She Was A Shoo-In
September 26, 2019 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Broadway lights will dim Friday night in honour of Phyllis Newman, who passed away September 15th, 2019. Phyllis (NYTimes obit) won the 1962 Tony for her featured actress turn in Subways Are For Sleeping, playing Martha Vail, with her memorable song “I Was a Shoo-In.” Apparently she was, because she beat out Barbara Streisand for the Tony that year. She was also the recipient of the inaugural Isabelle Stevenson Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Tonys for her decades-long work with the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, now part of The Actors Fund, which strives to provide funding for women in the entertainment industry facing serious and expensive health conditions. Newman herself was a breast cancer survivor, and wrote a memoir chronicling her life and fight against the illness, called “Just In Time: Notes From My Life.” [Disclaimer - I worked as an archivist for Phyllis’ estate on a grad school internship in 2009-2010.]

Newman was married for decades to celebrated writer Adolph Green, who with Betty Comden wrote the book to Singin’ In the Rain, and the book and lyrics to On the Town, Wonderful Town, On the Twentieth Century, The Band Wagon, The Will Rogers Follies, and many others, including Subways Are For Sleeping. (Many people thought Comden and Green were married, and Newman was largely amused to be thought of as “the other woman” in her own marriage. About getting the understudy role for Judy Holliday in Comden and Green’s Bells are Ringing, Phyllis used to joke that it was the only time sleeping with the writer made it harder to get the part.) She starred in the 1971 Broadway revival of On the Town.

A regular on talk shows like The Tonight Show and game shows like What’s My Line, Password and To Tell The Truth, she was the first woman to guest host for Johnny Carson. Her movies included Picnic, Let’s Rock, Mannequin, and The Beautician and the Beast. She starred in the short-lived Coming of Age, a show about an Arizona retirement community, with Paul Dooley and Glynis Johns, originated the role of Renee Buchanan on One Life to Live, and also guested on Murder, She Wrote, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and That Was the Week That Was, among others.

Her semi-autobiographical show, The Madwoman of Central Park West, about an older actress trying to balance life and career, was praised for its medley sending up stereotypical women’s roles. She also received accolades for later-career roles in Follies and Broadway Bound. The latter garnered her another Tony nomination.

Phyllis is survived by her two children, Adam Green, Vogue’s theatre critic and former SNL staff writer, and Amanda Green, who continues the Broadway tradition by writing lyrics to shows such as High Fidelity, Bring It On, and Hands on a Hardbody. Newman's blog at her official website has some wonderful stories.

(Bonus: Elaine Stritch has never liked Phyllis Newman)
posted by ilana (9 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I worked - almost lived, basically - in Phyllis’ astonishing apartment in the Beresford, which shared a floor with Jerry Seinfeld’s and overlooked Central Park West, in 2009-2010, doing a year-long internship to accompany my MFA thesis at Columbia. The internship was a dream come true - they needed someone with archival experience and a passion for musical theatre to organize half a century of notes, photos, cards, and memorabilia, stuffed into every crack of the two floors. I remember essentially telling everyone else in my year to “back off” - this was mine.

Just about every star from the 1940s-1970s and beyond was Phyllis’ friend; they all sent cards, telegrams, and attended parties at her apartment. And it was my job to organize it all. (She was still giving those when I worked there - if I had known there was going to be a party with Alec Baldwin for The Actors Fund one day, I would have done better than wearing my casual, dusty archivist clothes to work. I think I was more presentable the day Glenn Close showed up.)

I went through hilarious cards from Stephen Sondheim (one, a Peanuts card featuring Snoopy, had “Happy Birthday” crossed out and “Fuck Off!” penciled in its place), and telegrams from Frank Sinatra, and photo after photo after photo of Carson and Comden, Bernstein and Bacall. My favourite thing was a picture of Groucho Marx, signed “To Phyllis - NOT Betty or Adolph.”

“There’s something about working in an apartment that’s suffused in glamour that makes even the most mundane tasks seem magical,” I wrote, back in 2009. “Knowing that probably half the stars of the past 50 years (and probably a larger percentage of theatre-makers) have partied here, worked here, generated ideas here for the classics of the stage makes every ride up in the elevator, every interaction, every rummage through dusty drawers contain some measure of awe…The apartment preserves a time when celebrity had that mid-century golden sheen of class. Its drawers are filled with original memorabilia of the coolest things imaginable, that its occupants haven’t seen in decades.”

“There’s a wonderful telegram, for the opening of Subways Are For Sleeping, or maybe Moonbirds, where a young Stephen Sondheim tells Phyllis that he’s more excited for her than she is. In a way, that’s what I’m doing - going through this world of my dreams that will never exist again; being more excited for Phyllis than she is, because she’s lived it. Though she is clearly super excited when I find things like photos from a forty-year-old production she hasn’t seen since they were taken, or her birth announcement, she is still busy all the time - the Tony people call, or she’s organizing another evening of exciting benefit performances to fund health care for uninsured female artists. I am making files of Important Things, cataloging lives of wonder, lives more exciting that mine will ever be, with datebooks filled with soirees and names and numbers of modern gods…Maybe the golden veneer that shimmers all around this place will rub off on me one day. It could happen.”

I created file after file, and enormous finding guides of these treasure troves. She once told me that I was more than earning any of the credits Columbia was giving me for the internship. I definitely saw it the other way around - I was getting more out of my time spent in her world than any sort of school credit or monetary remuneration could possibly encompass. I was finding material for the publication of The Comden and Green Songbook. I was scanning photos and sending them to James Lapine for Sondheim on Sondheim, and finding the very best headshots to be approved by her to accompany press released. I was helping her with her new websites, and her guest-blogging for Playbill, in which she was very kind to me:

“I have never thrown away anything in my entire life. Have you?” she wrote. “I mean nothing….menus, invitations, notes, tickets, programs, (PLAYBILLS, of course). Clippings, diaries, notebooks, photos by the thousands, lists and more lists, clothes I’ll fit back into when I lose 542 pounds, hats, scarves, multi-colored boas, crayolas, old arrangements from nightclub days….I just stuffed everything into any available opening. But into this madness came a skilled archivist who is changing my life. She comes in four days a week. She has organized and unearthed amid the boas and rhinestones, some pretty interesting memorabilia of two lives whose passion was every aspect of The Arts.”

I was thrilled when she won the inaugural humanitarian Tony for her work with “Pin-Wee,” as she called it, which sought to provide funds for female actresses and artists who did not have coverage, due to the precarious nature of the industry. I was enraged when her award was not shown on the Tony broadcast - what, after all, was more important than this?

Most of all, I got to spend time with the woman herself - never as much as I wanted, as her health was not ideal, but she was still a powerhouse. She was brilliant and self-deprecating at the same time. She would pin you with the sharpest look and say something wickedly funny. One day, for the life of me, I had no idea who some person in a picture was (I think it wound up being Andre Gregory, but I hadn’t seen My Dinner With Andre), and she didn’t either. “Sidney will know,” she said. “Oh?” I responded, uncomprehendingly. “I’ll call him, you describe it…Hi, Sidney,” she said, and suddenly, as she explained our predicament and handed the phone to me, I realized that I was on the phone with legendary director Sidney Lumet, a long-time family friend who lived just upstairs, with absolutely no preparation as to how to handle it. I think Phyllis found that very funny. I just lived through it. “Sidney” died in 2011.

One day, a life-sized leg made of chocolate, saying “break a leg!” to celebrate her Isabelle Stevenson Tony win, appeared at the apartment. I thought was a piece of statuary until it started to melt in the sun, and until a fellow staffer in the kitchen took a cleaver to it and handed me the foot to take home. Never say that Phyllis didn’t let me get my foot in the door.

Working for Phyllis was like a dream. She was a legend, not only for her many, many amazing achievements, but for the era she represented. She was one of the last from that era, having been so young when she married Adolph - whom she always spoke about with so much love it was physically palpable. I was absolutely blessed to spend a moment in time - just in time - with her, and I’m so sorry that she’s gone. She changed my life a lot, and I can only hope that I helped her life a little.

Thank you, Phyllis. Rest in Peace.
posted by ilana at 11:29 AM on September 26, 2019 [50 favorites]

posted by dnash at 12:51 PM on September 26, 2019

posted by growabrain at 1:06 PM on September 26, 2019

Ilana, this is an excellent post - the wonderful links and all the context are superb - but I am especially grateful for your personal recollections. Thank you so much for sharing that, and for sharing this post Phyllis with us.
posted by kristi at 1:13 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

What a wonderful tribute, ilana, and what a wonderful experience it sounds like. It's a shame Phyllis Newman isn't better remembered these days, she was a beautiful and talented actress. Thank you for sharing a little of it with us, may her memory always be a blessing to you.
posted by briank at 1:36 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by JoeXIII007 at 2:53 PM on September 26, 2019

Well I just fell down a hole watching What's My Line.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:04 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on September 26, 2019

posted by Going To Maine at 10:39 PM on September 28, 2019

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