Here’s an example of a great story that, in no way, will help us put up the play…but it’s just too damn good to not share. This is the story of “Ballad’s” Broadway premiere.
On the first day of rehearsal, Albee addressed the actors: “You’re good actors. Alan’s a good director. Ben’s built a nice set. So if the play’s lousy, it’s my fault. And that’s why the first day of rehearsal is depressing to me.” As the story goes, this was just a bit of an oversimplification.
Alan Schneider was pegged to direct the play since he had quite a history with Albee, having just directed his biggest hit, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It should be pointed out that, not coincidentally, Schneider was Beckett’s favorite American director as well. Once casting began, Albee insisted on Colleen Dewhurst for Amelia and, while being perfect for the role, she clashed with Schneider from the beginning. Now, this wasn’t unheard of, as Schneider had the same relationship with Uta Hagen during ‘Virginia Woolf’, but as they approached previews for “Ballad,” Dewhurst said the director, “was beginning to show signs of cowardice. He was frightened by the material.” To make matters worse, she decided to have her husband, George C. Scott—yes, that George C. Scott—re-choreograph the climatic fight scene. After running through the new version, Schneider, who knew nothing of Scott’s involvement, objected to what he saw. A huge blowout ensued with Dewhurst storming out and refusing to take any more notes from her director. Eesh.
To make matters worse, the play went into rehearsal in the form of three long acts. Albee promised to cut and cut he did, but for every scene that was scratched, the narrator got a long monologue to replace it. Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the narrator, said, “I would have a new speech incorporating most of a scene they just deleted. They didn’t realize I was complaining when I said, ‘Gentlemen, there’s something wrong with this fellow who comes to tell you what you’ve just seen, what you’re now looking at and what you’re going to see.’” Dewhurst became increasingly frustrated over having to fight the narrator for her territory on stage. Browne, her friend, said, “In her rage, she would say to Schneider, ‘you have this wonderful actor stuck out there.’ By the time we were in previews, Colleen was in deep trouble with the piece. She knew of course she needed another eye to see what she was doing. It couldn’t be anybody onstage, and she would not allow the director to do it.”
Enter George C. Scott. At his wife’s request, he sat quietly in the back of the theatre, diligently taking notes. Scott, Dewhurst, and Browne all got together afterwards and went through the play line by line. Scott recommended cut after cut of the narrator’s speeches and gave them both his notes. By the time they were finished, the narrator’s role had been sliced from over twenty speeches to eight. Now came the tricky part: convincing Schneider.
Browne went to his director with Scott’s ideas disguised as his own. Much to his shock, Schneider admitted that the cuts made sense, but they’d have to be approved by Albee. That evening, Albee came backstage at Browne’s request and the two of them sat down the script. Albee’s replied, “You’re still saying those dreadful words? Take them out!” When asked if he ever told Albee about Scott’s influence, Browne replied, “Never! Never, never, never. It would have been most indiscreet to mention it.” Did Schneider ever know? No, Brown replied, he “would have wondered, who else was directing the play?”
Not exactly the portrait of professionalism you’d imagine backstage on Broadway. Happy to report that the most drama we’ve had thus far are an onslaught of Crazy Merlie jokes followed by uncontrollable laughter.
Pretty good story, huh?
Your humble dramaturg,