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On The Waterfront

Matthew Nerber and Andrea Andolina

On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg’s classic story of corruption on the New York waterfront and the kid who “coulda been a contender,” is best known in its unforgettable 1954 film version starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint. Late in his career, Schulberg and Stan Silverman adapted the piece for the stage, where it maintained its emotional power but never really attracted a major production.

The Subversive Theatre Collective has joined forces with the New Phoenix Theatre to revisit this tale of little guys against the thugs.

I met Budd Schulberg in Cleveland during the fall of 1988. The stage version of On the Waterfront was making its debut at the Cleveland Play House, and I was a young writer for New York’s Theater Week magazine. I was acutely aware that I was meeting a Hollywood giant, the winner of the Oscar, the author of What Makes Sammy Run?, and creator of some of the most famous lines in the history of Hollywood:

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts!”

“You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.”

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”

“The only arithmetic he ever got was hearing the referee count up to ten.”

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

I only asked Schulberg one question. Why did he think it was time to retell the story of On the Waterfront?

We talked for over an hour.

He told me that On the Waterfront would always be relevant as long as powerful people run roughshod over ordinary people. He turned to me, pointedly, and stressed that it was the responsibility of writers to stand up against the abuse of power.

I remember Schulberg as a big man. For a Hollywood giant, it also seemed to me that he was remarkably humble and accessible. He was happy to take lavish time with me, and seemed to feel it was his responsibility to help me get my story right, while imparting a little wisdom in the process.

On the Waterfront has been directed by Kurt Schneiderman, and stars Richard Lambert as Father Barry, with Matthew Nerber as Terry Malloy, Andrea Andolina as Edie Doyle, and Victor Morales as mob boss Johnny Friendly.

Performances continue through May 25 at the New Phoenix Theatre at 95 North Johnson Park. For details, see On the Boards.