Tag Archives: Broadway

Nicely Busy

That young actress Patricia Conolly is back on Broadway, she gave her first performance as Mrs Debose yesterday in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the new cast at the Shubert Theatre with Ed Harris now playing Atticus Finch. Tickets are available at mind-numbing Broadway rates.

I haven’t seen the show yet, but judging by the audience response as I heard the last few lines of the play from the stage door, it sounds as if the price of admission might be justified. Understand that I say this as one whose first theatre-going set me back about 30 pence (50 cents), not the mortgage it takes today.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, or as we say here in NYC, Off-Broadway, I am rehearsing LONDON ASSURANCE at The Irish Rep. I’m playing Sir Harcourt Courtly a character descended from a long line of fops. There’s a puff piece here where you’ll also see a picture of the wonderful Rachel Pickup playing the unforgettably-named, Lady Gay Spanker.

That’s Simon Russell Beale in the 2010 National Theatre production.

Sir Harcourt Courtly has been personated by such giants of the stage as Donald Sinden in the legendary 1970, West End and Broadway production, and Brian Bedford 1997, Broadway and Stratford Ontario 2006.

I worked with Brian Bedford twice. He was a master at light comedy. One time I backed him into a corner and asked him to tell me his secrets, “Brian!” I said, “How do you do it!?! I have to know!” Brian gave it a little thought in that slightly puzzled quizzical manner which was one of his comic modes and finally said, modestly, “Well I don’t really know.” He did know of course, but in common with others of unusual ability, he knew it wasn’t a thing to be discussed. Why? Because that’s not what it’s for. And nothing lets the steam out of the bottle before the soufflé rises so surely as casual talk – so I had to be satisfied by just watching him. Which I did. But if Brian wishes to whisper any tips to me now that he’s playing the great stages in the sky, he’s more than welcome.

Tix at the Rep will set you back a manageable amount and they are available here. It’s a holiday show. We open December and play through January and I hear there’s a nice advance, so please book soon if you plan to come.

A big shout out to two colleagues of Irish Rep fame, Mick Mellamphy and Tim Ruddy, two of the lads who were also in THE SEAFARER with me, Andy Murray and Matthew Broderick at The Rep a couple of years back.

Matthew Broderick and Andy Murray in The Seafarer at the Irish Rep 2017

Mick performs and Tim directs THE CURE, tix here, and for the price of a couple of pints. It’s bare bones, storytelling magic at its best. Mick turns in a virtuoso performance with nothing much behind him in terms of set. Doesn’t matter, not needed.

He takes you to Cork and back.

A Prince Among Men

They will dim the lights on Broadway in honor of the passing of Hal Prince. Mr. Prince’s many achievements and his collection of honors will be well documented in many publications, and there will be tributes of all kinds in all media, to which I add my own small and oblique one here.

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I never met Mr. Prince, but I knew him to be an extraordinary man of theatre, outstanding in his courtesy. I’ll tell you why.

Because he wrote back to me.

No fewer than three times.

Each time by return of post.

When I arrived in New York in 1999, I put up a one-man show in an off-off-Broadway space in the upper 50s on 8th Avenue.

Naturally I sent mailing pieces to as many industry professionals as I could find addresses for, while developing a monologue with which I hustled the discount seekers in Times Square in the manner of one of the too-many performers at the Edinburgh Festival. An excerpt would be:

“Nicole Kidman naked live onstage! – Not in this show, but it’s a matter of global importance that you see it tonight!”

Among the many postage stamps in which I invested, one was fixed to a postcard addressed to Mr. Prince whom I knew by reputation of course. He knew me not at all, not enough to distinguish me from a bar of soap.

Hal Prince wrote a personal card back. By return of post. Let me say that again.

By return of post.

He regretted not being able to see the show and he wished me well with it. This exercise was repeated three times. Each time, I confidently expected that he would file my postcards in the bin and ignore them. But no, each time a personal hand-written message came back with a polite regret and an explanation of his other commitments.

It’s difficult to convey how extraordinary this is. And what an outstanding example of good manners way beyond usual practice in theatre circles. For example:

When I graduated from the Central School in Britain some time back in the last millennium I wrote to each of the 120 repertory theatres in the country (of which about 30 remain). I filed their word-processed rote-replies under F.O.A.D.

I wrote to the head of casting at the RSC once a week for two years, eventually I was granted a general interview (not an audition, that never came), where the opening gambit was, “Now, have you written to me?”

How to describe this astonishing attention to detail from a man well known to be a workaholic and one of the giants of the business? And which, by the way was hugely encouraging to a struggling actor trying to come to notice.

I think the phrase I want is: noblesse oblige

STOP PRESS!

April 1st 2019 — mcphillamy actorblog still ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!

INK will tour to MARS

Solar system debut now confirmed!

 “Terrestrial culture important on inner planets,” says congressperson in funding debate.

Aliens give hour-long standing ovation! Win a one-way ticket to Jupiter! Your postcard from Mercury — no-risk delivery ABSOLUTELY FREE!!! 

Plus: Special feature how to date a Venusian (and live)!

Catch INK while still local!!!

1st Preview tomorrow 04/02/19 Friedman Theatre West 47th St, NYC, USA, EARTH.

 And Much Much More! All in INK! 1St preview tomorrow!!!

Breaking Cover

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of INK by James Graham directed by Rupert Goold starts previews on April 2nd and opens on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street on April 24th 2019. It is a brilliant play which tells a story of the young Rupert Murdoch. I am contracted to be in it.

By which I mean actually going onstage on a nightly basis and saying words aloud while at the same time moving to and fro and generally replicating human behavior, a practice known in some circles as acting.

Michael Caine covered Peter O Toole

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It will be a contrast to my last five months occupation where I was employed to catch up on my correspondence, work on my Sanskrit calligraphy, and paint my toenails. None of which I actually managed to accomplish. And all this while maintaining total readiness in full crouch position to leap in at any moment for one of three principal actors.

I understudied on The Ferryman on Broadway for 20 weeks. And I did actually go on as Father Horrigan. It was long odds to be honest, The actors I was covering were all robust character men. And here I observe that among actors of a certain generation the work-ethic tends to the formidable. These are men and women who scorn to be defeated by flu, fleas or food poisoning. My three runners; the friendly and ebullient Mark Lambert, the gigantic, sensitive Justin Edwards, and the splendid and splendidly robust Charles Dale, all with a long history of never or very seldom being off, were coming in at odds of about 100-to-8-against in a strong field. Picture my surprise then when Charlie was suddenly indisposed. But then, absence was more than usually rife over this New York winter season, see below.

The original Broadway cast disbanded on the 17th of February, most of them returning home across the Atlantic. A few are staying on, and a new company began performances on the 19th. I watched the final performance given by the first company. Mostly during the course of a run, performances hit a par, in this case an excellently high one, but last nights sometimes create an extra intensity. As was the case on that final Sunday matinee. It was an outstanding rendition of an already outstanding performance.

Sir John Gielgud stood by for Noel Coward

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A word about this understudying business …

Understudying, also known by the more delicate term of “covering” — which sounds like something out of stud farming — or the even more delicate term of “standing by” – which sounds like something to do with an airline on a bad day, is one of the more demanding yet least understood jobs in all theatre. To be done well it requires a very specific skill set. A deep personal reserve of flexibility, patience and nervous energy. It does also help if you can act.

Times are changing: in my earlier youth back in London, taking an understudy job was seen as the last resort of the desperate actor, and such was the anonymity of the position that many times there was no listing or credit in the playbill. Nowadays, the enormous over-supply of acting talent, the fierce competition for a job, any job — this, coupled with the trickle-down casting of recent years — and plus the fact that Broadway, even in its minimum salaries and almost uniquely among stage-acting markets, pays something approaching a living wage — all this combined, means that the status of any Broadway involvement is high.

Even so, few actors undertake such a gig as a first choice, but in 40 years of acting (nearly), (nearly) all the actors so engaged that I have known, have been exemplary in their diligence and professionalism. Here I salute my colleagues of the 5th floor at The Bernard Jacobs Theatre, (full billing here in alphabetical order: Glynis Bell, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Gina Costigan, Holly Gould, Griffin Osborne, and the kids, Will Coombs, Carly Gold and Bella May Mordus, also mentioning the two principals who also covered a role: Dean Ashton and Glenn Speers), each of us having multiple opportunities to prove our dollar worth (and also saluted for it in a generous post on social media by Mr. Judd Apatow, who happened to attend when no fewer than 5 people were on).

It is an irony worth noting that one of the least visible occupations in theatre should also be one of the most valuable. In the initial 20 week Broadway run of The Ferryman there were 47 performances when one of the principals was off. Due to everyone doing their job, loss of revenue to the tune of more than $4million in ticket sales was prevented.

It doesn’t always happen that way, sometimes no one is off in the course of a run. But in this case the insurance which a management is obliged to purchase in the form of actors learning lines and moves which they may never perform, yielded a near-tenfold return on investment. And where else can you get that sort of dosh these days?

This season of Broadway theatre fields at least two outstanding transfers from the West End, originating at The Royal Court and the Almeida theatres in London. I am lucky enough to have been involved with both of them, in the first as cover for three roles, in the next actually playing three roles — is the juice fasting having the desired effect, I ask myself? (See recent previous posts).

As it stands I am contracted to return briefly to The Ferryman to stand-by for the role of Tom Kettle for just one week — Tom is the gentle giant in the play, given prose to speak of heart-breaking sensitivity. This involvement with the new company of The Ferryman is an overlap while rehearsing INK, and after protracted and formidably expensive negotiations (not really, they asked and I said… “Yes”), the managements of both plays have agreed to allow me to be on call in both productions for the week in question.

Albert Finney was a substitute for Sir Laurence Olivier

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In an uncertain profession the prime feature of cover jobs is the uncertainty. Sometimes there is notice of when one will be called upon, as when a principal actor has a vacation booked, or has negotiated a release so as to go and make a film; and sometimes there is zero notice, or less. By which I mean an understudy can be called to take over a role in the middle of a performance – Jeremy Northam famously taking over from Daniel Day Lewis in Act Two of Hamlet at the National Theatre in London, for example.

Perhaps this is why one should never count the geese, the rabbits, or the apples, until the INK upon the deal is dry. See here

The Ferryman, Broadway 2018

The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes, with a superb cast, opened on Broadway last night. The show just could be that rare commodity: a review-proof play. In almost 40 years of acting I have seldom seen audiences respond like they do for this one.

Rather being ‘on’ this production, than ‘in’ it, I considered it part of the job to read the reviews — something I try hard to avoid when actually appearing in a show — See previous blog post here.

And the reviews are spectacular. Across the board. Up to and including the mighty New York Times.

Theatrical history is full of contention between critics and actors — see for example Dame Diana Rigg’s amusing volume of collected reviews, No Turn Unstoned

Sir Nigel Hawthorne once took issue with a review of his production of the seldom-performed The Clandestine Marriage. (He directed and played the lead; I played a hedge. Yes, hedge, as applied to topiary, not to fund management). Nigel wrote a closely spaced four-page letter to a prominent theatre critic, with point by point analysis supporting his production choices. The critic in question conceded that perhaps he had been too hasty in his judgment. Too late! The damage had been done. The show closed prematurely.

It’s no secret that adverse reviews can close shows. I have witnessed at close hand the collapse of box office in several productions — each time, in my opinion, completely undeserved and a great shame, considering the work, talent and yes, money, that went into them.

You may wonder why I am taking the trouble to lay out this context, when in the present case there is, as far as I know, (again in my opinion) universal, absolutely earned, deserved, and appropriate high praise. There is a reason. But on this occasion I certainly have no quarrel with either critic or criticism.

The reviews, as I said, are raves across the board. In the Broadway landscape, The New York Times is a king-maker, and Ben Brantley, as senior critic there, is the most powerful. He’d already endorsed The Ferryman when he saw it in London last year, and his review of the Broadway production, published today, confirms what he said in 2017.

One usually doesn’t think of an actor reviewing a critic, (see here for an example).  I have taken issue with Mr Brantley’s view on several productions, as many theatre folk I know have done from time to time, but here I find his review to be accurate and excellent, and filling the highest function that theatrical criticism should: namely to elevate and preserve standards, and to inform and enrich the community it serves.

Well, that’s enough about that. A long way to say that The Ferryman is a hot ticket.

Looking at another part of the production, and now I disclose a fun technical detail which may come in handy should you (or I — as my present employment may at some point require) ever be called on to go on stage with a live goose tucked under one arm. No spoiler here, every review mentions the goose. And the rabbit. And the baby. Our goose is mostly well behaved and quite a hit with audiences. I do know though, from our wrangler, that if the goose were to get stressed, there is a chance that she might… well… what’s the word I want? — Evacuate. In projectile fashion. This is where the staging is crucial. Consider if the actor were angled even slightly down-stage. Well it hasn’t happened yet. But if you do chance to buy tickets, perhaps choose something beyond the very front row?

Don’t go Green go Emerald

In so many ways Ireland leads the way. Not least in their policy on clean energy. But I’m not here to talk about that.

Way back when I was in The Seafarer with a quartet of excellently robust actors, (the craic was mighty) I asked Mick Millamphy to give me a hand with the accent of County Armagh, significantly different from the Dublin sound we were going for then. I had an audition for The Ferryman. This is the transfer that originated at The Royal Court Theatre in London and then ran in the West End for almost a year and is now coming to Broadway with the original cast.

“Sure,” said Mick, “come over to Ryan’s Daughter (a bar on New York’s Upper East Side,  he was part owner) and we’ll work on it.”

I made my way to 85th Street and 1st avenue. It was a misty evening. A light drizzle was falling. Shape-shifters were out and about just past the corners of perception. As I entered this bar under an Irish flag (one of several in New York City), a pint of Guinness materialized in my left hand.

“Come up to the snug,” said Mick.

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Guinness continued to manifest about every quarter hour. Just before the preceding pint was finished. And here is the funny thing; I never saw it arrive. Mick and I chatted, discussing the idea that the job I was going for – understudying several roles in The Ferryman, an extraordinary play by Jez Butterworth – was distantly reminiscent of when governments subsidize farmers not to grow alfalfa. Getting paid for actively not acting. Although being ready, willing and able to do so, should someone twist an ankle.

At my age the capacity for Guinness is not what it once was. So although Mick’s company was highly agreeable, I had to slip away after about a gallon or two. We did spend a little time actually working on the accent and the next day I got the job. I started work last week. We preview October 2nd, open October 21st. Mick, I owe you.

The Ferryman tells an epic true story, but the play is threaded with mythology. I’m now convinced that selected newborns in Ireland are taken by the ankle and dipped in the river of Guinness that runs, with tributaries, through all of that magical land.

A Theatrical Eclipse

This describes a reset – something in the nature of an eclipse you might say.

broadway-new-york

It was just a great bit of producing.

The Colonial Theatre, entrance on Boston Common. The show opened last night and the reviews were pretty tragic. A rumor went around that our star had at some time offended men of the fourth estate and they had been waiting to pounce to their revenge. True or not, the kind of stuff that closes shows on the spot had been written.

It was my first job in America and I had heard the stories about what happens when the reviews are less than ecstatic. The mood inside the theatre was despondent and a desultory rehearsal was proceeding onstage. Distinguished New York actors were going through the motions while the director tried to tweak new life into the proceedings, but there hardly seemed any point.

I stood at the back of the orchestra stalls observing. I watched the rehearsal. This was Waiting in the Wings, Sir Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his senior actress friends, set in a retirement home for older theatrical ladies. The rehearsal lacked spark because everyone knew that whatever we did, it was over.

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The theatre was empty, and the house lights were up. Atmosphere is everything, isn’t it? With a full house, the action on the stage lit by sympathetic illumination, the glow spilling into the auditorium, the gilt on the proscenium glisters and glamours an evening’s entertainment. Here the workaday lighting cast the very theatre in drabness.

Then Alex Cohen arrived.

Bit of back story here. On his 21st birthday Alex Cohen came into an inheritance, he immediately set about producing a show. It was Ghost For Sale and it closed after six performances. He lost a lot of money on it. He then immediately got involved in producing Angel Street (later filmed as Gaslight), and he made his money back. It was to set a pattern of ups and downs that he pursued for the next sixty years.

Alex Cohen in the time that I knew him, was one of the Grand Old Men of Broadway, Waiting in the Wings was his 101st Broadway show and his last. He was the man who said: “If God had meant me to ride in taxis, he wouldn’t have invented limousines.”

He was a great man of theatre, but there is no way you could say he was a well man. In his eightieth year he looked somewhat like a giant Halibut on a bad day, and his walk was a lumbering progress, his breathing like the early days of steam technology.

Alex lumbered in the auditorium and down the center aisle. Reaching row G he spread himself across a couple of seats and pulled out a cell phone. He began a conversation which started quietly, but grew loud in volume when the person on the other end of the line seemed to have said something that angered him. Suddenly I heard, “Listen, ASSHOLE! I told you, the message is no discount from any source! Get your ass down to the box office and buy a ticket, and if you’re too cheap to do that you’ll miss the best show of the season!”

The actors, 10 veteran Broadway actresses and a sprinkling of movie stars, all heard it too. The rehearsal slowed, faltered and finally stopped. All the ladies of Broadway staring, mesmerized by the conversation proceeding in the middle of the orchestra stalls in the empty front of house of the ornate, historic, Colonial Theatre in Boston.

Alex continued. He was, I believe the correct American vernacular is … “ripping the publicist a new one.” It went on and on. The actresses drifted to the front of the stage, watching and listening open mouthed, Michael Langham, the director who had once been a protege of Guthrie’s also turned away from the stage to listen slack-jawed as Alex gave ever more furious energy to the cell phone he gripped in his angry hands.

I watched too from the shadows at the back of the orchestra. From that vantage point I saw an example of what Peter Brook has defined for us as “Holy Theatre” which he says is, “The invisible made visible.”

Little by little the cloud of grey despondency, the gloomy resignation that attends the prospect of returning again to the wonderful world of unemployment, the defeat that is a flopped show… little by little this atmosphere began to transform.

13Colonial-Theatre-IntIt began with the lighting. The houselights did not dim, nor the stage lights brighten, but the darkly illuminating principle of a discouraging reception was obscured, then obliterated, to re-emerge as total confidence and certainty. The gilt on the proscenium began to glow in subtle shades, and the metaphysical gas of confidence oozed around the theatre. You could feel it seeking hollows and shadows in the dressing rooms, in the understage cross-over where costumes were set for quick changes, even in the box office where I fancy the phones began to ring. It rolled too in a visible/invisible wave across the seats of the orchestra to the stage where it broke over as fine a collection of Broadway dames as were ever gathered, as simultanously the thought erupted in all minds, “Oh! Maybe we won’t close at the weekend?!”

Alex continued his tirade of insult and cajolement ripe with expletives, “What the hell do you mean suggesting a discount?!? This is the best goddam show to hit the New York in living memory!” The theatre was silent. Alex, a producer not an actor, but a showman, an original, he knew his audience that day and he had them spell bound. With a final, “Asshole!” yelled at full throttle at the publicist, Alex pounded the off button on the phone, took a breath, lumbered to his feet and processed slowly up the aisle and out of the theatre, saying not a word as he went.

There was a long beat of silence, then Michael Langham turned to the company and said with quiet assurance, “Well, shall we continue?” The ladies answered with optimistic smiles and the rehearsal began with new purpose. Four weeks later the show opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York, garnered better reviews than in Boston. Award nominations followed, and a transfer to the Eugene O’Neil theatre round the corner. It was an impressive six month run. And that phone call had everything to do with it.

Waiting in the Wings was Alex Cohen’s last show. When he went they dimmed the lights on the Great White Way.

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Later I pondered this incident. Admirable is the temperament that refuses to accept defeat, that exudes infectious positivity no matter what. But there was a lot of technique involved as well. It took me a long time to wonder about it, and only now writing many years later am I more than 95% sure … there was no publicist, there was no-one on the other end of the phone in the Colonial Theatre in Boston that day.