A chance to admire some of Broadway's greatest performers: Audra McDonald and Joanna Gleason
In a lifetime of theatregoing, it's inevitable that you accumulate a lot of favourite performances in your memory bank - and with them, you build a personal database of favoured performers in your mind, whose work you will try to never miss. And as a critic, your own words sometimes become attached to declarations about both particular performances and a performer generally.
A couple of years ago, for instance, I interviewed Audra McDonald, the most honoured stage actress in Broadway history with a record six Tony Awards to her name already (she is also the first person to win in all four acting categories, for leading and supporting performances in plays as well as musicals). When I was sent the press pack in advance of our meeting, it quoted one critic saying of her: "It is no exaggeration to say that I regard her as the greatest singer to be born in my lifetime."
That critic, dear reader, was me; and it's a declaration that I stand by. I've seen her in virtually every single one of her Broadway performances - I only missed her Broadway debut in a take-over role in The Secret Garden during its early 1990s run, and an appearance in Shakespeare's Henry IV at Lincoln Centre in 2003. I've also seen her in concert on both sides of the Atlantic on multiple occasions.
So of course, visiting New York this week I just had to catch her in a Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's two-hander 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune that's now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
I've seen the play multiple times before, too, from its original transfer from Manhattan Theatre Club to the Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre in New York in 1987 (when it stared Kathy Bates in the role now being played by McDonald) to its London premiere at the then-Comedy Theatre in 1989 (with Julie Walters, starring opposite Brian Cox) and its last Broadway revival in 2002 (with Edie Falco).
The play is a deceptively deep exploration of two isolated Manhattan souls, co-workers at a diner (he's a short-order book, she's a waitress), desperately trying to find love. But McDonald, who is also a considerable actress as well as singer, illuminates it from within; she movingly accesses the private reserves of an apparently dowdy character, much as she did in one of my all-time favourite roles of hers in the 2007 revival of the musical 110 in the Shade.
Here's another thing: McDonald is always prepared to take risks, this time going fully naked on a Broadway stage. It's far from gratuitous, entirely organic to the action. Kudos to her for honouring the play and not shying away from the challenge. (For those of us who long to hear her sing above all, we are teased when she briefly hums "Almost Like Being In Love" from Brigadoon.)
Like all good plays, it also resonates anew in other ways the more often you see it. As someone who always sought to turn many hook-ups into the love of my life, I recognise the love addiction that the male character is clearly engaged in, as he immediately tries to turn this new relationship permanent. (I also enjoyed a small geographical resonance, too: her Hell's Kitchen walk-up apartment is at 53rd and 10th, just three blocks from mine!)
McDonald is, these days, a bona fide Broadway star (she also has a regular role in TV's brilliant The Good Fight), and her name above the title is enough to sell this play (though she is superbly joined by the twice-Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon, who was also been nominated for a Tony in 2016). As such, she can pick and choose her roles; I'm delighted that she picked this play.
I was also delighted to catch Joanna Gleason, another favourite performer in cabaret at 54 Below, the Broadway nightclub. Unlike McDonald, she's been but an intermittent visitor to Broadway - the last time she was there was in 2005 when she played a supporting role in the original production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in a cast that also included Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott (who will themselves coincidentally be reunited at 54 Below themselves this month for a joint cabaret, and I am looking forward to seeing).
But Gleason seared herself forever into my heart when she originated the role of the Baker's Wife in the original production of Sondheim's Into the Woods in 1987; as such, she was the first person to sing “Maybe They're Magic”, “It Takes Two” and “Moments in the Wood”, so she's on the original Broadway cast album and an absolute wonder.
That was a substantial hit, but her next Broadway show Nick & Nora ran for just a week after it opened in 1991. At 54 Below, she told hilarious stories about its travails, including being delivered brand-new lyrics for one of her big songs moments before the first critics' performances. Director Arthur Laurents arranged for them to be put in hat boxes around the set, so she could consult them as required. But a different verse was put in each, and they were not numbered. So she had no idea what order to sing them in. She also said of the late Laurents, "He knows where all the bodies are buried - he'd buried half of them himself."
Broadway is a fund of great stories - and great performers like Gleason are part of its intimate history. It's one of the reasons I also love seeing cabarets like hers.