Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Dance Party: He Did A Little Side-Step

The inspiration for this week's Dance Party came from the death of a little-known character actor who was on my radar from my very early days.

Jay Garner


This raucous southern gent spent the early part of his career as a stage actor in Atlanta, while I was growing up there. By the time I was attending professional stage shows, he had already moved on to New York, taken there when a quirky home-grown musical made an unexpected transfer from GA to NY. The piece which afforded Jay his Broadway debut was called Red, White, and Maddox, and was a satirical look at one of Georgia's most outlandish politicians, Lester Maddox. Garner played the title role, and though the show was a failure in New York, Jay was not. He went on to create two more corrupt politicians in musicals, M. Dindon in the original La Cage Aux Folles, and earlier, the governor of Texas in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (that scene-stealing role was later played by Charles Durning in the film version, who snagged an Oscar nomination for it).

Garner took over the role of Ben Franklin in the original 1776, a role which became one of his favorites, and one he recreated for various regional theaters and summer stock companies. It was in this role that he came to my attention, when he played it in Atlanta, opposite the John Adams of (get this) Joel Grey. The two were dynamite together, and I never forgot Jay's robust performance. His final Broadway appearance was in the 1995 revival of Hello, Dolly!, opposite the perennial Carol Channing. He had not been heard from in many years when he died last week at the age of 82.

This week's Dance Party is not from any of those stage musicals, but is instead from one of Garner's film appearances. The 1978 British mini-series Pennies From Heaven became an immediate cult classic, and in 1981, a feature film version was produced with Steve Martin in the leading role. The piece tells the dreary story of a depression-era schnook who steps out on his wife, and is juxtaposed with stylized musical numbers (which, as in the TV series, were all lip sinc performances). Martin was fresh off his first starring role in a film (The Jerk), and audiences were not ready to see him in this new dramatic light. The movie was one of the financial failures of 1981.

Steve Martin trained for his dance sequences for 9 months before shooting began (during that period, he displayed his talent alongside Gregory Hines in a previous Dance Party here), and the following clip is the first big production number in Pennies From Heaven. Martin considers this his first dramatic role, but he is clearly hamming it up during the number; his predecessor in the mini-series, Bob Hoskins, was better at maintaining the dark tone throughout his performance.

And here, too, is our dead guy, Jay Garner, playing the bank president (he reported that the little kiss which kicks off the number was completely spontaneous on Martin's part). In honor of one of the (pardon the pun) unsung stars of musical theatre, enjoy this week's Dance Party!