Joan Diener

'Lusty' star of Broadway musicals

Tom Vallance
Thursday 18 May 2006 00:00

Joan Diener, actress and singer: born Columbus, Ohio 24 February 1930; married 1956 Albert Marre (one son, one daughter); died New York 13 May 2006.

The actress and singer Joan Diener had major roles in two of Broadway's biggest musical hits, Kismet (1953) and Man of La Mancha (1965). A buxom blonde (described by the writer Ken Bloom in his 2004 book Broadway Musicals as "lusty, busty, of the eye-popping silhouette and the eardrum-splitting vocals"), she had a unique voice that spanned an exceptionally wide range. Brooks Atkinson, critic of The New York Times, wrote of her performance in Kismet,

As an abandoned hussy, brazenly made up and loosely clad, Joan Diener looks like a fine case of grand arson and warms up the whole show.

Though she starred in three other Broadway musicals, they were not successful, and she did not have a film career (Dolores Gray and Sophia Loren, respectively, recreated her roles in the screen versions of Kismet and Man of La Mancha), but Man of La Mancha gave her a career in itself - she played the role of Dulcinea on Broadway, in London, Paris, Amsterdam and many revivals in the United States. In 1992, over 60 years old, she played Dulcinea once more when she succeeded the pop singer Sheena Easton in a Broadway revival.

Born in Ohio in 1930, she majored in psychology at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, but "moonlighted" as an actress while still a student. She made her Broadway début in the revue Small Wonder (1948), the first Broadway show to be choreographed by Gower Champion, which boasted several other talents that would achieve fame later, among them the writer George Axelrod and performers Tom Ewell, Alice Pearce, Jack Cassidy and Mary McCarty. Blighted by a mediocre score, the show managed to survive for three months due, most critics agreed, to its talented cast.

Diener's career was given a boost when, while playing a small role in Wolcott Gibbs's comedy Season in the Sun (1950), she was spotted by a photographer for Life magazine, who placed photographs of her there, emphasising her décolletage. She later described the offers that followed as

for the Jayne Mansfield-type part, and really that's so foreign to me. I don't do it well. If I'd had to work, I'd have taken them. But since I was married and wanted a family, I could afford to wait.

She met her husband, Albert Marre, when in 1953 she won the role in which she attained stardom - Lalume, the seductive wife of the Wazir in Kismet, a show directed by Marre and billed as "A Musical Arabian Night". They were married three years later. Kismet was based on Edward Knoblock's play of 1911 about a beggar - a likeable rogue (and, in the musical, a poet) who becomes emir for a day and marries his daughter to the caliph, and its score was beautifully fashioned by Robert Wright and George Forrest from the melodies of Borodin.

The play had been filmed in 1930 and again in 1942, with the latter version featuring Marlene Dietrich in the role played by Diener, whose big number was the pulsating "Not Since Nineveh", its melody one of several in the show taken from the Polovtsian Dances. Diener's other solo in the show, "Rahadlakum", is the only song in Kismet with no debt to Borodin, having a melody by Wright and Forrest themselves.

Kismet received mainly unenthusiastic reviews, but had the good fortune to open during a newspaper strike. By the time reviews were printed, the show's gaudy spectacle, knowing humour and beguiling melodies had made it a popular success. In 1955 the show's three stars - Alfred Drake, Doretta Morrow and Diener - brought the show to the Stoll Theatre in London, where the production ran even longer than the one on Broadway, though Diener left the cast after only a few weeks for reasons never fully explained.

Diener was next featured in the revue Ziegfeld Follies (1956) with Tallulah Bankhead, which closed out of town. In 1958 Albert Marre directed a production of At the Grand, a musical version of Vicki Baum's 1930 novel Grand Hotel, which opened in Los Angeles starring Paul Muni, with Diener as the diva (a ballerina in the novel) who falls in love with a charming, but larcenous, fake baron. Though the show never reached Broadway, it was drastically revamped over 30 years later and, directed by Tommy Tune, became a big hit, Grand Hotel (1989), with Liliane Montevecchi as the character, now restored to her original profession as ballerina, first played by Diener.

Man of La Mancha, based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, but combining the characters of Quixote and Cervantes himself, was also directed by Diener's husband, Albert Marre. In the powerful tale of hope and chivalry, Diener was Aldonza, the serving wench of easy virtue envisioned by the deranged Quixote as Dulcinea, "sweet lady and fair virgin". While her performance as Lalume had prompted a mixed response, critics were unanimous in praising her superb portrayal of this demanding role. The show had music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion (who replaced W.H. Auden) and libretto by Dale Wasserman, and Darion said later that Diener's role had been the most difficult to write:

It took a long time for Wasserman and me to come to an agreement about the book. The show ground to a halt for days because Wasserman and I realised that we were writing Aldonza/ Dulcinea differently. She is the focal point of the play; she is the only one who changes. We had to grapple with her. Did she learn from this crazy old man to be something else, or did she have something inside her waiting to be lit?

Richard Kiley, who sang the show's biggest hit, "The Impossible Dream", had earlier worked with Diener in Kismet:

She had a trained operatic voice and was able to do incredible things, go from the most awful kind of chest sounds of someone from the gutter to the wonderful thread of sound in the reprise of "Dulcinea".

Leigh said: "Joan Diener had a three-and-a-half-octave range. We tailored the music to her voice."

Diener returned to Broadway to star in Cry for Us All (1970), based on William Alfred's 1966 blank verse Irish-American political drama, Hogan's Goat. Directed by Albert Marre with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Phyllis Robinson and William Alfred, the show was made for Diener, but it lasted for only nine performances.

An even bigger flop (also with music by Mitch Leigh) was Home Sweet Homer (1975), based on the Odyssey and unable to survive more than one performance despite its top-billed superstar, Yul Brynner, as Odysseus.

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