From the May 9, 1983 issue of New York Magazine.
The rehearsal had already dragged on for hours, the air conditioning had long since died, and the stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, were beginning to get a bit whiny, complaining about the heat at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, one of the more superficial problems of this production of Private Lives. The day after the first preview, a delicious sense of crisis was in the air, Richard and Elizabeth were running lines each morning at the Ritz, everybody was angry with the director, and the semi-hysteria wasn’t much different from what goes on with any show while it’s out of town. But this wasn’t any show: this was a sideshow, a canny exploitation guaranteed to turn out the crowds—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton co-starring onstage for the first time.
Such troubles! Taylor and Burton, scarred survivors of tabloids and marital wars, were wheeling their circus into town prior to a ten-week run in New York, and the paparazzi were ready to descend. Bodyguards had been hired, and the cognac diamonds hauled out of the vault. Burton was recovering from back surgery, and Taylor talking about her hematoma from the car crash in Israel. Zev Bufman, her co-producer, was fielding calls from the international press and organizing sawhorses as a barrier against the hordes of fans outside, some of them clutching tattered copies of Kitty Kelley’s The Last Star, hoping for an autograph. The Taylor-Burton coterie of press agents and associates were flying in and flying out, limos were dispatched to Logan airport, everyone was being shifted around in suites at the Copley Plaza, and if that wasn’t enough, just before the first preview the rubber air bags that move the scenery had collapsed. Which meant more experts would be flying in and flying out. The principals didn’t know their movements, were blowing lines, and there remained a very tricky dance sequence in the second act to re-choreograph.
So Richard Burton, suitably grim, was onstage blocking out his own dance steps, moving slowly because of the pains in his spine, his navy jogging suit making him look as thin as the playbill. His second and third wife, Elizabeth Taylor, was slaving, too, going over and over a bit with the Victrola.
“All right, darling, let’s do,” Burton said, and off they glided, reincarnated as those 1930s lovers Elyot and Amanda, Noel Coward’s ex-husband and ex-wife who have just abandoned their new spouses and are trying to make a go of it again. And so the waltz began, tentatively, as they navigated the steps of their Paris living room, trying to avoid the Braque reproduction and the grand piano. Taylor was wearing high heels, cuffed jeans, and a silky sweatshirt, and as she tried to keep her eyes fixed on her partner, their feet and dialogue got tangled, and they stumbled over Coward’s precious quips until, dance over, they collapsed on the divan.
“Darling,” Elizabeth Taylor said to Richard Burton, “you’re still wearing your wedding band.” She took his hand tenderly. “I know,” Burton said. “Why don’t you take it off?” Taylor said. “Because I can’t get it off.” “I see,” she said, light as a meringue. The moment played like Noel Coward, deft, a little too fraught with meaning, except, irony of ironies, it wasn’t from Private Lives at all.
The Taylor-Burtons arrived last week for a limited run. Elizabeth Taylor, tired of doing General Hospital and not ready to become Mrs. Victor Luna, is eager for another Broadway triumph. Private Lives is not a showpiece, like The Little Foxes, but Taylor says, “I am ready for Nouveau York.” Rock Hudson—“one of my best friends”—has lent her his apartment. “I guess that means when he comes in for the opening I’ll have to offer to get him a hotel room,” she says. Those nasty questions about the dignity of trotting out the linen of her own private lives don’t bother Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner, overchonicled, overquestioned, overplayed. “Who cares,” she said in her dressing room up in Boston. “For heaven’s sake, it just adds a giggle to the whole thing. At this point, I know who I am and what I am.”
The Boston run was sold out, but there was a savage pan by Kevin Kelly in the Globe. “He review really cheesed me off,” Taylor said, “because it was like a personal vendetta.” Burton was characteristically aloof. “I’m an old war-horse,” he said. “I don’t even read the damned things.” Elizabeth Taylor had larger things to think about. So far, the New York theater has sold only two-thirds of the house. In Boston, the production looked pretty creaky, but the onstage contretemps were trifling compared with what was happening off.