Friday, July 15, 2016

Farewell to John McMartin (1929-2016)

From left: Alexis Smith, John McMartin, Dorothy Collins and Gene Nelson in the 1971 production of Follies.

During my junior year in college, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies tried out in Boston and I saw it on opening night, with John McMartin – who died last week, at the age of eighty-six – in the leading male role. The musical is set at a reunion of showgirls in the about-to-be-torn-down Broadway house where they appeared in annual editions of an elaborate revue, and the main characters are two couples – one-time chorines and best friends and the men they married – whose lives turned out to be marked by longing, regret and increasing bitterness. McMartin played Ben Stone, celebrated diplomat and author, who starts out by denying that he wishes he’d lived his life differently, then falls in love all over again with the woman he didn’t marry (played by Dorothy Collins) – or rather, with his romanticized memory of her and of the man he used to be. I’ve never forgotten McMartin’s devastating performance. In act one, when he sang “The Road You Didn’t Take,” Ben’s supposed refusal to admit that his might not have been the right road, McMartin’s pebble-strewn tremolo conveyed the heartbreak and the escalating rage bubbling up beneath his insistence. It remains one of the greatest dramatic performances of a song I’ve ever experienced in a theatre. At the last televised birthday tribute to Sondheim, in 2010, McMartin reprised it. He was eighty by then, but astonishingly his rendition had lost none of its emotional power.

John McMartin & Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity, 1966.
Follies wasn’t my introduction to John McMartin. I’d already seen him on Broadway in Sweet Charity, as the neurotic but affable Oscar, who falls for Gwen Verdon’s Charity when they wind up trapped together for hours in an elevator and she keeps him from having a claustrophobic meltdown. Verdon had been a musical-comedy star for a decade, but this was the role that introduced McMartin to Broadway audiences. He got good reviews and the chance to reprise it in the movie version, opposite Shirley MacLaine (who was, unlike her predecessor, not up to the part’s choreographic demands). Bob Fosse directed both the stage and screen versions; it was his first movie and it was a flop. Fosse rebounded three years later with Cabaret but McMartin never became a movie star. Still, he showed up, often memorably, in a number of pictures. He was Lawrence Henry, the campaign manager trying to deal with the scandalous death of a presidential candidate in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in 1981, and the same year he played Mr. Warner, the principal in Pennies from Heaven who has to fire Bernadette Peters’ Eileen when she gets pregnant out of wedlock. Over the years Pennies from Heaven, written by Dennis Potter and directed by Herbert Ross, has slowly attained the status it deserves as a classic movie musical. McMartin has an indelible couple of scenes as a man with a good heart who, like the other characters, has been beaten down by deep but in his case unspoken disappointment. Mr. Warner’s back story isn’t in Potter’s script, but when he administers a savage strapping to a child in Eileen’s classroom for a trivial offense, McMartin makes the moment read as a cruel transference of that disappointment. And when, helpless to do more to ease Eileen’s way, Mr. Warner presses some cash on her against her objections, McMartin manages to complete a complex portrait of a defeated man in less than ten minutes’ screen time.

McMartin was a perennial on TV and on Broadway as well as in the movies. I must have seen him in eight or ten plays, most recently in 2006, in the musical Grey Gardens, and in 2011, in John Guare’s A Free Man of Color and Kathleen Marshall's revival of Anything Goes. After Follies I caught him in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely produced The Great God Brown in 1972 and D├╝rrenmatt’s The Visit in 1974, both directed by Harold Prince for the New Phoenix Repertory Company, a talented crew that also included John Glover, Peter Friedman and Charlotte Moore, who was McMartin’s long-time partner (and is currently the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theater). He was excellent in both, especially in The Visit, a magnificent production in which he played opposite Rachel Roberts, as Schill, the lover who betrayed her in her small-town youth and whose treachery she returns, now the wealthiest woman in the world, to avenge. But when McMartin died, it was his work in Follies that my mind immediately went back to. You can hear the high points of his performance on the original cast album: “Too Many Mornings” (a duet with Collins), with its tone of desperate ardor, “Live, Laugh, Love,” a vaudeville number that charts a kind of nervous breakdown, and especially the brittle “The Road You Didn’t Take.” He was a character actor of the first order and a mainstay of the American musical theatre.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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