Research: The play’s the thing on video, now

David Fox

Behind David Fox are two posters, one (foreground) for the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s cabaret convention and one for the Sam Shepard play “Curse of the Starving Class.” On the TV in front of him is a scene from Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Try to write about the phenomenon that was Frank Sinatra without ever having seen him or heard him.

Now apply the same issue to the musical theater of the past.

That’s part of what David Fox has to do when researching old musicals. Fox, a lecturer in Theatre Arts, is probably most widely known on campus as associate director of College Houses and Academic Services. But musical theater is his first love. And a lot of the theater he talks about is theater he has neither seen nor heard.

At the dedication of the Harvey Sheldon Jewish American Music Video Research Library in October, Fox spoke of what a boon a video research archive can be to researchers of performance.

Last week, he spoke to us about having access to primary materials in researching his favorite genre, and the need for researching prior performances as part of the process of putting on a play.

And that’s the part he loves best, the preparation and the rehearsal. “The process of cracking open a play and finding all its parts and putting that on the stage is what I enjoy.”

This semester, he and Senior Lecturer in Theatre Arts Rose Malague directed a production of “The Women,” staged in the Studio Theatre at the Annenberg Center in November. They chose the play before the Roundabout staged its version of Claire Booth Luce’s 1936 comedy of the sexes in New York this fall.

What Fox and Malague had to know before they could put the play together was something about the people and the time it came from. They had to research the play’s performance history and the critical reception those performances received. They had to research the playwright, and they had to do cultural research into the time of the play, and the lives of aristocratic New York women at that time, how their milieu looked and how they looked and dressed. The two, and their students, could look at contemporaneous movies for the style of acting of the period, but what they couldn’t do was take a look at the original staging of the play.

“Performance is ephemeral,” Fox said. “You can’t ever repeat it exactly.”

Fox also talked about the importance of researching theater and movies of the time. “They’re moments of the culture,” he said. Even unsuccessful productions provide cultural information. “It’s also important to remember the flops,” he said.

Alas, for most of the classics of musical theater, there are no videos and only intermittent audio recordings. Even the audio is sketchy. Not until the advent of LP recordings were scores recorded.

“I think anything that brings us video material of performances adds another dimension,” he said. What he can’t find in the library archive he’ll have to hunt for in places like the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City and the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. But those institutions don’t have everything. “Then you’ve got to be clever; you’ve got to be entrepreneurial,” asking people still alive who remember the original production. “You hear stories of a performer who happens to have a kinescope reel of something that’s been lost,” he said.

Fortunately, archival videotapes are made of shows on Broadway now. “It won’t be as difficult 60 years from now doing research on our time.”

Originally published on December 13, 2001