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This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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Triangle’s 108 Years, 101
No one could have know back in 1891, when the students
in the Princeton College Dramatic Association wrote their very first
original musical, "Po-ca-hon-tas," what a grand tradition
they were initiating. In the short space of two years, the group became
the Triangle Club, destined to become, over the next 108 years, what
Donald Marsden ’64 described in his definitive Triangle Club history,
"The Long Kickline," a "vital, creative, and spirited
series of grumbles and complaints."
While President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, received the show’s
1913 edition, "The Pursuit of Priscilla," at the White House,
Princeton audiences were attending the Triangle Club productions in
the huge cathedral-like McCarter Theater. The McCarter’s own history
was recently bolstered with the 1993-’94 Tony for Best Regional Theater
in the country.
If you ever hear someone singing "East of the Sun (and West of
the Moon)," you might remind them it is from a 1935 Triangle show
"Stags at Bay," written by Brooks Bowman ’36. Yes, the club
with money to burn gets royalties each year from this popular hit.
Eminent alumni of the club include Booth Tarkington in 1893, F. Scott
Fitzgerald ’17, Joshua Logan ’31, James Stewart ’32, Jose Ferrer ’34,
and Wayne Rogers ’56.
It was inevitable with the advent of co-education at
Princeton in 1969 that women would assume some of the female roles
in the Triangle shows and go on to make careers in the creative arts.
I’m thinking Brooke Shields ’87.
Now when the McCarter Theater curtain goes up on Friday and Saturday,
May 28 and 29, for the return engagement of this season’s "101
Damnations," the 108th all-original musical production presented
by the Princeton Triangle Club, the audience can be prepared for a
breezy, speedy, intermissionless 82-minute revue. In typical, topical,
timely, and testy fashion, "101 Damnations" addresses sin
and vices from Adam and Eve all the way to this year’s presidential
zippers. As expected, the show did provoke a few angry letters last
fall, mostly from people objecting to the crassness of scenes about
devil worship, burning witches, and the rigid wonders of Viagra. But,
no one, it seems, ever objects to the infamous all-male kick line.
Besides being the first of these famed entertainments to be staged
in one act, this year’s revue importantly reflects a new initiative
and direction for Triangle. It is the use of the songs and skits developed
in the Writers Workshop, a program implemented in the fall of 1997
by the Triangle Club’s board of trustees.
And if there is no book to propel this year’s mostly wicked entertainment,
there is a strong narrative thread going on behind the scenes. The
key players being Triangle’s undergraduate president Len Teti ’99,
the show’s professional director B.T. McNicholl, and various mentors,
including past-director Robert Duke, alumnus Jay Kerr ’67, and their
The show’s present producer and now past Triangle Club president,
Teti harks back to the "olden days" when the famed show went
on its annual tour via the railroads with plenty of stagehands to
do all the work. "The guys (there were only men in those days)
would only have to pack their jackets, ties, and tuxes, perform —
and attend debutante balls. Today we travel on buses and strike the
set ourselves." This is the do-it-all-yourself era for Triangle.
As Teti reveals, with each new president’s term comes the job of organizing
the next show. This means finding a corps of writers as soon as the
previous show closes. The policy of hiring professional directors,
musical directors, and choreographers to work with the writers has
the advantage of being a mentor-inspired but primarily student experience.
Teti says his responsibility of keeping the coalition of professionals
and undergraduates, actors and techies working together has, he suggests,
the same degree of difficulty as being the editor of the Daily Princetonian.
Teti does note that the Princetonian editor gets a hefty honorarium
at the conclusion of his term, while the Triangle president gets squat.
With the show a done deal and his senior thesis finally submitted,
Teti began to think that his work was done. Not so. Instead of spending
all day on the phone calling directors and stage-managers, finding
cast replacements, and putting out flyers, he says he’s on the phone
all day making calls for the reunion performances.
Earning his degree in history, Teti hasn’t yet decided whether he
wants to follow in the footsteps of former Triangle producers such
as the renowned Joshua Logan ’30 or Clark Gesner ’60 (author of the
recently revived "You’re A Good Man, Charley Brown") Playing
the trombone for two years in the pit band, and later as the show’s
conductor, the Lawrenceville native admits he may have caught the
theater bug, if not from Triangle than from his mother, Gloria Teti,
who sang with the New York City Opera for five seasons in the late
1960s and early ’70s.
But the family’s Triangle ties do not end here. Len’s
father, Joseph Teti, is founder and owner of the coincidentally-named
Triangle centers, a Lawrenceville-based, 14-store chain of art and
reproduction stores. And in the leadership department, Gloria Teti
is also the former mayor of Lawrenceville.
Through the recommendation of Gesner, Teti is pleased to have recruited
McNicholl, the protege of four-time Tony Award winning director Jerry
Zaks, to direct "101 Damnations." As the associate director
of the current musical, "The Civil War," as well as having
worked as assistant director of the frenetic Broadway hit "A Funny
Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and unofficial "play
doctor" for Paul Simon’s chaotic musical "The Capeman,"
McNicholl came trained and prepared to take charge of the undergraduates.
Although McNicholl points out how drastic revisions and last-minute
writing goes with the territory, he says he was pleased how the writers
were all able to "write to order" as a result of their workshop
training. Even upon arrival, McNicholl was presented with enough material
to show him what the show could be.
Left to basically determine a structure and running order, McNicholl
began to make rhyme and reason out of it during the same time he was
directing a play at the Eugene O’Neill Center last August. "In
100 years, when they decide to do the best of `101 Damnations,’ they
will want to do the whole show," says McNicholl immodestly. "And
that includes the great choreography of Jeanne Simpson."
One hopes that 100 years from now the program, now mentored by five-time
Triangle director Robert Duke, and musical director, supervisor, and
former Triangle president Jay Kerr ’67, will be continued. Prompted
by their feeling that the writers have been largely ignored for the
past few years in favor of the actors and directors, Duke and Kerr
decided that the writing program needed a shot in the arm. Concerned
that the emphasis appeared to be more on performance than writing,
Duke and Kerr concur that before their efforts there was no system
to getting the writing done in a sensible and timely fashion. This
made the work of the director, choreographer, and musical director
Duke remembers 1991, the year he was hired to direct. He arrived in
April for a show that was to go up in May and "there was hardly
a thing on paper," he recalls. "I had to work like mad forcing
the students to write. They wanted to write but the structure wasn’t
there." Although a previous era had the benefit of director Milt
Lyons, whose sheer will and determination made the writers snap to
it, Duke was determined not to wait until the last minute to get the
show in shape. Lyons, who died a few years ago, left a bequest that
set up an annual award for the student who wrote the best Triangle
Turning out the best songs he can is Kerr’s job. "I turn their
tunes into songs," says the 1967 graduate, who does all the musical
arrangements, as well as getting the orchestrations done. Kerr says
there was enough new material generated in his workshop, in preparation
for the big McCarter show, to use and to try out in a late-night cabaret.
"That material is less censored, a little edgier, and maybe a
little sexier than we would take on tour," Kerr reveals. He also
says it has taken him and Duke three years to get the students to
take risks. Kerr admits he was surprised to see how little influence
the rock music of today had on the young composers, and as he sees
them, "very corporate, button-down types."
If there was a corporate decision, it was to make the
writing the first step in the process of producing the Triangle shows.
No stranger to the revue format, Duke worked for seven seasons at
the Williamstown Theater Festival where, during the course of every
summer, he would put together eight complete shows. In the past few
seasons, he has contributed some inventive staging of the classics
at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Duke considers these years
of compiling, sorting, choosing, and categorizing literally hundreds
of songs as his basic training in musical theater.
"I’ve always been so flattered that they kept asking me back to
direct the shows," says Duke, remarking how hard it was to let
go. For Duke and Kerr and the writers, the Triangle Writers Workshop
is the perfect place for the 21 writers (just three of whom are women),
to develop their songs and sketches. In this rather conservative environment,
where men greatly outnumber women, Duke does admit that he is currently
hard-pressed to discover the next Betty Comden or Elaine May.
When Duke says, "I love the act of original creation, to go from
nothing to something on the page," it is easy to understand his
admission that he really misses seeing it all to its end. Hunks of
the material developed in the workshop are regularly presented to
the trustees, all former members of Triangle, who give their reaction
and ultimately say, "the work’s been done." The workshop’s
success may be partly due to Duke’s love of theater, but also to his
love of teaching.
Duke has been head of the drama department at the Brearley School,
a private school in Manhattan, for the past five years. The native
New Yorker, who got his degree in medieval English Literature from
Williams College with honors, doesn’t, however, have much to say about
Chaucer. Still, he has a lot to say about the increase in the quality
and daring of the writing that comes out of the workshop. Duke claims
that the Triangle trustees have been really good about saying how
the material should be risky.
One way this new arm of the Triangle Club tested the freshest material
from the workshop was in a newly-inaugurated cabaret format presented
for the first time earlier this month on campus at Theater Intime.
The show, titled "The Rude Olympics," directed by professional
actor Glen Pannell, was open to students only. With minimum production
values and an undemanding 45-minute running time, it was designed
to encourage other students to try their hand at writing for Triangle.
Both Duke and Kerr appear enthusiastic and committed to the only Princeton
theater group that encourages original theater writing.
With engagements in New York, Boston, Rochester, Pittsburgh, and Washington
behind them, America’s oldest touring collegiate musical theater organization
should be prepared to withstand the scrutiny of those who missed "101
Damnations" in November, and the returning alumni who will see
the show at this year’s annual Reunions. Recently called to take over
as director of the hit Broadway musical "Cabaret," McNicholl
won’t be around to oversee the return of "101 Damnations."
He is sure, however, that all that sin and vice can get along quite
successfully without him.
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-683-8000. The 108th annual show returns for reunions with
an encore engagement of "101 Damnations: A Humorous Look at Sin
& Vice." $17 to $22; students $7.50. Friday and Saturday, May
28 and 29, 8:30 p.m.
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