An upcoming book called Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater is filled with Eddie Shapiro’s penetrating interviews with Broadway’s most dazzling femmes. But some of the men don’t come off so well.
In Shapiro’s chat with Victoria Clark (Tony winner for Light in the Piazza), Clark talks about working with Nathan Lane when she subbed for Faith Prince in Guys and Dolls way back in the 1990s. “He didn’t know who I was,” Clark relates, dripping with rue. “Didn’t care. I wasn’t Faith. I wasn’t going to be as good as Faith no matter who I was, no matter what I did. I was a waste of his time. And it wasn’t until I finished her first week away that he said, ‘Great job this week’. I thought, ‘Even if you didn’t know I was going to do a great job, if you had just lied a bit and told me on Tuesday night, “You’re going to be great,” this would have been a much easier week.” Nowadays, of course, Nathan always gives Clark a nice big hug when he sees her. “He and I have come a long way,” she beams, as if getting ready to belt one of those happy-ending songs that get the tourists cheering.
Of course theater women can be mean to each other, even without a man involved. Also in the book: When the young Donna McKechnie had a supporting role in Call Me Madam, starring the formidable Ethel Merman, she heard Merman belch to the director, “Who did she fuck to get two dance numbers?” (But McKechnie is clear to add that the Merm later gave her a high compliment by trying to crack-up the young singer/dancer onstage during her last night. That was an old-school way of showing that you approve of the person you’re messing with. Sweet—though most actors would probably prefer a thank-you note.)
Another Mama Rose—and the original Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd—Angela Lansbury knows for a fact that Helena Bonham Carter wanted to infuse more humor into her screen portrayal of Lovett, but hubby Tim Burton thwarted that attempt. (Ugh. Those men again!) Still, Lansbury liked Carter’s look, saying, “It wasn’t Mrs. Lovett, but whoever she was…”
And speaking of Sweeney Todd, two-time Tony winner Judy Kaye tells Shapiro that Patti LuPone (another Mama Rose) was lovely when Kaye replaced her for five weeks in that show’s revival, except for one thing: “She wouldn’t let me play her tuba. It wasn’t her tuba. It was a tuba they got for her to play. I was not even allowed to touch the fucking tuba.” They couldn’t find a (fucking) tuba the same size, so Kaye had to play one that was way too big for her, and in the process she almost hurt herself. Well, don’t pick up a tuba, folks, even if it fits. Just pick up this book and live.
[Reprinted (and/or reworded) from Nothing Like A Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro with permission from Oxford University Press USA. © Eddie Shapiro, 2014.]
From Left: James Lapine, Sondheim, Jackie Hoffman, America Ferrera, Darren Criss, Laura Osnes, and Jeremy Jordan
MERRILY HE ROLLS ALONG
Moving on to the great Stephen Sondheim, let me toot my own horn (if not tuba) and gloat that he personally emailed me just a few weeks ago. Sure, it was to say that he had to reject my request for an interview, but still, he emailed me personally! And Steve was gracious about it, explaining that he’s too busy finishing a show to do anything other than what’s been scheduled already. Hey, I’ll gladly drop my silly little interview request to help make way for a new Sondheim musical.
Confirming his good manners, Karen Akers (Tony nominee for the original Nine) told me that two years ago, she was set to do a Sondheim-related act at the Algonquin and he emailed her too! It was to say he’d be there, and “Don’t be nervous.” “Right!” Akers told me, laughing. “God will be in the audience, but I won’t be nervous!”
Sure enough, Akers accidentally skipped an entire verse of her opening number—“Live, Laugh, Love” from Follies—so she stopped and started it again. And Sondheim ended up loving the act, particularly her version of “Water Under The Bridge” from Singing Out Loud, a never-made-movie intended for Barbra Streisand. After the show, Sondheim was grinning from ear to ear, so Akers—forgetting that he’s not a touchy-feely guy—embraced him in a bear hug, then got nervous and backed away. “Sondheim was still grinning!” she told me. And he sent her another email later that night, this time congratulating her again! It’s enough to make you live, laugh, love.
By the way, my convo with Akers happened at the premiere of HBO’s Six By Sondheim, a lovely look at the groundbreaking composer’s life and work, studded with both archival and new footage that includes interviews and performance scenes. Among the revelations in the show (which premieres December 9):
*When Company opened, Variety called it “a show strictly for homos and old ladies.” And they said that like it was a bad thing!
*Sondheim wrote the classic been-around-the-block song “I’m Still Here” with Joan Crawford in mind, explaining, “Joan had become a joke on herself, but she survived. So I used her career and American history and wrote the song.” I bet the Merm took credit for it, though.
*And “Send in the Clowns” was written in short lyrical spurts for Glynis Johns because Johns had a lovely but breathy voice. “So it was ‘Isn’t it rich?’…pause...breath; ‘Isn’t it queer?’...pause…breath,” says Sondheim, explaining the staccato lyrics.
At the event, I paused for my own (bad) breath and asked Broadway funny lady Jackie Hoffman—who cameos in the doc—if she happens to be working with Sondheim on anything. “Not unless Mrs. Lovett converts,” she cracked. If so, Jackie could no doubt play a mean tuba.