Smiles of a Summer Night: The Public Theater's 50 Years of Free Drama at Central Park's Delacorte

By Harry Haun
16 Jun 2012

Oskar Eustis
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Delacorte's inaugural production also prompted a personal declaration from Papp, according to The Public's current kingpin, Oskar Eustis: "It was the show where Joe came out of the closet as a Jew because the show was attacked by the court of rabbis for being 'anti-Semitic.' Joe had never revealed to anybody that he was Jewish. His wife didn't know he was Jewish. Bernie Gersten didn't know he was Jewish. And his parents were still alive in Brooklyn. He announced he was a Jew and he would never do anything anti-Semitic." That sufficiently defused the uproar.

"It was Joe's idea of free access to Shakespeare for both audiences and actors — I think he had it forever, and he hoped it would go on forever," says his widow, Gail Merrifield Papp. "The Delacorte came into being with that idea, through a series of stages, starting in a church on the Lower East Side where he began doing free Shakespeare and then moving into the parks and on to the biggest park of them all, Central Park. After a few years, he realized that he wanted to have a permanent stage there — he was performing on a platform, and the audiences had grown so large they needed a different kind of accommodation than fold-up seats — so that was the idea that propelled it. I'm still in awe of the strength of his idea. One, it's free, which means you have democratic audiences, and then you have — from earliest time, way in advance of other kinds of theatres — democratic accessibility for actors so that Shakespeare reflected the American population and its energy. That really hadn't been too much the case before. He linked this to high artistic standards so there was a kind of energy to that, along with the pioneering relationship to the city.

"Three generations of actors and audiences have now been engaged in it, and I'm delighted how vital and alive the idea still remains. The argument for it, even after 50 years, retains its youthful vigor and urgency on the part of everybody concerned — audiences and actors and directors. You can't talk that into existence. It's just there. Oskar Eustis feels it. His presence enhances it and fortifies it."

Eustis' first brush with the Delacorte was actually a brush-off. "I auditioned for Joe for a role in his 1976 Henry V, and he didn't cast me. It was actually the last time I auditioned. I walked out of that audition and said, 'I'm never auditioning again.'"

And he didn't either, finding instead a useful niche behind the footlights that has ripened, over 36 years, to Papp-like proportions. Now, he is The Public artistic director, cracking the whip over the Delacorte's 50th anniversary season, which turns out to be one-part Shakespeare (As You Like It) and one-part Sondheim (Into the Woods).

Renee Elise Goldsberry and Norm Lewis in Two Gentlemen of Verona.
photo by Michal Daniel

"The very first show that I produced there was a revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona," says Eustis. "Renee Goldsberry and Norm Lewis singing 'Night on Earth' was, I thought, the sexiest, most exciting thing I had ever seen in a theatre. I watched that night after night, just cheering at how beautiful it was."

Most of his Delacorte memories have to do with the weather. "One night I tried to stop Mother Courage because it was raining so hard, but the actors wouldn't let me do it. Kevin and Meryl and the others just refused to stop performing. Meryl got out and mopped the stage. The audience cheered for her. The sight of her, by herself, pulling that wagon in a circle in the rain, close to midnight, in Central Park, won't go away. At the end, there was an ovation like you never heard. Of course, the audience was not only cheering the show but cheering everybody for not going home."

Then, there were the teasing flashes of lightning that tensed up the Hair opening and erupted into a deluge in the homestretch when "Let the sunshine in" was uttered.

He chose to celebrate his 50th birthday with Hair at the Delacorte. "At the end of it, when I was dancing on stage as I usually did, the cast suddenly picked me up and led the entire audience in singing 'Happy birthday.' It was probably the happiest moment of my life.

"But then, every evening of Hair was magical to me," says Eustis — and that includes the night the Clintons came. "It was shortly after Obama had beaten Hillary for the nomination. When she and Bill and Chelsea walked into the theatre, she got a standing ovation from the audience. You could really feel New York was welcoming her. I sat with them for the show, and I can promise you our Secretary of State knows every word of every song of Hair, including 'Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy / La la la, lo lo / Sabba sibbi sabba nooby aba naba / Lee lee lo lo.'"