Friday, April 23, 2021

Will Willoughby | Jerome Lawrence: Just Off Broadway

what my heart forgot to say

by Douglas Messerli

Jerome Lawrence (scenario), Will Willoughby (director) Jerome Lawrence: Just Off Broadway / 1993

Today, quite expectedly, I was sent a short film short by Will Willoughby of a very special performance I produced at New York City’s Algonquin hotel for playwright Jerome Lawrence from 1993.

       Perhaps this cannot properly be described as an LGBTQ film, but given that it’s a performative celebration of a gay man, directed and produced by gay men, and starring at least four homosexual performers, along with a great many gay men and women in the audience, I’d suggest this is interesting in the same way that the amateur film by the members of Los Angeles The Brownstone bar in Always on Sunday was or the way in the lesbian bar performances in Mona’s Candle Light are fascinating.  

       Yet I never imagined upon beginning the multi-year project of writing about LGBTQ films that I might have been involved directly in the creation of one of them. In order to describe that strange, circuitous route to LGBTQ filmmaking, I need first recount a series of friendships and events.

      Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s my companion Howard N. Fox and I became acquainted, probably through Marjorie Perloff’s soirées, with Bill and Jeannie Fadiman. William Fadiman, who as a young college student at the University of Wisconsin had created the literary game “Poetic Posers,” published regular in the New York Herald eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he married Jeannie and from the 1940s to the 1970s supervised script development at several major studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM), Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures (RKO), and later Columbia, working as the assistant to RKO and MGM Head of Production Dore Schary. Among Hollywood regulars it was known that to get to Schary you had to go through Fadiman.

     In 1970 he was hired as literary consultant at Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, and contributed regular book reviews to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. He contributed book reviews to The New York Times Book Review, the New York Herald Tribune, Saturday Review, and the Nation. He also produced Bad for Each Other (1953),  Jubal and The Last Frontier (both 1956), and Rampage (1963).

     The Fadimans invited us a few times to restaurant lunches and dinners at their house. At one point Bill asked me to read the manuscript for a novel he’d written, Shivering in the Sun. It wasn’t, to be honest, a particularly good work, written in a kind noir style with a rather sleazy plot about Hollywood agents, a subject he knew well. But I did help him to get it published and distributed outside of the Sun & Moon imprint.

     At the party for the book’s publication, which, if I remember correctly, was held at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, I met his older brother Clifton—well known as a former editor at Simon & Schuster, the book review editor of The New Yorker, the literary judge for the Book of the Month Club, and, most notably as the radio and later CBS Television host of Information Please!—who, in turn, introduced me at the party to Jerome Lawrence.

      I knew very well who Jerry Lawrence was having read and seen several productions of stage and television versions of his and co-writer Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame, and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The very first Broadway theater ticket I bought was in 1969 for his and Lee’s (the latter to whom Jerry introduced before Lee's death in 1994) Dear World a musical based on Jean Giraudoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot with songs composed by Jerry Herman and starring Angela Lansbury (who won a Tony for her performance), Jane Connell, and Milo O’Shea. 

     Soon after, Jerry invited to attend a LAOpera production of The Makropulos Affair with him. And, a few weeks later, he asked me to lunch at his splendid Malibu home where I first met his assistant and later production executive for his and Lee’s work, Will Willoughby.

     Jerry and I talked briefly about Sun & Moon reissuing Auntie Mame or Inherit the Wind, but those discussions didn’t go far since his previous publisher we not ready to relinquish rights. Moreover, he was far more interested in my publishing his new novel, A Golden Circle. I read it and found it be quite charming, but it really didn’t present itself as a typical Sun & Moon title, devoted as we were to contemporary innovative writing, particularly international in perspective.

It took me weeks of contemplation before I finally agreed to do it, mostly because of by sentimental attachment to his and Lee’s previous works.

     Little did I realize, however, that Jerry was the perfect author in that he had utterly no fear of self-promotion. He immediately arranged for a reading in Los Angeles for which he engaged actor Holland Taylor for a reading at Brentanos Bookstore in  Century City; the event was sold out. And soon he came to me with the proposal to hold a huge celebration of his book in New York at the Oak Room of the famed Algonquin Hotel in which some of the novel’s events occurred, a sacred place that no longer exists.

     Given his long theatrical career and the fact that he was now approaching his 78th birthday, I think it saw it as not only an opportunity to promote his new publication, the beautiful book with the famed Gustav Klimt painting Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer on its cover, but to celebrate his own career. His idea was splendid, I felt, except for the outrageous expense that a poor, independent publisher like Sun & Moon could ill afford given  the costs for renting the legendary Algonquin room, arranging for drinks and hors d'oeuvres for 50 or more guest, the flight, and room costs. In the end we decided to split the expenses, with the guest list and invited performers to be Jerry’s responsibility while the publicity, photographer, and personal traveling costs would be my tasks. Jerry quickly lined up a programme that might have led many Broadway producer to weep with joy while providing my editorial assistant and me with a list of invitations to mail out to a bevy of theater and social celebrities. 

      I added some of my favorite New York poets and fiction writers and all of my New York-based playwrights, and, since I almost always ran into Eudora Welty every time I visited that hotel, when I spotted her sitting in the lobby, I invited her as well; she did not attend.*

     Jerry and I both arrived separately a few days before the event, staying in the Algonquin itself, I in the Thurber suite. The first night Jerry and I dined at Sardi’s, where actor Jack Klugman stopped by our table to greet Jerry. The second night we dined, with Michael Tilson Thomas and his companion/now husband Joshua Robison, the latter of whom was Jerry’s nephew. At the time Thomas was the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

     We had arranged to hold this one-night Off-Broadway musical (on 44th Street, just off Broadway) to occur when theater celebrities might be in town to attend performances of the  nominees for the Tony Awards. tempting them with our own star-studded cast.

     After drinks and appetizers Bobby Short was to play a little piano music before I took the floor to introduce myself as the “producer” and to describe the event. I begin by telling them all how wonderful it was to see all my friends once more, although I had never before met most of them. But I knew them, I insisted, through having memorized the Burns-Mantle Playbooks back in Iowa since the age of nine or ten. I had imaginatively seen their every play and heard their music on recordings. I’m somewhat embarrassed now when I look back that I must have sounded a bit like the usual queer stagestruck kid. But they accepted it in good spirits. Besides, I’d paid for the dinks.

     It is at this point when director Will Willoughby’s film begins with two well-known theater legends, Michael Feinstein with composer Jerry Herman as his personal accompanist, taking over. Feinstein sang, appropriately from the musical Mame based on the Lawrence/Lee original play, songs he had just recorded for his album of The Jerry Herman Song Book. Why Feinstein felt he needed to change the pronoun of “If He Walked into My Life Today” to “she” I can’t explain. Obviously, he was uncomfortable with the suggestion that he might be singing a kind of love song about another male, but Mame was singing the song about her young nephew who she’d raised, not a torch song to an ex-lover, so I don’t comprehend the pretense of singing about a past romance.

     Over the few days of rehearsal I’d gotten to know Feinstein, who hated early mornings and was often rather grumpy when having to arrive to the hotel to practice before noon. But after he had completely awakened he became a spirited and charming man who I grew to like.

     The great jazz pianist Bobby Short followed as Willoughby reveals in his film. Short begins with reporting that he and Lawrence share a friendship with Jean-Baptiste Adoue III (perhaps the son of the former mayor of Dallas) nicknamed Tad, who evidently strongly supported Short’s “pet project,” the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund. The song he plays in honor of both Tad and Jerry, is devoted to Ellington. During his performance Will’s camera pans over to catch me, beaming with joy while listening to Short’s music.

     From Chapter 9—which takes place in the very room in which occasion is located—E. G. Marshall, Jane Alexander, and Tony Randall now read from Lawrence’s A Golden Circle, Marshall playing Alexander Woollcott, Alexander performing as Rachel, and Randall mouthing all the other characters. Randall is particularly funny as Dorothy Parker, reacting to Woollcott’s suggestion that the actress use only her first name by snipping “it’s merely circumcising the superfluous.” The presiding member of the famed Algonquin Round Table also appears in Auntie Mame as the gentleman who taught Patrick Dennis how to properly serve gin and tonic. Jerry must have had a special fondness for him.

      Marshall was a long-time favorite actor of mine having played in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film 12 Angry Men and for several years in the early 1960s starring in one of my favorite TV dramas, The Defenders. The day after this performance, Lawrence, Marshall, and I took a taxi across town to do a reading from A Golden Circle at the West Side Barnes & Noble bookstore. To my surprise my friend, poet Hannah Weiner, who I hadn’t seen in years, showed up to that reading.

      Jane Alexander had just that year temporarily given up her acting career to become President Clinton’s choice to head to National Endowment for the Arts.

       Randall, who was married twice to women, played the gay coded partner to Rock Hudson in several of Hudson’s films, the “friend” to whom Hudson turns time and again for comfort while battling with his various wives (often played by Doris Day) and girlfriends. Randall also played a kind of gay-coded figure in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple acting the role of a man who was more at home in the kitchen and cleaning the house than interested in playing poker with the guys or trying to seduce the local twin sisters. In truth, Randall, despite being deeply closeted, was well-known in Broadway circles as being gay, and back in the days when it was fashionable, regularly threw gay-boy parties. But like Anthony Perkins and others, he longed to have children and entered late in his life into a heterosexual relationship with Heather Harlan, a woman he apparently loved with whom he had two children. He was married to his first wife, Florence Gibbs from 1938 to her death in 1992, the year prior to the Lawrence event. We still tend to think of sexual orientation as being a binary situation when it is often a fluid series of pushes and pulls in different sexual directions.

        Upon the completion of Lawrence’s text, there is great applause, but at this point, as I come forward to introduce more acts, the film inexplicably stops. Will assures me he has other footage from the event, so perhaps some day soon we shall have a more complete record of the Lawrence celebration.

        I believe the great flautist Paula Robison followed. One of the founding members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Robison played annual concerts for 30 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also giving regular performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. At the time of this performance Robison had teamed up with Brazilian performers, playing in a trio with Cyro Baptista and Romero Lubambo  to create what she described as “Mistera Nova.” They went on to perform together for 10 years. More recently she has recorded major works by Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. She is Joshua Robison’s sister and Jerry Lawrence’s niece.

      Michael Feinstein returned to play and sing more musical  standards, in the midst of which he invited a member of the audience, the legendary composer Burton Lane, to perform a couple of numbers. Lane, known not only for his great stage musicals Finian’s Rainbow and On Clear Day You Can See Forever, but for his contributions to over 30 movie musicals including Fred Astaire’s Royal Wedding,  was also the one who first discovered Judy Garland. Finian’s Rainbow played a special role in my youth as I performed in it in high school and later at the University of Wisconsin as a chorus member and dancer. The musical director for the University of Wisconsin production was Vance George who would later work with Michael Tilson Thomas as Choral Director of the San Francisco Symphony. 

       In the rather large gathering for the Jerome Lawrence: Just Off Broadway evening were playwright Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy), John Handzlik (the original actor who played Patrick Dennis as a young boy in Auntie Mame), poet Charles Bernstein and artist Susan Bee, playwright Mac Wellman, actor Michael York, restaurateur Vincent Sardi, Jr., playwright Len Jenkin, actor Marian Seldes, playwright Jeffrey Jones, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, orchestra manager Joshua Robison, playwright John Steppling, and a large number of other celebrity figures which my now elderly mind has wiped away from my memory, alas. I do recall that just before going on stage, fiction writers Wendy Walker and Tom LaFarge called me to say they were unable to attend.

       Also in the audience was a woman who I had sat next to in the airplane on my trip from Los Angeles to New York. Discovering that she was making her regular semi-annual pilgrimage to see New York theater, I whimsically invited her to the Lawrence special. At the end of the evening I asked what she thought about the presentation. “It’s the best play on Broadway, I swear” she intoned, shaking her head in wonderment of the experience. I had the same feeling; maybe we should have moved the whole piece over just a couple of blocks the next night and begun a Broadway stint.

        I never had the opportunity to tell Jerry that and how much his special celebration had meant to me. And until I received the short film from Will this morning, I had only vague memories to remind me of that special evening. I had hired a photographer, who you see snapping shots in the film who sent us negatives, which I passed on to Jerry and Will, waiting for their decision on which ones and how many we should order. That week Jerome Lawrence’s lovely mansion went up in the flames of the 1993 Malibu Canyon fires, taking the only negatives with them. In the months and years following, Jerry became increasingly ill, and although we did another few readings in Los Angeles (one special event in Malibu with performers Martha Scott, Burgess Meredith, Jerry and Will and Carol Channing in attendance), but I didn’t seem him much after that. And suddenly today I was reminded of Jerry Herman’s closing lines from “If He Walked into My Life Today”:

                              And there must have been a million things

                              That my heart forgot to say

                              Would I think of one or two

                              If he walked into my life today?    


I hope I’d immediately shout out, “Thanks for the memories, Jerry,” just as I must thank Will for helping me to sustain them.

     Willoughby’s film can be screened here:

*I wrote my Master’s thesis on Eudora Welty, several chapters of which were later published in academic journals. Accordingly, I attended a couple of conferences on Welty’s work, one at William and Mary College where I first met Welty. Over the years, consequently, Welty had come to know me at sight, although I’m not sure what she thought about my publishing activities. At one point she greeted me with the words, “Oh, yes, you’re the one man that edit’s that strange little magazine.” Why Sun & Moon was strange or, at over 250 pages, why it might be defined as “little” I can’t explain, but obviously it didn’t meet with her more conservative Southern values. And by 1993, of course, I had moved quite far away from the context in which her writing existed, although I still very much admire everything she wrote.

Los Angeles, April 22, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).

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