The New Yorker – November 27, 1965
The Talk of The Town
Walking along Sixth Avenue the other afternoon, we bumped into Guy Bolton, the playwright and a friend of long standing, and he suggested that we accompany him to a rehearsal of “Anya” – a musical version of “Anastasia,” the highly successful drama he wrote some years ago in collaboration with Marcelle Maurette. For the musical, he told us, he collaborated on the book with George Abbott, who is also directing the new production. “We’re putting it on at the Ziegfeld, and I’m rather happy about that, since I was the co-author of “Rio Rita,” the play that got the theatre going, on February 2, 1927,” he said. As a matter of fact, I directed the first rehearsal of the first play there, because John Harwood, the director of ‘Rio Rita,’ became so emotional over the death of his dog that he couldn’t handle the initial run-through. Incidentally, a portrait of my wife-to-be adorned the cover of the program of ‘Rio Rita,’ so both she and I feel pretty sentimental about the old stand. I’m sorry to say that after the run of “Anya” – a long one, I hope – the Ziegfeld won’t be with us anymore. Billy Rose, who owns the place, is going to have it torn down and replaced by an office building. Or so he told me. Maybe if ‘Anya’ goes on and on – permit me to dream – he’ll be tempted to maintain it as a theatre. You know, with all this building activity around New York, I sometimes think I should have stuck to architecture, which was my original profession – I had a hand in designing some houses on the East Side – but when I was nineteen I sold a story to the Smart Set, and it wasn’t long afterward that I decided to make writing my life work. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
“Ever since” is quite a while, for Mr. Bolton, a grave, sturdy, well-tailored, and handsome man who could readily be mistaken for a middle-aged diplomat, has just celebrated his eighty-first birthday. In his theatrical career, he has turned out a spate of plays and musicals, mostly in collaboration, although such independent creations as “Sally” and “Polly Preferred” were as popular as any of the works for which he shared the author’s credits. Of the men he has worked with, Mr. Bolton has found P. G. Woodehouse one of the most congenial, and as we strolled up the avenue he informed us that Mr. Woodehouse, who is a neighbor of his in Remsenburg, Long Island, sometimes shames him with his energy. “I don’t find it hard to work twelve hours a day, but Plum Woodehouse, who is older than I am, seems to be in perpetual literary motion” he said. “Still, he’s been that was as long as I’ve known him. I guess that’s why the Princess musicals, which we wrote together – ‘Oh, Boy,’ ‘Leave It to Jane,’ ‘Oh, Lady! Lady!,’ and so on – were turned out so speedily. George Abbott is another whirlwind of industry, but after all, he is only seventy-eight.”
By this time, we had arrived at the Ziegfeld, and Mr. Bolton paused for a moment to survey the street outside the theatre, which has been boarded over because of some subway construction beneath the surface. “We’ve been assured that the roadbed will be back to normal before we open, but I’ve learned over the years never to be certain about anything,” he remarked. “I suppose I should have a tolerance for digging of any kind, since my father did a lot of it around Manhattan. He was a civil engineer, and his avocation was seeking Indian artifacts. He also made a hobby of collecting buttons that fell off soldiers’ uniforms during the Revolutionary campaigns hereabouts. He was intensely interested in this region, and was the author of “Indian Paths in the Great Metropolis,” among other things. I’ve never been able to concentrate on any region with his sort of enthusiasm, and I’m just as much at home in London as I am here, which is as it should be, since my roots in England go deep. Of my various ancestors, I’m proudest of Prior William Bolton, who is said to have designed the Chapel of Henry VII, in Westminster Abbey. But before I begin to sound as worshipful as a Chinese about bygone Boltons, let’s proceed to the rehearsal hall.”
The hall, it developed, adjoins the offices of Billy Rose, atop the Ziegfeld. It is an area almost as large as a basketball court, and when we visited it, was crowded with folding chairs, folding tables, an ancient upright piano, and the cast of “Anya,” which is also large. On a folding chair to the left of the door, as we entered, we saw Mr. Abbott, who looked tall and authoritative even while sitting down. Some of the actors were lost in reverie; others were bustling about, as was Hanya Holm, the gray-haired choreographer of “Anya,” who, at seventy or so, is still as agile as a ballerina. Among those seated along the wall to the right of us was noticed Lillian Gish, looking as winsome as she did when she was an orphan of the storm. We remarked on this to Mr. Bolton, and he said, “Lillian will soon be seventy, and she has skin that an ingénue would envy. She doesn’t sing in “Anya,” but she does a few recitatives against a musical background.”
“Quiet!” Mr. Abbott suddenly shouted, and he emphasized his command by clapping his hands and blowing a whistle. Miss Gish, who plays the last Dowager Empress of Russia in “Anya,” and Constance Towers, who plays her purported grand-child, took their places before Mr. Abbott and launched into a scene in which the grandchild tries to convince the Dowager Empress that she is indeed the surviving daughter of Nicholas II. The scene went along smoothly until Mr. Abbott gently interrupted Miss Gish in the middle of a speech.
“You jumped a line, Lillian,” Mr. Abbott pointed out.
“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry,” Miss Gish said.
A prompted supplied the missing line, and the scene went to its conclusion. No sooner had Miss Gish and Miss Towers made their way to the sidelines that Mr. Abbott again called for quiet, clapped his hands, and blew his whistle. “Next scene!” he said.
Mr. Bolton told us, sotto-voce, that he was going to step outside. “I’ve got to think over a scene I want to discuss with George, and I want to think it over without distraction,” he said.
“Are the rehearsals always this untroubled?” we inquired as we accompanied him into the corridor.
“There’s a good deal of experience involved here, and that’s always a help,” Mr. Bolton replied. “And, just to keep that element of experience powerful, Robert Wright and George Forrest, who are collaborating on the music and lyrics, are basing their score on themes from Rachmaninoff. You know, I’ll be glad when “Anya” is on its way. I’ve got a novel I want to finish soon.”
Above – “Anya” – scenes from the play