Bucks County Playhouse Returns to Spotlight
by sam whitehead
Like the first play to grace its stage in 1939, Springtime for Henry: A Farce in Three Acts, the Bucks County Playhouse has had its curtain raised three times. Act I opens at the turn of the previous century, when the handsome, deeply American structure was a thriving grist mill operating in New Hope, on the banks of the Delaware River, since the late 18th century. But times got tough, the region’s hunger for grist went south, and by the late 1930s the mill was slated for demolition.
That’s when a New York playwright with a love of the Pennsylvania countryside by the name of Moss Hart raised the curtain on Act II. He and his writing partner, George S. Kaufman, embraced the local community when they would retreat there to write; Hart, buoyed by his neighbors, decided to step in and save the beloved building, turning it into a theatrical venue. Grist was soon forgotten, and the newly minted Bucks County Playhouse began attracting a slew of Broadway and Hollywood talent eager for a regional testing ground and charmed by the rugged terrain and historic town. The fact that Hart, who by this time had created such shows as You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, was behind the venture certainly didn’t hurt.
Dubbed “America’s most famous summer theater,” for 73 years the playhouse was the playground for such luminaries as Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Lillian Gish, June Lockhart, Grace Kelly, Bert Lahr, Shirley Booth, Colleen Dewhurst, Leslie Nielsen, Elizabeth Ashley, Walter Matthau, Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli, Larry Hagman, Alan Alda, Robert Redford, and many others. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn made their first appearance together on the BCP stage in 1951’s The Fourposter, which they then took to Broadway for 632 performances.
If Shakespeare had been around, he probably would have shown up. That’s how important it was—until it was shuttered in 2010 due to financial problems. But with a dedicated group of people giving it a new lease on life, the Playhouse stands to be important once again.
With a great deal of hard work and support from a troupe of local residents, the Playhouse is illuminating the footlights on July 2—its Act III—for the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s A Grand Night for Singing, directed by Tony Award nominee and Emmy winner Lonny Price. The schedule moves swiftly into a number of other events, under the supervision of producing director Jed Bernstein, who, along with his team, has a few surprises in store. “Maybe not today,” laughs Bernstein. “But we’re just getting back. You’ll see. We’re going to knock you out.”
For those unfamiliar with Bernstein, he has been in the game for quite a while, as an 11-year president of the Broadway League, the founder of production company Above the Title Entertainment, the executive director of the Commercial Theater Institute, and a producer of numerous Broadway and off-Broadway hits such as Equus, Hair, and the latest revival of Driving Miss Daisy, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.
Bernstein, who is committed to year-round involvement with the Playhouse, has rented a house in New Hope and will split his time between here and New York. “I’m fascinated with how you integrate and capitalize on a theatrical operation in a small community. In New York, my job is to make Broadway as important to as many people as I can. The challenge in Bucks County is even greater, because the economic and emotional significance is so high. You have a theater on the main street of a small, extremely vibrant town. It’s so tied in to the restaurants and retailers and B&Bs that you have to figure out how to be a great neighbor and partner and manage it all to everyone’s benefit. But I’m lucky because the Playhouse is ideally located and absolutely adored; if there were a town green, it would be the cliché summer theater setting. In every way, the Playhouse and New Hope are unique.”
The thrill and excitement that Moss Hart started continued for more than 60 years. And it is poised to re-energize the area again, thanks in no small part to Kevin and Sherri Daugherty’s Bridge Street Foundation. The Daughertys’ interest in the BCP came by way of coincidence while shopping for office space in neighboring Lambertville, New Jersey. “We stumbled on the Playhouse by accident,” explains Kevin. “We found that the First Baptist Church of Lambertville was for sale, and although I was shopping for office space, I decided that it might be better as a performing arts center.” While going through the process of acquiring the 150-year-old church to convert it into a music venue, the Daughertys came across Peggy McRae, who founded the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy and had partnered with Bernstein to try to save the BCP. “I hadn’t actually known that the Playhouse was closed up to that point,” says Kevin. “Peggy and Jed had been working on this conservancy to raise money to fix up the Playhouse and bring it back to life again. I got involved because Peggy had set this up. I never would have touched this project if Peggy hadn’t gotten Jed involved to produce shows and to run it.” The Daughertys realized they had the opportunity to give the communities a rare gift: They set up a nonprofit foundation for both Lambertville Hall and the Playhouse to fund their purchases and supply the monies for their renovations, and Kevin installed his friend Tanya Cooper as its president.
For his part, New Hope Mayor Laurence Keller couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the resurgence of the BCP. “The town and all of its businesses are spokes on a wheel,” explains Keller. “Beautiful spokes, but the Playhouse is the cog. It’s the king of the hill, and everyone here is euphoric that it’s back.” The Playhouse has indeed been the major draw for a town celebrated for its long history of supporting the arts, with such well-known residents as painter William Langson Lathrop—known as the Father of the New Hope School—and famed furniture craftsman and woodworker George Nakashima.
Renowned for its standing as more than just a first-rate professional theater, the BCP has long been a pillar in the community. It has a tradition of incorporating local talent into the chorus and supporting roles, making BCP, quite literally, a place to experience theater. The point is that while it is primarily a professional venue, the BCP is there for all to enjoy. Bernstein even jokes about hosting tailgate soirées for Eagles games, although he concedes there might be a glitch with that idea. “I’m not sure if it’s legal to show NFL games,” he says. “But the tailgate party would certainly be fun.”
Still, the Playhouse is a place where tradition and training are a significant part of the growth process of performers, so the importance of regional and summer stock theater to those with the Broadway stage as a goal cannot be discounted. Such is the story of four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who spent a bit of time at the Playhouse as a beginner—on the sly. “I was a freshman at Juilliard, and I was specifically told not to try for anything during the summer,” recalls McDonald. “They [told me to] take operatic lessons. But I secretly auditioned for Bucks County, and they offered me a job in Man of La Mancha. I took it, and it helped me believe I had some talent after feeling I had none. It got me to my Broadway roots, and I’ll be forever grateful. They also paid me 175 bucks a week. I felt like a millionaire.”
Following the re-introductory run of A Grand Night for Singing, Bernstein and crew will present Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, first seen on the BCP stage 50 years ago. It opens on August 7 for a three- to four-week run and will be directed by another Tony nominee, Sheryl Kaller. To that original production and the entire BCP experience, add the throaty drawl of another accomplished actress who was born the year BCP opened and made an early appearance on its stage: Elizabeth Ashley.
“I was 22 years old in 1962, and I’d just struck it lucky, winning a Tony on Broadway. I was playing opposite Art Carney in Take Her She’s Mine. Consequently, a brand-new writer, Neil Simon, wrote a play just for me to be directed by a first-timer, Mike Nichols. The producer, Saint Subber, said it needed ‘work’ before it was ready for Broadway. We would try it out secretly at Bucks County, away from New York’s viper tongues. The play was titled Nobody Loves Me. I’d never been north of Georgia before coming to New York City at age 18. And I’d never been out of the city since I’d landed, so I was enchanted by the beauty of the Pennsylvania countryside, the inn we stayed at, and, most of all, the magical Bucks County Playhouse. One day a couple of us decided to be extremely daring and fired up a joint outside the theater after rehearsal. We thought we were busted for sure when a distinguished looking lady came out and asked us if we knew we were breaking the law. We immediately slunk away into the night.”
She continues: “Nobody Loves Me came to Broadway starring Robert Redford and me under the title Barefoot in the Park. It was the biggest hit of that Broadway season! But to my great regret, in my 55 professional years, I’ve never been asked back to the Bucks County Playhouse, and I’ve always wondered if I was just a one-joint wonder.” It’s safe to say Ashley is not. Nor, thankfully, is the Bucks County Playhouse.
Philadelphia Style is delighted to congratulate Ms. McDonald on earning her fifth Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical in The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess the Sunday after the Summer issue went to press.
photography by getty images; chris leaman; COURTESY OF JAMES A. MICHENER ART MUSEUM ARCHIVES