One of our few living links to Broadway’s golden age reminisced at a small shop in Manhattan’s old printing district last night. Sharp as the proverbial tack and with perfect recall, 93-year-old Iva Withers talked to a beyond-capacity crowd of theater lovers about her long career as the eternal standby. Withers played more performances of some of Broadway’s greatest musicals than their original stars did, but never got to open one of the new shows on Broadway, so never became a household name like Mary Martin or Tammy Grimes. Is she sorry? Not a whit, it seems.
Born in 1917, the petite Canadian dancer first came to New York just to take voice lessons, but when she impressed a gentleman at an open call a few years later with a medley from Oklahoma and later asked “Who’s he?” it turned out to be Richard Rogers. Her career eventually took off, but not before personal tragedy took her her to England in 1942, where she spent seven wartime months searching for the fates of her brother and her sweetheart, both of whom had gone off to fight and lost their lives.
Indomitable, she bounced back to Broadway and became a contract understudy. Replacing original star Jan Clayton (“so fragile, so adorable”), Withers played over 600 performances in Carousel, co-starring with John Raitt—who, alas, never stopped thinking of her as a chorus girl, and refused to say hello for the entire run.
Yet Withers went on tour with the show (working through a severe foot injury), brought it back to New York, then opened it in London. Over her career she also replaced and understudied the likes of Carol Channing and Julie Harris and took over starring roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, South Pacific, and Guys and Dolls, among others, working along the way with Agnes DeMille, Rouben Mamoulian, Noël Coward—all the greats.
Withers is still feisty, and ever-thankful for her long and colorful career even though it ended on a sour note: during the 1960’s, still understudying, she found producers starting to begrudge her the “extra $75” she was supposed to get when called upon to fill in at a performance. Fed up with the business, she quit the stage and never returned. But over her substantial career as Broadway’s perpetual hard worker, Iva collected endless stories of performing and hobnobbing with theater royalty. Approaching her idol Mary Martin when they were performing in adjoining theaters, she was refused an autograph: “You’re one of us,” she was told. Years later Zsa Zsa Gabor learned her role in Forty Carats by watching Withers’ performances, yet after Gabor took over, “the awful thing is she never learned all the lines.”
Richard Rogers always helped her when he could, but told her you “had to have a name to sell tickets—and you don’t have that name yet,” so he couldn’t cast her to open a show. (Sounds a lot like Broadway today.) “Not yet” turned into never. And “Oscar [Hammerstein] never liked me, really.” When Withers took over for the heavier Tammy Grimes in High Spirits the crew had to put steel weights in her pockets to bring her up to the weight they were used to so she wouldn’t go literally flying when they hoisted her up in the Peter Pan-style harness. And Gabor gave her the best compliment she ever received: “I don’t know why they need me when they have you.”
How does she account for her sharp recall and ongoing vitality in her 90’s? Taking dance lessons practically every day of her life for 80 years, for one, and “I forced myself to memorize something new every day.” It’s also worth being reminded, as Withers reminds us, that back then “we did not have microphones. You would have to project. Oscar would be up in the last row of the balcony and if he could not hear you, he would let you know.”
Hammerstein never had to give Iva Withers that particular note, and she still projects today. She even treated us to snatches of songs she remembers from her great roles. As we filed out of the event, which was sponsored by Harvardwood, onto drab West 21st Street, her delight in New York City was replaying in my ears: “It’s the only city to live in—the most fabulous collection of human beings you will ever meet. We’re the luckiest people in the world. Really.”