In Memoriam: Alice Playten

Email a Friend

Alice Plotkin (August 28, 1947-June 25, 2011), my beloved cousin, died this past weekend in New York, the city of her birth and the place where she most thrived.

As Alice Playten, she was loved by audiences who cherished her artistry, humor, moxie, elegance and, above all, her voice. Alice’s speaking voice, rich and round in the middle, was a Plotkin voice akin to others in the family. As an actress and narrator, she could spin out many voices and characters that all were part of who she was. In the “trades,” those newspapers such as Variety and Backstage that contained announcements for auditions, one could frequently find that they were seeking an “Alice Playten type.” I always wondered why they said that when they could have had Alice Playten. But sometimes the material was not very good and they probably figured she would turn it down. One she accepted was a commercial for Alka-Seltzer that was among the most famous ads of all time.

But it was her singing voice that was a phenomenon for its power, range, expressiveness and the artistry with which she used it. Add to this the fact that all of that voice came out of a person who was not five feet tall. Early on she was given the monicker Tiny Alice, but it did not stick. She might have been short but, with her voice, presence, artistry, and charisma, she was anything but tiny.

Stephen Holden, in The New York Times, wrote a lovely obituary that captured much of who Alice was. But there is so much more to add. 

Alice was a very private person, so few people knew that she battled very serious illnesses for her whole life. Out of respect for her privacy, I will not describe these, but prefer to represent their meaning. Alice did not want illness to be the metaphor for her life. She was given special talents, had the support of loving parents and brother and, more than anyone else, her husband Joshua White, one of the foremost artists in light. But it was her own determination to explore words, art and music using her skills that made her special.

She was fortunate to be able to combine commercial hits with endeavors that stretched her as an artist over the course of a career that lasted for 52 of her 63 years. She began in the ballet and chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and scored an important solo debut as Marie’s Child in the Met premiere of Wozzeck on March 5, 1959. During the curtain calls she was held aloft by Hermann Uhde, who sang Wozzeck, and Eleanor Steber. The image made the front page of The New York Times.

By then, Gypsy was a big new hit on Broadway with Ethel Merman in the role of Mamma Rose. The young actress playing Baby Louise (the girl who grows up to be Gypsy Rose Lee) was getting too big for the role, and Alice, small of stature, big of voice, was brought in to replace her. When I was four years old, this was my first Broadway musical -- because of Alice rather than Merman. Her next two shows were also landmark musicals: Oliver! and Hello, Dolly!, both of which had exclamation points in their titles as did many other shows at that time.

The female stars of those shows were Georgia Brown and the legendary Carol Channing (who deserves a Kennedy Center Honor this year---how long must she wait?). Both ladies, plus Merman, had an important impact on Alice. They had an admirable work ethic, an amazing ability to take and hold the stage, and could really sing. They did eight shows a week, without microphones or other amplification. These stars, and Alice, were what was known as belters, a breed that is now nearly extinct. This was not simply loud singing, but exciting singing and music-making that enabled them to thrill an audience with a song. Alice had begun her singing lessons at the Met and acquired the technique opera singers use to get their beautiful voices over a 90-piece orchestra and right into the audience. And I am sure she learned things watching Merman and Brown. I know that she and Channing were close and kept an eye on one another during performances.

Young Broadway fans always marveled at Alice’s voice because, when required, she could pin your ears back with volume and impact and, moments later, gratify them with a sweet purr. She would read the score, study the meaning and sound of the lyrics (having learned this at the opera) and then work with the conductor to create a vivid performance.

I often wonder if young aspirants to a singing and acting career in the theater should be required to learn opera technique in singing. While there are many fine leading actresses in the Broadway musical theater nowadays (including Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster and Christine Ebersole), there are only two that seem to have an extra musical dimension that opera training can give: Patti Lupone and, more than anyone else, Audra McDonald. Alice was not a star on the level of these ladies, but she was every bit as talented and formidable, known to every theater lover and Broadway insider.

Alice came to even wider attention in 1967 in a show called Henry, Sweet Henry, based on the book and film The World of Henry Orient. She played a tough teenage girl named Kafritz who had a crush on Henry (Don Ameche). She had two sensational numbers: “Poor little person” and “Nobody steps on Kafritz.” The former:

The ovations for the second song were so prolonged that, even after she left the stage, Alice was called back for even more applause. This is the true meaning of the term “show-stopping.” The entire performance came to a halt, mid-show, to acknowledge the work of one performer. Again she was on the front page of the Times and, when asked her reaction, replied “I just kind of bawled.” The show only ran ten weeks, but a cast album was made and her performance was the stuff of theater lore. She was nominated for a Tony Award, but did not win.

My cousin was attuned to the political and social currents of her time. Broadway musicals were still being written and she had numerous offers, but she chose a different path. She got deeper into her music and fielded offers from composers and off-Broadway playwrights. She did plays and musicals for many years, but only when they had particular meaning to her.

One role was as Eve (opposite the Adam of Austin Pendleton and the Devil of Len Cariou) in Up from Paradise, written for her by Arthur Miller. In 1999 I interviewed Miller just before the Chicago premiere of William Bolcom’s opera based on his play A View from the Bridge. I asked the playwright how he felt about opera and, to my surprise, he said he did not much care for it, except for the Met Wozzeck he attended with Marilyn Monroe in March 1959. He told me he was so taken with Alice that he vowed to one day write a role for her -- and he had no idea that Alice and I were related. Alice adored the tenor aria about New York in A View from the Bridge and made it part of her program for her solo performances.

One of her biggest hits was in the Public Theater’s Central Park production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, playing Linda Ronstadt’s sister in a cast that included Kevin Kline’s stupendous turn as the Pirate King and George Rose as the very model of a modern major general. A rudimentary video exists that captures some of the flavor of that event.

Frank Rich once told me that he fell in love with Alice when he was a young man coming to New York from Washington to attend shows. He called her a “delight” in a 1983 play called That’s It, Folks. In 1988 Alice starred with Kate Nelligan in Michael Weller’s play Spoils of War, drawing raves for a tough, dramatic performance. 

There were dozens of shows drawing on all aspects of her talent. Alice starred in a show called Promenade which opened a new theater of that name on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Red Grooms created a show for her; Bill Irwin directed her in Moliere. She had offers for big musicals such as Annie (as Miss Hannigan), but turned them down because she wanted to do more diverse work and not make a long commitment to one role. She returned to Broadway in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, in which she played Grandma Gelman. It was odd to see her play mothers and grandmothers because she had been such a vivid ingenue and young woman in so many roles. But she made the transition beautifully and, as always, made every moment onstage special without ever hogging the moment. Her political views (strong and exactly what they should have been) were in sync with Kushner’s, and they made a good artistic team.

Alice was a Broadway Baby and there was a lot of talk in theater circles that she might be part of the revival of Sondheim’s Follies that played at the Kennedy Center this month and is coming to Broadway next season. But she was ill and that was not to be. One of her last public appearances was at the Tony Awards on June 12.

All through the years, Alice kept studying music, working on her skills, keeping her voice fit, and exploring new roles and ideas. She could have sung opera, at least certain roles, but preferred the directness of a song and lyric in which she could create a whole world. And yet she kept going to the opera, especially with her cousin Fred. She was already sick with her final illness this spring when I selected what I sensed would be her final opera: Wozzeck, on April 9. She dressed beautifully (“for James Levine,” she said) and, though I knew that all kinds of memories and emotions must have swept through her that day, she watched and listened keenly. Rather than talk about her own experiences of so many years before, she had smart and original things to say about the interpretations of Waltraud Meier and Alan Held in the leads, and the Met Orchestra at its absolute best under Maestro Levine.

There is something particular about singular voices. They may be beautiful or characteristic, but if they are not used for expressive purposes in speech or song, they are not fulfilling the mission created for them. Alice’s voice will stay alive not so much in recordings as in the memories of all of those heard its clarion cry, its earthy purr and its rollicking joyousness.

Photo: Actress Alice Playten performs at the 64th Annual Theatre World Awards, 2008 - Will Ragozzino/Getty