Long Live the Theater

Monday night, I eavesdropped on a conversation between Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling, actor Peter Michael Goetz, and eight-time Tony Award-winning producer Manny Azenberg.

Okay, so I didn’t just happen upon the trio: they were sitting on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust stage, participating in the latest “In Conversation” installation. The chat heavily focused on Neil Simon, playwright of the Guthrie’s summer production, The Sunshine Boys. Between Azenberg, Simon’s producer of 50-plus years, and Goetz, who acted as Jack Jerome in the Broadway premiere of Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in 1983, every question Dowling asked was met with a story.

How Simon approaches rewrites: “You’d wake up and there’d be a totally new script waiting for you under your hotel-room door,” said Goetz. “You’d memorize it, and have it ready to go for the 1 p.m. matinee.”

Does Simon know his writing will get laughs: “On paper, it never looked funny,” said Azenberg. “But then the actor would say it aloud, and the audience would roar. I asked him once if he knew that something would be funny when he wrote it. He just look at me and said, ‘Of course.’”

How did Simon and Azenberg first meet: “Some actor named Robert Redford—maybe you’ve heard of him?—was in town (in 1963) to do one of Simon’s shows, Barefoot in the Park, and asked me to be on his softball team,” Azenberg recalled. “Neil was on the team, too. So, we became friends.”

But between the stories and jokes was talk of the theater world at large—more specifically, Broadway’s decline since Azenberg’s glory days (his words, not mine). He called today’s Broadway a theme park, and looked truly sad when talking about the skewed pay structure that has led to its downfall. He waxed nostalgic about the times he worked with Tennessee Williams and Kevin Spacey; about when actors actually made a living and chorus members were able to float from show to show, gaining the experience and expertise necessary to market themselves rather than settle for forever being back-up dancers.

As far as who has allowed Broadway to become a spectacle rather than remain the shining pinnacle of theatrical success it once was, he put the blame on his own generation. But in terms of who is responsible for fixing it? Well, that response was two-fold.

Answer number one: the current generation. “You need to step up and demand a change,” he said, even though those of us in the audience actually of the current generation were outnumbered 30-to-one by those of the previous generation. “You need to band together and insist that you won’t work for Broadway as it is. And if that doesn’t work, create more theaters like this (the Guthrie) throughout the nation. Follow this model. It’s the way theater should be.”

The second solution: Meryl Streep. “If Meryl gathered together the mayor of New York and all the Broadway execs and said, ‘No more! This ends now!’ and got her Hollywood pals together to reverse everything that Broadway’s become, it could change. She has enough clout to do that, you know.”

If anyone would know what kind of cards Meryl Streep holds, it would be Azenberg. I want to believe, too, that he would know how to fix Broadway (if it indeed needs fixing). But isn’t hindsight 20/20? And didn’t we learn from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris that wanting to live in the past is more about avoiding the truth than seeking it?

I don’t disagree with Azenberg about wishing Broadway today had the same pull, the same notoriety of the Broadway of yesteryear. But I don’t know that going back to how it once was will work, either. Theater will survive, that I firmly believe. What it will look like, however—well, I guess that’s for my generation to determine.