Sunday, December 17, 2017 at 7:00pm
William George (“Bill”) Martin--colleague, director, teacher, storyteller--died in hospice on Thursday, November 16th after a brief battle with cancer and complications from a stroke. He was 80 years old.
Bill was born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado, and after serving in the Navy earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Bob Jones University in North Carolina and his Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. Arriving in New York in the early 1970s, he soon landed the plum assignment of directing “The Lieutenant”, a rock opera about the notorious My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and perhaps Broadway’s first “serious” musical. It closed after only a week, but did earn a slew of nominations, including for Best Musical from the Tonys and Outstanding Direction of a Musical from the Drama Desk Awards. (“But it was 1975--the year of “The Wiz’,” Bill always claimed with a rueful smile. “We didn’t stand a chance.”)
According to Bill, the material in “The Lieutenant” was so controversial that a team of lawyers had to see the show before it was even allowed to open. (One tale that Bill was fond of telling involved the woman he found standing outside the theatre one night. “How can you do a musical comedy about something as tragic as the My Lai massacre?” she demanded, pounding his chest. “My son DIED in Vietnam!” “But, ma’am,” he tried to tell her, “it’s not a comedy--it’s a drama!” Alas, she’d have none of it.)
He managed Applause Books, formerly on West 70th Street, in the early 2000s, moving on to the Drama Book Shop in 2007. Very quickly, he became “king” of the directing section, as well as an expert on the offerings in the children’s and education sections. He even got married in the shop, exchanging vows (after a 36-year “courtship”) with his partner, Tom Gustafson, on Super Bowl Sunday--February 5, 2012.
But it was Bill’s remarkable talent as a raconteur that impressed us the most. Over a career spanning half-a-century, he worked, it seemed, with nearly everybody--and if there was someone he didn’t work with, he knew someone who did. The result: charming and often amusing stories about everyone from Edward Albee (for whom he worked as an assistant) to Larry Kramer...David Merrick to Frank Langella...Stephen Sondheim to Eartha Kitt.
He was a name-dropper, to be sure, but every name he mentioned, every bit of backstage gossip he shared, was meant only to elicit a laugh, a chuckle; and everything he said, when he was in full “campfire” mode, was delivered with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
We will miss Bill--theatre historian, valued co-worker, but most of all dear, dear friend--very much.