciously decided to try packing as much theater into my life as I possibly could.
I don’t remember how I heard about the auditions. Someone had acquired the Alger Theater, a shuttered former movie palace on Detroit’s far east side, with the intention of producing community theater. Word was that the place had a usable stage, that it had hosted live performances back in the day. Their first production was to be the musical Damn Yankees.
Well say no more! That’s what I thought at the time. The role of the Devil, originated by the late great Ray Walston, was one of my dream roles. I showed up at the auditions, which I believe were on a Sunday afternoon, ready to act the Hell out of the role.
Several dozen auditioners were spread about the spacious Alger Theater when I arrived. They came in all ages and sizes, including a few hopeful moms shepherding groups of children. The director – I’ll call him Ronald – began by jumping up on the stage to make an announcement. It went something like this: “I’m happy to see so many of you here today for our Damn Yankees auditions. There’s just one problem – we’re not doing Damn Yankees; we’re doing The Music Man. I’m sure that’s disappointing to some of you, but I hope you’ll stay for the auditions.”
There followed a general murmuring, and various people, including moms with groups of children, clambered out of their seats and left. In retrospect, this was rather mystifying, since Music Man has a far greater need for child performers than does Damn Yankees.
I too was disappointed that I would not have a chance that day to pursue one of my dream roles, but in fact, this played right into my hand. You see, Music Man was the first show I’d ever performed in. We’d done it in my junior year of high school and I knew just about the whole show by heart, including the tricky cadences of the song “Trouble.”
So when my time came to go up onstage and audition, I sang “Trouble.” It contrasted nicely with the many songs from Damn Yankees being sung that day. I was purely delighted to receive a rousing ovation from my fellow auditioners at the conclusion of my song.
Ronald immediately waved me over towards him. “That was great!” he gushed. “I don’t know whether you’re going to be Harold Hill or barber shop quartet or something, but welcome aboard!” Well gosh… make a fellow feel welcome!
There was a practical reason for Ronald to try casting people who already knew the show. It was this: Opening night took place less than three weeks after auditions. If you’re not a theater person, take it from me – that’s a crazy short time to put any full-length show together, much less a big musical with choreography, chorus numbers, and the like. Even under a best-base scenario, this figured to be an insane three weeks we were about to embark upon.
I was cast as Ewart Dunlop, second tenor in the barber shop quartet. Not being cast as leading man Harold Hill was not the crushing blow to me that you might have expected. Frankly, the prospect had terrified me at the time, so I was fine with being in the quartet.
Ah, now we come to the casting of Harold Hill. This was the first sign that we were engaged in something other than an innocent shoestring community theater adventure. On the day of auditions, there was one actor who was clearly The Worst Person Who Auditioned for the Part. He was too old for the role. He had no apparent sense of rhythm and became utterly lost trying to perform “Trouble.” He projected the persona of somebody’s perpetually befuddled uncle, not the persona of a traveling flim-flam man. And (you probably hear this coming)… he was cast as Harold Hill.
To which I thought: What. The. Hill.
A few days into rehearsals, the casting strategy became clear, when Mr. Befuddled was suddenly let go and replaced by… Ronald, our director. Other disturbing indicators were to follow. For example, the show, set in small town Iowa circa the 1920s, had no costumer. Ronald pitched it to us as a “creative opportunity” – that each of us would have the exciting opportunity to design our own costume. As I recall, I performed wearing the one and only suit I owned at the time, made of brown polyester with a slightly flared pants cuff.
Soon, we met our producer, the new owner of the stately Alger Theater. He was a corrupt Wayne County commissioner (pardon me if that’s redundant), an obese old man who looked as if he should be sitting in the lounge at a bowling alley somewhere, complaining about Today’s Young People. He spoke in a low, cracked voice that generally carried a note of superficial indulgence combined with a presumption of wisdom. I will omit any mention of his name as a general courtesy to the living.
My favorite memory of our producer came when he was addressing the cast after our final dress rehearsal. He had watched the show from the back corner of the theater, accompanied by several people whom we did not know, who had left immediately after curtain call. “I was watching the show tonight with some friends from NEW YORK,” he began – with particular emphasis and lingering over the words New York – “and they told me that what you kids are doing on this stage is every bit as good as anything they’re doing on Broadway.”
Okay, time out. Look, I’m not here to defend Broadway. You can find plenty of crappy theater there. Really, you can. It’s not hard to find. And oh, by the way, you can also find some fabulous stuff on Broadway featuring some of the most gifted actors, directors, designers, and technicians you’re going to find anywhere in the theater world. I don’t think I’m taking a controversial stance in saying this. Then take our show. Everyone who auditioned was cast, just so you understand where the talent bar was set. We were brutally under-rehearsed. We had no costumer. We barely had a director, barely had a set, barely had anything of depth, sensitivity, or intelligibility going on out there. So please, Mr. Producer at the Alger Theater, spare me this shameless mountain of bullshit. But the more I heard him speak and the more I learned about him, the more I realized that bullshit was all he knew. His only other option would have been silence, and Lord knows he wasn’t capable of that.
And don’t get me started on his lingering over the words New York as if they automatically carried some magical power. Please. The Emperor has no clothes.
Now back to our humble production. I have to admit that we four who made up the barber shop quartet were a pretty shameless lot in our own right. Reasoning that we were in a show in desperate need of entertainment value, and having a weak director who was preoccupied with playing the lead, we proceeded to devise any additional bits of stage business we could come up with that might enable us to chew the scenery. Pratfalls, double-takes, ad libs – all were fair game in our little world. In a normal production, this sort of activity would have been reined in by the director, but no such restraints were ever enforced upon us, so the bits just kept piling up.
And wonder of wonders (sorry, I know that’s from Fiddler), we got away with it! In fact, it was clear from opening night that we were getting more applause at curtain call than anyone else in the show. The result of this was that every night of the run, the curtain call was restaged to have the quartet bow later and later. On closing night, Harold & Marian were the only two that bowed after us. This led to an unfortunate incident.
On closing night, the bass in our quartet had the entire front row filled with his friends. When the quartet came out to bow, they all leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering. When Harold & Marian came out, they stopped clapping and sat down. It was a somewhat humiliating moment for our leads. If it had been just our director, our Harold Hill, who was suffering, few would have cared. But our leading lady didn’t deserve this. Given the quartet’s established reputation for scene stealing, we found ourselves accused of staging the whole thing. A few cast members were pretty steamed and were not inclined to give our denials the benefit of the doubt. Thank God it didn’t happen until closing night!
Music Man ended up being the only show I did at the Alger. Well, complete disclosure – later that year, I was cast in their production of Inherit the Wind, but I bailed after two rehearsals when half the leads abruptly quit the show. I had another acting offer in hand and suspected that the show wasn’t going to happen at all, so I joined the mass exodus. The show did happen, but the horror stories I heard from friends who stayed in it convinced me that I’d made the right call.
As for Ronald, our ambitious director, the next show at the Alger after Music Man was Fiddler on the Roof. I was told he tried to pull the same stunt in that show – casting someone dreadful as Tevye and then replacing the lousy actor with himself. But that time, I’m told, the producer stepped in and told him he had to cast someone else.
So do I have any regrets about my involvement with that production? Not at all. I’m not big on regrets in general, and in this case, there truly was more good than bad for me personally. I met some good people, a few of whom are friends of mine to this day. I got to be in a show at a time when I needed to be on stage as much as possible. And I got to share the stage with my younger brother F, who was in the chorus. And to top it off, I got a heck of a story to share with you today!