In January 1956 Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had its American premiere at the Coconut Grove in Miami. It was advertised as “the laugh sensation on two continents”. One of the stars of what became a legendary theatrical fiasco was Bert Lahr of The Wizard of Oz Cowardly Lion fame. Colleen Curran’s new comedy Godot at the Coconut Grove gives a behind the scenes look at the day of and morning after the disastrous opening night from the point of view of Bert Lahr, his wife Mildred a former Ziegfeld Follies Girl, Roz and Eve two workers at the Coconut Grove, and Mary Bettino a perplexed member of the audience. I recently spoke with Colleen to find out more about this famous contemporary theatre fiasco, and why she chose to write a play about 1950’s theatre history.
Why write a play about Godot? Was it one of your favorites?
“When I was in college I heard about this play. I had taken all kinds of theatre classes, but never seen it or read it—I just knew it was dismal. But, I got a cassette tape of Bert Lahr in Godot because I loved The Wizard of Oz, and I went and listened to it at Vanier Library. Then I read an article about it in The New Yorker that had been written by John Lahr, who is the son of Bert Lahr. I just thought, why not take a chance? So, I wrote John a letter telling him that I was a playwright from Canada and loved his father very much. I explained to him that I thought there was a play here that I could write, and John loved the idea. Luckily, he had the same agent as Samuel Beckett and he was able to get me in touch with Beckett’s people. That’s how I was able to get permission to write this play, rather easily. The only caveat was that I couldn’t use even a single line from Godot, which freed me.”
How did that free you? It must have been hard to write an entire play about Godot without being able to use any lines from it.
“Well, it freed me because it allowed me to do my own thing. My play is a comedy about January 1956 when they first staged Godot in Miami. And, in my play there’s only one man who’s surrounded by a cast of women; while in Godot there are no women. You know it was totally bizarre that Lahr took a chance on this play, and he took a big chance on it because he didn’t fully understand it, but he was really brave to do it. It’s a play about putting on a play against incredible odds, and just hoping that people are going to come and that they will enjoy it.”
But people didn’t enjoy it, did they?
“No, they didn’t. In fact, many of them walked out during the intermission and this really embarrassed Mr. Engels who owned the theatre at the time. The Coconut Grove Playhouse had undergone over a million dollars in renovations, and when it reopened on January 3, 1956, Godot was supposed to be a smash hit and make Mr. Engels a lot of money. The opening night was full of movie stars like Joan Fontaine from Rebecca and Joseph Cotten from the Alfred Hitchcock films.
Originally, Mr. Engels wanted Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell to stage The Seven Year Itch and he promised them both an oil well if they would do the play. Marilyn said yes, but then, very wisely for her I think, she backed out. So, Ewell suggested to Mr. Engels that they stage this new play from Europe called Waiting For Godot instead, and that’s what they did. Then Ewell suggested that they get Bert Lahr to be in the play because he was a comedian who was in high demand.
But the rehearsal process was a very unpleasant experience for Ewell. Lahr thought that Ewell wasn’t as good as him, and that Ewell wasn’t as big of a star. And on opening night, Lahr kept upstaging Ewell because he could see that the audience didn’t understand, or even like the play. Ewell’s wife said she almost got up on stage because she was so outraged by what Lahr was doing. And even though the play ran for two weeks, the only one who got asked to perform it on Broadway was Lahr, even though Ewell had arranged the whole thing. And it was very popular on Broadway and a big hit for Lahr. So, it was just a disaster for everyone involved, except Lahr.”
Do people have to be familiar with Godot in order to see your play?
“No, they don’t. People love it. Some people were afraid to see it because they didn’t like Godot, but they liked my play very much. My mother never saw Godot and she had no problem following my play. When she asked me later what Godot was about, I told her it’s about these two men who stand around waiting for Godot to show up. “Does he ever show up?” my mother asked me. “No” I said. “Well, that’s just mean” she told me.
The director Corey Castle is really great to work with, and the cast are super. I think people are going to love to see Gordon Masten as Bert Lahr because he gives an uncanny Lahr performance I think. It’s going to be a terrific show.”
The Equity Showcase of Colleen Curran’s Godot at the Coconut Grove is directed by Corey Castle. It stars Jude Beny, Colleen Curran, Castelina Massuda, Gordon Masten, and Jasmine Winter. The Technical Director is Alex Smith.
One Night Only! Wednesday, June 13 from 7:30 to 9:30pm. Loyola Chapel, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke St W, Montreal, QC H4B 1R6.