Thursday, October 21, 2010

Birth Of A New Salesman

Birth Of A New Salesman

Those audible gasps you may have heard from your nearest theatre-lover yesterday were likely because of news that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mike Nichols confirmed they're teaming up to bring Broadway its fourth revival of Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman in the fall of 2011.

But the gasps may have been further induced by something beyond just that simple announcement. Countless tweets in the twitterverse were incredulous about Hoffman's casting, saying he is too young to play Willy Loman, the titular salesman.

Nonesense, I immediately retorted. Hoffman is an actor who is wise beyond his years, and to be honest, has an appearance that can easily belie his 43 years. And just as fast as I could say that, my friend with the encyclopedic mind -- the ever resourceful Kevin Daly of Theatre Aficionado At Large -- quickly pointed out that the legendary Lee J. Cobb was a mere 37 years when he created the iconic role in the first Broadway production in 1949.

While Cobb didn't even receive a Tony nod for his Willy, that premiere production would sweep Tonys in each of the six categories for which it was nominated. First opening at Broadway's Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, Death Of A Salesman would win Tonys for Best Play, Best Author (Arthur Miller), Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy), Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner) and Best Producers (Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried). Perhaps even more prestigious was that the production -- which closed November 18, 1950 after 742 performances -- was honored with the 1949 Pulitzer Prize.

Little wonder this is among Miller's most revered works. And little wonder that so many other great actors hold out no greater hope than to sink their enterprising teeth into Willy Loman.

Yet surprisingly, the first Broadway revival didn't come for another 25 years when George C. Scott took on the role at age 47. With Scott also directing, Death Of A Salesman opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on June 26, 1975. Although the cast included James Farentino as Biff and Harvey Keitel as Happy, the production would earn exactly one Tony nomination: for Scott's acting. The production closed after 71 performances.

The second revival came about just nine years later, opening at the Broadhurst Theatre on March 29, 1984. A then 46 year old Dustin Hoffman portrayed Willy alongside John Malkovich as Biff and Stephen Lang as Happy. The revival would earn the Tony for Best Reproduction. While it closed on July 1, 1984, after only 97 performances, the production would enjoy a return engagement at the Broadhurst for another 88 performances (September 14-November 18, 1984).

Perhaps the reason why so many think that Willy Loman is a man closing in on the twilight of his years is because of the last exceptional actor to make the role his own, Brian Dennehy. When the last Broadway revival of Death Of A Salesman was mounted by Robert Falls in 1999, Dennehy was already 60. But that didn't stop the theatre world from showering his performance with praise and accolades. Dennehy would win both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his portrayal. 

That Death Of A Salesman first opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on February 22, 1999. Packing a punch at the box office, the revival would enjoy 274 performances before closing on November 7, 1999. Its cast included Kevin Anderson as Biff, Ted Koch as Happy, Elizabeth Franz as Linda, Howard Witt as Charlie, and also Kate Buddeke (The Woman). All totaled, the revival earned six Tony nominations and scored wins for Best Revival, Falls, Franz and Dennehy.

Since that landmark production has become the gold standard by which most contemporary audiences judge Miller's play, it stands to reason that many can't conceive of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman. Also, considering that Death Of A Salesman will herald Hoffman's first time back on Broadway's boards since earning a Tony nod for his effective portrayal as Brian Dennehy's son, James Tyrone, Jr. in 2003's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and it's no wonder the theatre world was gasping.

Of course, since that appearance, Hoffman has gone on to win an Academy Award for his breathtaking work as Truman Capote. I have little doubt he'll do just fine with Willy Loman.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I have received nothing of value in exchange for this post.

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At 21 October, 2010, Blogger ScottE. said...

A production of Salesman at my university with theatre alumni in the lead roles...made me openly weep. Can't wait to see this!


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