Mame vs. Mame
By Eddie Shapiro
She's been called irrepressible, outrageous, fascinating, and extraordinary. She's been the subject of two novels, a nonfiction book, a play, a musical, and two movies. She's been played by Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Lucille Ball, Greer Garson, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Elaine Stritch, Susan Hayward, and yes, even Morgan Brittany. She's Mame, of course, the world's favorite aunt. And on August 1 die-hard Mame lovers will have a tough choice to make. On the East Coast, at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., playwright and gender-bending actor Charles Busch will be playing his closing night performance in Lawrence and Lee's Auntie Mame after a summer mini-tour. Meanwhile, across the country, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Michele Lee will be tooting Mame's trumpet in Jerry Herman's musical of the play. Now, before one begins to imagine the catfight that would ensue if these two Mames were locked in a room together, it bears noting that Busch and Lee adore each other. They became close during Lee's long run (both on Broadway and in Los Angeles) in Busch's play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. That being the case, both were willing to spend some time talking to Out about playing Mame. Busch had just opened in Ogunquit, Maine. Lee, on the other hand, had just started rehearsals.
Out: Charles, have you been having fun doing the show?
Busch: Fun? It's already turned into anecdotes. I'm sure it will be fun in retrospect, but it hasn't been even slightly fun. It's been very Noises Off. We had, like, two days to put it all together up here [after rehearsals in New York], and the truck with the scenery broke down, so we lost a day. The crew is all teenage girls. So it's been nutty. We never got through the whole show as far as a tech rehearsal, so we were just kinda winging it on opening night. The girls just sort of got the set in place, but they forgot to put the props on stage. Classic summer theater. Thank God there's not a pill in the group, because it would have been just hideous if anyone started acting up.
Out: Wow. What about you, Michele? You must be excited. This is your first book musical since Seesaw [in 1973], isn't it?
Lee: Oh, God. I guess I don't think of it that way. That's so funny. When I do songs from a musical [out of context], which I have been doing for the last three or four years, the way that I present my quote-unquote pieces is as an actor. I sing the play, if you will. And so my hesitance to your question was like, 'Well, I just did this or that,' but then I realize that I only did two or three songs! So, yeah, it's been since Seesaw.
Busch: Boy, I wish I could see that. She's gonna sing the hell out of it. I am so thrilled for her. I Just love her. Her voice is in remarkable shape! It may be the fact that she has hardly sung at all for the past 30 years, so she hasn't strained it. Her voice is an amazing Broadway sound, which no one is capable of doing anymore. It's frustrating for those of us who admire her; we all want to hear her do a big Broadway show and belt out one number after another. The score is just perfect for her voice. And she'll look fabulous!
Lee: Well, I know that Charles will be much more the lady than me!
Out: Michele, a lot of people don't even realize that before Knots Landing, you came from musical theater.
Lee: A lot of people watched Knots Landing and were too young to know the musical theater. And there are all of these young people who come up to me now and have just started getting hooked on the show from SoapNet. But they don't know the musicals. And not just the musical theater; I did so many television specials, and I recorded with so many people.
Out: I actually remember seeing you sing on a whole lot of TV specials in the '80s. I particularly remember Night of 100 Stars, where you did that song with Pam Dawber, Gavin MacLeod, Nancy Dussault, Hal Linden, and John Schneider, who you get to work with again now in Mame.
Lee: Yeah! I had forgotten we had done that! I haven't worked with him [on this] yet. He doesn't come in until tomorrow.
Out: You have some other great people too. Christine Ebersole as Vera is an inspired choice.
Lee: I love her. She's very sweet. It's been really fun. And Allyce Beasley as Gooch! Wait until you see her. She is Gooch. She is amazing. What a lady. It's an incredible cast. We're going to have a lot of fun.
Out: And Charles, your Vera is no slouch either.
Busch: Penny Fuller! We're actually sharing dressing rooms. She's such a worldly woman. I just adore her. I find her endlessly fascinating. I've always been a frustrated interviewer, so pity the poor actress who shares a dressing room with me! She's been asked about every man she's ever been to bed with. And stories about Applause [in which Fuller played Eve Harrington opposite Lauren Bacall], those alone!