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.

On Sleep

Ah, sleep. You elusive creature, you.

It wasn’t always this way, not that I remember. I was not a flashlight-under-the-covers reader when I was younger. My parents didn’t care if I read into the late hours of the night as long as I got up in time to walk to school (uphill! Both ways!) in the morning. I’d just wake up with a book propped up in front of me. But I had indeed, slept.

Then I became a competitive swimmer. Those were the days when I could fall asleep in the middle of a field in the middle of the day in the middle of a swim meet with people cheering, whistles blowing, and not only would I nap soundly, I wouldn’t sunburn either.

I may be making that last part up.

Even in college, I don’t remember any issues with sleeping. Drinking lots of booze (hey it was a work hard play hard kind of school, don’t look at me like that)* may have helped. They worked us to death as freshmen theatre majors too, so when you could sleep, you were down for the count.

Then came the working in Hollywood for multiple years, and waiting tables too. No problem sleeping. Wish we had counted steps then. I’d win.

Mom-dom. Well, here we go. You can get oh… five hours a night if you’re lucky when you have a baby or two. Usually four hours. Three for sure. Naps become the core reason for still drawing breath and being able to walk in a straight line. It’s all a blur, honestly. Bless those sweet babies. I loved being a mom of tots, but I think that’s when the why-can’t-I-go-to-sleep blues began.

When the hospital or the midwife hands you that baby, it’s clear they have the expectation that you’ll know what to do next. You’ll pretend that you know what to do as you take your precious bundle, but inside your head, the oh-my-gods will have started. I was an older mom who’d read every book published about babies before giving birth I could find, but that inner voice was very loud and very certain that despite doing all that research, I didn’t have a clue.

When you have a child, the very instant they hand you that precious gift, the worry begins. Or it did for me.

Worry = no sleeping. Or trouble falling asleep. Or staying that way.

And so it has remained, for the past quarter of a century, and shows no signs of abating. *sigh*

I’ve been trying different foods, food combinations, and intermittent fasting lately, hoping to discover my own Eureka!** cure for not sleeping. I’ll let you know how that goes. I will say that before I started my latest round of discovery that home-made cheese pizza is by far the best soporific for me. It’s as if when I eat pizza, my body just gives up and goes comatose. Not a long-term option, though.

I know there are pills and potions, but I don’t really like those. There are also utterly ridiculous “research” blogs about how ALL humans back in the day before industrialization got up in the middle of the night to do work, or go for visits to their neighbors.

Yeah, right. Back before industrialization, most folks were utterly exhausted from simply trying to stay warm, put food on the table daily, and not get eaten alive by bedbugs. Thank goodness we live in today’s world where (for a lot of places) central air and heat and electricity and clean running water are the available.

I’ve read up on what experts say will give us the best chance of a good sleep. How many do you practice? Make it Dark, Turn off electronics two hours before bed, Go to bed at the same time every night, Yoga/Meditation/Stretching/Warm Bath/ Essential Oils, Wear socks, weighted blanket, turn down thermostat. Change your mattress or sleep position. Read a book.

Here are my answers:

Exercise daily, check. Go to bed at the same time every night, mostly. Weighted blankets, hard no. I hate being confined. Blackout curtains, yes hallelujah we just got these, and it has helped, so check. Turn off the phone/tv/computer at least two hours before bed, eh, I could work on this one. Turn down thermostat, hell to the yes, I hate being hot. Yoga, et al.… eh. Essential oils, sometimes, but the lavender scent has associated memories I don’t care for, so at the end of the day (see what I did there) it’s a no. We have a great pillow top mattress, so that is a check. I’m a side-sleeper. The only time I wasn’t was during the third trimesters of growing babies and could only sleep on my back. It was awful. I don’t see changing this ever again. Read a book, yes, always and forever.

My suspicion is, that just like reading all those “What to Expect” books when I was preggers, the solution on the page is not going to work out *quite* like that in real life. Getting 7plus hours a night will continue to be an occasion for a soft whoohoo and a high five to the sleep gods. Let’s be glad when we get one and drink more coffee when we don’t.

How about you? Do you have any sleep secrets you can share?

*Northwestern University, I’m looking at you.

** what a great tv series.