Discovering Lunt and Fontanne
Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne
Perhaps you've heard of The Lunts – Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne? They had a Broadway theater names after them in the 1950’s. They were also one of the most famous of actor couples. For myself and my wife Alison Murphy, we hadn’t known that much about them, even after majoring in theater and studying theater history in college.
Alison and I are both actors. We met doing a play down in Cape May, New Jersey fifteen years ago. We eventually got married, lived in New York, near the ocean and enjoyed roles in the East Lynne Theater's classic plays in Cape May. We worked in so many shows together, a joke went around that we were becoming “The Lunt and Fontanne of South Jersey.” At that point a ‘light bulb went off.’ Maybe there might be a play there...? What if we were to play the Lunts on stage in our own show?
Mark E. Lang and Alison Murphy in The Guardsman at East Lynne Theatre
Then came a very long extensive research period learning all about The Lunts, particularly a fruitful pilgrimage to their Wisconsin home called ‘Ten Chimneys’ – now a beautifully restored home, museum and Arts Center. Then we began writing the show, and rewriting. And even more writing...
Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne in The Great Sebastians
In the meantime, we had the chance to perform in the Lunts' signature play from 1924, which they also filmed in 1931 – Molnar's comedy "The Guardsman." Where? South Jersey, where else? It was a delightful experience to play their roles as a newlywed actor-couple: a flirtatious wife and an extremely jealous husband – so jealous he would pretend to be someone else, a Russian Guardsman, to test her fidelity. But to make a long story a bit shorter, I did finally finish writing the play, “Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway,” and (with the great help of our director. Owen Thompson) we did get it on stage in New York, in May of 2015... another wonderfully fulfilling experience!
But who were The Lunts? What we discovered in our seven-year journey was the life of two of the truest masters of their craft: ‘acting on the stage.’ With the prestigious Theatre Guild in the 1920’s, they took lower than normal salaries to work on classic plays by many great writers including George Bernard Shaw, (playing together in “Arms and the Man.” and Lynn as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” became a legendary performance), and in plays by Eugene O'Neill (Lynn was the original Nina in “Strange Interlude”). When Alfred played a role, he spent a lot of the time in rehearsal searching for a key element, which he called the ‘green umbrella,’ that brought the character to life for him.
Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne
He felt that his Henry Higgins was incomplete until he added that precise prop... a ‘green umbrella.’ The Lunts went on to produce their own work, collaborating with their good friend, the well-known British composer/performer, Noel Coward, on three different productions. They were also courted by Hollywood, and could have easily become as famous as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn if they wanted to, but they turned down all the offers, instead choosing to perform in the theater, touring endlessly across the country and around the world. They exercised complete control over their careers that Hollywood would never have allowed them.
When World War II, came, they refused to sit still. Lynn, born in England, was especially concerned about America’s reticence to fight Hitler, so they toured Robert E Sherwood’s drama “There Shall Be No Night” to encourage America to take part. Once America joined the war, they were regulars at New York's Stage Door Canteen, and later chose to travel to London and performed during the worst of the bombing raids on London by the Nazis.
Though known for their skill as high comedians, as well as their tireless work ethic (rehearsals would run long, then continue at home, in taxi cabs, anywhere and everywhere), they were also great proponents of naturalism on stage. They shocked the London critics early in their careers by overlapping each other’s dialogue – their rationale being that people do it in life, why not do it on stage?
Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne in The Visit
Alfred also broke theatrical convention of the time, and would play key moments with his back to the audience. They cast a young Uta Hagen in their 1938 production of “The Sea Gull,” and she would often talk about them and their professionalism in her books and acting classes. Laurence Olivier once said: “Everything I know about acting I learned from Alfred Lunt;” and he and Vivien Leigh, as well as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor wanted to pattern their careers after the Lunts.
But as a married couple and professional actors, the most potent element of the Lunts was their unbreakable connection and commitment to each other and their work.
Early on, they put it in all of their contracts that they would only work together, as a duo; and that they would to have every summer off, to be able spend their summer together at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. However, it was always ‘violins and roses.’ Alfred and Lynn are also famous for their arguments and knock-down dragged-out fights. In fact, their impassioned squabbling on and off stage during their 1935 production of “Taming of the Shrew” inspired Cole Porter to fashion the musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” around a similar pair of battling romantically-entangled leads in a production of "Shrew."
Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne at Ten Chimneys
As actors, we often wear ‘someone else’s shoes,’ feeling their emotions, thinking their thoughts, replicating their experiences. But my task as a playwright was even greater: to choose and shape key events from their lives and careers into a ninety-minute show. To try and understand their hearts and souls, and encompass over thirty years of professional achievement into a play. Hopefully we have done justice to them and their legacy in “Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway,” and we look forward to bringing our show on the road, much as they did, for many years to come. Let these extraordinary stage actors not be forgotten! For info: www.luntandfontanne.com •2016
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”