An American Theatre
The story behind one of the nation's most venerable summer theaters.
AN AMERICAN THEATRE:
The Story of Westport Country Playhouse.
By Richard Somerset-Ward.
Yale Univ. Press. 304 pp. $39.95
The Westport Country Playhouse is one of the nation’s most venerable summer theaters. Through the doors of the old barn, still standing in an ever more expensive part of Connecticut, has passed a virtual history of 20th-century American theater. A battery of stars has appeared on stage there, and many a play has had its world premiere. Over the years, interns have included Tammy Grimes and Stephen Sondheim. Great theater minds have run the place: Lawrence Langner, patent attorney and theatrical visionary; James McKenzie, producer who always managed to find a way; and today, Joanne Woodward, who arrived on the scene in 2000, at exactly the right time. Under her regime, the theater has undergone a major and much-needed renovation. As I write, the Westport Country Playhouse is about to open for its 75th season. May it have as exciting a future as it has a rich historical past.
The story begins with the redoubtable Langner, who founded the theater in 1931. The relationship between Langner and the Theatre Guild, the organization he started in 1919 with his wife, Armina Marshall, has been fairly well chronicled elsewhere. But Richard Somerset-Ward, the former head of music and arts programming for the BBC, establishes Langner as a truly memorable figure in both patent law and theater. Who knew that Langner was responsible for the National Inventors Council, which was run by Charles F. Kettering, a prolific inventor whose name is now most commonly associated with the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research? Or that Langner was behind the Connecticut Stratford Shakespeare Theatre? All this is well documented here, and it’s fascinating.
Somerset-Ward tells wonderful stories about the Westport theater’s early years: skunks in the venting system, housewives aggressively recruiting subscribers without knowing what the shows would be, a midwestern intern mistaking the J. C. Penney in the Westport phone book (the man himself) for the store where she could buy tires, pro ductions that provided the inspiration for not one but two of America’s great musicals (Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady). You feel the ups and downs of summer theater, especially on a stage that started life in the countryside but became more and more easily commutable from Broadway. It’s a marvel that the place is not only still standing but is poised for a whole new life.
While this book is loaded with facts and photographs, it’s a pretty clunky read. Somerset-Ward seems determined to recount what he considers the most important factoids of each season at the playhouse, leaving the reader to slog through some not-very-interesting stories to get to the wonderful ones. There are also sidebars, biographical sketches, and other asides, some of which run on for pages.
But despite my reservations, I’m glad An American Theatre is with us. Institutions such as the Westport Country Playhouse are rare these days, and it’s good to have a comprehensive history of this very important one.