Saturday, September 28, 2013

Friday Dance Party: With Her Wings Resolutely Spread

I have often written, in these pages, of my great respect for character actors who maintain lengthy careers in supporting roles.  They are really the backbone of the industry, and are far more likely to maintain sustainable careers.  One of my favorite such actors died this week.

Jane Connell
Connell's sharp comic timing and cheeky flamboyance meant that she would spend most of her career on stage.  
Marriage between 2 actors CAN work, as the
Connells proved. Theirs was one of the most
enduring matches in the theatre, lasting 65 years.

After meeting and marrying her husband, Gordon Connell, in San Francisco, the couple moved to New York, where Jane made her Off-Broadway debut in the prestigious revival of The Threepenny Opera at Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel).
Jane's Broadway debut was with the auspicious cast
of New Faces of 1956. Maggie Smith, Eartha Kitt,
Inga Swenson, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostly, and
Carol Lawrence were also in the company.

Our Jane was to play very few leading roles, though she snagged one of the best early in her career.  She took Once upon A Mattress, playing the role Carol Burnett originated, to London, where she apparently received good notices.  Alas and Alack, the Brits did not appreciate the show itself, and it only lasted a month.

Decades after taking Carol Burnett's starmaking show, Once Upon A Mattress, to London, Connell played her mother in Moon Over Buffalo. Her participation is documented in the terrific film Moon Over Broadway, the documentary concerning the show's troubled rehearsal period.
Connell was to appear frequently on Broadway, lending support in such pieces as Drat! The Cat!, Dear World, Crazy For You, Lend Me A Tenor, and more. 
In Dear World, Jerry Herman's musical
adaptation of The Madwoman of
Chaillot, Jane was in support to
Angela Lansbury. The show failed, but
the partnership of
Connell/Herman/Lansbury must be
deemed a success due to their
"other" collaboration.

She played opposite her husband in Lysistrata (starring Melina Mercouri) and The Good Doctor, and when original star Kathleen Freeman suddenly died, Jane took over her role in The Full Monty.  Surely, though, Jane is best remembered for her performance as mousy secretary/nanny Agnes Gooch in the original production of Mame.
They needed a little Christmas, and they got it. While Mame, Gooch, Ito, and Patrick longed for some holiday cheer, the show elevated Jane Connell to the top tier of musical comedy supporting players.
While certainly not a fixture on television, Jane made her share of appearances on the small screen, usually in sitcoms.  
Bewitched made good use of Jane's comic
ability. Whether the role was ditsy or
imperious, she could handle it. Over the
years, she played Queen Victoria (above),
Martha Washington, and Mother Goose.
Her role of Hepzibah, Queen of the Witches,
began a 7 episode story arc which took Sam
and Darrin to the birthplace of witchcraft,
Salem, MA.

Among many others, she guest starred in the two-parter from season 8 of All in the Family;  "Edith's 50th Birthday" is remembered as "the rape episode," in which Edith is attacked in her own house while the family is next door planning a surprise party.  Connell played a grouchy neighbor in this and a few other episodes.
In a rare subdued role, Connell guested on MASH during its 8th season. She played an army nurse in charge of Korean orphans who overran the camp. The episode, "Old Soldiers," included the famous scene in which Col. Potter toasts the dead friends of his youth with a bottle of cognac from WWI.
Connell's lone Tony nomination came in 1986, twenty years after she first made a splash in Mame (she lost the award to one of those Les Miz gals, who can tell them apart?).  
Me And My Girl was a chestnut from the 30s, with a script punched up by Steven Fry for its West End revival.  The show won all the British awards before transferring to Broadway in 1986.  It snagged 11 Tony nominations, including one for our Jane.  Among its winners was star Robert Lindsay, who created a sensation as the cockney leading man interacting with the Upper Crust.
Lindsay's London leading lady was not allowed
to play her role on Broadway, as Equity did not
consider her a big enough star to rob an
American actress of the role. Recognize her?
She's Emma Thompson.

This week's Dance Party is plucked from Me And My Girl, and it certainly illustrates how star Robert Lindsay charmed the audience. Unfortunately, Jane Connell can only be glimpsed briefly in this clip, doing her "disapproving society matron" bit.  But it's still a fun number.  

Jane's signature role in Mame was preserved, sort of, in the lousy film version.  Though both she and her costar Bea Arthur recreated their stage successes, nothing could save Mame from Lucy (I wrote about the film Mame here).

Jane Connell died this week, only a month shy of her 88th birthday.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Dance Party: When An Actor's Not Engaged In His Audition

This week's Dance Party is aimed squarely at the mirror. 
Even in undergrad, I provided some stinky auditions. It was only my second college audition, and I was very green, when I read for A Cry of Players for a pretty maniacal student director. The role was Kemp, the leader of a traveling acting troop who swept through a little town called Stratford and ignited a creative spark in a villager named Will.  At the audition, the director handed me the script and said, "Stand up center."  What he SHOULD have said, because what he MEANT was, "START up center" (and take over the stage in a very theatrical way).  But that's not what he said.  So, I dutifully read the full speech standing completely still, up-center.  I have no idea if this guy is still directing, but I doubt it, he had minimal communication skills.  I did get into the show, playing the young actor who always played the female roles.
I have never been the greatest auditioner, or even a very good one.  You might think this is a skill which would improve with age, or with practice, and truth be told, I'm not as bad as I used to be.  I certainly walk into the audition chamber with an air of friendly confidence, whether I actually feel it or not.  And I rarely give a real stinker these days, but I would have to honestly classify most of my auditions as "reasonable".  I have never conquered the knack some others have;  I have rarely been able to show the people behind the table my full range or capability.
One of my worst auditions was also one of my oddest. I was thrilled to be called back for a production of Love's Labour's Lost, for the role of Boyet, the advisor and confidante to the Princess of France.  I was given one of Boyet's speeches to study out in the hall. Ten minutes later, I was ushered into the audition chamber, where the director delightedly explained his concept for the show.  It was to be set in outer space. Yep, Shakespeare's romantic romp was to take place on the planet Navarre, with the ladies arriving from (wait for it) the planet France.  (I wondered silently if there would be Coneheads involved, for you SNL historians.)  He went on and on about his concept as I smiled and nodded, but I'm sure my eyes were glazing over.  When he finally finished, I turned my confused attention to the paper in my hand, to begin my reading.  "Oh, by the way!" the director suddenly piped up, "You're an android.  Go ahead."  The next 90 seconds are a complete blur, but whatever happened, I was cast.  During rehearsal we referred to our project as Love's Labour's Lost in Space, and it was the hit of the 2000 season at Centennial Theatre Festival in Connecticut.
Have I whined enough?  Not quite.  Though I rarely get gigs from auditions these days, I still attend more than my share.  Since opening my New York branch, I bet I attend more than just about anybody.  More often than not, I acquit myself fairly well (or reasonably), but these kinds of general call auditions are rarely held when a theater is actually looking to hire.  But attending them is good practice, or so I tell myself.
This reconverted rowhouse was the scene of a truly horrendous audition. It was for a commercial, and I lived only a few blocks from this casting office.  It was one of those sweltering, humidity-filled days which DC dwellers have to put up with, and I made the mistake of walking to the audition.  I was dressed casually in jeans and a sports shirt, as the role called for a "casual Dad."  Needless to say, by the time I arrived, I was drenched.  When I sweat (is this TMI?), it's not under my arms where it's noticeable, it's on my chest.  For some reason, my breastplate loves to perspire, and my shirt was dotted with huge spots of sweat.  Some arrogant young actor even snarked under his breath, "Nice shirt."  I would have baled on this stupid audition, but I had been paired with a little girl to play my daughter, so I did not want to leave her in the lurch.  Instead, I read the scene as best I could, trying to ignore the obvious: that I was sloppily wet.  Ugh.
This week, though, I regressed.  I presented a really embarrassing stinker.  I abandoned musical auditions in New York some time ago, as I find them particularly stressful.  I have a collection of audition tunes I use, and am very confident with, but they are not the kind of songs one hears at a musical audition in New York. (A while ago, I wrote about that particularly treacherous audition, "the 16 Bars", which convinced me how unlikely it is that I will get much response at a musical audition in New York.) 
It doesn't matter how confident I am feeling about my rendition of "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid," that confidence whithers as I listen to the guy ahead of me blast a power ballad from Les Miz.
But this week, I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and attended a general call for a regional production of Mary Poppins.  Seems like lots of musical theaters have Mary in their seasons this year, and the father in that show is a good role for me, I'm convinced:  he's a bit pompous, a bit clueless, a bit bossy, and moves through the play with the kind of British accent which sounds exactly like mine.  The music sits well on my voice, and the character plays into my strengths.  So, I prepped a song and signed up for a slot.
The role of the father in Mary Poppins, George Banks, has been expanded in the stage musical.  There are those who think the show is really about him now, and they may be right.  I hope I get a chance to find out one day, but that day will not be soon.
It's too late to make this long story short, but in a word, I bombed.  I went severely off-key, and though I recovered in a note or two, thanks to the help of the accompanist (who could hear I was in trouble and emphasized the melody to get me back on track), the damage was done.  There is nothing quite so humiliating than singing badly in front of others (it's why many, many actors who can indeed carry a tune refuse to sing in front of an audience, it's just too dangerous and naked).  With a spoken monologue, even a classical one, if the actor makes a mistake, it's possible to cover it up without anyone realizing it.  But when you go off-key, everybody in the room knows it, there is no masking the fact.

Ah, well.  I still think that the role in Mary Poppins is a good one for me, and equally, I remain convinced that it will be a looooooong time before I sing again at a NY audition.  I know, "get back on the horse" and all that, and I'm sure I will.  Eventually.  For now, though, I think I'll just cower in the corner and hope nobody in the room ever remembers me.  Ever.
After a particularly embarrassing audition, all you want to do is escape into the New York crowd and become anonymous. I was not that lucky.  I worked with this gal, the lovely and talented Katie Sina, several times when she was a student at Shenandoah University, and I was a Guest Artist in their summer stock program.  (In the pic above, she was playing Lady Larken to my King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress.)  She graduated to a lively career in the regions, and is in fact slated to play Mary Poppins at Fulton Theatre in Pennsylvania this year.  She was also a regular player at the theatre for which I was auditioning, and was in the room assisting the director.  It's pretty deflating, to present a lousy performance when someone you know and respect is present.  Thespis was just not going to give me a break this time.
From The Pirates of Penzance, here is the song I ruined at my audition.  This clip contains a bit more than I sang.  You will get a minute or so of Linda Ronstadt in her surprising performance as the soprano ingenue (Linda graced the Dance Party only a few weeks ago, you can see that here), as well as the policemen singing "Tarantara," which I definitely did not sing. 
This video is a bit ragged, but is
full of life.

My song begins at 2:40, but I think the whole clip is worth a peek, if only to see the outrageous comedic talents of the late Tony Azito, playing the police sargeant.  This production of Pirates of Penzance was taped in Central Park, and was so successful that it transferred to Broadway, where it ran for several years and was turned into a film as well.  But I prefer this version in the Park, as the presence of the audience gives the players a lift, even if the actual video is a bit raw.  If you like it, I encourage you to go here, for a very early Dance Party featuring the show's star Kevin Kline, it's a hoot.

Oh, and my apologies to Misters Gilbert and Sullivan, for butchering their song on Monday.  I'll try to do better next time.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Monster Mash Up

This gal had a birthday last weekend, and inspires this week's Dance Party:
Mary Shelley
Though her writings included novels, short stories, travelogues, and critical analyses, Shelley is really remembered for only one thing, the creation of one of the most famous and influential horror stories in the English language. 

Boris Karloff's image in the role of his lifetime dominated all
renditions of the story for years and years.
The story goes that Mary accompanied her lover (and later husband) Percy Shelley to Geneva in the summer of 1816, where the unusually wet weather trapped the duo indoors for much of the season.  They were joined by Lord Byron and family members and friends;  to pass the long hours, Byron challenged everyone to come up with a ghostly tale.  Mary began what she thought would be a short story;  the end result was a full-length novel which is considered a masterpiece of the horror genre (and is sometimes considered the first true science fiction story as well).  That novel introduced the concept of man creating life in a laboratory and in the process, introduced the world to Frankenstein.
Universal Studios released a series of Frankenstein movies in the 30s, which brought Mary Shelley's tale to the masses.  It also reinforced the misapprehension about exactly who Frankenstein was;  in Shelley's original, he was the doctor, while the creature he created had no name.  That never really clicked, and Frankenstein is now and forever the monster, as well as the mad scientist who created him.
Boris Karloff's performance as the monster was so iconic, no one thought to vary from it. 

Gods and Monsters was the 1998 biopic of James Whale, the director responsible for bringing Frankenstein to the big screen in the 30s.  This was not a horror film but was certainly "Frankenstein-adjacent," as it depicted Whales's later life being influenced, and perhaps distroyed, by the success of his classic horror movie.  Good use was made of Brendan Fraser's flatheaded resemblence to Frankenstein's creation, and Gods and Monsters is a fascinating study of an artist in decline.  Both Ian McKellen, as Whale, and Lynn Redgrave, as his housekeeper, received Oscar nods, and writer Bill Condon won for his screenplay.
For most of the 20th Century, anytime anyone thought about, wrote about, or portrayed Frankenstein's Monster,  they used Karloff's performance as a template. 
The Rocky Horror Show provided a dramatic departure from the standard version of Frankenstein. This creature was a scar-free muscle boy;  I wrote about this show here, on a previous Dance Party.
Eventually, though, creative forces looked for alternatives to the Karloff image of the gruesome flathead with grotesque scars and outstretched arms.  The Frankenstein franchise was ripe for parody, but most comedic versions of the story maintained the physical look of the Monster. 
Even comedic versions of Frankenstein tend to keep the general look of Boris Karloff's original monster.  TV's The Munsters featured Fred Gwynne as an endearing goofball.
In 1974, Mel Brooks tailored Young Frankenstein as both a parody and homage to the original series of horror flicks. 
Gothic soap Dark Shadows created its own version of the
Frankenstein story. The performances of Robert Rodan and
Marie Wallace, as Adam and Eve, dominated the show for
almost a year.

The film was a big hit for all involved.  Thirty-plus years later, Mel turned his classic comedy into a stage musical, with limited success. 
The Producers had "Springtime for Hitler," Young Frankenstein had this scene as its centerpiece, in which the doctor and his creation sing "Puttin' On The Ritz."  Lightening did not strike twice, and Young Frankenstein, the Musical, did not live up to anyone's expectations.  Despite assembling the same team which made The Producers a smash, Brooks was unable to duplicate his success.  He is currently working on a stage musical of yet another of his film hits, Blazing Saddles.
Mel Brooks had phenomenal success with his stage version of The Producers, which won a record 12 Tony awards.  
Emmy winner Megan Mullally, and
Tony winners Roger Bart, Sutton Foster,
 and Andrea Martin took the roles
created in the film by Madeline
Kahn, Gene Wilder, Terri Garr, and
Cloris Leachman. The failure of such a
cast must be laid squarely at the feet of
the material.
It was probably inevitable that Brooks's follow-up to The Producers would be a letdown, and Mel certainly provided one. 
"He's having a stroke. OF GENIUS!" And indeed, it seemed Mel Brooks could do no wrong when he adapted The Producers into a musical. The show won the Tony in every category in which it was nominated, and it was nominated in every category in which it was eligible.  The only major Tony it lost was one for which the show had no candidate, Best Actress in a Musical.
In one of many fits of hubris on Mel's part, he called his new show The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, and charged a top price of over $400 per ticket.  The production ran just over a year, after opening to decidedly mixed reviews;  in a break from Broadway tradition, the show declined to reveal weekly box office tallies.  After the success of The Producers, and indeed, after the success of the original film of Young Frankenstein, the new show must be counted a disappointment.
"He vas my boyfriend!"  The original film featured Cloris Leachman as housekeeper Frau Blucher [horse shriek!] She was the only original player, other than Brooks himself, ever involved with the musical version.  She played her role in an early reading of the musical, and it was considered a good idea for the box office if she were to recreate her role on Broadway. Here's the fun part of this story: Mel was concerned that Leachman, now over 80, would be unable to play 8 shows a week;  the role went to Andrea Martin, who earned one of the only 3 Tony nods for the show.  Martin was later succeeded in the role by Beth Leavel, who had recently won the Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone.  Meanwhile, Leachman joined the cast of Dancing With The Stars, and proved herself a very able octogenarian.  Brooks reversed himself, and asked Cloris to take over her original role when Leavel's contract ended.  But Young Frankenstein closed before Leachman could join the cast.
I saw the First National Tour of Young Frankenstein (excuse me, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein) when it came through DC, and it was a well-produced but poorly constructed hodgepodge.  Broadway's original star Roger Bart headlined the tour, and I actually liked his performance, which had been overlooked at Tony time (in fact, the show received only 3 Tony nominations, losing them all). 
Roger Bart was a popular supporting star when Brooks placed him in the title role of his musical.  He had made a splash in Mel's own The Producers, winning a Tony nod as Carmen Ghia, and his previous work included a Tony winning performance as Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.  The NY critics did not accept him as a leading man, and his reviews were a bit tepid.  When he came through DC in the tour, I found him charming and funny.
The show just did not have the strength of The Producers, and in later years, Brooks blamed the popularity of his original film for the musical's rather poor reception.  He claimed that, with The Producers, nobody remembered the film which provided the source material, but everybody knew and loved Young Frankenstein the movie. 
This number, "A Roll in the Hay," was presented on all the early morning and late night talk shows as Young Frankenstein the Musical attempted to gain steam at the box office.  Like the weekly grosses, the final tally for the show's Broadway run has never been made public, making us wonder if it made any money at all.
Mel claimed that, because of the film's popularity, any change for the stage version was met with dismay by its fans.  He is making way too many excuses for his own lukewarm work;  other than the addition of the throwaway music, there are very few changes from screen-to-stage.  All the film gags are still in place, but Brooks's score and libretto are both more smutty than amusing.  His style of tongue-in-cheek snark was a good fit for the show biz world of The Producers, but did not work in a horror/sci-fi send-up. 
Everyone loved the overblown "Puttin' on the Ritz," but  buried in the middle of Act Two, it was a long wait for this showstopper.
So, finally, we come to this week's Dance Party, one of the big production numbers from Young Frankenstein.  This presentation is from the Today Show's Halloween edition, and illustrates how Young Frankenstein was filled with perky but forgettable songs. 

It also illustrates the thesis I presented so many paragraphs ago, that the visual personification of Frankenstein's Monster has varied little from the old Hollywood film days (Matt Lauer's costume is proof).  After the number itself, the staff indulges in the obligatory chitchat with the cast, which includes Bart, Foster, and another Tony winner, Shuler Hensley as the creature.  You can skip that part.

To get tickets, all you had to remember was the name of the
creator of the show.
Happy Birthday to Mary Shelley, the creator of the world's most recognizable monster.  That rainy summer in Austria in 1816, she could not possibly have imagined how her creation would live on.  Nor could she know that, almost two centuries later, she helped create another monster in the ego of Mel Brooks.