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The Show Could Not Go On

Ryan Scammell

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A Broadway show collides with history
(Courtesy Joshua Zavin)
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On the wall above the light switch, in the living room of the house where I grew up, there was a poster of a Broadway show, a musical that opened at the Alvin Theatre back in 1968. It wasn't just any show -- Benjamin Zavin, the man who wrote the play, was my stepfather's father.

"I feel like I grew up on the show," my stepfather told me, while sitting in the room that had been my bedroom growing up. "They were working on it from the time I was 7 or 8 years old. It was part of my life for the entire time I was in grade school and high school."

"The Education of Hyman Kaplan" was a comedy about an English-language class for immigrants applying for citizenship. The main character was Hyman Kaplan, an immigrant from the Ukraine. The humor of the play centers around his ridiculous misinterpretations of both American history and the English language. But in a deeper sense, the real message of the play was his unabashed love for America.

"It's a very American story -- of immigrants making it. The melting pot story," my stepfather says.

That belief in America and the American dream rang through in the music itself. "One of the main anthem songs of the show, and one of the big dance musical numbers, is where Hyman Kaplan -- under threat of deportation -- sings the very hopeful song that 'Anything is Possible.'"

For Ben Zavin, my grandfather, this theme was something very personal to him. He was the son of Russian immigrants himself, and this play was his chance at achieving the American dream.

On April 4, 1968, "The Education of Hyman Kaplan" opened on Broadway. "And we felt it was going to be something great." says Oscar Brand,
who with Paul Nassau co-wrote the music and lyrics to the show. "I don't know if you know what happened -- I think you know what happened."

History was a guest that night at the Alvin Theatre, but it wasn't the play that that audience would remember about the date. It was an assassin's bullet.

On opening night, my grandfather and Oscar Brand were pacing back-and-forth in the rear of the theater. The house was packed. New York Mayor John Lindsay was sitting in the middle of the orchestra. The house lights dimmed and the curtain came up and the show began.

And then something happened -- right in the middle of the first act.

"A policeman enters..." Brand closes his eyes as he speaks, trying to conjure the memories. "And he hurried across the room and he crawled down the aisle. And he crawls over through people to Mayor Lindsay. And the two of them crawled back out... In a little while, back comes Lindsay. Crawls down the aisle and his wife and daughter go with him. They all crawl down the aisle."

There was whispering in the audience, so much so that the actors were starting to lose the audience's attention -- "the kind of whispering when there's something wrong, and no one knows what it is," Brand says.

Tom Bosley, remembered by most as Richie Cunningham's father from TV's "Happy Days," was onstage playing Hyman Kaplan. "We heard yelling and screaming backstage," Bosley says. "We didn't hear it from the audience -- somebody said they had their radio on."

Donna McKechnie was backstage getting ready for one of her main numbers in the play. She played Kathy McKenna, an Irish immigrant in the play. As it turned out, it wasn't a radio at all that Bosley heard -- it was a little black-and-white television that McKechnie had playing in her dressing room. And just before she went onstage, there was a broadcast announcing the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the meantime, Brand saw Ed Neumann, a man with whom he had worked at NBC, run down to the telephones to find out what was happening. "I said, 'Ed, what's happening? Tell me!' And he says 'He's dead.' And I -- not wanting to know the answer, said, 'Who's dead?' And he said: 'Martin Luther King. He was just killed. He was just assassinated today.'"

McKechnie was still waiting backstage for her entrance. As soon as she heard the news, her heart started racing. "That's the feeling I remember," she says. "'Oh my God -- How could this happen? Oh dear, this is a tragedy.'" And at the same time, her cue was swelling in the orchestra, and before she has the chance to let the news set in, she was onstage singing "Oh What a Pretty Night."

But by this point, no one in the audience was paying attention to the song -- they were wondering why the mayor of New York had just been pulled out of the theater. And at intermission, they found out from a man walking past the theater.

Brand remembers what the man said: "He saw the audience waiting outside the theater and he said very loudly, 'What are you people laughing about -- don't you know that Martin Luther King has just been killed and the whole country is coming down here and rioting?'"

By the time act two began, a quarter of the audience had left. But something else had changed too, something that became clear in a scene at the end of the play when immigrants head to the judge's quarters to be sworn in as citizens. One of the characters is waving an American flag.

"And everyone's singing, 'We're gonna be all American, all American, all American today.'" Brand sings the tune from memory, note for note. "They were so happy, and he had the flag and they were going to become citizens and the first thought that hit you was: 'Why?'"

And that was the problem. Hyman Kaplan is an American Dream show -- the whole focus is the dream of freedom and equality. And yet with the news of the assassination of a civil rights icon, many who were at the premiere felt those themes ran contrary to everything that everyone was feeling at that moment.

"We felt like a naughty country, to put it mildly -- a miscreant, a black sheep in the middle of the world. That's what we were. We had let this happen," Brand says. "There was a distaste. That must have communicated somewhat to a show which was talking about what a great country this was and this is. And could be."

McKechnie was heartbroken. "That hopelessness, that feeling, all the beautiful ideals were shot down," she says.

It was clear within the first week that if audience numbers didn't begin to pick up, the play was going to have to close. And it did, before the month was out.

In those months leading up to opening night, "The Education of Hyman Kaplan" was the most important thing in the world for my grandfather and everyone else who was involved in the show.

Even though my stepfather was 17 at the time, he wasn't entirely aware of who Martin Luther King, Jr., was. "In some ways, I was in my own smaller world and just realizing that this was affecting my father's show," he says. "I realize, in retrospect, what an event it was and why it caused such disruption -- in the days after, when Broadway was virtually brought to a standstill with fear of rioting. I started to absorb the impact of what had happened."

Usually we live in our own little worlds -- but on April 4, 1968 that all changed when a bullet struck down the man who was standing on the balcony of room 308 at the Lorraine Motel.

Comments

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  • By Kathy Orsak

    From Glens Falls, NY, 04/17/2014

    My daughter's music teacher, Victor Russo, put on this play about 20 years ago in Syracuse(Dewitt, NY) using some pretty talented HS students,and I fell in love. It called up all the glorious memories of growing up among Jews, Italians, Irish in NYC. What I would not give for a CD of the music!

    By Kathy Orsak

    From Glens Falls, NY, 04/17/2014

    My daughter's music teacher, Victor Russo, put on this play about 20 years ago in Syracuse(Dewitt, NY) using some pretty talented HS students,and I fell in love. It called up all the glorious memories of growing up among Jews, Italians, Irish in NYC. What I would not give for a CD of the music!

    By Kathy Orsak

    From Glens Falls, NY, 04/17/2014

    My daughter's music teacher, Victor Russo, put on this play about 20 years ago in Syracuse(Dewitt, NY) using some pretty talented HS students,and I fell in love. It called up all the glorious memories of growing up among Jews, Italians, Irish in NYC. What I would not give for a CD of the music!

    By Richard Sloan

    From Massapequa, NY, 10/20/2010

    Tom Bosley just died. So I am in a nostalgic mood and turned to the internet, because, you see, my late stepmother, Mimi Sloan, played Mrs. Midnick in "The Education of Hyman Kaplan." My wife of three months was sitting with me about two rows back of Mayor Lindsay. We had aisle seats, just as he had. I remember a man in a suit -- not in a police uniform, come down the aisle, bend over and whisper something in Mayor Lindsay's left ear. He bolted up and walked up the aisle (He was tall, with long legs and was gone in a flash.) It seemed rude. We could only think that something important had taken him away, but we never dreamed HOW important. I don't recall the audience learning about King's assassination until after the show, but I could be wrong. At the traditional party at Sardi's, the mood was subdued. I think there was some pessimism that there would be any reviews at all (there were a couple of TV's in the restaurant for that purpose, as that was the traditional place for a cast to go after an opening, to wait for the TV reviews.) I think there was only one review. There wasn't time for others, as the newscasts were full of news about the assassination and updates about rioting.
    I remember Tom Bosley speaking to my stepmother across two long tables full of people associated with the show and their friends and relatives. He seemed pretty quiet, but put on a good face. He said to her, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Mimi, you were wonderful." My stepmother beamed and thanked him. There was very little conversation at Sardi's that night. Noone expected the show to last. I am surprised it lasted that many days. It was a darn shame, because it was such a nice little play. My stepmother was steeped in the Yiddish theatre and was a real pro, with a great voice and good stage presewnce. I thinki she played Bosley's prospective mother-in-law. It would have been a big break in bigtime American theatre. She never talked much about the play afterwards. I should have poressed her for her recollections of what happened backstage. It's interesting to learn about that so many years later, from this story. I really appreciated it.

    By Ben Moses

    From LA, 04/05/2008

    I was sitting in that audience that opening night. I was married to one of the cast members.

    The range of emotions that we all experienced in those two hours was extraordinary -- delight, joy and hilarity became agony and despair, for our country, and for our personal future. Everyone knew the show would soon close, the world had changed from light to dark with one bullet, and no one wanted to laugh anymore.

    A few month later, when Bobby Kennedy was killed, many of us gave up on this country for a lot of years.

    Now, 40 years later, this nation has another light, another hope, a combination of the Kennedys and King. An opportunity to relight America's bright beacon to the world.

    (And maybe bring back "The Education of Hyman Kaplan." - it's message of trusting our immigrants to contribute to a better nation is all too appropriate for today's America.

    By Evander C

    04/05/2008

    Fantastic telling of a unique perspective of an historic night.

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