Turner Classic Movies is devoting today to classic musicals that won or were nominated for Oscars. At the moment, they are screening The Music Man. This has always been one of my favorites, not only because of Robert Preston's inspired performance, but also because I have appeared with the movie's female lead, Shirley Jones. Naturally, you will scoff. What? Robert Paul Wolff trod the boards with Shirley Jones? Well, not quite "trod the boards," and certainly not "co-starred with," but she and I did appear together in a for-real theatrical production which people paid good money to see. It happened like this.
Back in the fifties [the nineteen fifties, that is], Harvard made Sanders Theater available to a series of summer stock touring shows. I saw Siobhan McKenna there doing a brilliant turn in Shaw's Saint Joan. Well, in 1956, while I was hard at work writing my doctoral dissertation, Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones, recently married, came to town in a summer stock mounting of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. A call went out for locals to sign up to sing in the pit chorus, paying a dollar a night during the six or seven performances. I volunteered, auditioned, and was hired. They dressed us in rags as beggars, made us up to look disreputable, and put us down in the pit at one side of the orchestra. When we weren't singing our numbers, we were to crouch down and make like inmates in a debtor's prison.
Shirley Jones was radiant, needless to say, but the hit of the show was a basso who sang the part of Peachum [father of Polly, one of MacHeath's several inamoratae.] When the lights went up at the opening of the show, he was revealed to be sitting at a table with his drinking buddy, Lockit. His very first line was a belch that could be heard throughout Sanders. To this day, I do not know how he managed it.