Theatrical Coincidences by Hy Abady

I love musicals. Maybe you’ve seen my writing about them here. My encounters with Stephen Sondheim, my adoration of Kander and Ebb. And now, how much I also love Jerry Herman, with “Hello, Dolly!” hitting the big-bucks time with the revival (tickets top a grand, I just read). I’ve seen it twice. Once with the Divine Miss M, and then with the lesser but equally fabulous other Miss M, Donna Murphy.

Brilliant.

I put on “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” often on Pandora or Sonos. Or with my headphones on my iPhone. A rousing song from the show. (Jerry Herman does rousing well.) Although I did think of him as underrated in the era of the aforementioned Sondheim and Kander and Ebb. But he is really redeemed now. And like Sondheim and Cole Porter before him, Jerry Herman does it all, does it both: music and lyrics. He may have been underappreciated earlier on, but one thing he did do early on was send Bernadette Peters into the stratosphere of Broadway broads.

I have seen Bernadette Peters a lot, although not in her Herman breakthrough, “Mack and Mabel.” I did, however, see her perform in a concert where she sang the heartbreaking love song from that show: “Time Heals Everything.” (Jerry does love very well.) I compare the idea of that song to one of my favorites from Sondheim: “Losing My Mind.” Both are about obsessive love. Unforgettable and forever love. (Often a theme in show business, regardless of how unrealistic.)

But back to Bernadette. In 1984, she was divine as Dot, a corny name for a character in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” About the painter Georges Seurat, with his pointillism. Dot. Get it?

I got it and saw it half a dozen times, a wondrous musical about, of all things, a painting. I also caught the more recent London import at Studio 54 another half-dozen times. This, with animated trees and a lake in the park. And boats. And soldiers. And parasols. (I’ll have to Google and see if Peters or Mandy Patinkin — never better — won Tony Awards for the original. I know the show won a Pulitzer Prize.)

Sondheim: There may never be another like him, with his sophisticated cleverness, his hilarious wordplay, and his haunting visual references to love, among many other unequaled attributes. And the themes: Not only a musical about a painting, but also about a murderous barber. And a group of assassins. Also Follies girls, aging and revisiting their past. The range! I digress to Sondheim, but there is an ultimate point if you keep reading.

So back to Peters once more, and the extraordinary coincidence of seeing her at two different opening nights of two very different Broadway shows. Here goes:

In 1997 a revival of “Chicago” opened (and is incidentally still running). I happened to catch the original in 1976. Liza Minnelli was filling in for Gwen Verdon alongside Chita Rivera. Kander and Ebb again. They also paired up those two legendary performers in two other (lesser) shows later: “The Act” and “The Rink.” But I digress. Again.

In 1997, it was Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth playing the merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail. I was invited by my good friend Tony to the opening night, and there, on that opening night, in the audience, was Bernadette Peters — along with Mary Tyler Moore, I might add.

You can’t miss Ms. Peters — that curly mop of vibrant red hair, her pale, pale skin, the Kewpie doll lips. And Mary was Mary. Regal. An icon among the rest of us ordinary people that night. I saw the two of them on my way out of the theater after the show ended. A great New York City celebrity spotting — good thing I was too shy at the time to tell either one of them, or, actually, the two of them, what a fan I was. Of the two of them.

Flash-forward to 2017. Opening night of “The Band’s Visit,” an invite by my dear friend Edward, an investor in the show.

Now, I do go to the theater a lot. But I’ve been to only two opening nights. And there, at “The Band’s Visit,” was Bernadette Peters. (Sadly, not with Mary, gone now but living on in reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and her own namesake sitcom.)

Now, I ask you: Wouldn’t you call that quite a coincidence? Two opening nights? Twenty years apart? And, once again, Bernadette Peters with the glowing white skin, that hair, and those lips. Amazingly, she looked exactly the same 20 years later.

Does she go to every opening night?

Which brings me back, I always go back, to Stephen Sondheim.

One night, in the middle of the run of “Gypsy” in which B.P. was playing Momma Rose, I saw S.S. in the theater. Not shy now, I asked him to sign my Playbill. I gushed and went on and on to let him know that I was his greatest fan.

“Cool it,” he said as he signed.

For the other theater die-hards out there, allow me to digress one more time — I promise, it’s the last digression. In London a couple of years ago, I saw “Gypsy” with Imelda Staunton in the Rose role, and who was there, behind me, entering the theater? No, not Bernadette, but Sondheim, I repeat, in London, on just an ordinary night of the run, long after the opening night. I didn’t ask for his signature on a Playbill this time because in London there are no Playbills. Only larger size and more colorful programs that you have to pay for.

Coincidental, right? Like Bernadette? Fate, it seems that I must get myself tickets as she appears in her own opening night in “Hello, Dolly!” come Jan. 20. I must. And just did.

Hmm . . . maybe Stephen Sondheim will be in the audience, too.


Hy Abady is a former advertising executive who had a house in Amagansett for 30 years. A contributor for 25 years, he has collected his “Guestwords” essays in two books, including “Back in The Star Again: Further Stories From the East End.”