My brother and I were born two years and 8 days apart. We celebrated our birthdays together, not because our parents were lazy, but because they realized early on, that we loved the same things, shared the same friends, and couldn’t stand to be separated from each other.
Growing up on the Connecticut shore, and having the good fortune of being born in October (easily the most glorious month of the year in New England) we would have our parties on the back of a horse drawn hay wagon. Our friends, whom we shared equally, would look forward to it almost as much as we would, and we would all jump aboard, armed with thermoses filled with warm, spiced apple cider, guitars, and blankets, and slowly wind our way down crooked, tree lined streets to the tunes of folk songs, sung in earnest, with percussion provided by the sound of the horse’s hooves as they hit the pavement.
Since sharing with each other was something our parents never had to teach my brother and I how to do, they figured we could also share our birthday gifts as well. So each year, along with the hayride party, we would receive season tickets to The Schubert Theatre in New Haven. Our Saturday matinee tickets were box seats, which we loved, because we could move our chairs around and rest our chins on the railing as we got lost in the show. We knew how lucky we were to have those tickets. And we would start thinking about next season, even before the one we were experiencing had not yet finished.
Back in those days, The Schubert Theatres in Philadelphia, Boston, and New Haven, were used as preview houses for Broadway bound shows. These “Out-of-Town Tryouts” allowed a show to find its feet in front of an audience, and it was often during these try-outs that numbers were dropped, new songs were written, and even sometimes, new actors were called in to replace an actor who might not have been the best choice after all.
The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Streetcar Named Desire, and South Pacific are just a few of the great shows that had their world premieres on the Schubert stage, since it opened in 1914. The theatre proudly displayed the names of all the shows that had performed on the stage on the walls of the theatre’s foyer, and the world premieres were highlighted by a star. My brother and I would read off the names with due reverence each time we entered the theatre. Years later, I returned to play the Schubert in the National Tour of Camelot, starring Richard Harris, and to my utter horror, I realized that those walls had been remodeled, and just a handful of shows were represented. A recent visit to the foyer, when attending the excellent Yale Opera Department’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, showed the names reduced even further. I was crushed.
During that Camelot run, our company was encouraged to add to the various wall drawings in the backstage area, where production companies throughout the years drew an appropriate picture of a scene from their show. I nearly cried when I added my signature to the wall surrounding our Excalibur. I do not know if they kept those wall images up, or if they too were done away with in the name of renovation. I am not sure if I want to know.
The Schubert is now one hundred and one years old, and Out-of-Town Tryouts are a thing of the past, for the most part. Too bad, because it was a good system. Shows now preview right in the same theatre they open in, and I think that is sometimes the reason a show closes early, and maybe before its time.
By the time I was a senior in high school, with my brother off to college, we no longer had double birthday celebrations anymore, and the farmer who used to take us on the hayrides replaced his wagon and horses with a Dodge pick-up truck. Like the Schubert, it was still fun, but not nearly as romantic.
(An out of town tryout is depicted in the John Cassavetes movie, Opening Night, where the marvelous Gena Rowlands has a very public nervous breakdown while performing in a fictitious theatre, which clearly is meant to be the Schubert. The film also stars Cassavetes, and his usual band of players, including Ms. Rowlands, of course, and Ben Gazara)
(The Schubert Theatre has a full season, if not a full wall, and I will be updating its offerings from time to time)