"Broadway has been corporate-ized," Stadlen goes on. "It's become a theme park. People are paying too much to go to the theater, so there's this strange sort of collective guilt in which the audience sits there, not wanting to feel like a fool for having paid $120 a seat, so they laugh at things they don't really find funny. You can tell. There's no mirth in their laughter. Then at the end of the evening, they give you a standing ovation."
All of which helps to explain why Stadlen, unlike other more stay-at-home actors, enjoys touring. In addition to "seeing the country for free," he finds himself acting in front of appreciative audiences. Stadlen retains specific memories of every city he played during his 754-performance run as Max Bialystock. "The audiences were tremendously enthusiastic in St. Louis," he recalls. "I also remember there was a wonderful cafeteria steak house across the street from the Fox [Best Steak House], and that we established a lovely rapport with the ushers, who were very friendly."
Lewis J. Stadlen looks back upon the state of theater, looks forward to the Muny.
Performed July 9 through July 15 at the Muny in Forest Park. In addition to the free seats, tickets cost $9 to $62. Call 314-361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.
Not only will Hello, Dolly! reunite him with Producers co-star Lee Roy Reams ("a wonderful man, I adore him"), who's directing the production, but Stadlen hopes that performing at the Muny will be a return to the past. "Everyone tells me that it's a unique throwback experience," he says. "I ran into Dee Hoty the other night. She did Mame at the Muny a couple summers ago. She said, 'It really does remind you of an era that we all romanticize about.'"
When it comes to theater, beneath the gruff Stadlen is just a romantic at heart. How else to explain the drudgery of his work? "I find acting a painful profession," he says. "I'm not one of these people that needs to be the center of attention. For me acting is a more personal thing. I like trying to figure out the puzzle of the play. Then I attempt to bring to life a fictitious character who is quite far from myself. I have dedicated my career to trying to tell a story as best I can."