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The Bootleg Files: The Madwoman of Central Park West

BOOTLEG FILES 701: “The Madwoman of Central Park West” (1980 television special based on the Broadway musical).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lack of perceived commercial interest coupled with music rights clearance issues.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

Actress Phyllis Newman passed away earlier this week, and you can be excused if her name doesn’t ring that proverbial bell. The peak period of her career occurred in the 1960s, when her bouncy personality helped to make her a ubiquitous presence in Broadway musical comedies and on television game shows and talk shows. Newman’s 1962 Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical is still recalled as one of the great upsets in that prize’s history – her “Subways Are for Sleeping” performance snagged the honors that many expected to be bestowed upon Barbra Streisand for her breakthrough role in “I Can Get it For You Wholesale.” She later made history as the first woman to guest host “The Tonight Show” while Johnny Carson was on vacation.

Newman’s star began to fade during the 1970s, and by the end of the decade she teamed with playwright Arthur Laurents on a vehicle that would jump start her career. The resulting endeavor was initially conceived under the banner “My Mother Was a Fortune Teller” but was retitled “The Madwoman of Central Park West,” which was both an obvious reference to Jean Giradoux’ classic play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” and a nod to Newman’s position as a member of the New York City entertainment world.

“The Madwoman of Central Park West” was framed as a one-woman show based loosely on Newman’s life in the 1970s. As the wife of a notable Broadway composer (Adolph Green, whose name is never mentioned on stage) and the mother of two children, she put family ahead of her career. But her eagerness to exit the kitchen and return to the spotlight is hampered by a variety of personal and professional obstacles. The show was also designed to show off Newman’s vocal prowess, but oddly it used a collection of discarded songs that were cut from various Broadway shows, thus ensuring a less-than-stellar score.

Laurents and Newman opened their show as “My Mother Was a Fortune Teller” on May 5, 1978, at the Hudson Guild Theater, a small Off-Broadway house. The show ran 24 performances, and its creators realized that it was not ready for the Great White Way. Changes to the contents were made and a revised version was tested at the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo. “The Madwoman of Central Park West” opened on Broadway on June 13, 1979, and was heavily advertised on New York City-area television. (I can still recall the advertising very clearly, some 40 years after seeing it.) But the reviews were mixed to the extremes – Clive Barnes in the New York Post found it “utterly delightful” but John Simon in New York Magazine referred to the show as a “monokvetch” – and Newman was unable to regenerate the star wattage that fueled her career peak. The show closed after 85 performances on August 25, 1979.

One might imagine this would have been the end of the story, except that “The Madwoman of Central Park West” was inexplicably tapped to be part of “Summershow,” an anthology series underwritten by Mobil and broadcast over PBS in the summer of 1980. The show was staged anew at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton on Long Island and taped before a live audience.

Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that “The Madwoman of Central Park West” was not being seen at its best as a videotaped stage show. Newman is playing for the John Drew Theater audience and not the camera – and while she might have wowed them in the last row of the balcony with her heavily theatrical performance, she comes across as shrill and hammy when the camera magnifies her actions and her singing.

The camera also magnifies the basic poverty of the script, which oscillates wildly between the character’s supposed vulnerability and an indefatigable resilience to push ahead with her plans.
And too much of the running time is lost on bad wisecracks used to camouflage her neuroses. Typical of the smart-aleck stuff: “My kids, they need me. I’m their sparring partner.”

At various points, Newman holds conversations with imaginary figures meant to represent her rebellious teenage daughter and a hunky younger man with whom she almost had an affair. There is an extended segment in a group therapy class where an off-stage voice is used for a humorless psychiatrist who berates Newman’s constant disruptions.

Throughout the show, Newman tries too hard to be cute. A segment where she takes a gig as a Greenwich Village folk singer dies while in motion, and her effort to recall a Bob Fosse vibe while dancing in a derby is painful. Amazingly, she tries (and fails miserably) to cover the Barry Manilow “Copacabana” as part of a telethon finding a cure for “slipped discos.”

The one time when things click comes in the show’s strangest tune: the Kander and Ebb “Cheerleader,” with Newman recalling a spunky high school classmate who went from spunky star cheerleader to ideal suburban wife and mother and then to a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown. Newman effortlessly captures the emotional rollercoaster of the song’s tumult, and it is a shame that she was unable to carry that magic until the show’s conclusion.

The television production of “The Madwoman of Central Park West” generated little critical favor and even less audience appreciation. The show disappeared after its initial broadcast and was never released in any home entertainment format. (The original cast album was later issued on CD in 1999.) A not-pristine copy of the show, videotaped from its original broadcast and featuring the original introduction and signoff by “Summershow” series host James Earl Jones and a pair of extended Mobil commercials, can be found on YouTube. The chances of a DVD or Blu-ray release are nil, owing to the costs of clearing the rights to the song’s show and the perceived lack of commercial value in re-releasing a show that was considered to be a flop.

In the aftermath of this television foray, Newman would continue to perform in the theater and before the cameras, and she also pursued a second career as a stage director. Her well-received 1998 autobiography eloquently detailed her bout with breast cancer, and in 1995 she founded the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of the Actors Fund of America. In 2009, the Tony Awards presented her with its first Isabelle Stevenson Award in tribute to her humanitarian efforts. Newman died on September 15 at the age of 86 after a long battle with lung disease.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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