As The American Century Theater’s (TACT) final musical Broadway Hit Parade is about to open tonight, I chatted with Artistic Director Jack Marshall.
Joel: Since our last interview, you have had more time to reflect on the history of TACT and the final season. What feelings are you having now as you are about to open your final American musical?
Jack: Just regret, really, and some bitterness, and I really try not to indulge either of those, because as Follies teaches us, they are killers. I see the D.C. area theater community moving in an unhealthy direction for everyone, with commerce and big money trampling artistic innovation and risk, making both even harder than they already are. That won’t stop them, of course. But were the battlefield a bit more even, I think, we might have been able to break through one or more of the walls that were closing in on us. TACT was holding its own financially and in audience support, and improving its quality without compromising its principles and pricing theater out of the range on ordinary people and families, but it was taking a greater toll on our staff and artists every year.
I have been surprised and touched by the outpouring of thanks from actors and designers, who tell me that the company was and has been so important in their careers.
Why did you decide to remount Broadway Hit Parade?
In 20 years, some of TACT’s most important contributions to theater have been with it productions of neglected musicals. We reconstituted Hollywood Pinafore, Hellzapoppin, Marathon ’33, and Call Me Mister so they could be performed: nobody had bothered before, and we proved they are excellent shows. We were the first U.S. company to do a full run of a full production of Lady in the Dark since the Gertrude Lawrence original closed in 1943. TACT recreated the famous “locked out of the theater” opening on The Cradle Will Rock. Plus there were so many amazing performances in those 17 musicals, a many of our original performers of them were game to do a retrospective. It’s an all-star, amazing evening, and it also gave us a chance to give audiences a taste of The Golden Apple, the Great White Whale of Broadway musicals.
What fond memories of the original production do you have and how emotional has it been for you and your cast members, some who were in the original production, while rehearsing the show?
Very emotional. We begin the show with the “Circus Dream” from Lady in the Dark, and there are Buzz Mauro in his original role, and Tom Manger, who met his wife (the Broadway Hit Parade Director, Jacqueline Manger) in the cast of the show, and the wonderful Maureen Kerrigan, who played Liza Eliot, the Lawrence role, 17 years ago and can still knock “The Ballad of Jenny” out of the park. And presiding over it all, in the role that made Danny Kaye a star, is Brian Childers, who won a Helen Hayes Award playing Kaye in TACT’s Danny and Sylvia. In rehearsal it brought tears to my eyes.
Who is returning from the original production to appear or work behind the scenes of this production of Broadway Hit Parade?
Too many to mention. We have original leads from Lady in the Dark (1998) , Call Me Mister (2006), Danny & Sylvia (2001), Dear World (2003), An American Century Christmas (2009), The Cradle Will Rock (1999), archy & mehitabel (1999), If Only In My Dreams (2004), Marathon ’33 (2012), The Robber Bridegroom (2003), I Do! I Do! (2013), Babes In Arms (2010) , Hellzapoppin’ (2007) , One Touch of Venus (2005), One Night with Fanny Brice (2010), and An Evening With Danny Kaye (last season).
We also have 6 Actors Equity performers, by far the most we have ever featured in a musical.
Broadway Hit Parade introduced a major talent to the world and you have brought back a show that honors this star a few times to your stage. Why have Danny Kaye and Brian Childers, who has played him, been such an inspiration to you and an important part of the history of TACT?
Danny is the patron saint of TACT, no question. He was the entertainer who led me to musical theater; he was the reason I was drawn to Lady in the Dark, our first, most ambitious and most important musical revival that was the show that launched him as a major star. He was the connection that drew Bob McElwaine to the company, as he had been Kaye’s publicist, launching a decade long collaboration that produced two TACT World Premiers, The Titans and Danny & Sylvia, as well as the Robert McElwaine Memorial Reflections Series. Danny & Sylvia launched the career of Brian Childers, who had his first professional role in TACT’s The Boys in the Band, and we are so proud of what he has done with the opportunity. Brian’s starred in four TACT musicals, including his own show, An Evening With Danny Kaye; and Danny has been a feature in (let’s see) six local TACT productions. And Brian won a Helen Hayes award in the role. How’s that?
You have produced some memorable musicals that were hits and some that were not, so many that were ‘forgotten’ by producers and the public. Which ones would you say belong in a ‘TACT Hit Parade,’ and which ones that did not do as well deserve to be seen again, and not forgotten, that would make your own personal ‘Should Have Been A Hit’ list?
Our “greatest hits” would have to be Lady in the Dark, the biggest of them all; The Cradle Will Rock, which got us a Helen Hayes nomination for “Outstanding Musical Production” and that probably represents our zenith of audacity; Danny & Sylvia, of course, and Marathon ’33, which I believe was the best production we ever did. My favorite musical was Hellzapoppin, which I would remount any time, any place—I love it.
The list of musicals that I believe deserved more attention and recognition begins with our same-sex/opposite sex re-imagining of I Do, I Do, which made the show relevant to the 21st century without sacrificing any of its love, charm or entertainment value. I think it was an important and daring production that worked, and The Washington Post, among others, ignored it.
Tom Fuller has musical directed and even appeared in several of the musicals during TACT’s history.
Why has it been such a successful partnership?
Tom and I have been collaborating since 1970, when we met in college. He’s smart, he’s talented, he’s an excellent teacher, his energy is amazing, and he’s willing to go along with my crazy, risky theatrical adventures. Plus he’s my oldest and best friend. What more can you ask?
You are ending your run with the show that started it all – 12 Angry Men. Why did you decide to inaugurate your new theater company with that show and now conclude your long run with it?
Well, it was a natural ending, full circle. It’s also, I think, the best ensemble drama there is. I’m an ethicist and a lawyer, so the subject matter is appealing, and it is one show that you can direct over and over again without it ever feeling repetitious: the cast changes all the dynamics. Plus we have accumulated a loyal and spectacular group of actors over the last 20 years who made the company’s success possible. I wanted to get them all together on one stage, for one grand finale project together.
12 Angry Men was the show that created TACT, in fact. The late Bart Whiteman was a cast member in a special performance of the show that I directed for the trial lawyers association. At the cast party, he talked about how the show was a rarity now, that the old, intense, classic American shows weren’t being produced any more. Tim Lynch, also in the cast, was inspired enough to decide to put money into a new company that produced such shows. Then we did it as our first offering.
Tell us about mounting that first production and the challenges of getting it up on the stage.
Arlington County’s Arts Incubator Program agreed to take on the company and give us space: we were the third of its professional theater companies after Avant Bard and Signature. But they only had theater space for half a run, so we got no reviews or time to build an audience in Arlington. The late Glenn White, who had been in my first production of the show, was a City Council member in Fairfax City, and arranged for us to move into the new auditorium of the high school. It was a bad space for the show, too big, with too much space separating the audience from the actors, so I mounted the production, including the audience, onto the stage itself. Our marketing director, Shelly Wallerstein, who was also playing the jury Foreman, pestered Bob Mondello of the City Paper to come see the show. Bob bussed out in a rain storm, and wrote a rave review that put the company on the map.
After Danny Kaye, Bob Mondello is the patron saint of TACT.
What are the fondest memories you have about that first production and what do you think will go through your mind when the lights go down and the first performance of your final show begins?
What will go through my mind is that it was all worth it, and how proud and thankful I am of all the many, many, friends, artists, and geniuses who worked so hard to give us such a successful, rewarding 20 years.
Any regrets now about your decision to make this your final season?
Nope. It was the responsible thing to do, and the right time to do it.
What have you learned about yourself this year since you made the announcement that this was TACT’s final season?
Quitting when the time is right and when it is something you love is very hard, and a lot of people can’t do it. I learned that when the time came for me to face that decision, I could. Now I know when the time comes to put a bullet in my brain, I’ll be able to do that too. Just kidding. Sort of.
What do you want to say to your many people who supported TACT over the years and to the wonderful actors and directors and designers who appeared in your shows during TACT’s long run?
Just thank you. And you’re welcome.
Any shows that you wish you would have produced that you did not?
In the 20 years? No, I think we did the right shows when we did them. There are a lot of shows that I am sorry that we will not have the chance to do—several O’Neill plays, The Golden Apple, Drat the Cat, The Racket, House of Flowers, Truman Capote’s musical, Elmer Rice plays, The Child Buyer, A crazy Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner musical called Love Life, The Hot Mikado, Sondheim’s The Frogs, and a stage version of High Noon, among others. And I know I would have discovered more projects too—I always did. They are out there.
What do you hope that The American Century Theater’s legacy will be when future theatregoers read about the history of this courageous and wonderful theatre company that resurrected American works?
That it inspired other companies to explore the same repertoire while being better at raising money and publicizing our mission than we were. That it gave an opportunity to performers who have gone on to successful careers. That there are terrific shows audiences can now see on stage because we took the risk and proved that they were not only worth producing, but worth preserving as regular fare for U.S, theaters.
Any plans for the future you’d like to share with our readers?
Nope. There are horizons, challenges and battles everywhere; I just have to decide where I want to look next, and maybe fail next.
What advice can you offer anyone who is starting a small theatre that will be performing forgotten American plays and musicals in a large theatre town?
Make sure either you are rich, or that someone else connected to the new theater is. Make sure you have control over your own theater space, so you can extend hits and close flops. Recognize that you are trying to do a full-time job part-time.
It’s a crazy business plan; always was, and we knew it. Only do shows that have either bombed or that current theaters think are too risky, unpopular or dated? That’s like starting a restaurant dedicated to food no one wants to eat or knows how to cook. Yet it worked, and it would work again, and better—with enough financial support and a theater. The great shows are out there, waiting for an audience.
The American Century Theater’s Jack Marshall On Closing TACT and His Favorite Productions on DCMetroTheaterArts by Joel Markowitz.
Broadway Hit Parade plays at The American Century Theater performing at Gunston II -2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. There are only 5 performances: Tonight, March 19, 2015 at 8 PM, followed by a Talkback. Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2:30 PM and 8 PM; and Sunday at 2:30 PM. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.