I am on the Delta flight to New York with Tulea. It was weird leaving my Atlanta loft for 5 months. This is a first. A Hollywood feature film takes, on average, 3 months. An Indy film takes maybe 5-7 weeks, But 5 months! Yikes.
The last time I did a Broadway play I lived in New York. In fact I lived in NY for a decade from age 13 (early 50’s) to my early twenties around 1963. I did four Broadway plays during that time. Then I went to France to do a film and fell in love with the French/ Russian filmmaker, Roger Vadim, father of my daughter Vanessa. I lived there 8 years, coming back from time to time to do films like “Cat Ballou,” “The Chase,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and others. It was Vadim who directed “Barbarella” among other films with me. That was 1967-68. I haven’t lived in New York since.
Back then, there were about 4 billion fewer people in the world and you could feel the difference everywhere, not just in New York. The traffic you see everyday in NY now you only found around major holidays like Christmas back in the 1950s. Sundays you could just about roll a bowling ball down Fifth Ave. One of my favorite places to go and be solitary and meditative was the Frick Museum on Fifth Ave with its beautiful court yard. Last year when I went back to the museum, it was packed with people and not conducive to meditation at all. I will give it another try soon.
The whole pace and tenor of the city has changed as a result of more people and more stuff. Having TVs in taxis feels like an unwelcome intrusion. Can’t we ever just be, without added stimulation. Is contemplation so scary? I realized the other day that I can simply turn them off. Whew! Still five months will be an adventure.. That’s how I choose to think of it. I could be real scared. I mean 8 shows a week after 45 years!!! But I am choosing to think of it as an adventure, a challenge. A friend of mine who is 76 says that at this age you’re supposed to be retired, not looking for new adventures and that I and my friends are unusual.
I don’t agree. Random House, pleased with the response to my memoirs, “My Life So Far,” asked me to write another book about aging. As of now, I’m calling it “The Third Act: Entering Prime Time.” What do you think of this title? So far I’ve written 9 or 10 chapters but haven’t done much writing these last 6 months cause family ‘issues’ got in the way….and now, with the play, I will be even later getting it done. I won’t know for awhile whether or not I can write during the days when I don’t have a matinee. We’ll see. I hope so. Anyway, while doing research for this new book, I’ve seen how many older people in their third acts are not looking to retire. Many—so many—are still up for change and adventure and making a difference. Some are wanting to start new careers, fulfill early dreams they never got around too during their second acts. Some are wanting to continue work but under more flexible conditions (and, it turns out, companies that allow this to happen for their older workers reap the benefits).
Back to the play, “33 Variations”: I play a musicologist of today who is obsessed with figuring out why Beethoven, at the height of his powers, spent 3 years writing 33 variations on a mediocre waltz written by a music publisher in 1819. My character is passionate in her quest for understanding and it’s a race against time for her to get a paper written on the topic and delivered to a conference because she is sick. Beethoven (who is also a character in the play) is also obsessed with finishing the variations because he is becoming deaf. Obsession, passion…these are things I love in life– the fact that people can grow old and become sick and yet their passions remain undimmed. Some of the greatest artistic works and achievements throughout the ages, have been done by people late in life—Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Albert Schweitzer and many others. Age and infirmities are as important as we allow them to be. No question that things change as we age. There are the aches and pains. Like jalopies, hub caps fall off, fenders get bent, and we keep on, making a life inspite of it….a life that, as Beethoven and others showed us, can be enriched by these corporal challenges. This play I’m entering touches on this.
I have met people who’ve seen “33 Variations” performed at the Arena Theatre in DC and the La Jolla playhouse in California and say it is very, very powerful. It is certainly unusual in its style, with the past and present interweaving the way they do. Another wonderful aspect of the play that I am just beginning to appreciate is how music is also interwoven. There is a concert pianist as part of the play that performs the variations as they are being talked about and this adds a unique richness and depth.
The first week of December I spent a week in New York rehearsing. Most of the time, the other actors were not there and our writer/director, Moises Kaufman, brought in actor friends and people from his Tectonic Theatre to read the other parts. This is when I realized how unusual the play is.
Moises was wonderful. I was so nervous at the start, afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But one thing happened that made me realize how much progress I have made in the confidence department over these 45 years: Moises told us that there would be an hour-long production meeting in the rehearsal room during the lunch break and that we should wait outside in the foyer before coming back in. Well, the hour went by and then 20 more minutes. 45 years ago, I would have assumed the producers and director had realized I wasn’t right for the part and the meeting was running over because they were trying to figure out how to tell me that I was fired. This time, though, I didn’t jump to negative conclusions. I knew they needed me as much as I needed them. Whew!
Not that I knew I had a lock on the character, however. Quite the opposite. It isn’t an easy play to read. The humor (there’s actually a lot of it!) and emotion doesn’t “jump off the page.” Several weeks before, though, I was on a flight somewhere to make a speech. The coach section wasn’t full and I had empty seats on both sides of me so I took advantage of this to rehearse…not exactly out loud but whispering. Still, people coming and going down the aisle thought I was out of my mind. The flight attendant admitted this to me later. I found a way to bring a lot of emotion to some of my long speeches. I couldn’t wait to bring my discoveries about the character into rehearsal. When I did, however, I realized right away that I was on the wrong track. I’m a musicologist…fairly academic, All the emotion wasn’t appropriate. If Moises hadn’t been so gentle, hadn’t let me discover on my own that my take wasn’t quite right, I would have dissolved. But he was so generous and kind and open, that it all went well. He is also very collaborative, allowing everyone, even the non-actors, to give their opinions and ideas. And he really listens. I think his unique style has been what’s responsible for the good, creative work of the Tectonic Theatre which he and his partner, Jeff Lahoste, founded a number of years ago.
The actor Samantha Mathis will play my daughter and Colin Hanks will play a male nurse who falls in love with her. It will be fun to get to know these two who, like me, come from actor parents. There are 7 characters total, 4 exist in present time and three are from the past, including Beethoven.
Since I began this blog I have moved into my NY apartment. It’s a one bedroom affair with a splendid view down Manhattan. If I squint I can see the Statue of Liberty. When I visited the apartment in early December, Kristin Scott Thomas was living here during her run in Chekov’s “The Seagull.” What an extraordinary actor she is! Have you seen her in the film “I’ve Loved You So Long“? Whew! She’ll be one of my nominees for Best Actor for an Oscar for that role….and with almost no words, just subtle changes in expression, she tells a whole story of emotional transformation.
I am going to see “South Pacific” tonight with my friend, Patti Bosworth. I knew Patti back in the Actor Studio days. She has been an actor but now has become a highly regarded biographer and is currently writing a bio about me. I look forward to it. Finally a woman writing my bio. There have been 5 or 6 of them, all by men. Some okay but superficial. A few downright hostile. This is one reason I decided to write my own. And now Patty’s doing one. Hmm.
Seeing “South Pacific” will be an interesting experience tonight. I was at the opening of the original back in the 1950’s and loved it so much I knew every word to every song—still do. I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was in love with Oscar Hammerstein’s daughter, Susan. Ockie (that’s what friends called him) wrote the lyrics to “South Pacific” and later, when my dad married Susan, Ockie became my step-grandfather and I got to know him. What a kind, good, generous man he was. You can tell from his lyrics. Especially “You’ve Got to be Taught” about how people aren’t born racist, they have to be taught. I wrote a chapter called “Susan” in my memoirs about this stepmother who my brother and I adored.
So that’s it. My first day in NY. I gotta walk Tulea and get ready for tonight.
See you next time.