“Daniel Johnson plotting mayhem as Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner”
The story of the writing of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” captured my imagination the first time I heard it. A comedy about a thinly disguised author and radio personality Alexander Woollcott (the irascible, opinionated and queer head of the Algonquin Round Table) side tracked by an injury on the icy stoop of an ordinary Ohio family when we was on a celebrity tour and the ensuing mayhem he visited upon the lives of his hapless hosts while recuperating.
Kaufman and Hart tried to write dramatic material for their friend through the years and then one weekend Woollcott visited Moss Hart’s farm in Pennsylvania and his visit created such havoc that the playwright thought such a visit might make a comedy with little exaggeration.
I read everything I could get my hands on about Woollcott, including a wonderful biography “Smart Aleck” by Howard M. Teichmann which was later turned into a one-man show. I thought that show might be a fabulous showcase for me but I could never get the rights.
Then came my stint of work in Cole Porter shows, from Mooney in “Anything Goes” and Goodhue in “Leave it to Me” to Pops, et. al. in the latest revisal of “Kiss Me Kate.” It wasn’t long before I also boned up on the life and times of Cole Porter’s side-kick Monty Woolley. The one man show on Woollcott never panned out, but I was cast as Sheridan Whiteside (the Woollcott part) in “Man” the first time I had a chance to audition for the part. And I had a delicious time playing it.
At one time in New York I realized that I’d become something of an expert on Woolley and considered taking on the task of writing a full-length biography. When I ran the idea by a theatre historian he warned me that unless I had original resource material (like letters from or to Woolley found in someone’s attic) that I probably wouldn’t succeed with the subject.
I headed that warning but continued to read anything and everything I could get my hands on concerning Monty Woolley and Cole Porter. As it turned out much of it was based on secondary sources, so there isn’t much. The best new research comes from oral histories and interviews of people now mostly gone or unapproachable.
However, the idea of the relationship between two pre-Stonewall gay icons and the varied ways they coped with the closet in their creative lives continues to fascinate me, as do all the juicy stories (some quite disreputable).
I kept thinking that if Noel Coward (Monty and Cole’s mutual friend) might have a successful club act based on his life and songs, then why couldn’t Monty had he only lived a little longer? Known throughout his life to entertain at Cole’s private parties – parties that inspired the club life of the Cafe Society, then why shouldn’t he have had such an act. And since he didn’t, why shouldn’t I do one for him.
And that’s how I fell in love with my gay Uncle Monty, not the one I knew personally, but the one who haunted my imagination. I hope the love I feel my “gay uncle” will radiate through my musical homage to Cole and Monty’s lives and times. Won’t you join me and my collaborators starting next October 15 at Davenport’s Cabaret in Chicago? Visit davenportspianobar.com/ or call (773) 278-1830.