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Theater Credits / Ondine

No theatrical venture met with more success nor impacted Mel Ferrer's life more profoundly than this production of "Ondine", which ran for a limited engagement on Broadway from February 18th through July 3rd, 1954 for 157 sold out performances. The entire project was conceived and executed by Ferrer himself especially for Audrey Hepburn, who was soon to become his wife. It was in all ways an inspired endeavor, epitomizing Mel Ferrer's multi-faceted abilities and individual talents. He not only chose the play and co-starred in it, he also engineered all aspects of its eventual realization.

Mel Ferrer met Audrey Hepburn in July of 1953 at a private party in London. Their introduction was engineered by Gregory Peck - Mel's close friend from The La Jolla Playhouse and Audrey's co-star in "Roman Holiday." Although Ms Hepburn had yet to achieve real fame, the buzz surrounding her was deafening, so Ferrer - always intrigued by new and unique talent - was no doubt prepared to be captivated. What probably surprised him was Audrey's obvious fascination with him. She'd seen him in "Lili," and was enthralled by the film as well as Mel's performance in it. She knew all about his career at La Jolla and told him with great sincerity that she'd love to do a play with him on Broadway if he could come up with the right project.

From that moment on Mel Ferrer was a driven man. He flew back to Los Angeles to secure a divorce from his estranged wife, and he then began the sobering task of finding an appropriate play to showcase Audrey Hepburn and co-star himself. His choice of "Ondine" by French playwright Jean Giraudoux was brilliant. Based on an ancient legend about a water nymph's doomed love for a medieval knight, the two leading roles seemed custom fit to the two actors and the play itself - which had met with countless production problems since its inception in 1939 - was grounded in the French language so beloved of both Audrey and Mel.

By the time Mel presented Audrey with the script in late 1953 in Los Angeles while she was working on "Sabrina", he'd already lined up the prospective backing of The Playwright's Company of NYC, a Schubert theater in New York and the prestigious services of theatrical legend Alfred Lunt to direct. He, of course, used the casting of burgeoning talent Audrey Hepburn as enticement to all interested parties, so her immediate acceptance was probably a relief in many ways for the overextended Ferrer. But once Audrey was on board, preparations for the play began in earnest as did their intense romance, an involvement that was to become all-consuming for both of them over the ensuing years.

After previews in Boston the play opened at the 46th Street Theater on Broadway to resounding reviews and standing-room-only audiences, and the production's critical and box office success was coupled with an almost fanatical fascination with the two leading players' dewy romance, which was fervently covered in both New York and - a little more skeptically - in Hollywood. The incredible hoopla surrounding them culminated in late March when Audrey received both the Academy Award for her performance in "Roman Holiday" and the Tony Award for her performance in "Ondine".  Mel Ferrer was sitting quietly beside her at both ceremonies, and although outwardly happy for the accolades, he privately felt her Oscar was probably premature. He was uncomfortably correct, and in later years Audrey would be passed over for far more remarkable performances. Still, in 1954 she was the hottest actress in the entire world and unknown to either of them at the time, her lustrous star would never cease to shine.

Behind the scenes the play had a few in-house dramas as well, the most serious being  the restrained hostility between Alfred Lunt and Mel Ferrer. Ferrer has been severely criticized for his well documented undermining of Lunt's direction, most specifically concerning Audrey Hepburn's performance, which he seemingly controlled as they cooed privately. However, the end result must speak for itself. Her performance - and indeed Lunt's Tony Award winning direction of the play - owe a great deal to Mel Ferrer's input, whether invited or not. Years later, Marian Seldes, the highly respected theatrical actress who played Mel's earthly love interest in the play, reflected on the production and astutely observed that she always felt Mel Ferrer was "scared to death" throughout the play's preparations. And well he would have been. Nobody had more on the line and nobody had more to lose - both personally and professionally -  than Mel Ferrer if this production failed. Fortunately for him - it did not.

Although tragic in concept, the play's sprightly dialogue makes it as much comedy as drama and reading the script today brings both actors inspirationally alive. The innocence and dogged determination of Hepburn's besotted Ondine is deftly matched to the foggy bewilderment of Ferrer's inept Hans in performances that perfectly suited them both. Although Audrey Hepburn's star turn received the highest praise, Mel Ferrer's performance was uniformly admired and, of course, his voice and theatrical experience served him well on stage. In addition, production values were greatly admired with Tony Awards for both sets and costumes. The costumes in particular were clearly intriguing with Audrey clothed in a net bodysuit that seemingly had nothing underneath. On any other actress it would have been indiscreet, but it never seemed offensive on Audrey's boyish physique. Mel's knightly costume of armored mail was also extremely attractive, showing off his long limbs and elegant bearing and effectively using his natural gift of movement. Indeed, both actors' backgrounds as dancers greatly enhanced the entire staging.

The play was given an indefinite green light and would have run for many more months on Broadway except for Audrey Hepburn's frequently fragile health. Always frail and subject to bouts of serious asthma attacks, she began to lose weight midway through the run, and although she never missed a performance, doctors severely warned her that she must abandon the strenuous schedule of eight performances a week. Since Mel's contract was tied to hers both actors would be leaving and producers never considered for a moment continuing the play with different stars. The last performance was given on July 3rd and Audrey immediately left for Switzerland to privately recuperate. Mel's next job was a relatively minor assignment in Italy - probably taken just to be near her - and they married soon afterward in Burgenstock, Switzerland on September 24, 1954.

Given the enormous success of "Ondine" - and in particular Mel Ferrer's crucial part in its creation - one wonders why the two luminaries didn't undertake more theatrical ventures over the fourteen years of their partnership. Audrey Hepburn's legendary fame and phenomenal success as a film star probably constitutes the major reason, as well as their relocation to Europe, which suited not only Audrey's health but her temperament, as well. Still, it's lamentable that this major accomplishment for them as a couple was never followed up in any way.

The desire to make "Ondine" into a film of equal critical reception preoccupied Audrey and Mel for the first twelve months of their marriage, and in this endeavor they became entangled for a time with British producer / director Michael Powell, who had reached the pinnacle of his fame with the ballet mega-hit "The Red Shoes" in 1948 and remained an interesting creative force if not always a financially sound one. Powell had been as intrigued with the Audrey - Mel relationship as everybody else during "Ondine"'s Broadway run, and he visited them backstage in New York with an almost fawn-like fascination. In his later memoirs (probably more quoted to Mel's detriment than any other single source), he admits to immediately realizing two salient facts concerning one of the world's most publicized duos: they were obsessed with translating "Ondine" into a film (looking on it as the embodiment of their love and shared success) but they were also completely and utterly financially destitute.  Seizing on the moment, Powell instilled in them a hope for the play's cinematic future that propelled their efforts fruitlessly in his direction for the next year. Unfortunately, Powell's inspiration proved completely unacceptable for the couple, as he envisioned a modern-day setting with Mel playing a scuba diver who snares the hapless water nymph in a fisherman's net. Although both camps held onto some hope for a joint production, neither side ever gave the other's conception a moment's consideration, so in the end plans inevitably fell apart - with a great deal of regret on Mel and Audrey's part and, unfortunately, a great deal of bitterness on Powell's part.

The following is the complete list of opening night Broadway credits for Ondine:

ONDINE

Produced by the Playwrights' Company by arrangement with Schuyler Watts
Music Virgil Thomson
Written byJean Giraudoux
Adapted by Maurice Valency
Directed by Alfred Lunt
Settings by Peter Larkin
Costumes by Richard Whorf
Lighting by Jean Rosenthal
Business ManagerVictor Samrock
Company Manager Lawrence Farrell
Assistant Stage Manager Robert Crawley
Stage ManagerWilliam Chambers
Music ContractorMorris Stonzek
Musical SupervisorWilliam Kraft
Press Representative William Fields
Associate Press Representative Reginald Denenholz

OPENING NIGHT CAST

Mel FerrerHans Ritter
Audrey HepburnOndine
John Alexander Auguste
Peter BrandonBertram
Robert CrawleyExecutioner
Lloyd GoughFirst Fisherman
Superintendent of the Theatre
Stacy Graham A Lady
Kitchen Maid
Alan Hewitt Lord Chamberlain
First Judge
Gaye JordanAngelique
Edith KingEugenie
James LanphierTrainer of Seals
A Servant
William LeMassena A Lord
Second Judge
Anne Meacham Violante
Robert MiddletonOld One
Illusionist / The Old One
Second Fisherman / The Old One
Barry O'HaraMatho
Lily PagetSalammbo
William PodmoreThe King
Dran SeitzOne of the Ondines
Tani Seitz One of the Ondines
Marian SeldesBertha
Jan SherwoodVenus
Sonia TorgesonOne of the Odines

Additional Photos from Ondine

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