Ron Fassler has been enjoying Broadway and New York theater for decades. At one point in his young life, he saw 200 shows in four years. That’s a lot of theater, and one would expect him to forget most of the cast members, details and song lyrics.
Fassler is not only a theatrical appreciator; he’s also a theatrical historian. Each time he saw a new show, whether it was a play or musical, he would write a review on a mimeographed form he created. Those old reviews, some of them touching and some of them hilarious, are the basis for Fassler’s new book, Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway.
“Well, I’ve been telling these stories since forever because they began when I was 11 years old, and I just had my 60th birthday party,” Fassler said in a phone interview. “People have told me it’s a movie. It’s a one-man show. I don’t know. After all this time, I finally said to myself, I think it’s a book. Then I thought, well, I’ve been an actor. I had a certain status in the industry but not enough to sell books. How would I make it more enticing for someone who wants to shed their hard-earned bucks? And that’s when I came upon the idea that I would thread my own personal story as a memoir but also turn it into an oral history book.”
Fassler said he begged some of his idols to have a conversation, and he was met with numerous approvals. In the book, he talks to Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim, among many others.
“I spoke to 100 people from not just that era but also certain people who grew up at the same time I did and saw some of these shows as young men and women,” he said. “So that was the journey, and it took four years plus. But now it’s a book, and people are reading it. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Fassler admitted that he couldn’t have written the book if it weren’t for the meticulous reviews he wrote so many years ago (some of them are now on view on his website). After each production, he would come home and fill out a form that he had mimeographed. These were the days before household copy machines.
“I called it my play evaluation sheet, and I typed it myself,” he said. “I would just fill it out, and it would have the play, the stars, the seat I sat in, the price I paid and then my review. And they’re hilarious. … I called Hello, Dolly! gripping, which is just hilarious, and I was also trying to interpret play that were going completely over my head, the original production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times or Edward Albee’s All Over. I mean, now I revere Albee and Pinter, but believe me, you have to read my angry pans from those plays from [the perspective] of a 13-year-old. They’re very entertaining, and I interspersed them throughout the book.”
Of the 200 plays he saw in that four-year marathon, many of them were instantly forgettable. On occasion, some of the bombs were so bad that they proved memorable.
“I have never got certain images out of my mind,” Fassler said with a laugh. “There was a hillbilly musical on Broadway. It only ran one night, and I saw it in a preview. It was called Earl of Ruston, and the author of the play had his grandmother seated stage right in a rocking chair. And she commented on the action. You just don’t ever put Grandma on stage in a rocking chair.”
Fassler’s own children, aged 25 and 27, enjoyed the book and reading about his young adventures. Many Broadway actors have also offered glowing reviews of the memoir. One of the reasons for this praise is because Up in the Cheap Seats offers a trip down memory lane to a time that some people may have forgotten or never knew about.
“I’ve had certain people who just have never heard of The Great White Hope, which in its day won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, made a star of James Earl Jones,” he said. “They’re fascinated by the entire chapter devoted to that play, how it changed the American theater, how James Earl Jones’ life was transformed that night. I even got a beautiful email from the incredible actor Alfred Molina, who is a friend, and I sent him a copy of the book. And he said, ‘You know, Ron, I was living in London at this time. I knew nothing about this era of Broadway and cannot put the book down.’ It brought it back to startling life again, and it’s a time that will never be again.”
The reason that Up in the Cheap Seats is a story of a bygone era is because today’s Broadway is extremely different and cost prohibitive. The so-called cheap seats can be hundreds of dollars, and forget about snagging a seat in the orchestra.
“It’s out of sight,” Fassler said. “If people go sit in the last row of the theater now, they can say, ‘Yeah, I was in the last row.’ They can’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, I was in the cheap seats.’ There’s no such thing as cheap seats.”
He added: “It’s a tragedy. If you’re a mom and a dad, and you want to bring your two kids who are maybe 16 and 17 to the theater, and you want to see Hello, Dolly!, you’re talking about a $800 night. Now, OK, it might be worth $800. It could be priceless for all I know. People paid a lot more than that for a single ticket to Hamilton and walked away satisfied, but the problem is if you spend $800 on one play, how do you get to see another play that year? That can wipe out a family’s budget, and I mourn for the fact that most of the theater now is about the tourist business.”
When Fassler saw these 200 shows, the productions were geared and marketed to New Yorkers. There was variety among the offerings. Today, he watches the Tony Awards and sees musical after musical after musical, all seemingly promoted for tourists in the Big Apple.
“I love Broadway musicals, but there should be room for everything,” he said. “I could buy a ticket and know that on a certain Saturday afternoon I was going to be sitting in the last row to see a show. [That’s] no substitute today for going out and hoping when you get there on Saturday morning you may win the lottery and be able to see that show that day. That’s not the same thing.”
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, from Griffin Moon Publishing, is now available. Click here for more information.