I worked the entire run of Whoopi's Broadway Debut on the theatre staff, and I remember it vividly. It was Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, the same stage used for another historic TV special, LIZA WITH A Z.
The title on Broadway was just WHOOPI GOLDBERG. This show was far more than standup comedy, it was Performance Art. Sure, she made you laugh, but she also worked your other emotions and made you think.
The show consisted of six great characters: Act I - Fontaine the Junkie, The Surfer Chick, and The Disabled Girl. Act II - The Raisin Lover, The Old Entertainer, and The Little Girl with the Shirt on her Head. The show ran just about two hours. No costume or makeup changes were used... just Whoopi's own face, body... and TALENT.
When her name went up on the marquee, neither the public nor the theatre staff, had any idea who this person was. After watching one performance, we were fans. Before her second performance, Whoopi got a nice note from one of the ushers. After the show, when the audience left, she looked into the house, figured out which usher it was, walked to the edge of the stage, and called out to him. She held out her hand, but gave more than a handshake. She pulled him onstage and said "come meet Mike," then introduced him to her producer/director, Mike Nichols. A few weeks later the same usher sent a little gift from the show home to Whoopi's mom. Before the house opened for next show, he was summoned by the star to the stage for "a message from my mother" which turned out to be a warm hug.
The entire production staff was three people: A Stage Manager, A Spotlight Guy, and an Unknown Star. So who was this down-to-earth talent going to hang with? Seven ushers. After meeting her, we were all in her corner, and she, in ours.
Whoopi usually hung in the seats with us before the house opened. With the backdrop up, you had a clear view down the hall to the stage door. One afternoon, an usher arrived late, and tried to slip along the stage wall to the usher's room. Whoopi spotted him, and called out "Look, there's X coming in late, trying not to be noticed!" When told of a common mishap with patrons sitting in the wrong seats, Whoopi added a "be kind to your ushers" message to her curtain speech. Another night, while hanging with the staff, the stage manager told Whoopi that a certain well-known pop diva was coming backstage after the show, and wanted some extra "security." Remember, this was a small theatre and there were only a handful of us. "Tell her we'll lock the door" she laughed.
Early in the run, a lady called the stage door and asked, "So Vhat's a Vhoopi Goldboig?" The Doorman described her as very talented, but the next detail (black) made the lady hang up. The story was passed on to Whoopi, and that lady became a funny little character in her curtain speech.
The opening of her show firmly established that there was no fourth wall, and that Whoopi was more than willing (and totally able) to improvise in character with whatever happened. She did that often, but we don't see much of it here.
One night, an embarrassed usher tried to avoid eye contact with the stage as he escorted three successive groups of latecomers to their seats. He noticed that the theatre had fallen silent, and realized the star had focused her attention into the house. Knowing her spontaneous nature, he ran back and ducked behind the seats. Silence. After a long pause, he peeked up and saw her staring right at him. In mock indignation (and in complete character) she said "Don't bring no more people down here!" Not an official complaint, just a spontaneous funny moment in her show. At other times she might address latecomers directly: "Where the hell have you been?" She was master of that stage, and held court with engaging skill.
Word of mouth quickly made this enormous talent the darling of Broadway, with celebrities (including Carol Burnett, Cloris Leachman, Richard Gere, Alfre Woodard, Bianca Jagger, Scott Hamilton, Gary Sandy, Diana Ross, and Warren Beatty) in the house nearly every night.
Through eight shows a week, over several months, she never missed one performance, even when she was so sick she could barely speak. We never saw a trace of star attitude, or bad humor from Whoopi... one night during her curtain speech, when someone tried to bait her with a question on a topical human rights issue. We saw just a quick flash of anger: "What do you THINK I think of it? "You want to talk about this? We'll do it later," she then directed her attention back to the rest of the audience and said a gracious goodnight. When the curtain came down, we were quietly told not to let anyone backstage that night. That's it.
She came to the theatre staff Christmas party with her mom, her daughter and a big stack of presents: huge, extra thick silver-gray beach towels that had the show's logo silk-screened in red. Months later, when she heard that the ushers were not invited to the closing night party (which was all producers and theatre execs) she said "F--- 'em, we'll have our own party!"
On the last show, Whoopi held it together until the last scene, the Little Girl with the Shirt on her Head. It must have hit her right then. It took some of us a moment to realize this was raw emotion and not mugging. Her voice wavered through that last character as she fought back tears. At the curtain call she called "my ushers" onstage to stand behind her. When she said goodbye, she asked that the curtain not come down, then walked offstage with us. Later on, the closing party for WHOOPI GOLDBERG on Broadway was just Whoopi sitting on the edge of the stage, with her ushers, and simple take-out food.
The next day, an HBO crew took over. They wanted only a one-hour show, with extra bits of the individual characters backstage. Instead of shooting the show in its entirety and editing later, Whoopi was directed to speed up, and cut and censor her material live in front of the cameras! The Old Entertainer character was dropped entirely, and cue cards were held up to bridge the cuts they wanted.
I was in the audience, which was now lit for television, and the whole vibe was different. Accustomed to months of her successful free-form delivery, this was obviously jarring to Whoopi. Professional, but uncomfortable, Whoopi stopped at one point, and said something like "I don't want to freak y'all out in the video truck, but... I've been doing this for months, we closed last night, I boo-hooed, and now y'all are holding up signs at me, so this is not easy..."
Some great material, (about half the show) was lost in the process. More material survived in the (studio recorded) album, but what was presented on HBO as "WHOOPI GOLDBERG-Direct from Broadway" had actually detoured through a lot of ill-advised editing. The result does not do justice to Whoopi's formidable talent, and how amazing her debut performance was.
The Anniversary Show was in the same theatre, which looks huge due to camera magnification and extra lighting. The opening isn't quite as strong as the original was, because you don't see the curtain go down and back up as she restarts the show... this audience knew how to respond on her first entrance. The new show does seem less character driven and more of a standup platform for making statements, but her message is on the nose, and still thoroughly entertaining.
It's a shame we don't have her all of Broadway Debut, but I'm glad to at least have what's left of it, along with the new Anniversary Show. Whoopi is a terrific talent, even better when experienced live, spontaneous and unedited. This set is just a glimpse of what she is capable of. I Highly Recommend it