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Millions of people pass through Times Square every year. To most of them, the Winter Garden Theatre, which is nestled between Broadway and 7th and 50th and 51st, looks like just another of the many Broadway venues located throughout the area — perhaps a little bigger. What they do not know, but ought to, is that it has a longer and richer history than almost any of them.
On the stage of the Winter Garden, which the Shubert Organization has controlled longer than any of its many other properties, Al Jolson warbled his way to super-stardom, Martha Graham and the siblings Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire beat the boards and a chorus girl named Lucille LeSueur — who later adopted the name Joan Crawford — got her start. It’s where audiences first saw Peter Pan with Mary Martin (1954), West Side Story with Chita Rivera (1957), Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand (1964) and Mame and Gypsy with Angela Lansbury (1966 and 1974, respectively). And it’s where Cats (1982) ran for 7,485 performances over nearly 18 years, the longest run of any Broadway show up to that point.
The neighborhood of which the Winter Garden is a part wasn’t known as Times Square until 1904, when The New York Times moved into a new building there — the city’s second-tallest — and petitioned the mayor for the name-change. (Times editor Adolph Ochs celebrated the move that year by hosting a big New Year’s Eve celebration with fireworks. It became an annual gathering. Three years later, when the city refused him a fireworks permit, he attached 100 light bulbs to a giant wooden ball and lowered it down a flagpole at midnight, inspiring a tradition that has endured ever since.) Prior to that, dating back to 1872, it was known as Longacre Square, which, like its namesake — Long Acre, a street in central London — served as the hub of its city’s horse and carriage trade, with horse dealers, wagon factories, harness shops and the like lining its streets and serving a population that depended on horses for transportation.
In 1880, William Kissam Vanderbilt, a 30-year-old grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, purchased a Dutch farm, owned by a family named Hopper, that occupied the Longacre Square site where the Winter Garden exists today. There, he and a team of fellow millionaire investors oversaw the construction of the American Horse Exchange, which became the area’s biggest building and served as its primary destination for people interested in buying or trading thoroughbred horses.
To the shock of the community, the American Horse Exchange caught fire in June 1896, resulting in its “complete destruction,” according to the Times, “in an incredibly short space of time.” It was quickly rebuilt and opened again in Feb. 1897 as The New American Horse Exchange, but by that time its relevance was already waning. Within the following decade, roads were electrified for streetcars and motor vehicles became commonplace; by 1912, there would be more cars than horses in the city for the first time.
On Jan. 7, 1910, in response to this trend, Vanderbilt and his associates leased the property, for 40 years at a cost of $40,000, to the young entrepreneurs Lee Shubert and Jacob J. “J.J.” Shubert, who were just 38 and 30, respectively, at the time. The brothers were looking to expand their growing network of theaters from upstate New York into Manhattan, specifically with a European-style music hall. Described by the Times as “heedless of Cassandras who warned against building a theatre north of 42nd Street,” they contracted the architect William Albert Swasey to get to work.
The “winter garden” concept was inspired by the plant-filled conservatories, known as winter gardens, that were popular in Europe at the time. The theater was designed, in the description of the Shubert Archive, with “latticework, trellises, garlands and flower boxes twined under a sky-blue canvas ceiling covered with extensive grillwork,” and with an extremely wide stage, which enabled a greater-than-usual number of audience members to sit — in comfortable seats, “a theatrical innovation” — closer to the action.
Advertised by the Shuberts as “a lavish music hall devoted to novel, international, spectacular and musical entertainments,” the Winter Garden opened on March 10, 1911 with a three-part show — the early Jerome Kern musical La Belle Paree, a Chinese opera Bow Sing and Tortajada and Her Sixteen Moorish Dancing Girls in a Spanish Blanket — which boasted a cast of 30 featured performers and 250 supporting players. Among them was Jolson, an up-and-comer who had been signed by the Shuberts to perform in a production at the Winter Garden, before it was even completed, for $325 per week.
The theater’s opening day and night were something of a rollercoaster. As the Times reported, “In the late afternoon a sixty-mile twister rattled the boards enclosing vacant lots along upper Times Square.” However, “In the early evening the storm suddenly subsided and the brilliant marquee lights of the Winter Garden flashed for a new era in New York’s theatrical history.” An audience comprised of “those from high society, the old guard of first nighters and many of the younger generation of theatregoers” packed in for what proved to be a very long and late night — the four-hour production let out around 1am — comprised of a wide assortment of elements. By today’s standards, some sound rather shocking (i.e. Jolson in blackface singing a duet with popular vaudevillian Stella Mayhew entitled “Paris Is a Paradise for Coons”), others surprisingly modern (skimpily-dressed women). Responses to the show weren’t particularly enthusiastic, but changes were made (Bow-Sing and Tortajada were dropped) and feedback improved.
For the next 16 years, the fortunes of the Winter Garden and Jolson were intertwined. He became a huge star and the theater became the Shuberts‘ highest-grossing venue. (The brothers formally purchased it from Vanderbilt in 1923 and hired architect Herbert J. Krapp to, well, spruce it up.) One of the things for which it became known during that period was its runway. In advance of the Shuberts‘ 1912 production The Whirl of Society, the brothers installed boards over the middle orchestra seats stretching from the stage to the back of the house, inspired by something similar that they had seen during a recent visit to Europe in Max Reinhardt production Sumurun. (In Whirl Jolson would sing a parody number, “My Sumurun Girl.”) The runway proved an instant hit and was retained well beyond that show’s run. Jolson loved to run and slide on it while singing, improvising and bantering with the audience, which was thrilled by this unprecedented sort of interaction with a performer. They also enjoyed when showgirls paraded down it, as a result of which it earned the nickname “The Bridge of Thighs.” (The runway has long since been removed, but the boxing ring in Rocky, a 2014 production at the theater, similarly extended out over orchestra seats so that audience members engulfed it, to their delight.)
Another thing that was always associated with the Winter Garden was The Passing Show. In the teens and twenties, annual “revues” were all the rage on Broadway. The New Amsterdam had The Ziegfeld Follies and the Apollo had The Scandals, so the Winter Garden began offering this similarly lavish production — filled with all sorts of zany acts and beautiful women — which ran at the theater every year from 1912 through 1924, excepting 1920. (When Ziegfeld died, the Shuberts acquired the rights to his Follies and presented them at the Winter Garden in 1934, 1936, 1943 and 1957. And, in 1971, Stephen Sondheim‘s Ziegfeld-inspired Follies debuted at the theater, as well.)
In 1927, the Shuberts and Jolson, who had always had strained relations, finally parted ways. Jolson went to Hollywood to star in the first “talkie” motion picture, Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer. But his visage wasn’t gone from the theater for long, since the Shuberts leased the Winter Garden to Warners from 1928 through 1933 for the purposes of exhibiting motion pictures — the first of which was The Singing Fool, starring none other than Jolson. (The Winter Garden was again converted into a movie theater from 1945 through 1948, when United Artists leased it.)
Over the ensuing years, people and productions came and went, but at least as importantly to audiences, air conditioning came and stayed. Prior to the end of World War II, the theater would shutter in July and August, and on sweltering days outside of those months depended upon Knickerbocker Ice Company deliveries of giant blocks of ice — which would be swirled from its basement up through vents and into the theater — to provide performers and audience members with some semblance of comfort. When air conditioning arrived, productions could begin taking place year-round.
Before long, a considerable number of shows began enjoying long runs at the Winter Garden. West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Funny Girl and Mame all lasted for more than a year. (This is not to say that there weren’t duds, too: the 1970 musical Georgy, for instance, lasted just four performances.) And then there was Cats, which redefined the idea of a long run and, in the service of trying to make the theater look like a junkyard actually turned it into one by painting over ornate designs, cutting a hole in the roof, etc. After the hit show shuttered, a multimillion dollar restoration of the theater was deemed necessary and was overseen by architect Francesca Russo in 2001.
Presently occupying the theater — which was known as the Cadillac Winter Garden for five years during the 21st century’s first decade because of a partnership with General Motors, but which has since reverted to its original name — is Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two, an epic adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s historical novel Wolf Hall. A multi-parter, just like the show that opened the Winter Garden 104 years ago, it is only the fourth show to run in the theater in the last 33 years — in-between Cats and Wolf Hall, which opened on April 9 and will close on July 5, were Mamma Mia!, which ran there for nearly seven years, and Rocky, which lasted for six months — and the first non-musical to play there within that time-span. It is up for eight awards at Sunday’s Tonys, including best play.
* * *
At 1pm on the rainy afternoon of Saturday, May 16, 2015 — a two-show day for Wolf Hall, with part one starting at 2pm and part two starting at 8pm — I arrive at the stage door of the Winter Garden at 770 7th Avenue. After pushing a buzzer, a security guard lets me in, takes down my information and pages over the loudspeaker, “Nathaniel to the stage door, Nathaniel to the stage door!” Within moments, down a nearby staircase bounds the man I’m there to see, Nathaniel Parker (“Nat” to friends and visitors), the bearded British actor whose portrayal of King Henry VIII in the West End production earned him an Olivier Award and in the Broadway production a Tony nomination, for best featured actor in a play.
As Parker greets me with a booming “Hello,” I’m a little taken aback — he isn’t a fat man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, as he appears to be in the show, but rather a strapping, handsome man who looks much younger than his 53 years. He also has a much better sense of humor than “the most famous king ever,” who was a rather dark guy. (Per the famous mnemonic: “King Henry VIII, to six wives he was wedded. One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.”)
The day before we met, Parker attended the Drama League Awards as one of 47 nominees for the Distinguished Performance Award. Each was asked to deliver a short speech and more or less said the same thing. He decided to be different and, upon arriving at the podium, surrounded by the likes of Chita Rivera, Tyne Daly and Helen Mirren (with whom he recently costarred in a West End production of The Audience), recited Herman’s Hermits 1965 chart-topper “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.” Reflecting on the moment he laughs, “I fucking nearly lost my nerve.”
Parker was a dyslexic boy who struggled mightily with academics, unlike his book-smart older siblings. At nine, he took the train by himself to see his sister, a student at Cambridge, play Lady Macbeth in a university production. “As she was doing it,” he recalls, “I just thought, ‘That’s what I’ve got to do. That’s what I’ve got to do.’ There was no other choice from then on in my mind.” He began acting in school productions and, at 17, was accepted to the National Youth Theatre, where he quickly began playing leads. (A classmate who became a lifelong friend was Colin Firth.) This eventually led him to the Royal Shakespeare Co., an uninterrupted run of professional jobs and, in 1989, when he was just 27, Broadway. “I was just on a lovely upward curve,” he recalls.
“This is what it looks like from back here,” he says as he leads me onto the Winter Garden stage, tapping on the set to show that it is not a slab of rock but actually hollow plaster. “Pretty cool.” He had never been inside the Winter Garden before the company of Wolf Hall came to town. “I stood on the front of that stage and I was absolutely blown away. The first stage we had [for the Royal Shakespeare Co. production of the show in Stratford-upon-Avon that ran from Dec. 11, 2013 to March 29, 2014] was a third of the size.” He mentions that he loves to listen to the music of the rapper Macklemore during his rides on the subway from his friend Jack Huston‘s apartment on the Lower East Side, where he’s staying while in New York, including one song called “Thrift.” “There’s a line in it saying, ‘This is fuckin‘ awesome.’ And my first moment standing on this stage with Jeremy [Herrin, Wolf Hall‘s director], all I could think was, ‘This is fuckin‘ awesome.'” He adds, “I couldn’t actually properly speak because I would have burst into tears.”
We walk past the quick-change area just off the stage, where dozens of period costumes and jewelry are lined up on racks. “Feel that,” he says, handing me one of the surcoats that he wears in the show, which weighs about 40 pounds. “And that goes on top of three other costumes — and the fat suit.” We continue up a staircase, past a makeup room and a wall filled with opening night well wishes from the casts of other shows, and into his dressing room. Peering out his window, he says, “I’m looking at a very beautiful girl from the Dominican Republic,” who, he calls me over to see, is actually on a big billboard promoting tourism. Times Square bustles below. “This is proper Broadway.”
When Parker was first — and last — on Broadway a little more than 25 years ago, it was in “quite a dull production” of The Merchant of Venice directed by Sir Peter Hall. He played Bassanio — “the biggest part in the play,” but also “the most forgettable part in Shakespeare” — opposite Dustin Hoffman‘s “brilliant” Shylock. It was one of the most miserable experiences of his life. “I should have enjoyed and understood a lot more,” he says now, “but I was taking things for granted.” He was bored with his part, staying in a dumpy apartment (all alone except for rats), missing his girlfriend (an actress who was then appearing at London’s Royal Court) and generally “taking things for granted.”
And then he began forgetting his lines, which brought on a bout of stage fright, which perpetuated his forgetting of lines. “It was horrible,” he says, taking a seat in front of his light bulb-lined dressing room mirror. “You see a sort of blue funk appearing around your eyes. I imagine it’s like a pilot in the second World War who just thinks, ‘Fuck, this is it.’ They used to call it ‘the blue funk’ and it would just close in. The very first time it happened was awful. It was at the beginning of the play.” He takes a long pause before continuing, “‘Oh, Leigh [Lawson, a fellow actor], I’m sorry, can we start again?’ In front of 1200 people. I said it out loud. ‘Lee, can we start again, please?’ At which point he started throwing lines at me that meant nothing to me. I’m sure they were right, but they meant nothing to me. And the blue funk just happened — I suddenly couldn’t see anybody, I couldn’t see anything and I felt like I was disappearing down a hole with no legs. Horrible.”
Parker got through that night, but was terrified that it would happen again. “And it did,” he says. “Every night. Not at that point, necessarily, but every night.” One time it happened during a big 30-line speech that he had to deliver to Geraldine James, an actress who would go on to receive a Tony nom for her performance in the show. “I just looked at her and went, [whispering] ‘You go.’ And her speech was meant to be a response to mine.”
“Part of the problem for me,” he speculates, “was that the play was all about rhythm rather than reality.” He explains, “I’d started to do TV by this point [the show Never Come Back] and to understand that on TV you can just ‘be,’ as opposed to having to perform. I fell in love with the process. So suddenly to come back to Merchant of Venice? If I was on stage and I wasn’t getting my moment, I wanted to stop and start again.” He emphasizes, “I felt so sorry for anybody I was acting with,” noting that he “absolutely” began to wonder if he’d be able to continue as an actor. “It was awful.”
His career took on a different direction thereafter. “I haven’t done many plays since I had that horror,” he says. “That experience put me off for a while.” Instead, he focused on screen work and landed some fairly prominent — if also jarringly eclectic — jobs.
On the big screen, he debuted in War Requiem (1989), an early Derek Jarman–Tilda Swinton collaboration in which he got to play the younger version of a character whose older version was portrayed by Parker’s hero, Laurence Olivier. After that he worked on Franco Zeffirelli‘s Hamlet (1990), opposite Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992), under the direction of his brother Oliver Parker in a version of Othello (1995) and with Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) and Eddie Murphy in The Haunted Mansion (2003), among many others. He’s perhaps most widely known, though, for his work on the small screen, including the title role in BBC One’s The Inspector Lynley Mysteries (2001-2007), which “opened loads of doors,” and Merlin (2011).
His life also evolved in other ways. In 1992, he married the girlfriend he had missed while on Broadway, Anna Patrick. They have two daughters, aged 18 and 16, whom Patrick set aside her career to raise. Over the years, Parker took numerous jobs in the U.S., but he never relocated. “One of the reasons I didn’t come to L.A. early on, when I had a shot at it, was because a whole bunch of my mates had gone there and lost their wives or their girlfriends — they broke up — and I just thought, ‘You know what, I don’t want to lose Anna,'” he says. “So I stayed in England — and took the parts they vacated, really,” he adds with a laugh. “I’ve never regretted it because I made those choices for a really good reason.”
He shows me around his dressing room, in which a humidifier is humming off to the side, helping him to preserve his breath for days with two shows, which run for a combined five-and-a-half hours. Taped along his mirror are photos of his late parents, as well as his wife and kids. (“They were here for the first night and it was the proudest night of my life,” he says. “I was actually crying during the curtain call — it was an awesome feeling — because I could see them feeling proud.”) There are also good luck cards from friends, postcards of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra (“I wanted to feel more New York”) and notes that he has written himself with various mantras to remember (“Play the moment” and “Believe everything I say”). Up on a shelf is an Oh Henry! candy bar and dried flowers that his wife gave him on opening night. By the door is a sign that his dresser Sandy made for him to put outside it when he feels like taking a catnap between shows: “Shhh… The King Is Resting.”
He goes over to his mirror table and, on a MacBook, cues up a Sinatra playlist. He says, “I sing before every show — not very well — because it’s great for the breathing. You don’t want to strain — and doing two shows in a day, you can strain.” (He has found that projecting is necessary in a theater so big, even with the aid of microphones. “I’d never been mic’d before in my life,” he notes.) “I do feel sorry for anybody who’s in the next-door dressing room,” he adds, before bursting into a baritone rendition of “It Happened in Monterey.”
Parker tried reading Mantel’s Wolf Hall novel for pleasure before he was ever made aware that it was being adapted for the stage, but he put it down because he “found it too confusing.” Two weeks later, while in his dressing room at the Gielgud Theatre before a production of The Audience (he played ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown), he was visited by Matt Byam Shaw and Georgia Gatti, two of that show’s producers. They told him that they were organizing a production of Wolf Hall and hoped very much that he would consider playing King Henry VIII. He recalls with a laugh, “I thought, ‘I can’t possibly be Henry VIII, for fuck’s sake! I don’t look anything like him. And I’ve just done another play that’s taken me away from my family for too much time.'” Additionally, he thought to himself, RSC productions, while prestigious, pay barely enough to enable an actor to make ends meet. “People like David Tennant and Patrick Stewart can afford to do it,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I can’t.” So he politely declined. Two weeks later, the duo returned with a script, which they begged him right to read. The script led him to revisit the book. “And then I went, ‘Oh, flip! All right, I’ll meet the director.'”
Parker’s initial meeting with Herrin was not a good one. The actor showed up and heard someone else reading the director lines of the character that had already been promised to him. Parker went into the room, biting his tongue, and was asked to read the part himself, which he also found bizarre under the circumstances, and initially refused. Finally, begrudgingly, he consented — and revealed that he was already off-book. He left in a huff and headed to record a radio play before going on to that night’s performance of The Audience. At the first stop, he was chatting with the venerated actress Penelope Wilton and mentioned that he had been asked to work with Herrin. “You must, he’s the best,” she told him. And, he says, “That changed my life. It was down to Penny, really.” (He has since come to feel similar affection for Herrin: “Jeremy is a fucking genius,” he asserts, adding that they are now “really good chums.”)
Parker first realized that Wolf Hall was something special at its first read-through. He says, “What was amazing was just sitting down and going, ‘Oh, my God, this is a hit! This is a hit!’ Right away.” He adds, “Then I thought, ‘Stratford? We’re going to London.’ And then I thought, ‘We need to go to Broadway.'” Why? “It’s a New York tale, Cromwell and his rise to fame.” Think Horatio Alger. “All I could think of was, ‘We’ve got to impress [chief New York Times theater critic] Ben Brantley. And we did! He loved it in Stratford [where he saw the two parts on different days]. He wrote a great review, really wonderful — I loved it when he called me ‘Mr. Parker,’ as well — nobody else ever does. And then he came to London and saw them both on the same day and said, ‘Not only is it better now that it’s in London, but it’s better to see it on the same day — and it’s better to see it twice’. And then he came here and wrote an even better one. He’s been our conduit and I take my bloody hat off to him, I tell you.”
As Parker gets out of his street clothes and starts to get into his tights and codpiece (“I don’t mind getting changed in front of people but it’s up to you”), a warning is piped through the sound system: “15 minutes ‘til the top of act one!” I ask him if he finds two-show days draining. He replies, “I love it. My enthusiasm is sort of boundless for this show, and I’ve never had that feeling before. I love doing shows — whatever I’m doing — but this one is different. This has brought me back to being a kid. It’s the part and the experience.” A big part of what makes playing Henry VIII so fun, he says, is the sense of freedom that comes with it. As he puts it, “There’s a line in this first play where Wolsey says, ‘Henry believes everything he’s saying at the time he says it,’ and that gives me carte blanche as an actor. I’ve never had the treat of that, where you can just go, ‘Right. Every single line I can play differently if I want to.'”
Someone knocks on the door and he says, “Come on in, darling. I’m nearly ready.” Sandy, his dresser, replies with faux exasperation, “You’re not at all ready!” He replies, “I’ll be two minutes.” As she leaves, he notes that he gets a kick out of the audiences on two-show days. “People rather tentatively clap at the beginning of the first one. They don’t know what they’re getting into, and most of the guys are looking at their watches thinking, ‘I could be watching the game right now.’ That’s particularly true on a Sunday. And then, by the beginning of the second one, they’re cheering. And you’re going, ‘Yes!'”
Between shows on two-show days, he generally goes out to eat with friends and then sneaks half-hour naps in his dressing room (posting Sandy’s sign on his door), rest which he feels he needs because he drives the beginning of the second act more than the first. Dealing with the juxtaposition between the world of Times Square outside and the world of the 16th century inside is not a problem for him, he insists. “It’s no different, really, from when you’re Henry and one moment you’re trying to have a baby with Anne Bolelyn and the next moment you want her head chopped off. You know? He does have a mental issue.”
Sandy comes back in and, as she puts the last of his clothing on him, he wraps her in a bear hug. “There’s your rings,” she says, laughing and pointing to the counter before heading for the door. “Hopefully I’ll see you downstairs!” He replies, “You will, you will! What time is it now?” “It’s close. They’re just about ready to call five [minutes ‘til the top of act one]. And you haven’t done your beard!” “Oh, fuck! I’ve got to do my beard,” he says, running over to color it red as word comes over the loudspeaker, “And it’s five minutes, five minutes ‘til the top of act one, five minutes ‘til the top of act one. Five minutes, please!'”
* * *
Shortly before the first act of the first part of Wolf Hall, I head down to the dank basement of the Winter Garden, past rows of lockers used by crew members and musicians, and find a quiet corner in which to get some work done. Before long, I hear through the floor massive stomping — the court entertainment that opens each act of the show — and an unassuming man named Frank Lofgren strides by. We strike up a chat and it turns out he’s the head carpenter and has worked at the Winter Garden, following several other Broadway theaters, for the last 33 years. “We lowered in Cats and I stayed with the show,” he says.
Lofgren invites me into the next room, where he shares an office with Glenn Russo, the theater electrician and a 37-year vet of the business who also came to the Winter Garden with Cats. Russo is a self-described “history buff” who has adorned their walls with framed photos of the theater — even though he’s never seen a Broadway show. I say he must be kidding but, as Lofgren howls with laughter, Russo insists, “I’ve never gone and sat in a theater. Not interested. I don’t want to sit out there.” Lofgren says, “I’ll go to a couple of shows a year,” to which Russo responds, “Yeah, but the shows you go to, they’re the ones down on 42nd Street.”
I ask them how the Winter Garden compares to other places they have worked. Lofgren cracks, “Somebody told me once, ‘If I’m not working in this whorehouse, I’m working in another.'” More seriously, he says, “It’s nice having a show run. Before coming here, you’d spend weeks loading a show in and then it lasted a week or two and you loaded it out and you were looking for another job.” Does Russo also prefer longer runs? “To me, it doesn’t matter, you know? A show’s a show, a job’s a job.”
Russo says of Wolf Hall, “Actually, it wasn’t a small production. It was quite big.” Lofgren concurs. “Yeah, loading it, they said it was just a one-setter and there’s nothing to it.” But it actually took three or four weeks to remove 100 seats and project the stage out, erect the set, set up motors up in the grid to pick up pieces and light the stage. However, unlike with Rocky, for which they had to remain on stage throughout each performance because “everything was flying out and half the show was in the air,” as Lofgren puts it, once they got Wolf Hall running there was little need for them to be near the stage. “It’s a pretty easy show for us,” Russo says. Lofgren actually prefers the busier productions — “The show goes faster.”
For Lofgren, the Winter Garden is a family business. His daughter works in props and his younger brother Arnie Lofgren works up on the fly floor — the platform high above a theater from which stagehands work ropes controlling equipment below — handling the one drop that occurs in each show. Frank offers to show me it, marveling that there are still some tie down rings on the wall leftover from the days when horses occupied the building.
As we get ready to go, in comes Parker, who I had not expected to see again until the end of the second act but who, having just wrapped his scenes for the first act, has come down to check in on me. “I had that feeling, from the moment I started, that something might go wrong,” he confides in Lofgren and me, “and sure enough I tripped up on one line. I tripped up on it before in London once.” He continues, “But the second half of it was the best I’ve ever done it. I’m so excited.” As the strumming that signals the close of each act penetrates from above, he tells me I’ll have fun visiting with Arnie, whose band he went to see perform in the city no long ago, and he heads to his dressing room.
During the 15-minute intermission, Lofgren and I climb the staircase again, with Parker’s singing audible in the distance. We eventually come out on a walkway way above the stage. “Our grid here’s only 65 feet high,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Don’t look down.” We then take a narrow catwalk over to the fly floor, where we meet Arnie, who has worked in this space for 15 years since Frank got him the job.
Arnie loves the theater — he’s engaged to an actress and says he attends 20 shows a year — and he loves his job. He postulates, “The first stagehands were sailors. The knots are the same. The stage is called ‘the deck.’ Instead of a ‘deckhand’ you have a ‘stagehand.’ And you never whistle in a theater — they used to whistle to bring the sets in before there was electricity — so it’s bad luck to whistle in a theater.” (Whistling on ships is also frowned upon, as it is thought to invite a storm — and was used to initiate the mutiny on the Bounty.)
Does he ever get bored waiting around in the dark for a stage manager to give him a cue, performance after performance? “What keeps your attention is if you do get bored, you mess up,” he says with a laugh. The strumming begins again, this time from below, signaling the start of act two.
* * *
After the first show ends, Parker and I reconnect at the stage door, where he is instantly accosted by a fan for a quick selfie, which he happily grants. We then walk a few blocks to Island Burgers & Shakes at 51st and 9th, a popular Hell’s Kitchen spot, as he processes his day’s work — or at least the first half of it. “It was a lovely show,” he says. After we sit down and settle on hamburgers — “I can’t have too much garlic because I’m shouting at people,” he notes — another fan approaches for a photo, which he graciously gets up to give.
In order to speak with me between shows, he put off an appointment with a friend. “There’s a doctor on Broadway, Dr. Barry Kohn,” he tells me. “He does everything and he does everybody and he does it free!” He continues, “He’s become a mate. He retired from LA, from his private practice, where he obviously made enough money. I went ’round to his place because I had a bit of a problem early in the run and I was just so blown away by his apartment — overlooking the Park, with beautiful paintings and everything else. We started to really get on.”
Parker doesn’t have many friends in New York apart from the other members of the Wolf Hall company. On the night of the day on which he learned he was a Tony nominee, he celebrated with a Shepherd’s pie and a few pints of Guinness at Mary O’s, a pub near Huston’s apartment, where he couldn’t resist sharing his good news with the owner of the establishment, who joined him for a few rounds.
A big part of him is looking forward to the night of the Tonys, for which his wife will fly in to town to attend the show with him — and a small part of him is not: “I would rather stay in the land of nomination. It’s a lovely land to be in, I have discovered. You have endless possibilities. Everybody’s a winner. They all talk to you. You go everywhere. You have parties. It’s fucking great, the land of nomination. The land of loser, I imagine, is a bit sour.”
In the meantime, he remains focused on Wolf Hall. “The stage is relentless,” he says. “From the moment you wake up, you’re thinking about pacing yourself ‘til the end of the day.” He bites into his burger. “At the end of the week you’re tired,” he says, “But I love it.”
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