Saturday, April 4, 2020


The following precedes each entry,

"In Lieu of Reviews"

Around 40 years ago, I began a major project that eventuated in the publication of my multivolume series, The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, each volume covering a decade. For some reason now lost to the sands of time, I chose to start with the 1970s. After writing all the entries through 1975 and producing a typed manuscript of 1,038 pages my publisher (Greenwood) and I decided it would be best to commence with the 1920s. So the 1970-1975 material was put aside as I produced volumes for 1920-1930, 1930-1940, and 1940-1950. With those concluded, Greenwood decided it was all too expensive and not sufficiently profitable, so the remaining volumes were cancelled, leaving my 1970s entries in limbo.

To compensate, I used the research I’d done on the 1970s to write a book for Greenwood called Ten Seasons: New York Theatre in the Seventies, which described all aspects of that era’s theatre, onstage and off. Many years later, in 2012, I began a postretirement “career” as a theatre reviewer, which led to my creating this blog as an outlet for my reviews. Over the past eight years or so I’ve posted nearly 1,600 reviews, a substantial number having first appeared on other websites: Theater Pizzazz, The Broadway Blog, and Theater Life.

Now, however, with the New York theatre in suspension, and my reviewing completely halted, is probably the perfect time to post as many as possible of the entries I prepared for the never-published 1970-1975 book. The entries that follow are in alphabetical order. Each entry has a heading listing the subject categories of the work described: the author (A), the director (D), additional staging (ADD ST), when credited; the producer (P), the set designer (S), the costume designer (C), the lighting designer (L), the source (SC), the theatre (T), the dates of the run, and, in parentheses, the length of the run. The original entries also contained the names of all the actors but I’ve omitted those here.

I will try to post at least one entry daily. When time allows, I’ll provide more. The manuscript exists on fading, fragile paper and, because no digital files exist, must be retyped. Hopefully, the tragic health situation we’re all enduring will abate before I get too far into posting these entries but, for the time being, devoted theatre lovers may find reading these materials informative. 

Clebert Ford, Sati Jamal,Toney Brealond.

AIN’T SUPPOSED TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH—TUNES FROM BLACKNESS [Musical/Revue/Race/Topical] B/M/L: Melvin Van Peebles; D: Gilbert Moses; S: Kert Lundell; C: Bernard Johnson; L: Martin Aronstein; P: Eugene V. Wolsk, Charles Blackwell, Emanuel Azenberg, and Robert Malina; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 10/20/71-7/30/72 (328)

The critics were split down the middle over this musical exposé of the brutality of existence in a Harlem-like neighborhood, written and composed by the multi-talented Melvin Van Peebles. Before coming to New York, the show had been produced at Sacramento State College and was recorded on an album for which Van Peebles himself did all the voices.
Madge Wells, Carl Gordon, Barbara Alston.
A plotless, bookless series of 19 vignettes about the life and people of the black ghetto, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death employed a musical background throughout. Instead of songs, it had the performers do their numbers in a recitative style, described by Clive Barnes as “something like blues-shouting, but not much. The word patters form their own musical outline and are supported by the musical phrases and pulses.” John Simon, who disliked the show intensely, wrote: “Never before has tunelessness sound so utterly untuneful. . . . The lyrics are worse.”

The vignettes involved whores, pimps, male and female homosexuals, cruel cops, jailed murderers, panhandlers, and so on. One scene showed a blind beggar trying to get a boy to describe a girl whose scent the man has caught; the girl turns out to be a transvestite. A scene several critics liked was Garrett Morris’s (best known for “Saturday Night Live”) enactment of a a convict recalling the sexy dancing of the girl he killed. A final number, performed by Minnie Gentry, “Put a Curse on You,” put a curse on all society for having brought poor blacks to so low an estate. This is perhaps the show’s best-known number.
Albert Hall.
Because it was an angry, bitter work, critics like Simon thought it was a “Get Whitey” show and disparaged it accordingly. Others, like Harold Clurman, found it crude but exalting in its powerful emotional expressiveness. There were raves from many, including Martin Gottfried, who noted that Van Peebles “has taken the color, the accents, the very spirit of urban black ghetto existence and thrown it upon the stage” in a “magnificent,” “virtually flawless” presentation that was a “terribly accurate and honest statement.”

The show was vilified, however, by just as many, among them Julius Novick, who rejected it as “a tired collection of old complaints and out-of-context melodrama, notably deficient in power, pathos, wit, humor, imagination, intelligence and charm”
Marilyn B. Coleman, Jimmy Hayeson.
Van Peebles received Tony nominations for his book and score, and a Drama Desk Award for “Most Promising Book Writer.” Other Tony nominations went to Beatrice Winde for Best Supporting Actress (she won a Theatre World Award), Gilbert Moses for Best Director, and Martin Aronstein for Best Lighting Designer. Moses received a Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Director, and Kurt Lundell won both a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award and a Drama Desk Award for Scene Design.

Previous Entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
"Acrobats" and "Line"
The Advertisement

Aesop’s Fables