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.