BWW Interviews: Phyllis Newman Talks Broadway, Husband Adolph Green, and the Great ON THE TOWN
Broadway veteran Phyllis Newman has not only graced the stage with performers such as Bernadette Peters and Donna McKechnie and worked directly with other Broadway greats such as Leonard Bernstein, but she was even nominated for a Tony Award against Barbra Streisand- and won! Despite her extensive career and success, she finds her greatest joy and pride in the work of her husband, the late Tony Award-winning lyricist Adolph Green. In light of his upcoming 100th birthday and the opening of his first masterpiece, On The Town, Newman graciously shared with us her experiences as a Broadway veteran and wife of a lyricist.
How was the concert at 54 Below honoring your late husband, Adolph Green?
Well, I didn't get to it because I had to do other things, but my children were there; my daughter [Amanda Green] sang. It was just wonderful, I gather, end-to-end, just hearing some of the material he's written and some of the people who were in the original shows. The idea that- this is the staggering part- is that last year, I was saying to my family, "What are we going to do for Daddy's 100th birthday with his body of work?" And I thought, "A benefit? No, oh gosh everybody does that... I don't know!" And then suddenly all of these things happened, as if directed by Adolph himself. First, On The Town, which was his first [Broadway musical] and a great, great love of his life, and then PETER PAN on NBC in December. And ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is going into rehearsal in December, close to his birthday. It's incredible! I couldn't have planned it. Only he could have planned it.
How special that ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY will be around his birthday!
It goes into rehearsal to make it part of his birthday, a day or two before his birthday, which was December 2, 1914. Even Encores! is doing an adaptation of their original story and screenplay of BANDWAGON, so it's just ridiculous. It really is! Happy ridiculous.
So, On The Town opens Oct. 16. Have you seen the previews yet?
Oh, sure! I'm working very closely with everybody on the show. So I'm very, very involved with it because I'm the owner of the rights, and because of John Rando, who's a great director. He and I have very much the same view and vision. We've exchanged scripts. I give suggestions for cuts, etc., and it goes back and forth. I see it and give thoughts, and we have a great working relationship. So what could be better, you know? Because I do have the final say. In other words, I could say, "You know what, I don't really like this," but I'm happy to say I love it!
I see that in your bio from the first revival of On The Town, it says, "Upon crossing the Hudson River, she not only managed to land a role in a hit Broadway musical (BELLS ARE RINGING), but also a husband, Adolph Green, co-author of the show."
Right! It's true, it's true. And when I won the Tony, it was for a show of Adolph's also, called SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING, and I had to audition five times. In a towel! This was a very long time ago, when I was very young and very cute, but nevertheless, five times auditioning. And I always said, "It's the first time I ever heard of not sleeping with the author to get the part. But it's totally true! We were happily married with a baby, and I had to audition five times, because David Merrick, the fabled meanie producer just wanted to, I don't know, show his power or whatever. But you know, he got his, because I won the Tony. And he had Barbra Streisand in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE. When they announced my name, David Merrick turned to me and said, "I voted for Barbra." It's absolutely all true. Every word of it. So, it's a real theatre life we've had.
Wow, yeah when I read that you had beaten out Barbra Streisand for a Tony, I was amazed!
I know. I must say not only is she phenomenal, as we all know, but every time I see her, when she invites me to her concerts, she always goes, "There's some woman out there, I don't know, maybe she got the Tony..." You know, and she's very funny. I go back, and I say, "Well Barbra, let's let bygones be bygones." So we both have a good laugh over it. She's always been one of my favorite performers of all time.
And I've actually won two Tonys. I won the first Tony for charitable work, the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of the Actors' Fund. It's now been 18 years, and we're very backed by part of the Actors' Fund, and also by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It's the only women's health initiative in all of the entertainment industry, so I'm very proud of that. So it all sort of ties together when you're in this business long enough and love it. You find ways to be of some help rather than just be a performer.
And that's so cool to be able to give back like that.
Right! And it's not just for actors, it's for anyone who's in the entertainment industry who's a professional. That means an usher, or a stage hand, or a designer. It's very valuable.
What was the first revival of On The Town like?
That was hard because I was in it, and I really did not think it was a good idea for me to be in it, because I didn't think I was right for the part as an actress, and I had a lot of work. But Adolph really pushed it, as did Ron Field, the director. And of course at that time, Betty [Comden], Adolph, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins were all alive, so they would be at rehearsal. Can you imagine being on the stage, and they're all watching the show? It was very difficult, and I don't think I was very good. The rest of the cast was great! Bernadette Peters, Donna McKechnie, and I were the three women. We were all good, but I didn't feel satisfied with what I did for the show, so it's hard for me to judge the rest of the show, because I was in it.
And it was a short run?
No, it just did not attract a lot of business, and when you're in something, you really don't know what's wrong with it. I only can speak for my own part, my own acting, but I don't know why. The cast was terrific, so I don't know why. But this revival [opening today] is not like it. This one is a knock-out. It really is. With this one, I can be much more objective, obviously, because I'm not in it. So I see it, and I read the script, so I contribute that way.
What was it like to be in shows that your husband was a lyricist for?
Well, his main writing partner was Betty [Comden], and all those years, everyone thought he was married to Betty. But Betty had her own husband and children. Of course, he and I were married, and we have children. So people were constantly thinking that they were married, and we just used to laugh at it. I would get all this publicity for being out every night, and it's really Adolph and Betty who were out, and I was home with the kids! But we had a very good, not only family relationship, but professional relationship. We were each other's biggest fans.
So to what extent were you involved in his process?
Well, it's hard to describe, because of course I'm not the co-author, and I didn't write with him. But he read everything to me, and we discussed things. But since I was in the business and had done a lot of things, it was helpful for both of us just to talk about things, and I would see everything. But I don't want to overstate that I'm, you know, his writing partner.
Yeah, I guess with any project, you'd always have the spouse or the friend that you read it to and say, "Does this make sense?"
Right. And being out there and watching the show, I had a better eye. Well, not a better eye, but you know, I wasn't working every second, so I could come in and see the show at night and see the differences and just be able to talk from that point of view.
Of course, I have to brag about my son, because Vanity Fair just came out with this incredible, 5000 word piece by my son Adam Green about his father, and about the beginnings of On The Town, with the most extraordinary pictures, I must say. I'm very proud of that. And my daughter [Amanda Green] is doing some revised lyrics for the televised version of PETER PAN. She and my son are both very talented, and I'm very proud of the whole family! They're all creative, and they work very hard. They have their ups and downs, but they're very talented. So that's nice.
And I'm sure your children grew up going to shows a lot.
They saw everything. They knew every album of every show, they read every book. But they were also very well-educated. They went to Harvard and Brown, and I'm really like this ridiculous, busting, proud mama!
That must have been so special for them, and for you to get to experience theatre with them!
Absolutely, and that's why [the current On The Town revival], when we're all there together, is going to be so very fun on so many levels. It's a great production; I'm thrilled with the production! And there I'll be with my family... and Adolph.
In terms of productions themselves, which were your top two favorite of your husband's musicals?
Oh gosh, I don't know. It's hard for me to say... First On The Town, because of the history and the fact that he wrote it in his twenties, and they all were in their twenties, which is amazing for their first show. And then BELLS ARE RINGING, because I got the part, I got to play Judy Holliday's part. It was a wonderful show, so I loved that. They're all very personal. And then ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY- oh there are so many of them!- because it's so wonderful, wacky, like operetta almost. But it's fun and marvelously written, and Kristin Chenoweth will be fabulous. She was born to play that part. She really was.
I'm excited about the PETER PAN broadcast, because I grew up watching the VHS of the Mary Martin version.
Isn't that amazing? So many young people tell me that they watched that old VHS with Mary Martin. I'm always surprised! It's a beautiful production. It's a wonderful show, a wonderful score. I'm very excited about that. But you know where its fame has stuck? All over the country all the time. I know, because I get the reports of the performances, and it's always being done. Every day, somebody somewhere is doing PETER PAN at schools, colleges, community theatres. It's the most performed of their shows. Well it's funny, there have been a million attempts at PETER PAN, but this version is the one that stuck.
And there were a lot of revivals of PETER PAN on Broadway, at least five.
Oh yeah, they were terrific. It's a great story! And Cathy Rigby was wonderful doing it. Her gymnastics were incredible. And Sandy Duncan was marvelous. I didn't see Mary Martin live, I only saw it on the same VHS you saw!
Well is there anything else you'd like our readers to know?
I'm just very happy and I want to make sure that people know that this year is his hundredth birthday, and out of his great work and out of his otherworldliness, which we always said. We always said he came from another planet. He was a very eccentric and adorable man, and I'm just thrilled that he's being celebrated this way. With his good work and with fun. Every single one of these projects is just full of fun and life, and sex, and LIFE! I'm very thrilled that they're all coming together.
Read even more about Phyllis and Adolph on PhyllisNewman.com and PhyllisNewman.com/blog. And learn all about the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative at: www.phyllisnewman.com/healthcare-initiative.