Words by Ian McKellen

Even by his own standards, Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) was one of the most popular new plays ever produced by the National Theatre in London, where his Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) and Equus (1973) had also been first performed.  It was inevitable that, like its predecessors, Peter’s latest sensation would transfer to New York.  The play is full of music with a large cast, and Peter Hall’s production, decorated by glamorous eighteenth century costumes and wigs, displayed a drama that is also a show and just the thing for Broadway.


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Programme Cover
Illustration by Robert Van Nutt

The drama centres on the rumour first dramatised by Pushkin in his “Mozart and Salieri”: Antonio Salieri, the court composer, admired and much-decorated by the Emperor of Austria, is jealous to the death of Mozart’s genius, and claimed in his old age that he had murdered Mozart.  Amadeus thrillingly explains why and how.  Paul Scofield was the first to play Salieri and for his spry, wry and elegant performance effortlessly won the London Evening Standard Drama Award, although as the Tony and Oscar later proved, Salieri may be just one of those award-winning roles.

Scofield’s not wanting to play on Broadway was my good fortune although I was surprised that Hall asked me, as we had not worked together—although he had once invited me to join him at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960’s. Perhaps it was significant that I had been a friend of Peter Shaffer ever since the West End revival of his witty double-bill White Liars and Black Comedy (1968).  Tim Curry was cast as Mozart, replacing the ebullient Simon Callow, who has written about the first production of Amadeus in his autobiographical Life in the Theatre.  I had known Tim long before he struck stardom with the original stage production of Rocky Horror Picture Show.  All in all I was looking forward to being back with old friends on Broadway and found myself a spacious apartment above a bank in then-unfashionable Union Square, where drugs were dealt in the park outside Andy Warhol’s Factory premises.

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Mozart (Tim Curry, stage left) wittily transforms a pedestrian piece by Salieri (Ian McKellen, stage right) into his own music.

Mozart (Tim Curry) and Salieri (Ian McKellen)
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Ian McKellen (Salieri) starts his seduction of Jane Seymour (Constanze)
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Nicholas Kepros (centre;Emperor Joseph 11) welcomes Tim Curry (Mozart) to court. Ian McKellen (Salieri) applauds stage right.

 

Apart from Tim and Jane Seymour (as Constanze), the cast was American, speaking with English accents. Initially they were all very nervous and did what they were told by the director, knowing that their contracts allowed them to be replaced before the opening night.  Cast replacements are almost unknown in the UK, where producers tend to live with their mistakes, but in New York we all know the game and its prize is Success.  However, no one was sacked, quite rightly, as they were expert and enthusiastic and in the case of Nicholas Kepros as the Emperor, outstanding.  The plot, however, allows few of the subsidiary characters to develop beyond the central trio.

Salieri narrates the play, starting as a decrepit nonentity who, in a theatrical gesture typical of Shaffer, soon throws aside his threadbare robe to reveal the elegant courtier of 50 years previously.  To prepare for my role as interlocutor, I had revived my solo show Acting Shakespeare across Europe for a couple of intense months (1980), getting used to addressing foreign audiences directly and discovering that laughter is the surest way to keep their attention.  Peter promised to write in a minimum of 20 sure-fire jokes, making Salieri for me an easier part than Scofield’s original.  He relishes rewriting and at most rehearsals in the Minskoff Building in Times Square, would happily sit in a back room typing away, mostly on the last scenes leading up to Mozart’s death.  In previews in Washington DC at the National Theatre, he was still at it and late each evening would deliver new lines to Tim and me for inclusion in the following day’s performance.  One problem he never quite fixed.  As Salieri tells the tale he must have witnessed (or have had very good hearsay evidence about) all the events which are relived during the play.  Yet how could Salieri have known about Mozart’s final goodbye to his wife, about which she never talked?  It’s a small cheat which Peter acknowledges but which no audience seems to notice.

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Without make-up, Ian McKellen as the old Salieri who narrates the story of Mozart’s death
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Ian McKellen juggling the cakes and desserts which Salieri relishes
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Tim Curry (right: Mozart) lectures Ian McKellen (Salieri) on composition.

Amy Irving, Senator John Warner, Elizabeth Taylor (then Mrs. Warner), Ian McKellen, and Peter Firth backstage. Photo from the "Bolton Evening News" 15 July 1981 (Ian McKellen's hometown paper).
We opened in Washington the night of the November 1980 election which started Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the dinner afterwards I was seated next to Lady Bird Johnson who introduced me to her daughter, recently married to Charles Robb, Vice-Governor of Virginia.  I asked President Johnson’s widow what a vice-governor did.  “Nothing much” she said “until someone shoots the Governor, of course.”  Then realising her indiscretion she rocked back on her chair cackling.  Three days later the outgoing President Carter made his first post-election public appearance with a visit to Amadeus and afterwards met the cast onstage and on my advice sent his young daughter to see the play.

At the opening night party at the Milford Plaza (on down-trodden 8th Avenue then making a bid for respectability) Bernard Jacobs (with Gerald Schoenfield, half of the Shubert Organisation) promised me that I would win the Tony.  He was right.  But then Amadeus was the hot hit of the next 12 months – and beyond, when Salieri was played by John Wood.  When Jane Seymour’s pregnancy became evident, Constanze was played by Amy Irving and soon after I re-rehearsed once more when Peter Firth succeeded Tim Curry.
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Ian McKellen (Salieri) enjoying a joke with Jane Seymour (Constanze) and her husband Tim Curry (Mozart)
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Salieri and his mistress accompany Mozart to the premiere of The Magic Flute
Late in the run I met Milos Foreman who was planning his film of Amadeus.  He apologised by saying that he didn’t want anyone playing his original part in the play onscreen.  I was not in the least offended and much admired F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning performance, particularly as the older Salieri.  I have since seen the great Russian character actor Oleg Tabakov as Salieri at the Moscow Art Theatre and, in Paris, Roman Polanski as a capering Mozart.
1980-81 was a season of backstage shows – as well as Amadeus there was Piaf, Barnum, Chorus Line, 42nd Street and unforgettably Lena Horne’s autobiographical show The Lady and Her Music. — Ian McKellen, June 2001


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