August 29, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The actress Melissa Errico’s recent piece she wrote in the New York Times caught my eye, as I’m sure it did many others. Breaking a show business rule (hopefully going out of fashion some day, one can only hope), she openly asks what it will take for a woman her age to act her age. “At age 46, when does an ingénue hang up her ponytail?”
Or does she have to?
Recently cast (for the third time) as Sharon in the Fred Saidy-Yip Harburg-Burton Lane 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow, Errico has reason to intelligently inquire (as she puts it) if “the ingénue police are at my door.”
First of all, let me announce my own prejudice that I think Melissa Errico was sexy when I first saw her in her twenties on stage and is every bit as sexy (if not sexier) now. With that out of the way, the question must be raised why age is relevant on the stage anyway? I mean, I wish it wasn’t the issue it is for actresses (not much for actors) in the movies and on television. Men can grow gray and it’s sexy, but for women it’s considered the opposite by producers and movie studios. We all know that enormous movie screens and HD TV’s show up every imperfection from a tiny scar to crow’s feet, and let me be honest as an actor myself: I’m sensitive when I appear on the big screen four stories high, so different from what I look like in the bathroom mirror. But the kind of vigilance today that is going on for actresses in the name of the self-protection of their careers are sending many women as young as their mid-twenties to get “filler” and all sorts of other nonsense. Sometimes it messes up their faces to the point of losing their ability to emote, or worse, not look like themselves at all. It’s a horrible situation. Plus, what’s wrong with imperfections anyway? The need to be perfect has been overrated as far back as the Hollywood Dream Factory of the early 1930s, when actresses were plucked and dyed and gone over with a diamond cutter’s eyepiece for any impediment to this nearly unattainable goal. It’s a nasty business.
But back to Errico and her dilemma. She writes that “ingénues are often asked to bump into men and fall in love instantly … Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow … is in a tree when … [she] watches Woody arguing with some businesspeople that money doesn’t grow on trees. She then drops money from her branch; moments later, she descends from the tree and their eyes lock.” Her question essentially is whether a young girl is the only one who can get away with this? Does a forty-six-year-old in the tree popping out of a tree and making goo-goo eyes appropriate? Here’s a bet I’ll wager: when Errico performs this role next month, let’s all watch this moment and how she plays it. My guess is it won’t register on anyone’s radar as even remotely ridiculous. A good actor can convince us of anything.
Errico also ponders in her Times essay on why “women in musical theater still tend to be segregated: romantic innocents or worldly dames. Where is the elusive middle? What roles are there for actually aging, still human women?” It’s unquestionably the bigger issue. Is Errico to turn down another shot at a beautiful (if innocent young woman like Sharon) in the hopes of what? Praying a role that is closer to her real age comes along? No. She’s an actress, so she’ll act (especially when its offered). She takes her stand that even if “the ingénue police are knocking … I’m not letting them in.”
Nor should she. Nor should anyone. I had an uplifting night at the theatre this past June, when I attended a production in New Jersey at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank of John Van Druten’s adaptation of Kathleen Forbes’s autobiographical novel, I Remember Mama. First produced on Broadway in 1944, the teenage ingénue was played then by the twenty-three year old, Joan Tetzel (her brother in the play was portrayed by a young actor making his Broadway debut: Marlon Brando). When a film version of Mama was shot two years later, Barbara Bel Geddes, also at age of twenty-three, played the teenage Katrin. In the production at Two River Theatre, the role was played by Mia Katigbak, an Asian actress in her mid-sixties. This was a production where everyone in the cast was a women over sixty. They played every age of woman in the play and performed all the mens roles, too. It was a revelation.
And why not? These women are all accomplished pros, capable of just about anything, if just given the chance. And so many of them ran with the ball making touchdown after touchdown. It was a beautiful production of a deeply warm and emotional play that is rarely done due to its cast size and the need for so many youngsters. This cast totaled ten and accomplished everything put in front of them with grace and genuine skill, essaying the entire play’s twenty-two characters.
And something Melissa Errico doesn’t acknowledge, and perhaps doesn’t know, but the actress who originated the role of Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow, Ella Logan, was thirty-six when she played the bright-eyed ingénue on the show’s opening night in 1947. Age is irrelevant in the theatre and always has been, to a certain extent. Here’s hoping the extension continues to grow and flourish.
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