THE PROMISE (Broadway)
Written by Aleksei Arbuzov, translated by Ariadne Nicolaeff
Directed by Frank Hauser
Ian McKellen in the role of Leonidik
Henry Miller’s, New York
3 November 1967 - 2 December 1967
Words from Ian McKellen
I wasn’t initially keen on a further stint with “The Promise.” I had established a strong rapport with Judi Dench and she wasn’t continuing. I thought I should be looking for some demanding work in London. But I was eventually persuaded by the Broadway producer Morton Gottlieb who promised me I would love American audiences and American ice cream. What never occurred to me was that we might not repeat the London success.
My first sight of Times Square was from the cab enroute for the Algonquin Hotel. A man was pissing against the statue of George M. Cohan. I thought, these critics, they get everywhere. Three autograph fanatics were waiting for me outside the hotel, one with a book full of my cuttings, although I had been acting for only five years! That night I saw my first Broadway show, “Cabaret,” from the second row of the orchestra stalls. Bliss. Joel Grey eclipsed everyone else in Hal Prince’s production, including even the legendary Lotte Lenya. Afterwards, at Joe Allen’s theatre restaurant in 46th Street, the juke box played non-stop “Wilkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome.” Elsewhere the reception was frostier.
1967 was Cold War time and a modern play from Russia was not what Broadway wanted. Our first night was picketed by angry actors led, I’m told, by Roy Scheider with the perennial complaint that British actors were taking jobs from the locals. The reviews all referred to the demonstrations, further diluting the impact of a play which they didn’t much enjoy anyway. I spent a few evenings after the show with young American actors who didn’t resent my being amongst them – indeed they mostly wanted to leave home to escape the draft and the Vietnam war.
“The Promise” was unfulfilled and survived, including previews, for only 27 performances. On Thanksgiving Day our audience was under 20 people, whom I addressed at the curtain call and wagered that none of us would ever forget our evening together. So it has proved over the years as members of that audience have waited at other stage doors to say “I haven’t forgotten.” In “The Season” William Goldman analyses all the Broadway productions 1966-67 including ours which he lightly dismisses.
I did love Häagen Dazs vanilla incidentally. — Ian McKellen, June 2001