Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Perfectly Marvelous




By now everyone knows the details of Natasha Richardson's tragic death this week. I previously wrote that, to my own surprise, I have never seen one of her performances. She's surely mourned by Broadway audiences for two memorable roles, Anna Christie and Sally Bowles. (I've heard from a spy named Charlie who saw her in Closer that she mesmerized in that one, too, but I suppose she was too much a nobody to appear in the film version; Julia Roberts snagged her role in the movie.)



So it's no wonder this week's Dance Party is devoted to Natasha. I could not find any of the solo numbers she sang in Anna Christie, and the dream ballet wasn't appropriate, so this clip from Cabaret will have to suffice. Yes, I know there isn't any dancing in it, but it does give a flavor of what her performance must have been like. It's really a drippy number, one of the slighter songs in a very strong score, but it surely illustrates a point I've been making lately (see posts below): ACTORS give the best musical theatre performances.

So, in honor of the late Ms. Richardson (and with a bit of help from John Benjamin Hickey, who was saddled with playing that loser Cliff), enjoy a perfectly marvelous rendition of a fairly lousy song:


When I Go, I'm Going Like Elsie


Cabaret has been on my mind this week. The reason is obvious: the tragically unexpected death of Natasha Richardson, who won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for the 1998 revival of the show. I wrote about her here, and confessed that I did not see her in this or any other performance. That revival did a lot toward proving that point about which I refuse to shut up, that an actor who sings will deliver a stronger, fuller performance in a musical than a singer hired on vocal prowess. Both Richardson and Alan Cumming are actors of the first rank, and both won Tonys for their work in this musical (it's interesting that Joel Grey, who originated the Emcee in 1966, won the Tony in the Supporting category; 30 years later, it has finally been realized that the Emcee is the LEADING male role in the piece). This revival also featured Denis O'Hare (as Ernst), John Benjamin Hickey (as Cliff), Ron Rifkin (as Herr Schultz) and Mary Louise Wilson (as Fraulein Schneider), all of whom are known as actors first.

This revival (which was really an interesting re-imagining) has had a pretty substantial influence on subsequent productions. I caught the National Tour of the show in DC, with (get this) Terri Hatcher playing Sally Bowles. Yes, in the years between Lois and Clark and Desperate Housewives, Hatcher was attempting to become a stage actress. I was probably lucky that I attended a weekday matinee of the show, because, true to form, the star was absent and the understudy went on in her place. The actress (I can't recall her name) was quite good, but was overshadowed (as so many Sallys before her) by the actor playing the Emcee.


In the tour I saw, the Master of Ceremonies was played by an actor of whom I had never heard, but who has since made a terrific name for himself, Norbert Leo Butz. I could not take my eyes off this dynamic gent, but that is really not surprising. The Emcee in Cabaret is one of the all-time show-stealers, and I should know.



Cabaret has been near and dear to my heart and soul since the film came out in the early 70s. I was just a teen, but I still recall the impact of Joel Grey's performance. This was the first time I consciously thought to myself, "I want to play this role." The Emcee became the first role to be placed on "my list," even before I knew I was keeping one. Ask any stage actor, and he or she can tell you immediately what roles they are dying to play (or wish they had had the chance to play). For me, the Emcee topped that list.



I was so enamored of the Cabaret film, and the Emcee therein, that I performed a version of "Money, Money" with my friend Ada in my high school drama class (Ada recently reminded me that we used lip sync. yikes). This was the first of many times I performed some aspect of Cabaret. (This picture is proof of my obsession: My friend Donna agreed to accompany me to a Halloween party during this period, and as you can see, I went as the Emcee.)



The next time I played the Emcee, I actually got to sing some of his songs in my own voice. I have already written about my first encounters with my best buddy Judy, which resulted in my playing the Emcee in her abridged version of Cabaret. Judy deserves some credit here, not only for giving me the role, but for her idea to turn some of the Kit Kat Girls into men. Back in 1975, this was a pretty radical idea. Judy was ahead of her time; twenty years later, the Cabaret revival placed a man in the song "Two Ladies."



Well, Judy's one-hour version of the show had whetted my appetite. I was confident I could play the Emcee in a full length production, and Thespis, the world's first showstopper, seemed to smile down on me when, a year later, Cabaret was announced as part of the main stage season at my undergrad. After several auditions, there remained only three students up for the part. My buddy Cris (about whom I have already written) was (and still is) a phenomenal singer who acted. My acquaintance Billy was a dancer who acted. And I was an actor who moved well and carried a tune by selling the song. Guess who got the role?

It wasn't the first, nor last, time a director passed me over in favor of someone with better musical sounds. Cris was wonderful in the role, though I doubt I could recognize it then. My severe disappointment (and it was SEVERE. Cris was lucky I never caught him in a crosswalk while I was driving home) reinforced my determination to play the role, someplace, somehow, in a full production.



It was at least a decade after college before I got another swing at the plate. A theatre in Thousand Oaks, CA published a casting call, and though the venue was about an hour from my home, I drove out to the audition. Didn't know a soul, though in true theatrical fashion, I did bump into a kid with whom I had worked about six years earlier. I had the feeling that this may be my last chance to play this role I had coveted for decades, so I did my best to block out the other, better singers auditioning for this plumb assignment. At my first audition, I sang "Money, Money," because I knew it cold and it's an impressive patter song. Of course, it is not in the stage version. (Or rather, it wasn't at that time. The 1998 revival and others before it have since put the song, written for the movie, into the play.) I knew it was not in the play, but pretended ignorance when the director, a lunatic named Stuart, alerted me to the fact. It was enough to secure a callback, though, and a few days later, I made the schlep back out to Thousand Oaks to sing again. This time, the musical director had assigned "The Money Song" for the auditioners to sing; of course, it contains the highest note the Emcee sings in the entire show, which is surely the reason he chose it. Thanks a lot, Zach.

I did not know it at the time, but I was later told that my unexpected appearance at these auditions upset the tentative casting plans for the show. In a theatre group such as the Conejo Players, shows were picked with at least a general idea of who would be playing certain leading roles. Nothing was set in stone, but it was the expectation for this Cabaret that the musical director's wife would play Sally Bowles, and his mother would play Fraulein Schneider. (It is in fact what happened.) It was also the expectation that, unless somebody really fabulous crawled out of the woodwork, the musical director would be playing the Emcee himself.




I would never have known this little tidbit of info if the director had not let it slip a week or so after we began rehearsals. It was the night I was almost fired. We had spent the first week learning the music, and for me, that was a huge undertaking (including reprises, the Emcee sang a whopping seven numbers; the usual load for a leading man in shows of the period is four). I was learning all this music at the same time I was performing in another musical, so I was taking some care with my voice so as not to be hoarse during those performances. However, the director took this as vocal weakness, and so, one night after rehearsal, Zach the musical director pulled me aside to tell me, "Stuart wants to know if this is all I'm going to get out of you. Because if it is..." Note the dot dot dot, which clearly meant, "you're out."

The next day was a pretty terrible one for me, as I anticipated the night's sing-through. It was to be the first time the entire score was sung all the way through, and everyone would be in attendance. I was in no way prepared to give a performance after only a week's rehearsal, but I also knew that if this director saw anything less than a full-out performance, I was to be replaced.

That night, I blew out my voice giving this amateur director exactly what he wanted; while the other actors remained in their chairs in a circle when they politely sang, I leaped up, improvised dance steps, interacted with the chorus members, and generally sneered and cackled my way through the rehearsal. I beat the living crap out of the Emcee, but when I was done, I knew I had kept the job.

What's funny about this memory is, this gig didn't even pay anything. But I knew in my gut that it may be the last chance I would have to play this role (and it was.) Because of this director, I learned a pretty good lesson about how to fake a performance during a rehearsal, though I have thankfully not had to do it much. I hate the fact that my current show suffered a bit when I returned to it the following night. (Sorry about that, Rob and Joe and Judi and Steve, that final weekend of Robin Hood was not my best work...now you know why.)





I had a ball with Cabaret, once I realized that Stuart was not much of a director. I got to sing those wonderful songs, or rather, act them. I acted the dancing, too, and for putting me in high heels during the can-can number, Stuart, I dedicate this shot to you:


This whole jaunt down memory lane was triggered by my catching a few snippets of Natasha Richardson's performance as Sally Bowles. In honor of all us actors out here doing musical theatre, here is another clip of the late lamented, singing the title song the way it should be sung. Rest in Peace.