Legit veterans show how it's done

Unlike film and TV, which honor their veterans by giving them awards and not returning their agents’ phone calls, Broadway knows how to treat its living legends: It puts them to work.

Among the working stiffs toiling away on Broadway this season have been such creative vets as Jerry Herman, Mike Nichols, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, James Earl Jones, Alan Alda and Eric Idle. Besides passing on their know-how to the next generation, the old pros have added a certain luster to this season.

“I feel like I’ve come home,” says Herman, who worked on the new revival of his 1983 musical “La Cage aux Folles.”

Being in town gave him a chance to catch up with the new shows and survey the scene. At the preem of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” he comments, “I love an eclectic theater: a new Adam Guettel show opening after an Elvis Presley songfest and a Kander & Ebb revival playing down the street from ‘Scoundrels.’ It makes for a much more interesting Broadway.”

Revivals have an important place in that mix, he says, likening a vintage show to “a string of pearls that a lady carefully takes out of a velvet box to wear and then puts back in the box at the end of the evening.”

His personal quarrel, he says, is with people “who would let those good pieces from the past sit away in a dark box and never take them out.” The only way to replenish the American musical theater, “is if everyone gets to see and appreciate our treasures.”

There were other theater titan who watched their pearls return to Broadway this season. Albee oversaw a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Sondheim’s 75th birthday coincided with new editions of “The Frogs” and “Pacific Overtures.” And for all its rebirth pains, “Sweet Charity” reminds us that Simon still walks among us — and will deepen his footprint when “The Odd Couple” opens with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

At the same time, the strong presence of Nichols, Alda, and Earl Jones on Broadway showed that the legends with legs are the ones that don’t stop running.

Jones, in fact, gets downright testy when people misinterpret his current appearance in “On Golden Pond” as coming out of retirement.

“Once, when I went off to make a TV series, I said I’d not do Broadway for a while,” Jones says, “and that was taken to mean retiring from the stage. I might have been speaking out of bitterness at the time, because I can’t believe that anyone in this business really cares if someone retires. We’re replaceable. It’s part of our reality.”

If acting is “a continuous exploration of what life is,” as he explains it, then to act is to live. In fact, that compulsion to work at his craft is what gives Jones his insight into Norman Thayer, the crusty old coot he plays in “On Golden Pond.” “Norman is somebody I think I’m getting to know,” he says. “He’s hard. I think he’s become hard since he retired, because retirement is a challenge and most of us don’t deal with it very well. It frightens us.”

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