The morning after the good news from Albany declaring same-sex marriage to be legal in New York State, the sad news arrived that Alice Playten died at age 63. Alice was one of those performers who wasn’t necessarily a household name for most Americans but was absolutely legendary and beloved in certain pockets of New York theater as a comic actress and singer. Her resume came loaded with classy credits: after making her stage debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Wozzeck at age 11, she appeared in the original productions of a bunch of famous musicals, from Broadway classics (Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!) to Off-Broadway landmarks (from Al Carmines and Irene Fornes’s Promenade to Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline or Change).
Funnily enough, I first encountered Alice as a comic spoken-word presence on Martin Mull’s 1977 album I’m Everyone I Ever Loved. I moved to New York in 1980 and commenced a long-term relationship with Stephen Holden, who knew Alice slightly through the music business and had adored her crazed performance in National Lampoon’s Lemmings Off-Broadway. When I met her and her husband Josh White (of the famed Joshua Light Show), we hit it off like gangbusters.
The four of us became very good friends, spending many birthdays and holidays together, bonding over our love of good theater, good music, good movies, and good laughs.
It was fun going to see shows with Alice because she was an enthusiastic theater- and concert-goer with very discerning tastes. She liked to love things and often had extremely nuanced appreciations (especially of song lyrics) but she wasn’t a pushover and called out performances whose quality was sub-par. (I remember her remarking of one male stage star’s performance on Broadway, “That was so hammy I could smell the pineapple!”) She was very plugged-in, loved being in the know, dishing the dish and sharing show-biz gossip — less about who was an asshole and who did what to whom but more about what exciting projects by excellent artists were coming down the pipeline.
Alice would have been perfectly content working in theater or movies 52 weeks a year but like many great performers didn’t work as much as she would have wanted to. Knowing her meant getting a peek inside the life of an actor whom everybody in the theater knows but who still spent way too much time waiting for the phone to ring with the next job. I have very fond memories seeing her at Playwrights Horizons in Mark O’Donnell’s hilarious That’s It, Folks! and many times in Caroline or Change, first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway. And I remember what a big deal it was for her to be cast in Ridley Scott’s fantasy film Legend, which starred a quite young Tom Cruise.
After Stephen and I broke up in 1993, some of our friends felt the need to take sides, and Stephen got Alice and Josh in the divorce. After that, they were cordial to me but not close. But I wished them well and cherish the times we spent together. Through thick and thin, enduring many ups and downs, Josh was the epitome of a devoted partner to Alice, and I share with him both the sadness of her passing and the many joys of having known her.