Selecting “The Right People”

Theater Magic Happens When the Casting Gods are Smiling

Here is an oddity: A large advertisement in an October 1961 edition of the Sunday New York Times heralds the future arrival nine months hence of a new Broadway musical to be produced by Hal Prince. Nothing unusual about that, lots of shows get an early jump on publicity. But this ad promises:

MILTON BERLE
in
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM

The ad features a cartoon illustration of an easily-recognizable Berle, clad in a toga, with a raven-haired courtesan strung like a gunny sack over his shoulder.

But much can change in nine months. By the time A Funny Thing opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theater in May 1962, Uncle Miltie, as he was known to his legions of television fans, was a distant memory who had departed from the project even before rehearsals began. What happened? Apparently, early in pre-production director George Abbott, who was known throughout the industry as the all-knowing “Mister Abbott,” made extensive deletions in the script. Berle insisted that the dialogue be reinstated. When Abbott demurred, Berle withdrew.

His departure opened the door for Zero Mostel, a performer known for his flamboyance onstage – but in 1961 hardly a “star.” The production, however, treated Mostel like a star. His name went up in lights over the Alvin Theater marquee. That early newspaper ad replaced Berle’s illustration with Mostel’s (and for good measure changed the courtesan’s raven tresses to blonde; go figure).

The out-of-town tryouts were brutal. Abbott eventually re-inserted all the deletions that Berle had opposed. But through thin and thinner, the struggling musical had one essential thing going for it: the cast. Zero Mostel, hilarious in the central role, was surrounded by veteran comic actors like David Burns, Jack Gilford and Raymond Walburn.

All the effort paid off on May 8, 1962, when Funny Thing Happened opened to lavish praise and transformed Mostel into a bona fide theater star. We will never know how the show might have fared with Milton Berle, but we do know that Mostel’s casting was critical to the show’s success. We also know that after the reviewers (and the paying audiences) anointed Mostel with stardom, he began to play fast and loose with the material – because he knew he could.

Stage manager James Bronson (who also stage-managed Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret and Company for producer Hal Prince) recalled the night that director Abbott came backstage to demand that Zero return to playing Pseudolus as-written. Anticipating that this meeting would not go well, Bronson eavesdropped outside Mostel’s dressing room door. Bronson heard Mostel say, “Get out of this dressing room, toilet head, and never come back.” A minute later Abbott exited the dressing room, never to return.

But despite the temperament and the difficulties, do you think anyone involved with the making of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum would have traded Zero Mostel for Milton Berle? Don’t bet a single drachma on it.

Especially in the commercial theater, casting is the great conundrum. How do you replace a star who is closely identified with a role? When Zero Mostel left Funny Thing after 22 months, he was replaced by vaudeville comic Jerry Lester. The show lasted another five months. But if you had to choose between seeing Zero Mostel or Jerry Lester, well, that was no choice at all.

Sometimes casting feels like a very small world.

**In 1943 Danny Kaye followed his star-making turn in Lady in the Dark by playing the male lead opposite Eve Arden in the Cole Porter musical, Let’s Face It!  (Arden’s understudy, who earned her first Broadway credit in Let’s Face It!, was Carol Channing.) When Danny Kaye left that show, he was replaced by Jose Ferrer, who had just appeared at the Muny in No, No, Nanette. But New York audiences didn’t want Jose Ferrer; they wanted Danny Kaye. Let’s Face It! closed three weeks later.

**In 1951, by which time Ferrer had become a major star thanks to his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and film, he returned to Broadway in a smash-hit revival of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy, Twentieth Century. When Ferrer departed, he was replaced by film star Robert Preston. But New York audiences didn’t want Robert Preston; they wanted Jose Ferrer. Twentieth Century closed three weeks later.

**In 1957, Robert Preston created a now-legendary performance in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Willson’s first choice for Prof. Harold Hill was Danny Kaye, who had not appeared in a Broadway musical since Let’s Face It!

We’ll never know how Kaye would have fared as the music man, but evidence suggests that such a production would have been more about Danny Kaye and less about Harold Hill. In 1970 Kaye did return to Broadway in Two by Two, a fanciful account of the story of Noah’s Ark with music by Richard Rodgers. Six months into the run, like Mostel in Funny Thing, Kaye’s variations on the script drove Rodgers into a frenzy. In the summer of 1971, in a highly unusual departure from the norm, Richard Rodgers allowed the Muny to stage Two by Two while the musical was still running on Broadway with Danny Kaye. Who played Noah in St. Louis – and acquitted himself quite nicely? Milton Berle.

St. Louis born-and-raised producer David Merrick used to scoff at those who thought that casting was glamorous. To the contrary, Merrick contended, casting was one of the most difficult functions of producing. In 1975 he produced Tennessee Williams’ play The Red Devil Battery Sign, then closed the production during its out-of-town tryout in Boston. “It wasn’t my fault,” Merrick defensively contended. “Tennessee picked the cast. He was determined to get it on, no matter what. Big mistake. You have to wait until you get the right people.”

Casting directors have one of the most nerve-racking tasks in theater. Every ring of the phone has the potential for either elation or despair. But when the casting gods are smiling, and productions do succeed in finding the right people, musicals like A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Music Man continue to delight audiences in places like Forest Park for decades and generations to come.

Dennis Brown (Biography)

Dennis Brown was a theater critic for The Riverfront Times newspaper from 2001-2014. His articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and, most recently, the Village Voice, among many others.

His book, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, was praised by Playbill magazine as “one of the finest interview collections ever published.” A companion volume, Shoptalk: Conversations about Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’ Mother, also was well-received.

His stage adaptation of William Inge’s novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, starring Mary Beth Hurt, William Atherton, Conchata Ferrell and Lane Smith, was performed to great acclaim at the prestigious William Inge Festival in Independence, Ks. He is also the author of the stage adaptation of the biography The Fabulous Lunts, about theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which was performed in New York City in both 2009 and 2010.

He assisted Gregory Peck in developing his one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. During the mid-1990s, he toured with Peck to 55 engagements throughout the United States and Canada.

He wrote the award-winning television-movie The Perfect Tribute, which starred Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln. While on staff at CBS Entertainment, Brown was Angela Lansbury’s publicist for the final seasons of Murder, She Wrote.

Since returning to his hometown of St. Louis, in 2001, he has been an adjunct professor at Webster University, teaching classes in film.