Elizabeth Taylor's Broadway Debut
By Donna Bailey-Thompson
Elizabeth Taylor is creating a gamut of sensations on Broadway in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.”
At 49, the astoundingly beautiful superstar of the movies has made her stage debut and sent box offices into tailspins. On the road to New York, her magic was unleashed at Burt Reynold’s dinner theatre in Florida (sold out). Prior to the May 7 premiere at the Martin Beck Theatre, “The Little Foxes” was the hottest ticket in town. It still is. The next day, “due to the unprecedented demand,” the run was extended into early September.
The mixed reviews do not deter the drawing power of Taylor. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote a glowing review (“Entertainment – that’s what ‘The Little Foxes’ most abundantly is.”)
Clive Barnes of the New York Post traced the play’s history and faulted Taylor’s performance with a velvet glove: “A great woman, a promisingly aspiring actress, a poor play – it can’t fail to succeed, or succeed enough to fail. Something has been made of nothing – but the something is presence, and the nothing is brightly colored tinsel.”
Douglas Watt of the Daily News was sharply critical: “...her portrayal of the ambitious, scheming, self-centered Regina is as tentative as a schoolgirl’s first drag.”
One network wag resurrected, “I was underwhelmed.”
The wire services permitted their words to reflect the emotional high that zinged from the stage and caromed around the theatre on opening night.
The drama began hours before curtain. The morning news carried reports that Taylor had bronchitis compounded by a 102 degree temperature. Given her medical history–pneumonia, tracheotomy, and an almost Jobian catalog of woes –concern about her ability to perform that evening was well founded. But a call to the theatre at 5 p.m. offered assurances that all systems were go.
The premiere was a glittering event of ultra-glamorous magnitude. Curtain was scheduled for 6:15, and the two large kleig lights at curbside had yet to be turned on. Shafts of sunlight danced off the heads of eager fans who strained at ropes cordoning off an apron of sidewalk in front of the theatre. Police and security guards kept order. Photographers scrambled for better positions.
The scene was reminiscent of films about show biz and of televised arrivals prior to award ceremonies. The inherent electricity of the Big Apple was charged with mega watts. With each new arrival, fans hushed and photographers got ready to snap.
At least one arrival confused them. The limousine door was opened and out stepped my dear friend, an attractive lady who is a travel executive from Oklahoma City, followed by me, a reclusive writer from Southwick. The expectant fans murmured, probably things like, “Who’s that?” and the cameras clicked, even a few bulbs flashed. We loved it! If the prints did not end up in a basket, perhaps they served for dart practice.
Not all limousines disgorged hicks from the hinterlands. Among the notables were the star’s handsome husband, Senator John Warner of Virginia; her mother, Sara Southern Taylor; three of her four children, Michael Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton; Rock Hudson, a friend; Joan Fontaine who has close ties in Suffield, CT; and also Claire Trevor, Shirley MacLaine, Hermoine Gingold, Lee Radziwill and Arlene Francis.
Inside the theatre, supposedly blase sophisticates were wide-eyed in the presence of such a clutch of celebrities. A strikingly attractive woman, elegant in a one-shoulder gown of burgundy velvet, knelt on a chair next to the balcony of the second floor lobby. Whenever she spotted a well-known face among the throng of dinner jackets and long dresses, she squealed–in a ladylike manner, of course. Her ankles stuck out beyond the hem of her dress, and her gold sandals hung in space beyond the edge of the chair. She reminded me of a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s finery.
Our seats were in the mezzanine, row B, one of three rows reserved by co-producer, Donald C. Carter (the other is Jon Cutler) and the producer Zev Bufman, who was instrumental in persuading Miss Taylor not only to do a play but to bring it into New York. They were splendid seats with unobstructed sightlines of the full stage.
The house crackled with anticipation. Suspense was prolonged a half hour beyond the designated curtain time. The hum of social chatter within the theatre was accentuated by bursts of applause from out on the street whenever another celebrity arrived.
Finally the dignitaries were seated in the first few rows of the orchestra, the house lights dimmed, and the curtain went up to reveal “the living room of the Giddens home, in a small town in the South...The Spring of 1900"–a mellow glow of burnished wood, dominated by a wide staircase at stage right that rose to a second floor hallway; at stage rear, sliding doors led into a dining room. There was perfunctory applause. (In set design, Stage West does not have to take a back seat to Broadway.)
The opening moments are carried by two black house servants, a hackneyed contrivance. But I was there not as a critic but to enjoy!
When petite Maureen Stapleton made her entrance, there was warm, enthusiastic applause which momentarily stopped the action. However, when Taylor as the notorious Regina sailed forth through the sliding doors, a roar of applause erupted, and the play ground to a halt for several minutes.
Yes, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, she worked hard to shed 20 pounds. Yes, she is slender and as svelt as anyone who is 5'4" can expect to be and endowed with a bosom to rival Dolly Parton’s. Yes, her famous violet eyes, even from a distance of 30 feet, are incredibly arresting.
No longer is she the gamin of “National Velvet.” (1944–oh, how long she has been a star!), nor is she the girl-queen, Cleopatra, nor the blowsy Martha of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Remember the hoopla in 1965 when it was being filmed nearby?) She glows now with the stunning beauty of maturity, a gutsy, assertive woman, a survivor of much who has emerged from all her crises a stronger person.
As Regina in “The Little Foxes,” she schemes with her equally avaricious brothers and nephew to become filthy rich from a cotton mill. She is coquettish with a visiting tycoon from Chicago; raspish with her brothers; condescending to her pathetic sister-in-law (performed impeccably by Miss Stapleton); overbearing with her daughter; and a contributor to her husband’s death (she refuses to give the stricken man his medicine).
Her diction is precise, and her voice carries better than the company’s experienced stage actors. She has made the transition from screen to stage with underplayed simplicity. Much of the time she employs cinema techniques, slight gestures that convey volumes. She can get away with this because her stage presence is riviting. But when broad gestures are required, she delivers. Consequently, her commands and outbursts of venom are particularly powerful. Towards the end of the second act, she has a long cross while she barks and spits instructions to her husband. The audience applauded and laughed. Taylor is adept at pulling humor out of anger (remember “Virginia Woolf”?).
“The Little Foxes” is a melodrama and so does not require subtle characterizations. All traits, be they good or evil, are right up front. The problem with this production is the super stardom of its lead: Taylor transcends the material. However, as the playwright’s craftsmanship of the vehicle strengthens, so doesTaylor’s interpretation of Regina.
By the final curtain, with her husband lying dead in an upstairs room, her daughter defying her, one of her brothers implying he may one day figure out why her husband died and will press charges, a shaken but resolute Regina mounts the stairs. She is going to go up in the world for as long as she can, come hell or high water. It is a singular triumph that it is Regina Giddens on those stairs, not Elizabeth Taylor.
The theatre exploded with thunderous applause. Tidal waves of standing ovations continued for almost 10 minutes. Armfuls of roses were presented to the actresses; bouquets, nosegays and single flowers were hurled upon the stage. At the crest of the emotional release, Lillian Hellman was escorted to stage center, and cries of “Bravo! Bravo!” rang out again.
No one cheered more lustily than I. With that one word, I tried to express my admiration for the spirited author, as independent an individual as the star of her play. I cheered for “Pentimento” (remember “Julia”?) And “An Unfinished Woman,” “The Children’s Hour,” “Watch on the Rhine,” and a string of credits that reflect her growth.
The lid that was blown off in the theatre stayed off during the cast and company party conducted at Xenon, a trendy discotheque. Again, there were the exuberant crowds held back by restraining ropes, the ever-ready photographers, and the police and security guards.
Senator Warner whirled his radiant wife around the dance floor. Andy Warhol mingled. The servants from the play, Novella Nelson and Joe Seneca (who portrayed their stereotyped roles with great dignity) were among the last of the company to endure the unrelenting beat of the disco records that pulsated with enough strength to make the room vibrate. Two giant, multi-faceted mirror balls hung from the ceiling reflecting prisms of light everywhere through garish streamers suspended from wires. Strobe lights, black lights, psychedelic lights, kept the excitement at fever pitch.
Around 1 a.m., Liza Minnelli cut the cake, a massive mound covered with a confection of angel wings. She was chosen for the honor, it was announced, because “our star has left, and Elizabeth Taylor is Liza’s surrogate mother.” Minnelli shimmered in sequins. Not movies, television nor still photographers can capture her quick silver beauty.
As invited guests departed, clusters of patient fans were admitted. At once, the glamour was shattered by jeans, knee socks, even a young man who looked as if he had fled a burning building in his boxer shorts. The scene became bizarre, perhaps even too much for Fellini.
We Cinderellas from Oklahoma and Massachusetts decided the time had arrived for us to return to our hotel before the limousine turned into a pumpkin.
The memories live on. There was the matron at the theatre in charge of the ladies room who insisted I was in television. “You have your own show! I’ve seen you!” She searched for a name to put with my face. I hated to disappoint her, but facts are facts. I told her, “I’m a writer, not a performer.”
Once at Xenon’s I turned and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a distinguished looking man. I stared at him. Was his face from TV? The movies? Both? He stared back. Finally he smiled and said, “Hi.” I said, “Hi.” I have no idea who he was.
Co-producer Carter’s mother was a bubble of concentrated adrenalin. “Rock Hudson just came in!” she burbled. She introduced friends and family,. “I’m nobody,” she confided to us. “I’m just a housewife from the suburbs.”
Well, what’s wrong with that? Between projects, so is Elizabeth Taylor Warner.
Additional thoughts: When I mailed a copy of the article to Oklahoma, a cover letter included these remarks. "Anyone who knew I was going [to the play] asked about what kind of a time I had; and because I broadcast my good news, this means I've been able to repeat and repeat and repeat, always to a new audience. .... As you can see, the local paper had a big hole to fill. I telephoned the editor to ask if they'd like a piece on the opening. I guess so! I fully expected it to be edited, but except for some minor alterations, it went as is. (They deleted mention of Washington, DC theater; fact Rock Hudson has been a friend since "Giant" days; and referred to La Star as Taylor whereas I referred to her as Miss Taylor.) My aunt told me that Elizabeth Taylor collapsed in her dressing room Friday evening and was hospitalized-- broken rib from so much coughing, and I don't know what else, probably continuation of the bronchitis. Although I was very sorry to hear of her illness and discomfort and for all the theatre-goers who were disappointed, I was glad I included the bronchitis in my piece. Not many did."
Austin Pendleton directed a production that ran at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale for three weeks and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for six weeks before opening on Broadway, after eight previews, on May 7, 1981 at the Martin Beck Theatre. It ran for 123 performances. The cast included Elizabeth Taylor as Regina, Tom Aldredge as Horace, Dennis Christopher as Leo, Maureen Stapleton as Birdie, and Anthony Zerbe as Benjamin. Costume design was by Florence Klotz. In a pre-Broadway opening article in Time, Gerald Clarke reported nearly $1 million worth of tickets had been sold during the week following the first New York Times ad announcing Taylor's appearance . She was nominated for both the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play. Tony nominations also went to Pendleton for Best Direction of a Play, Aldredge for Best Featured Actor in a Play, Stapleton for Best Featured Actress in a Play, and the play itself for Best Reproduction. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Foxes