We mourn the death of actor and director Alvin Epstein, whose contributions to the theater loom large over the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Epstein has long been known for his work in Samuel Beckett’s plays, beginning with the Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956. He is likewise remembered for his frequent engagement with Weill’s musical theater (not otherwise a specialty) as well as a longstanding partnership with Martha Schlamme touring various Weill-centered cabaret evenings.
Epstein’s tenure with the Yale Repertory Theatre coincided with the company’s golden age of Weill-Brecht performance in the 1970s. That era began with a double bill of The Seven Deadly Sins and Mahagonny Songspiel during the 1971-72 season (the U.S. premiere of the latter); Epstein directed the Sins. Two years later he directed Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In the U.S. premiere of Happy End (1972), he gave an unforgettable portrayal of Dr. Nakamura (the Governor). These Yale performances, studded with future stars–a revival of Happy End featured Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver performed in Mahagonny–provided powerful impetus for productions of Mahagonny and Happy End in the U.S., where they had not previously been established. Lotte Lenya traveled to New Haven to attend several performances, and they also introduced English translations by Michael Feingold which remain standard English-language versions to this day. Epstein revisited the Sins with American Repertory Theatre in 1980. In 1989, Epstein played Mr. Peachum in the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera. He kept up a connection with Weill and Lenya in his later years when he served as a judge for the Lotte Lenya Competition in 2004.
He began working with Martha Schlamme in 1969 with a program titled “Whores, Wars, and Tin Pan Alley,” which they toured all over North America in various forms on and off for fifteen years (by 1979, Steven Blier was their music director). In the first few years of the twenty-first century, Epstein teamed up with Beth Anne Cole in a similar program, “Songs Degenerate and Otherwise.”
Epstein’s impact on theater, broad and long-lasting, will not be forgotten. Weill aficionados will not soon forget him, either.
Obituary from the New York Times