Ron Fassler loves the theatre and in his new book “Up in the Cheap Seats,” Fassler tells his real-life stories of how he saw over 200 Broadway plays and musicals between the ages of 12 to 16-years-old for as little as $2 a ticket. He brings his personal account of some of the greatest shows and stars of the 1960’s and 70’s and more so, he includes interviews with the legendary actors, writers, producers, directors, and composers who were part of this remarkable time. I caught up with Fassler to talk Broadway, then and now.
What spurred you to write this book?
I’ve been telling stories about these teenaged adventures forever. People have suggested I turn it into a one-man show but I never thought there would be that many people interested. Because I’ve been a professional actor for 35 years, I was able to interview over 100 people in the past four years who were a part of the theatre during the time I was 12-years-old to 16-years-old. I talked with many who are now octogenarians and nonagenarians.
How did your audience experience change from a child to an adult? Did you become more critical?
Ted Chapin, who wrote the great book, “Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies,” asked me what the first show was that made me say to myself “So they all aren’t going to be so great.” I had to go home and look. When I went to the theatre, I came home and wrote my reviews, all of which I still have. It seems that play number nine, which was Joel Grey in George M!, was the first play when I thought something wasn’t very good. I saw 200 shows in four years and I stopped cold turkey with my 200th show. I took a two year hiatus between 16 and 18-years old, which coincided with when I started daring and the nice girls in GreatNeck were not interested in seeing obscure stage shows in the city.
In college, I started going back to the theatre again. Recently, I moved back to New York from living in LA for thirty years and now I’m seeing shows a few nights a week. Every experience is new and nothing can beat that spontaneity with the actors. When I walk into a theatre, especially a Broadway theatre, I’m home. The big difference now is that I don’t sit in the cheap seats anymore.
Well, that brings up the fact that there are quite a few differences in the industry of Broadway since you were a kid to what’s running today? What are your thoughts on where Broadway is currently?
I’m an optimist and I always hold out hope. It distresses me there are fewer and fewer original plays. There are more original musicals than there are plays. I know you can see original plays Off-Broadway, but still. The biggest thing is that the prices are out of reality. That distresses me. There are lotteries available, but it’s hard because now Broadway is only open to people who can afford it. It worries me. It’s becoming like opera; it’s for the elite. And there’s some really great theatre happening now. Dear Evan Hansen is superb. This will also be the biggest Broadway season for original musicals in 35 years. So, in spite of the high ticket prices, it’s healthy. Thank God Hamilton opened up theatre to so many new eyeballs. You many young people are seeing their first Broadway show because of that show.
As someone who wrote reviews, what are your thoughts on how reviews can sink a show?
The power of the New York Times is nothing in the way it once was. When I was a kid, if the Times hated a play, it had little chance of surviving. Now, you can survive a pan in the New York Times. Wicked, Cats, even Evita got mixed reviews. The critics are fine but I’m very happy they don’t have the power they once had.
Of course, when I was young, I wanted to be as erudite as those critics. When I was 11, I wrote that Hello Dolly was “gripping.” I loved The Great White Hope and in its day, it was a smash on Broadway. It’s never been revived because it’s so sprawling. 63 actors in a straight play on Broadway. I can’t figure out where they dressed! James Earl Jones’ performance blew me away. I was in the habit of going backstage and meeting the actors, because again, it was a time when there weren’t barricades to keep people away. It was so different. I could go up to a stage door and say, “I’d like to see henry Fonda please,” and I’d see him. In my review I wrote, “James Earl Jones’ performance in The Great White Hope is so magnificent, it will appall you.”
How important was theatre in shaping who you are as a man?
First of all, it taught me to make my own opinions. I saw 1776 the day before it opened. No one told me it was a good show but I knew that on my own. I just think the theatre is a cure for what ails us. I think it has a power to heal and that is what the theatre does. It’s filled with so much creativity and I love the excitement of acquainting yourself with new talent. When you see a new set designer, hear a new lyricist or composer –it’s like great literature. The arts can uplift and transport. There is always someone saying theatre is on its last leg, but it’s never going to die. It will always be with us. As long as I can afford it, I will keep going.
Interview by Ryan Brinson
For more on Ron, head over to www.ronfassler.org.