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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Listen to the CD set and get set for some fright

A night of booze and banter and dead children (maybe?)
A night of booze and banter and dead children (maybe?)
Author's collection

Martha. George. Honey. Nick.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been an essential part of American theater–even more to the point, American culture–for more than half a century. When we talk about long-ago stage productions of great plays, most of us have to imagine. Not me. I remember the play, have the vinyl.
In the case of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we have something far better: In the winter of 1963, a few months after the play opened, Columbia Records took the unusual step of bringing the original cast–Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and George Grizzard–into the studio to perform the entire play for an audio recording. It has been unavailable since the LP era, but now Masterworks Broadway proudly releases this important recording for the first time in the digital era. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be available for purchase exclusively via MasterworksBroadway.com on February 18 in a limited quantity of 2-CD-R sets as well as digital download. The 2-CD-R sets will be available through Arkiv Music on March 18, plus downloads through digital service providers the same day.
Columbia Records had been making audio recordings of plays and other “spoken word” projects since the 1940s. None would have the impact of this recording of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was produced by Columbia’s legendary chief and tastemaker, Goddard Lieberson. A year after its release, the four-LP recording of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. The newly available recording includes a booklet with the original liner notes by Edward Albee and Goddard Lieberson, as well as a new essay by David Foil.
In Lieberson’s mere decision to make this recording of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there was a bit of daring. We forget how deeply shocking the play was for many of its first audiences (as the film would be to a larger audience in 1966; my friend Sandy Dennis won an Oscar for her big-screen role as Honey.) As if to prove the point, in the spring of 1963, the trustees of Columbia University overruled the unanimous recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize drama jury and refused to award Albee’s play the prize in drama that year–because of its unprecedented portrait of a dysfunctional marriage and the scathing language with which it speaks. The Tony Award voters were not so faint of heart: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Tonys for Best Play, Best Actor (Hill), Best Actress (Hagen) and Best Director (Schneider) of the 1962-63 Broadway season. It also won the Best Play citation of the New York Drama Critics Circle.
For most people, the experience of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is defined by the 1966 film adaptation, but it always seems more in-the-moment, more ferocious, more astonishing on the stage. The performance of the play that emerges on the recording lives up to the theatrical phenomenon we can only read about, and it is especially arresting in comparison with the film. The play retains its own identity and looms larger and greater with the passage of time, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. The greatness seems, at moments, like it might have threatened to burn down its original home, the Billy Rose Theatre. Once again, we have this recording to prove it.