Saturday, January 01, 2005

Theatre Trivia: Strange Connections

As most of you have learned, Jerry Orbach passed away this week at the age of 69. Most people know him as Detective Lenny Briscoe on NBC-TV's "Law & Order." He played that role from 1992 until his death.

I actually started watching "Law & Order" about ten years ago because I discovered Orbach in the cast. I knew him as Broadway star -- Carnival, Chicago, 42nd Street, and his Tony-winning performance in Promises, Promises, among other roles. (Has anyone else noticed how "Law & Order" and its spin-offs have become the Actors Equity Full Employment Program? Every time I see a play or musical, at least one actor claims a credit from "Law & Order" in his program bio.)

Orbach also originated the role of El Gallo (the Narrator) in The Fantasticks, which played for more than 40 years in the off-Broadway Sullivan Street Playhouse.

I never saw Orbach in 42nd Street, but I did see the London cast in 1987 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Playing Julian Marsh (the Orbach role) was Kenneth Nelson, best known for his portrayal of "Michael," the central character in Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (both the original New York cast and the film).

Curiously, Kenneth Nelson was also in the original cast of The Fantasticks with Jerry Orbach -- he played Matt (the Boy). (Here's a photo of the two of them together, along with Rita Gardner, whom I most recently saw playing FDR's mother in Eleanor: An American Love Story, at Ford's Theatre in Washington in 1999.)

Is it just a coincidence that these two co-stars would end up playing the same part in the Broadway and West End productions of the same show?

Another odd note: I have only seen two shows at the Drury Lane: 42nd Street, as I said, in 1987, and then Eric Schaeffer's The Witches of Eastwick (starring Lucie Arnaz and Ian McShane), in 2001. Somehow I missed the 12-year run of Miss Saigon in the same theatre. And a few weeks later, Witches transferred to the much smaller Prince of Wales Theatre. (My suspicion was the show was not selling enough to justify the huge Drury Lane venue, but director Schaeffer told me later that he had conceived the show as much more intimate and that the smaller auditorium was more fitting. Still, the show closed barely seven months later.) And here's another strange connection: Lucie Arnaz is married to Laurence Luckinbill, Nelson's co-star in The Boys in the Band.

Whether on stage or the small screen, Jerry Orbach will be sorely missed.



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