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Rita Gardner has a good memory. In fact, few inhabitants of the theatre remember things as well as her. As a girl, she once played hooky to catch Judy Garland at The Palace. Richard Rodgers was in the audience. He came on stage and played for Judy proclaiming, “You're everybody's daughter … that's why we love you so much!" Years later, he came to see The Fantasticks and then took Rita to dinner. "He bought me my first shrimp cocktail. I couldn't eat a thing. I was so nervous. His music was playing in the background and he was overflowing with stories. It was magic". And so is Rita Gardner – and her memories.
The legendary actress/singer is most famous for creating the role of “The Girl” (Luisa) opposite Jerry Orbach in Off-Broadway's longest running hit, The Fantasticks. The show holds the record for the longest running musical opening in May 1960, and closing on January 17, 2002 after a record-shattering 17,162 performances. She was with the show for the first eight months.
Through the years, Ms. Gardner has earned a place of reverence and respect through her body of acclaimed theatre work that also includes roles in 1776, Ben Franklin in Paris, The Cradle Will Rock, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Steel Magnolias, Wings and The Foreigner. Her current cabaret/theatre revival is running weekends at Metropolitan Room, directed by Barry Kleinbort with musical staging by Pamela Sousa and additional dialogue by Ken Friedman. Alec Rybeck serves as musical director/arranger. As always, Rita Gardner leaves the crowd wanting more. This is no exception.
She brings a lot of history to the stage with her. A favorite of audiences and critics alike, Ms. Gardner invariably commands the stage and walks away with enviable accolades. She brings all that, and more, back once again as she revives her original one-woman revue, Try To Remember – A Look Back at Off-Broadway at Metropolitan Room.
This is no cookie-cutter “and then I did ..” appraisal of one's career. Her's is more than just a reflection of a significant piece of theatrical history - of which she is a pioneer. The period was called the Off-Broadway movement, and few artists can boast such a connected history to an era that is still thriving today.
Looking back, in the mid-1960s, the number of Broadway musicals began to fade. As author Jack Poggi noted in his comprehensive book, Theater In America (Cornell Press, 1968,) "Broadway could no longer provide a steady income to most professional actors than it can to most professional playwrights. By the mid-sixties, it was estimated that only about 3% of New York's professional actors and playwrights earned $2500 a year from stage acting. That was far below the poverty level. A pop-culture change was happening that had turned the world of entertainment upside down. This chasm opened between the hard rock/youth culture and the once dominant “establishment” culture that had long included Broadway." Enter Off-Broadway – and Rita Gardner.
Everyone in show business was affected by cultural changes on the landscape in those days. In Hal Prince's words … "In 1954, when we produced The Pajama Game, the week we opened, we had a hit song on the radio with Rosemary Clooney's version of 'Hey There.' That meant a lot at the box office. By the early sixties, that kind of cross-over was no longer a real possibility."
The '60s was an integral time of change in the downtown scene. Names like Sam Shepard, Brian De Palma and Andy Warhol were among a long list of types making noise in the Greenwich Village scene. Musical theatre was changing at a pace that was hard to keep up with. By the early '60s, show tunes were no longer found on rock-dominated air waves and pop charts. Without the lucrative income from sheet music and cast recordings, composers and lyricists had to settle for the two percent of a musical's gross in a standard contract. New talent went into the more profitable fields of pop music, television and film. A frustrated, Irving Berlin retired in disgust, while those who labored on found that styles and formulas that had worked for decades, were suddenly unacceptable. The times were changing.
The Off-Broadway movement that started in the 1950s and '60s, became a significant time in theatre history and much of its legacy is still felt today. After all, it was the launching pad for many leading contemporary artists and playwrights including Harvey Keitel, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson, among others. The era became a pivotal influence on many performance styles that went from solid theatre to campy improv acts and even TV comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" (which would come later). It was all a shifting tableau of talents, with vital playwrights, directors, performers and composers and lyricists emerging, like Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones who wrote The Fantasticks.
Having a chance to talk to Rita Gardner about those days is a treat. She remains a meaningful personality, bubbling with the same enthusiasm that has made her a beloved mainstay in the hearts of theatre-goers for decades. She is also a walking history book of the era, and her comments are candid, funny and compelling, as is her show.
NLE: As a "pioneer," Try To Remember - A Look Back at Off-Broadway paints a broad canvas of an exciting era for so many audiences as well as for composers and actors. What do you think made it all so contagious to audiences at the time?
Rita Gardner: It was just a magical time. So much was changing. At that particular time, there were few musicals. Off-Broadway became a very “real” thing to do. It was a part, and we were all a part of something we knew was special. Many actors got to work and hone their craft in front of an audience. Part of the success of The Fantasticks came from its simplicity. It was infectious; a simple story in a show filled with gorgeous songs that touched people.
NLE: Who are some of the great artists' you worked with in the very beginning who went on to bigger careers?
RG: So many wonderful talents like Cicely Tyson, John Beal, Eileen Heckart, Larry Kert, Charles Nelson Reilly and Kenneth Nelson to name a handful. And, I also got to work with Robert Preston whom I adored. We were all very supportive of each other. It was a great time.
NLE: Did you know you were involved in something groundbreaking with The Fantasticks ?
RG: I had no idea – at first. I thought it was a really nice show. I was just happy to be working. We all took home about $37.50 a week. It didn't matter. We loved to work. And, slowly, I came to realize how very special this show was. I fell in love with the songs.
NLE: Aside from a fabled show & a treasured memory, do you have one favorite memory of The Fantasticks?
RG: So many memories. It's too hard to single one out. The audiences kept us going in the beginning. Some nights we played to only three or four people. Some nights we were sold out. I will never forget the night Tallulah Bankhead came to see the show. She told me I made her cry. I was so overwhelmed. But then she quipped, "Oh, don't feel bad. I cry at Leo the Lion and grocery lists!"
We also talked about some of the senior performers still working today in cabarets and concerts. I mentioned Barbara Cook, Julie Wilson, Kaye Ballard and talked about Elaine Stritch, who will turn 87 soon, and who just opened at Cafe' Carlyle. She said how much she loved all the old-timers, "I just love Elaine Stritch so much. I love what she does on stage and how she shares so much with her audience."
NLE: Did any one person influence you more than anyone else?
RG: I would have to say the people I studied with – mostly Uta Hagen. A dream of a lady and a magnificent teacher. I felt honored and soaked up all I could from her.
NLE: Have you revised this show from the original one years ago?
RG: I'm a theatre bunny. Things are different in the theatre. Of course I had to cut it back. The original ran over 90 minutes. Others were mostly technical changes. I had to make a few alterations I wasn't used to, like using a hand microphone. And the stage is so small in a cabaret room.
NLE: What are some of the differences you have noticed in Off-Broadway today and the way is was back then?
RG: Mostly playwrights. I know I got a lot of joy out of working at a craft that produced the likes of many great playwrights like Lanford Wilson and so many others of their day. Those people could write – I mean really write. So many of today's writers don't see writing the same way anymore. Today, they want instant fame. My late friend Charles Nelson Reilly agreed with me. He taught a lot, and he said that the most frequently asked question when he began a class was usually the same one: "where are the jobs?"
NLE: Do you have any advice for today's newcomers in musical theatre or cabaret?
RG: Work hard. Study. Learn your craft. Make it a craft. Remember, when you are young, you have looks to help you. But, looks don't last. They will not help you. As you get older, you need to know what you are doing. That's why you must learn your craft. Nobody gets by on their looks.
It's all in her show this weekend at Metropolitan Room in this wonderful cabaret/theatre piece with a song list to treasure. To borrow a phrase from Try To Remember, do as Rita Gardner did ... "follow your heart."
Rita Gardner in Try To Remember – A Look Back at Off-Broadway at Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street on Sept. 16,17 and 18. Reservations and more information: (212) 206 0440
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