“She’s a hands-on kind of girl.” Such words belong to a stage director who knows what she wants, pays attention to details and supports her players. Then there was the late Lucille Markson, who left us on July 26 at age 86.
Back in the halcyon days of the Landmark Theatre Wing that Markson was running in the early 1980s, actor Al Annotto found himself pulled out of rehearsals for Oliver! on a Monday when it was learned that he also played the piano. Markson wanted him to handle all the keyboarding for Two By Five, a John Kander and Fred Ebb review, scheduled to open the following weekend. Then she drove him in rehearsal all week like a drill sergeant, even though he was still in Oliver! Not content with that, she sat next to him at the keyboard on opening night and tapped out the tempos on the back of his hand. The show was a big success.
A major player on the scene over five decades, Markson was an actress, teacher, producer and, most of all, a director.
She launched and ran two companies, starting with the Town and Country Players in the 1950s and 1960s with two homes: the Regent Theatre (now Syracuse Stage’s Archbold Theater) and Fayetteville’s Wellwood School. Then came the Landmark Theatre Wing (briefly called the Syracuse Theatre Wing) in the 1970s and 1980s, after the former Loew’s State movie house was saved from the wrecking ball. She also helped to found Holly Wilson’s Theatre ’90 in 1990. Her own Lucille Markson Productions was still in business the day she died.
Before she made theater the center of her professional life, Markson had been a model, featured when the great local fashion shows after World War II were the best live entertainment in town. Style, deportment and presentation were always a part of her packaging.
Always a Syracuse girl, Lucille Reiben grew up east of Westcott Street and was introduced to the lure of live theater by Edward Markson, the love of her life. She married him at the old Temple Adath Yeshurun on South Crouse Avenue in 1948. The building was later the home of Salt City Center for the Performing Arts for more than 30 years and is now the upscale Hotel Skyler.
Shows she favored were wide-ranging and artistically ambitious, like Jean Giraudoux’s Amphytrion 38 and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with high octave soprano Jill Skeehan as Cunegunde. She wasn’t keen in featuring herself in roles but delivered memorable performances as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, Margo Channing in Applause and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
She directed Jule Styne’s Gypsy twice. In the second (August 1980) the title role was taken by Laura Rockefeller, a silver-voiced student from the then-nascent musical theater program at Syracuse University. Rockefeller was later killed in the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center.
As a director, Markson was both loved and feared. Moe Harrington says that if she asked you to lose five pounds, you’d lose 10. Al Annotto remembers, “She’d take your hand and begin, ‘My sweet . . .’ and then rip you.” Through direction with pages and pages of notes, she touched on the lives of dozens of our notable players, like Chris Lightcap, Kate Huddleston, Lorraine Grande, Bill Molesky, Michael O’Neill, Robert “Tank” Steingraber and Becky Bottrill. A recent private student was David Cotter, now active with Rarely Done and the Redhouse Arts Center.
Harrington adds, “She breastfed me the ballad,” and that meant how to take a song apart and put it back together again. “She taught with her whole body and never gave up on anyone. She also taught us to respect the stage manager, pay attention to what the ushers say and thank the lighting person every night.”
Markson’s private passion for lyricist Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers’ first collaborator, led to the creation of Rodgers and Hart: Every Song You Ever Loved, the only Syracuse community theater production to play New York City. She argued that the ironic, sometimes mordant, Hart (“My Funny Valentine”) was superior to Rodgers’ bombastic, often treacly later collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II (“June is Bustin’ Out All Over”).
Her cast, including Annotto, Grande and Harrington, auditioned all 160 Hart songs until Markson winnowed them down to a two-hour review, enlivened by her patter between numbers. The show, which ran Feb. 19 through March 21, 1982, was a monster hit for the Landmark Theatre Wing and then played venues all over upstate for years, including the stage of the Concord, in the Catskills. Along the way, Richard Rodgers’ widow appeared and applauded. The first run closed at the Academy of Art in New York City, but it was revived in 1989 at the Brae Loch.
Local shows are not available in visual recordings, and so many acclaimed productions live on in fading playbills and oral tradition. Many younger people will know Lucille Markson only for the shortest-ever acceptance speech at the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater Awards, when she was voted the SALT Lifetime Achievement Award in April 2005: “See what happens if you live long enough.”