I’ve mentioned here in the past a wonderful British TV series I adore, The Goes Wrong Show from the same people who did the stage shows, The Play That Goes Wrong and its various sequels. (I’ve posted several videos of them. It’s a TV series I’ve highly recommended to many, but as far as I know only one person has ever taken me up on, with his great thanks, but ahem, I’ll leave it at that…)
The premise of The Play That Wrong is that this small, not terribly competent theater company, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, puts on a play where, as you might imagine, everything goes wrong. They keep up the lunacy all evening, and it’s a total joy, making slapstick almost Shakespearan. The London production has remarkably been running for 11 years.
The creators – who star in the show, with others making up the regular troupe – then adapted the concept into two TV specials with celebrity guest stars, which did so well that they made it a series, which was on the air for two seasons. (I don’t know if they’re planning more or not.) It’s the same premise, the Cornley Drama Society puts on 30-minute plays each week – without guests -- in a different genre (a WWII drama, a legal drama, a horror story, a Christmas show and so on. Their version of a hot, steamy Tennessee Williams drama, called 90 Degrees, is a masterclass in physical comedy and slapstick. The legal drama is a close second, A Trial to Watch). Most of the shows are available for free online on YouTube and on the DailyMotion.com website. And also for a fee on Amazon Prime and on Amazon Prime via the BroadwayHD Channel.
(The way the shows were released in the U.S. made it appear as if the two hour-long specials were done in the series’ third year. But after watching everything, I learned that they were actually first.)
Yesterday, I read about them about to open a new show on Broadway that’s similar but a touch different from their others. It’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong – not a totally original work like their other productions, but obviously based on a real play. Why this caught my eye is that it’s a stage adaptation of one of their TV specials in their first season! It opens on Broadway April 19 and will have a limited run of four months. (Hopefully it will tour.)
As I noted, in their third year, they only did two shows, both based on existing material and both with name stars. One was A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong (that featured Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg), and the other was this one on Peter Pan, that had David Suchet as the Narrator. (If you’re not a Masterpiece Mystery fan on PBS, he famously played ‘Hercule Poirot’ for years.) Both specials were a lot of fun, but the Peter Pan show was (for my taste…) spectacular. Utterly hilarious. It starts enjoyable and fine, sort of their standard, good, clever stuff – but then it builds. And then builds. And in the last third they pretty much throw out any pretense of sanity and go full-bore crazy. And the role of narrator is much bigger than the guest star roles in the Christmas Carol production. (There’s one sequence in it that Suchet has which is joyously inspired.)
For the Broadway production, it appears that they will have a different guest star as the Narrator for a couple of weeks, and then bring in new ones. The first guest star announced is Neil Patrick Harris. I’m not exactly sure how they’ll do the stage show, since an hour is a little short – perhaps they’ll expand it slightly. Plus there are a lot of bits in the last third of the TV version that they couldn’t ever, even conceivably do on stage, so they’ll probably adapt it slightly differently.
The good news for anyone interested in the original TV special of Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that – we are happy to embed it here! If you don’t like physical comedy and slapstick, it’s not for you. But even at that, know that this is unlike most slapstick you’ve likely seen as they make it a fine art. So, for the rest (or if you decide to give it a try), curtain up.
(Note: If the video doesn't run in the browser, just click the "Play in YouTube" link -- or click here.)
One Blind Mouse
Back in 1966, when I was but a kidling, I went on a family trip to Europe, and when we were in London, I went with my older brother to see Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap. (Our folks went to a different play.) I was very excited about going, since I liked Agatha Christie mysteries and had heard so much about this monumentally long-running play. So long-running that it was a phenomenon. I'd read the short story (though a long one, almost a novella) beforehand, so I knew whodunnit -- but at intermission I asked my brother who he thought the killer was. (Don't worry, I won't give it away.) He kept changing his guess -- "no, wait, I think it's..." -- and I just politely sat there smiling at him. (Fun fact: He didn't guess it.)
Two years later, on another family trip, I got a poster for the show. I later had it framed, and it sits on my wall --
For the record, I saw the play in its 14th year.
What I love about the poster is how it trumpets, "THE LONGEST RUNNING PLAY OF ANY KIND IN THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH THEATRE." That was in 1968. Its 16th year.
Today, the production celebrates its 70th!
The play opened on November 25, 1952. And yes, it's still running. After 21 years, it moved next door to the St. Martin's Theatre, and it's changed casts (often) -- over 400 actors and actresses have performed in it -- but those are pretty much the only differences.
(Though it's changed casts often -- in fact, now, they change casts every year, generally in November -- some actors stuck with the show for a long time. In the poster above, you'll notice at the bottom of the cast list one of the actors I saw, David Raven. He stayed in the show for 11 years! Not a bad daily job for a stage actor...)
The show has currently run for over 28,000 performances over those 70 years. To put this in perspective, the longest running show in the of history New York theater is the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, which ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances. And eventually closed. (On Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera is still going with a remarkably long-running 34-year production, however its producers recently announced that they would be closing the show in five months, in April.) Meanwhile, Ol' Man Mousetrap, it just keeps rolling along.
Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography that her agent thought the play would run for an impressive 14 months, but she totally disagreed. "It won't run that long," she said. "Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months." Even that would have been a great run for a play. Today, it's a joke.
My favorite story about The Mousetrap is that before it opened, Agatha Christie signed a movie contract, though with one proviso: no movie could be made until the play finally closed for six months. And that was 70 years ago, with no closing notice in sight. (The show's website says that it is taking ticket orders through November, 2023 -- a year from now.) That's why you haven't seen a movie of The Mousetrap.
(By the way, the movie producer in question was John Woolf, who happily went on the have an notable career despite this, most memorably winning an Oscar for Best Picture with Oliver! His other movies included Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and Room at the Top, among many others.)
Also fun is that when the play opened, Agatha Christie gave the rights to the play to her grandson Mathew Pritchard as a gift for his ninth birthday. (This article here is an interview with him about the birthday gift.) With the returns, he later set up the Colwinston Trust, which among its many donations to the arts has supported some of the most famous venues in Wales, including the Wales Millennium Centre, The Welsh National Opera, and Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre.
Noteworthy, too, is that in the opening night cast, a young actor Richard Attenborough played the investigator, 'Detective Sergeant Trotter'. His wife Sheila Sim was also in the cast as 'Mollie Ralston,' one of the owners of the snowbound Monkswell Manor where the play takes place. They each received a 10% profit-participation in the show, which was deducted from their combined weekly salaries. ("It proved to be the wisest business decision I've ever made," Attenborough later said, not shockingly, though added, "but foolishly I sold some of my share to open a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called 'The Little Elephant' and later still, disposed of the remainder in order to keep Gandhi afloat." However, considering that Gandhi won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Attenborough won for Best Director, it does seem like money very well-spent, and got its own financial -- and professional -- return.)
There are a few things I didn't know about The Mousetrap until very recently. Starting with that it did not begin life as a short story. Rather it was originally written as a 1945 radio play for the BBC, in honor of the birthday of Queen Mary. (It was presented under the name Three Blind Mice.) Agatha Christie adapted the radio play as a short story, which she then adapted for the stage. The title had to be changed, though, because there had been another play with the same name, done before World War II.
(The new title was suggested by Christie's son-in-law Anthony Hicks. Of all things, it comes from Hamlet. And in a nice bit of appropriate whimsy, from the famous "The play's the thing" scene when he is giving advice to the actors. Asked the name of the play, he jokingly refers to it as "The Mousetrap.")
What I also didn't know about The Mousetrap until just a few weeks ago is that the background for the reason of the murder was loosely inspired by a true life story.
In another odd twist, somewhat similar to that of the movie rights, Christie requested that the short story not be published in the United Kingdom as long as the play was running in London's West End. When I read about that, I couldn't figure out how I was able to have read it. But it turns out that the story was allowed to be published in the United States and appeared in the collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories.
I've still kept my copy all these years. A whopping 45-cents. And the original title is duly noted on the cover.
By the way, if you haven't seen last year's movie See How They Run with Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody, it's a fun, comic-murder mystery that's centered around a murder that occurs backstage during the early days of The Mousetrap. The story is totally fictional, but real details are mixed in -- including Richard Attenborough being a character, as is John Woolf, it taking place at the Ambassador Theatre and a few other matters, as well as Agatha Christie taking part, as well.
Also, on more of a personal note, when I returned to London in that aforementioned 1968 family trip, I went to see a wonderful one-act play by Tom Stoppard called The Real Inspector Hound. It was a deeply-clever satire of theater, critics, drawing-room murder mysteries and, in particular, The Mousetrap. And such a total joy that even as a kid I could appreciate it (especially having seen The Mousetrap two years earlier). My poster of it sits on the wall next to the one of The Mousetrap.
And let's just add another twist to the story. Because this is Agatha Christie and The Mousetrap, after all --
Though The Mousetrap has been running for 70 years in London's West End, it has oddly never played on Broadway. Until...now! Producers in London and New York just announced today that The Mousetrap will finally play on Broadway some time in 2023.
That’s a pretty good, pre-Broadway tryout.
(I still don’t know why it took this long. Nor do articles I've read about this Broadway opening. Though a large Broadway house might not be the best idea for this intimate show, at the moment its schedule for a limited engagement, so it seems like that could be the right choice. Of course, there's always the possibility of it being extended -- although for 70 years might be a bit of a stretch...)
Producers say that the Broadway run's set design will include an authentic touch -- the only piece of the original set that still survives— the mantelpiece clock — will be loaned from the London production. Also, the backstage wind machine (which was described as "unique") that has the original producer’s name imprinted on it and still used today, will also be loaned.
Anyway, to find out more about the original London production, you can check out the official website for The Mousetrap here.
And here's their current trailer.
When Kuklapolitans Go for High Art
Yesterday, in my tribute to Kukla, Fran and Ollie on their 75th anniversary, I wrote that I would be posting today the full, glorious episode when the Kuklapolitans present their version of The Mikado. Initially, I wrote that unfortunately I was mistaken -- I thought I had the full show, but it's only about two minutes. Although joyous ones.
As it turns out, however, the full show does exist! O huzzah. I thought I had come across, but when I looked at my notes, I only had that two-minute clip. But thanks to reader Ken Kahn, he found the completely episode of The Mikado," and I've changed the video below to it.
The rest of the article holds.
No single episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie gives a full sense of the different levels of the show. But this video gives an idea of it.
And an idea of the range of the Kuklapolitan Players, and of Burr Tillstrom's unearthly skill with characters and voices. Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, being the dowager protector of All Things Fine Art among the Kuklapolitans, would regularly try to organize everyone and put on some light opera production once a year, and more often than not it would be an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. And that's what we have here, The Mikado.
What the video also shows is Fran Allison’s sweetness and total, pure belief in the puppets. Yet as sweet as she was, she would easily get perturbed with the others when called for. (Which was not uncommon...) And it also gives an idea of Burr Tillstrom at his most lunatic and artistic. Keep in mind, as you watch this, that he's handling both puppets: singing and dancing both characters, while ad-libbing the dialogue for the full show, of course. Not to mention holding his arms up for a half-hour.) In fact, much as there appears to be a happy accident in the song "Three Little Maids from School," upon having watched repeated viewings of it I’m pretty convinced that it was all impressively planned. Moreover, remember that for years, they did this for a half-hour every day, five days a week. There was another half-hour show the very next day. And after that. And...
By the way, it's also worth noting the laughter of the audience. The show didn't always have an audience, usually if you heard laughing it was from the crew members cracking up, since much of the show was ad-libbed. But occasionally there were small audiences. The reason I bring it up here, though, is because what stands out is that the laughter isn't the sound of little kids at all, but rather adults. Much as Kukla, Fran and Olllie was a children's puppet show, it was as much for adults, at least those with a sense of the whimsical.
I spoke to a friend who went to a TV Academy tribute to Burr Tillstrom on the show's 50th anniversary in 1997 (I was in Chicago at the time -- and went to the exhibit at the Chicago History Museum), where he said they played this episode in its entirety. The auditorium was full, with probably 1,000 people there, and as these adults watched this barebones, black-and-white puppet show almost 50 years after it was made in the early days of television, he said the place was filled with laughter.
This, in small part explains why. It starts quietly, with a five-minute introduction by Col. Crackie to it all (including a brief tour of the studio and cast & crew participating) -- and then slowly builds through the songs and a wonderfully, if weirdly interpolated commercial. Until they make it through.
File and Remember Yet Again
Yesterday, I posted a 20-minute video of an interview with the great humorist James Thurber, the only video I’ve ever seen of him. In a social media exchange afterwards, I noted that our family had a couple of Thurber books, but what probably most pushed me to reading him was something else entirely.
The classical music station WFMT has had a wonderful show every Saturday night for over 50 years, The Midnight Special, (which was created by its then-staff announcer Mike Nichols) which was folk music, comedy, Broadway and odds-and-ends. And they would periodically play selections from the 1960 stage revue, A Thurber Carnival, which was adaptations of a wide range of Thurber short stories. It had a great cast of character actors including Tom Ewell (who most famously starred in the movie The Seven Year Itch, opposite Marilyn Monroe), Peggy Cass, two of my faves Paul Ford and John McGiver, Alice Ghostley, and others.
One of my favorite scenes from the show that The Midnight Special played a lot is also one of my favorite Thurber stories, “File and Forget,” a first-person story about a hellish time that Thurber supposedly had trying to correct with his publisher about a delivery problem of one of his books. On stage, the role of 'James Thurber' was played by Tom Ewell.
Discussing this with a friend who grew up in New York, he said that he actually saw the show when it ran there. Lucky him.
(By the way, as I noted yesterday, the real Thurber was a bit of a ham, and into the run it turned out that for a month the Broadway production had James Thurber himself play himself in that one scene! There was one particular challenge: Thurber was legally blind. Because of this, he couldn’t make the entrances and exits properly. What they did was build a sort of conveyor belt with a chair on it. Thurber simply sat in the chair and it would roll on and off the stage. I’ve tried to find video or even just audio of this for decades, but so far…alas, nothing. But it seems almost impossible, if not malpractice that no one with the production filmed it, or recorded it, even if just off the sound board. So, I live in hope.)
Anyway, I thought that it was only proper to play “File and Forget” here. I’ve found a few video versions of it from small productions, but I’m going to go with this great truly cast here, even if audio only. They're just too good. And the whimsical background music is spot-on perfect.
Baton Down the Hatches
Yes, yes, I know it’s spelled “batten.” Trust me on this. It’s a bit of a journey, but hopefully interesting and entertaining along the way until we get to the main point.
Back in 2013, I wrote an article here about the musical Barnum, and mentioned that the treat for me in the video I embedded from its Tony Awards performance was how the clip included a chorus member named Sophie Schwab.
I went to Northwestern when she was there, both of us in the School of Speech (she in theater, me in Radio, TV, & Film), though we never met at the school. (I did meet her later in Los Angeles, though incredibly briefly, more on that later.)
Far more notable to me during my Northwestern years is that she had also been the school's majorette in the marching band and had won many awards as a baton twirler. Now, saying someone was a majorette might have little meaning to most people, but saying that Sophie Schwab twirled a baton was like saying Picasso drew. So let me put this in perspective:
I began going to Northwestern football games with my dad from the time I was eight, but my dad had season tickets to Northwestern games for 51 years. And of all the baton twirlers he saw (and he saw A LOT over 51 seasons), Sophie Schwab was his favorite. No one came close. Indeed, in his 90s, he not only still talked about her with wistful admiration (she was always "Little Sophie"), but of all the others he saw over half-a-century she was the only majorette he even remembered. During my years at Northwestern I often would leave the student section to sit with him, and he always looked forward to seeing “Sophie” arrive, we both did. But he especially adored watching her, she was that good (no, really) and with such personality and charm leading 100 band members down the field. She wasn't just a twirler, she was absolutely remarkable. (In an interview I later came across about her in Barnum, she said that she could never remember dropping the baton during a performance – however she didn't mean a performance of Barnum, but any performance she had ever done, whether while marching or in a competition or on stage. From what little you can see in that Tony clip, her boundless skill is clear. I remember, too, reading about reviews of Barnum that singled out this small, talented performer tossing the baton -- not a few spins like you’d probably expect from a Broadway actress, but throwing the baton high above the proscenium arch, so far it was out of sight of the audience, doing a somersault or spin and catching it without a miss. Ever.)
Not shockingly, beyond her skills as an actress, it was her baton twirling that clinched her being hired for the show. How great was she? Lyricist Michael Stewart even changed a line in the song “Come Follow the Band” to refer to her -- “See the pretty lady toss that baton high, ain't she cute as a daisy?”
As I said, you can see what I’m talking about in that video I’d posted with the Barnum article back in 2013, but I’ll embed the video alone here for easier viewing. She comes in from the far left of the screen at the 1:28 mark. And you can hear the new lyric as she sends the baton soaring into the sky. Keep in mind, she did this every night. Without a drop --
(Side note: The video continues for a while after the song finishes at 3:30. Feel free to keep watching Jim Dale's solo number, or stop and come back here.)
We now bump up the story to two years ago.
I’d written an article several years ago about the Harnick and Bock show, She Loves Me, which I titled “The Great Movie Musical That Never Was.” And in 2020, a fellow named David Rosen came across it, and we began exchanging detailed notes about the show and musicals in general, eventually getting around to Frank Loesser’s show The Most Happy Fella. He mentioned that his wife was an actress and had done that show, presented by a well-regarded off-Broadway theater. Her name struck a chord, though I couldn’t place it. In a subsequent note of our conversation, we returned to She Loves Me, and he offhandedly commented that his wife had done that musical at -- Northwestern. Wait, hmmm, hold on, Northwestern, actress, musicals, something familiar, Sophie Hayden was her name…wait, I think that’s…that’s…Sophie Schwab!!!
And so it was. As amazed as I was, I said I was about to blow his mind by explaining I’d not only gone to school with her and written about Barnum, and embedded a video of it, but also singled out his wife in the video and wrote about her and her baton twirling, and even briefly crossed paths with her once! And yes, his mind was blown.
And he got to pass along the wonderful story about how she got hired for Barnum – not just in the chorus, but also as understudy for the female lead, who was…Glenn Close. He was a talent agent at the time, and had become a couple with Sophie. I’ll let him explain the story – again, keeping in mind that the producers were just looking for the most basic juggling skills for an actress and having NO IDEA what they were in for, auditioning an actress who was also one of the, literally, great majorettes in the country. David wrote:
“I got her an audition for Charity Barnum, which she aced, but Glenn Close had already been hired so they considered Soph for understudy. So they asked if she "had any circus skills" ie juggling, etc. She said, sure, I can juggle three fire batons. She said they laughed, and said to come back. Well the rest is history. And she came back, lit three batons up and kicked butt. Needless to say it was impressive. So she ended up in the chorus and understudied Charity. Also, the line in Come Follow the Band..."See the pretty lady toss that baton high" wasn't in the original score. : ) Being a stage door Johnny, I saw the show like 25 times! I still think its one of the best underrated musicals of all time.”
I can only imagine the producers laughing to themselves when this actress said she could juggle three fire batons, and only wish I was there to see their boggled amazement at what she could actually do, sending the fire batons flying all over the place amid somersaults. (After all, you saw part of her stage performance in the link above.)
What also became more clear as my exchanges with David Rosen continued was that while I knew Sophie Hayden had continued with acting (which relates to the play I saw her in, in Los Angeles – more on that soon…), I didn’t realize how substantively. And that the off-Broadway theater behind The Most Happy Fella was actually a Broadway production, which got nominated for Best Revival, had a cast album released – and she wasn’t just in it, but starred as the female lead, ‘Rosabella’…and got a Tony nomination for Best Performance for a Leading Actress in a Musical.
And though there’s more to this story coming in a moment, here first is a video of Sophie Hayden with Spiro Malas at the 1992 Tony Awards singing “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance.”
And as a bonus from the show’s original cast album, here she is singing her big, soaring ballad, “Somebody, Somewhere.”
Oh, and one other thing to bring this full circle -- The Most Happy Fella was one of my father's absolutely favorite musicals. He would have been utterly overjoyed by this. That his favorite "Sophie" starred in the revival on Broadway. And got a Tony nomination. Even without a baton.
Which finally brings us to what prompted me to write all this. This is the point. (Not that all that which came before isn't a joy...)
Around 1983, the Goodman Theater in Chicago had the weird idea to do Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors as a mad sort of circus production with The Flying Karamazov Brothers (a joyously wonderful troupe I’d seen at the periodically-mentioned here Ravinia Musical Festival). It eventually went to Broadway in 1987 and then toured the country, where it played in Los Angeles. It was staged at UCLA, as I recall, near where I lived. And loving the Flying Karamazov Brothers as I did, I anxiously got tickets – not having any idea who this “Sophie Hayden” was in the cast, until I read the actors’ biographies. And I realized, “It’s Sophie Schwab!!!” (Which is why the name “Sophie Hayden” was vaguely familiar to me when her husband mentioned it.)
In fact, she’d been in the original Goodman Theater production. As the New York Times critic Mel Gussow (who had seen the original production) wrote when the show was on Broadway –
“Sets, lights and breakaway costumes are by the same creative hands. But there have been a few minor changes on the road to the Beaumont,” he noted. “Sophie Schwab, still delightful as Adriana (wife to Antipholus), has changed her stage name to Sophie Hayden…”
And then later added – “Ms. Hayden, Gina Leishman (as her sister) and a few others have a genuine affinity for the Shakespearean language. On the other hand - as I said in my original review from Chicago - as classical actors, the Karamazovs are not about to challenge the Royal Shakespeare Company. But can Ian McKellen juggle?
“The Karamazovs use juggling as a comic instrument and for punctuation. In this production, the juggling is infectious, or, if you will, catching. Everyone does it,” Gussow noted. “Just as the Karamazovs use tenpins to make a point, Ms. Hayden twirls her baton, which could be regarded as singular form of juggling. For example, when she is angry, she swings her baton as if it were a machete.”
When the show played in Los Angeles, I anxiously went, thought it was an utter joy, was pleased to see that Sophie Schwab – er, sorry, Hayden, was in it and wonderful – and then waited around afterwards as the actors left to finally say hi after all these years. It wasn’t much, we briefly talked about Northwestern, marching bands, my dad’s joy from her, and that was it.
But the point of all this here was her performance in that show. The whole evening was wildly entertaining, filled of course with much juggling and every bit of vaudeville shtick you could imagine. And as it went on, all I could think was -- with all this vaudeville circus clowning, they just have to include her baton twirling. Have to. And I kept waiting and waiting. Surely they would do something. And then, at last, there came a moment in the show when the character of ‘Adriana’ walks out on stage, and -- and -- and she's holding…a big stick. And I quickly sat up, because I knew. Okay, this was it. The audience was about to be knocked for a loop. They just think she’s holding a stick. But oh, noooo, that’s not a stick. That is a baton. Trust me, folks. That -- is -- a -- baton.
The scene began normally. Keep in mind, too, that at this point this was an actress who the audience had seen as an actress simply doing Shakespeare for two hours -- doing it with great humor, of course, but there was no reason to expect anything different by now. And then, at first, there was a nice, fast spin and flip behind her back, and the crowd gave a very-surprised laugh and was politely appreciative. Whoa, that was unexpected, an actress learned to twirl the baton a bit, how nice. Well-done. No, no, I thought, oh, no, you folks haven’t seen anything yet. And then…yes, it built, and Sophie got to do her stuff. And built some more. And more. And all the while, the audience became almost silent, partly holding their breath, partly not sure what was coming and not wanting to miss the next twirl. Until finally, they at last broke into huge cheers. It's one thing to see a baton twirler in a musical about the circus. But in Shakespeare, while doing dialogue and then...during a soliloquy, a baton flying all over the place, and with acrobatics??!! No, the audience really wasn't expecting it. Well, okay, I was...
And after all this long tale here with diversions and details, even that tale is just background, because it brings us to the main point and the treat to prove it all, even more so than the wonderful Barnum video.
Because, you see, that Flying Karamazov Brothers production of Comedy of Errors was done for television. With, of course, Sophie Hayden. And even better, in one of my treasured finds, the video of the full show is actually online! I downloaded it, and then fast-forwarded through the show in order to find The Scene -- and have edited it down here. And you get to see that I wasn't lying.
This is the main point. This is Tony-nominee Sophie Schwab Hayden doing Shakespeare, no doubt as intended. But at the very least, as only she can. Every night. Without dropping the baton, ever.
The Good and the Badham
Mary Badham is not a name most moviegoers recognize – even many who have seen and adore To Kill a Mockingbird. But she was the 10-year-old girl who played ‘Scout’ and got a supporting actress Oscar nomination for it.
She actually had a bit of a career as a young actress after making the movie in 1962 – including This Property Was Condemned with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, and even was in the last-ever episode of The Twilight Zone. But acting was never her driving interest, and she’s been largely retired for 56 years, other than a small cameo role in a small, reasonably-charming independent movie Our Very Own in 2005 (which I’ve seen) after the filmmakers actively pursued her, and (to my surprise) a TV movie thriller, Erasing His Past in 2019. But that’s it. And she’s never done theater.
And is it ever a theatrical debut.
Opening just the other day, she’s now appearing at the Kennedy Center in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. As the expression goes – boy, howdy. That’s a stage debut.
Sorkin’s play opened on Broadway in late 2018 with Jeff Daniels starring as ‘Atticus Finch.’ It was a big success but had to shut down because of COVID, though he returned to the role when the play re-opened on Broadway. It also started a national tour with Richard Thomas in the lead.
Badham had seen the play on Broadway and loved it, but had no thought of actually being in it. However, the producer went all-out to get her involved. And finally she agreed, She’ll be playing the role of ‘Mrs. Dubose,’ who is the Finch family’s strong-willed, racist neighbor.
It’s not a major role, but an important one, most especially because of the character’s interactions with an often-confrontational ‘Scout.’ A Washington Post article on the production describes how “mind-bending” it is for actress Melanie Moore who plays ‘Scout’ in the play and shares scenes with Ms. Badham who originated the role 54 years earlier. (Unlike the 10-years-old that Badham was in the film, Moore plays the character over a range of ages and is 30.)
“In rehearsals, I would do things and make her laugh,” Moore says, “and she would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was so Scout when you did that.’ Moments like that brought me so much joy. I felt like I was really bringing something to the character that she felt like she recognized and also surprised her. But I can’t think too hard about yelling things at the original movie Scout as Scout myself.”
If you don’t remember the character of ‘Mrs. Dubose’ well, here’s a scene from the movie --
I haven’t seen any reviews yet of the production at the Kennedy Center, though have come across a couple of articles about her being in the show. This one here in the Washington Post is a pretty good, detailed one.
There’s also a long podcast interview with her by the entertainment reporter for local Washington, D.C. station, WTOP which I’ll link to below. But this is a brief, 40-second preview that’s highly-worth checking out because of a moment at the very end which will melt the hearts of fans of the movie. Presuming you have a heart
One of the things that stands out in her WTOP interview were her glowing words about Gregory Peck, who played her noble father ‘Atticus Finch’ in the film – but also of Brock Peters, who played ‘Tom Robinson,’ the man her father was defending.
“What you saw on screen is what we got at home,” Badham said. “I would go home with the Pecks on the weekend. We became very close and stayed friends right up until he passed. He was an Atticus. He really was. He was so kind, generous, intelligent, well-read and just a very good role model for me because I lost my parents very early in my life.”
In fact, since Badham lost her parents young, Peck became almost a real-life father figure to her.
“My mother died three weeks after I graduated high school and Daddy died two years after I got married,” Badham said. “He [Peck] would take the time to pick up the phone and call: ‘How are you doing, kiddo?’ … Whenever I was in Los Angeles, I’d go to their house. It was a very close relationship. He and Bernice picked up where Mother and Daddy left off.”
It turns out, too, that she stayed in touch with Brock Peters over the years and was sort of mentored by him.
“Brock and I did a symphony program together … in Kansas where they played some pieces of music [from the movie], then between the music we would tell little behind-the-scenes stories … things that happened off-camera,” Badham said. “I had my daddy, I had Gregory Peck and I had Brock Peters. Those three guys were my male role models.”
By the way, if one does know the name “Badham” in relation to movies, it’s more likely her older brother, John Badham. He became a director and a very successful one, making such movies as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, and Blue Thunder. In fact, he’s still directing, mostly TV these days. She tells a funny story on the podcast about his reacting to her making To Kill a Mockingbird.
“All he ever wanted to do was be in film and theater, that was his goal, he studied at Yale, working hard, beating his brains out to make it,” she said. “He gets a call from my mother, ‘Baby sister is going to be in a movie.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ Fast forward, ‘Baby sister has been nominated for an Academy Award,’ and I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me!”
As a bit of a sidenote, I was intrigued for an odd personal reason by Mary Badham talking on the podcast about the film’s famous Halloween ham costume.
“It was made out of chicken wire and paper machete,” she said. “Our set manager made it [and] wanted to try it on me to make sure it would fit OK. When he did, it went right down and I couldn’t see out of the eye port, so he had to rig up a harness in there. It was so wide, it was a little difficult to maneuver around in it very easily, but we managed.”
Why this stood out for me is that many years ago, I was a tourguide at Universal Studios. And on Halloween, the tourguides were all encouraged to wear costumes. Now, one of the tour controllers, who sent out guides when a tram was ready, was a young woman named Spanky, and everyone there knew that her very favorite movie in the entire world was To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a Universal movie. (We guides would always point out the Boo Radley house when the tram passed by – Boo Radley played by a young Robert Duvall). And as it happened and fate intervened, Spanky herself was very small, less than five-feet. So, what several tourguides did was go to the studio’s massive property warehouse where props from Universal movies over the decades were still stored. And they asked if by any remote chance the warehouse still had the ham costume?? And…it did! The guides explained why they wanted to borrow it for a few hours – and the warehouse manager had a heart and love of movies, and actually gave permission. So, they sneaked the ham costume up to the tour center, and in a joyous ceremony presented it to Spanky to wear on Halloween. She not only was overcome with bowled-over emotion – but even better, she fit in it! And for the rest of the day, this overjoyed young woman went around for Halloween wearing Scout’s real ham costume.
But this is all about Mary Badham, who wore the ham costume for the first time when she was 10 years old. And is now making her stage debut at age 69 in the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. What a stage debut.
No word yet if she’ll continue on the national tour with the show. But if she is when it comes to Los Angeles in October, I will do everything I can to make the show my second to attend during the pandemic.
Here's the full podcast interview with her for Jason Fraley of WTOP.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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