Once foes, nonprofits and B'way now swim together

Back in the day when the theater, even mainstream theater, functioned as a laboratory for new ideas and untried techniques, you could use the word “groundbreaking” about a show and really mean it.

That’s a thought worth holding onto as two genuinely groundbreaking shows — Arthur Miller’s 1964 confessional drama “After the Fall” and the 1974 musical spoof of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs” by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim — prepare to bow in revival productions less than a week apart. (“The Frogs bows July 22 at the Vivian Beaumont, “After the Fall” July xx at the American Airlines.)

In the case of the Miller play, which opened Jan. 23, 1964, as the inaugural production of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, solid ground literally had to be broken, to build a temporary theater for housing the nonprofit company until the fall of 1965, when its permanent home at the Vivian Beaumont Theater would be ready.

Ten years later, when “The Frogs” made its brief, but extremely noisy splash at the Yale School of Drama, the ground gave away altogether for a production staged in and around the slippery edges of the Olympic-sized swimming pool of the school gym.

“It was like putting on a show in a men’s urinal” is how Sondheim famously described that theatrical event.

The playwright Christopher Durang, who was in the chorus along with future theatrical worthies Alma Cuervo, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver, recalls that the acoustics of the cavernous pool room swallowed up the orchestra so effectively that the choral singers couldn’t hear the music.

“The next night, the rehearsal pianist conducted us with a flashlight,” Durang recalls. “We still couldn’t hear anything, but we could follow the light.”

If Durang thought he had a hard time hearing the orchestra from his end, he should have been at my end, where the sound was muffled in a wet blanket of steamy air amid nauseating chlorine-scented fumes while dancers accidentally slipped back in the pool.

My recollections of the opening night of “After the Fall” are much sharper, which might seem surprising, given that it was 10 years earlier (and not chlorine-laden).

But Miller’s first play in nine years was the talk of the town, and as the invited guest of a Broadway theater critic I was determined to soak it all up — especially the scandalous rumors that the play would trash Miller’s former wife, Marilyn Monroe, whose recent suicide was still very much in the public consciousness.

“It was an ungallant gesture from a gallant man,” in the view of the actress Lee Grant. “There are many playwrights who might have married Marilyn Monroe and let it go at that,” Harry Golden dryly noted in the New York Post.

As for me, I was girlishly shocked — shocked! — by Miller’s manhandling of the character he called Maggie and strenuously insisted was not Marilyn. At the same time, I was thrilled — thrilled! — to be in the audience on the historic night that the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center was launched: New York finally had an organization with the professional credentials, audience base, and state-of-the art performance space suitable for housing what could evolve into a true national theater company.

The company’s temporary quarters, on the edge of Washington Square Park in the Village, were not the Vivian Beaumont. Although people carried on about the Greek-styled amphitheater and expansive thrust stage designed by Jo Mielziner, the exterior of the house looked like a Quonset hut and the interior was sunk so deep underground that it felt like a football stadium built by some subterranean jock civilization.

Still, “After the Fall” was more than a respected playwright’s autobiographical show-and-tell for an experimental company and venue. It was part of a dream that had much of New York giddy with expectations for the future of the American theater.

Not everyone, however, shared the dream.

Commercial Broadway was deeply resentful of the nonprofit company, which opened its first production with a healthy $725,000 advance and a ticket scale ($6 and $6.50) that wasn’t much lower than that of a Broadway show. The perks of government subsidies were an even bigger bone of contention.

“It’s not a theater for the masses,” producer Arthur Cantor charged. “It’s a subsidized theater for the upper-income masses.”

Kermit Bloomgarden, who had produced Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” was incensed that no tax was levied on nonprofit theater tickets (a 15% tax was slapped on Broadway ducats) and that the theater itself occupied tax-free and rent-free land.

Big names like Miller and Jason Robards Jr. would just as easily have drawn theatergoers to Broadway, and Bloomgarden voiced the pervasive fear that the new nonprofit movement would be poaching on the commercial theater’s core audience and talent.

Ten years later, the battle was over. Repertory theater proved impossible to sustain and the dream of a national theater was dry as dust. But the nonprofit theater had survived, adapted and finally come up with something that its commercial cousin could honestly envy — the concept of environmental theater.

By 1974, experimental directors like Joe Chaikin, Tom O’Horgan, Maria Irene Fornes, and Judith Malina had educated a new generation in innovative staging techniques that even the commercial theater was keen to modify for its own use. Having been mauled at La Mama, groped at the Guggenheim, and even on Broadway hugged at “Hair,” we were more than happy to be drowned at Yale.

Strange to say, Robert Brustein, the dean of the Yale School of Drama and the academic guru of the nonprofits, was less than thrilled at the commercial theater’s embrace of its experimental aesthetic.

Smarting from the scathing notices of “The Frogs” (and the measly $7,000 profit realized from the production), he warned the nonprofit community against “compromising” itself on the altar of commercialism.

“The strength of the nonprofit theater is growing,” he said, noting this growth “can be measured by the desperate way in which Broadway, drowning, tries to pull itself to safety by holding onto its shoulders.”

Nobody in the theater seems to fight with that kind of passion anymore. But surely someone — Aristophanes perhaps — would appreciate the irony that the current revivals of “The Frogs” and “After the Fall” are being mounted by noncommercial theaters as big and staid — and profit-driven — as the commercial enemy that Brustein railed against, all those years ago.

Only nowadays, with everyone splashing around in the same pool, no one seems to mind.

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