Setting the stage
Ron Fassler recollects the Broadway of his youth
Up in the cheap seats — that’s where Ron Fassler was half a century ago, when you could actually score a Broadway ticket for $2. That’s where, as a youngster, he saw some of the leading actors of the day in 200 performances.
Over eggs Benedict (with hollandaise on the side) in an Upper West Side diner not far from his studio apartment, Fassler, 60, shared a few of those memories with as much brio as though the events had taken place just recently. After he decided to write a book about his “reviews” of what he saw when he was 12-to-16 years old, he spent several years interviewing some of the outsized personalities he’d seen. The result is “Up In the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway” (Griffith Moon).
Fassler discards Playbills now, but he’s saved all 200 programs and ticket stubs from those formative years. Words tumbling out, he didn’t refer to notes: he remembers when a production opened, its cast, and nearly everything connected to that experience. He wears a touch-of-gray and glasses now, but his is an ever-inviting face with smiling eyes and infectious enthusiasm. For now, his household consists of himself and his “half-Havanese, half-poodle,” Leo, but moving back to New York from the West Coast two years ago was a no-brainer. Without hesitation or bitterness (though he admits to pain), Fassler talked about his decades-long, but now failed, marriage. He still considers his ex-wife his best friend.
Taking in the diner’s bustle with a wave of a hand, he said: “I love New York. Where I live, it’s all residential. I know everyone on my floor — in fact, two neighbors have keys to my apartment. In L.A.,” he continued, “everyone’s in his car. There’s no reason to be alone in New York City.” His now-grown son and daughter live in Brooklyn.
Fassler’s professional credits include the cult TV series “Alien Nation,” and small parts in big movies such as “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Trumbo.” Working with directors like Mike Nichols and Clint Eastwood, he was hired as a “utility actor.” He was there to read stage directions while stars like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts rehearsed their scenes. Across the tiny diner table, he demonstrated how lame readings could flatten a scene and how he might juice them up.
In “Cheap Seats,” Fassler revisits landmark productions of “Hair,” “Follies,” “Company” and others, and has written a long chapter on the enduring hit, “Fiddler On the Roof.” Fassler was 19 when cast as Motel in a summer stock production of “Fiddler” at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He would direct the musical at the same venue 40 years later. But as a self-described “Hebrew school dropout,” his relationship to the show was cultural, not religious, he said.
Fassler called his upcoming one-nighter of songs and stories, at Feinstein’s/54 Below on January 5, his “Broadway debut.” His dream is that one of the young people he now directs and mentors at that summer theater will be successful enough to invite him into a revival of one of his favorites, like “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum.”
In the book, Fassler describes his youth within the chaos of his Great Neck home life, and why he needed to escape the tiny house shared by eight people.
In every chapter, he sets down what he saw and felt, and expands into comments from interviews with those involved. In one section, Fassler puts on his critic’s hat, with the short “reviews” written when he was a teenager. He also gives readers a taste of offstage, describing the gritty Times Square of his younger theater-going days.
If it’s true that some pundits have little background or understanding of the world they purport to analyze, great theater criticism (see Harold Clurman or Kenneth Tynan) is different from opining. Looking back on his own long-ago efforts, Fassler is embarrassed by his attempts at erudition and labels his reports “unintentionally funny.” His take on Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” is a hoot: “With Pinter you know nothing ever happens, so why stay? (So why go?)”
When the teenage Fassler didn’t like something, he showed no mercy. But when he loved a show, he was over-the-moon enthusiastic.
He’s still passionate about Broadway. “I never sit back with my arms folded,” he said, demonstrating the “show me” attitude that some take into the theater.
“Cheap Seats” will be out in paperback next month. Also coming up is “a tour of high-end retirement communities, like Boca Raton and Scottsdale.” The kinds of places, he said, where “if you mention Jerry Robbins, you don’t have to explain who he was.”
If you’ve seen the particular shows Fassler mentions in his more-than-memoir, his descriptions will bring back those experiences. If you haven’t, but share his passion, “Up In the Cheap Seats” will remind you of the enduring anticipation we feel when the lights dim and the curtain rises.
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