On Interviewing a Broadway Performer

In my capacity as a theatre critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN here in Dallas, I see one or two shows a month. Most are regional or community theatre shows. Occasionally, I’ll do a review of a touring company coming through town. It’s a gig I enjoy.

Of course, during Covid, there was no theatre to cover. Then I had two shows of my own to direct for local companies. It’s really just in the past two months that I’ve been getting back to doing this job that allows me to be of service to my theatrical friends and the audiences who may (or may not) want to go see a show.

This past week brought a new addition to my normal duties. Garland Civic Theatre is doing a little-known musical. It’s called “Carnival,” and really only one song from it, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” is readily identifiable, even for stage musical aficionados. It opened on Broadway in 1961 to great acclaim, helmed by Gower Champion, who had directed “Bye Bye Birdie” and went on to direct “Hello Dolly” and “42nd Street.” More about that last show (which ran for nine years on Broadway) in a bit. “Carnival” is a musical adaptation of the movie “Lili.” It tells the story of an orphan girl who ends up in a tatty travelling carnival. Her only friends are some puppets, but behind the puppets is a broken man who needs desperately to be loved. It is part big-show, big-number musical, part dark contemplation of not knowing who you are, or how to make it into the next day. I would hope it would get done more, as it’s not your normal fare. Dramaturg alert!

One of the original cast members from the Broadway show ended up being a prolific director of musicals here in the DFW area. His name is Buff Shurr, and he just turned 95 years old. He was in the original 1961 Broadway production, first as a Roustabout and dance captain, and later on tour as Marco the Magnificent, alongside Jerry Orbach at the Schubert Theatre in Chicago. He was being honored on the opening night of this performance.

I had an opportunity to speak with him (and his charming and interesting wife, Janiz, who also worked on Broadway in the specialized capacity of doctor for theatre folks) for a few minutes prior to the curtain going up. He told me a few good stories about working with the original Broadway director of the show, Gower Champion, who regularly enjoyed a glass of milk with an egg in it for his breakfast. He evidently also smoked all the time, which didn’t end up going well for him. Mr. Shurr stated that Champion’s gift was that “He had a sixth sense of physicality. He knew how to group his actors, and to give you interesting rhythms.” Mr. Shurr then demonstrated the syncopated clapping and stomping of one of those dance moves, his whole body engaged, his face alight.

We got to talking about Broadway, and his career path. He told me, “I made one mistake—we all make mistakes, don’t we? Mine was that Gower liked working with me and asked me to come be his assistant on his next Broadway musical which was going to be based on a little Thornton Wilder farce called ‘The Matchmaker.’” Mr. Shurr turned him down to continue to choreograph Industrial shows, which produced a good income. “It was a mistake, that’s for sure,” Mr. Shurr continued. “That musical was ‘Hello Dolly.’”

He had to go meet his admirers who were gathering in the theatre lobby. He’d brought the hat he wore as the lothario Marco the Magnificent to the show, and charmed everyone when he put it on his head and struck a dashing pose. Still a performer.

That was when I took a few minutes to speak with Janiz. She told me she’d been called to be backstage on opening night of “42nd Street” in 1980 by the producer, David Merrick. “He told me just to stand in the wings and have my bag at the ready.” During the enthusiastic curtain calls, Merrick went onstage and announced that Champion had died that morning, not living to see his greatest hit onstage. Merrick had kept the news from the entire cast and crew and had asked the family to keep it a secret as well. Janiz told me it was gut-wrenching, that nearly everyone in the theatre started weeping and that one of the cast members collapsed from the shock. I actually remember hearing about his death while I was at Northwestern, studying theatre. It was striking to be standing next to someone who’d been there that night.

Let me tell you this—later, during the course of the show, there is a fun number, “Sword, Rose, and Cape.” In it, the dancers mimicked the clapping/stomping rhythms that Mr. Shurr had showed to me. I got chills. How wonderful that the continuation of some of Champions’ choreography continued into this production, which Mr. Shurr consulted on.

I wish I’d have had longer to speak with them both. There’s something about hearing that kind of history from someone who was standing on the boards in that space and time that is irreplaceable. Oral tradition is powerful for a reason. Speaking with both of these Broadway veterans gave me goosebumps, as well as a sense of continuity. I felt connected to the talented performers they were recalling who’ve slipped off this mortal coil. Yet here we are, still blessed by their work all these years later.

So to all of you singers, dancers, and performers upon the stage… please keep doing what you’re doing. Our world needs it.