Mar 8, 2023

The First Cut Is the Deepest

Orville Mendoza as Sweeney at the 2014 Sondheimas celebration. (Photo by David Gordon)

When Stephen Sondheim died last year, I reflected that he is probably the single artist I've written the most about, both for hire and otherwise. With the publication of my new preview piece on the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, I have occasion to reflect that I can boast the pleasure of having written about that show, arguably his greatest, more than any other of his pieces.

Like many folks, my first exposure to Sweeney Todd was the recording of the 1981 tour stop with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, which I confess was too grisly for my 12-year-old self to get through. Around the same time I was more intrigued but not quite won over by the similar video of Sunday in the Park With George. My journey to a full appreciation, then full-on fanhood, as I've said many times (including to the man himself), was in intimate stagings by a number of L.A. theaters: Into the Woods at Actor's Co-op, Company at West Coast Ensemble, Assassins at L.A. Rep, Putting It Together at the Colony, Pacific Overtures at East West Players.

That last venue is also where I saw my first live Sweeney Todd, in 1994, by which time I was not only acclimated to his work's complexities but alert to them, even ardent about them. Amazingly, I learned recently that that production was also Josh Groban's first experience, not only of the show but of Sondheim's work. Josh was then around the age I had been on my first mortified exposure to Sweeney, and obviously he was more mature than I, because that production kindled a lifelong love for the man's work that culminates with him headlining the first full-scale Sweeney revival on Broadway.

Among the great pleasures of writing my preview piece on the new Sweeney was to be able to name check that production and its star, Orville Mendoza, about whom Josh told me: "That performance still resonates; it still haunts me."

I could say a lot more about Sweeney Todd, but it turns out I've already said a lot, in...

A review of the 1994 East West Players production with Orville Mendoza & Freda Foh Shen

A review of a starry Reprise! concert staging with Kelsey Grammer & Christine Baranski in 1999

A review of the 2005 Broadway revival with Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone

Thoughts in this space on the 2007 film version

A review of the NY Philharmonic production with Emma Thompson & Bryn Terfel in 2014

A review of the 2017 "pie shop" production (joined with a review of Sunday)

I haven't yet been assigned to review the new revival, but if I am, I will consider it yet another chapter in a long critical engagement with the demon barber (and his creator). The chair awaits.

Feb 9, 2023

TBT: Poetry Vs. Hollywood

One of the privileges of my theatergoing in L.A. back in the day was seeing talented actors like David Dukes do some of the best work of their careers in venues both big and small. I also got to interview him a few times, and he was as interesting to talk to as he was to watch (not always true of actors, honestly). Then he died suddenly, at the age I am now, and I got to know his widow, the poet Carol Muske-Dukes, who wrote a book of essays in part about her late husband and the world he occupied. This piece for the paper I ran then brings back fond memories. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Feb 2, 2023

TBT: Randy Newman Can't Afford to Do Theatre

It wasn't a one-on-one, alas, but I well remember the day I was ushered into a South Coast Rep rehearsal room for a sort of four-way interview: myself, another reporter, the press rep (Cristofer Gross), and Randy Newman, dressed in de rigeuer Hawaaian shirt. The occasion was a sort of revue of his work that music director Michael Roth and literary director Jerry Patch had cooked up called, after Henry Adams, The Education of Randy Newman. It ended up being a creditable stage effort but nothing special (nor, by most accounts, was an eerily similar anthology evening at the Mark Taper Forum just 10 years later). But I wasn't going to pass up the chance to talk to a songwriting idol, and after Faust, which I'd enjoyed at La Jolla Playhouse, it still wasn't all the far-fetched a notion that he could write something worthwhile for the theatre. (More on that bittersweet subject here and here.)

Without further ado, this was my cover story for the magazine I ran at the time.

Back Stage West
May 18, 2000

Newman’s Own
Randy Newman writes narrative songs in character. Is it any wonder they're ending up on a stage?

by Rob Kendt

Does Randy Newman have an image problem? We're not talking about his unprepossessing looks, which he has jokingly compared in song to "froggish men, unpleasant to see.”

More damaging to the reputation of America's greatest living songwriter is his recent success as a sort of avuncular troubadour for baby boomers and their tykes, with the charming fluff he's written for such films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Babe Il: Pig in the City, and, going back a few years to the beginning of this uncharacteristically benign period in his work, Parenthood’s "I Love To See You Smile." It doesn't help his street cred that his two other biggest pop hits as a singer are "Short People" and "I Love LA." Nuff said.

While no one can begrudge a great artist some success and material comfort, in Newman's case this recent mellowing, which would include his distinguished career as an orchestral film composer, often threatens to overwhelm his enduring contribution to pop music: a 30-year song catalogue unparalleled in its acid wit, its supreme but unpretentious artistry, its unreliable but incisive storytelling.

This, after all, is the same songwriter who wrote "Rednecks,” satiric country anthem for Southern crackers that doesn't let the North off easy, either; "Sail Away," a sweet ballad which just happens to be a colonial slave trader's pitch to the Africans; “Wedding in Cherokee County,” the bluesy lament of an impotent circus freak, and such perverse confections as "Christmas in Capetown,” "Davy the Fat Boy," "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do." Even 10 years ago, the name Randy Newman was still a byword for double-edged character songs that were alternately moving, chilling, and hiarious—whereas now Newman and his patented ragtime shuffle are a family-friendly franchise.

His last album, 1999's Bad Love, even addressed his perceived irrelevance with the corrosively funny "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" ("Each record that I'm making/ls like a record that I've made/Just not as good").

The mellowing is partly for real, Newman confessed in a recent interview at South Coast Repertory, where a new music-theatre piece has been fashioned from several of his songs, and is set to open June 2. Called The Education of Randy Newman, it's a sung-through musical conceived by SC literary manager Jerry Patch and musical director Michael Roth, with a Newmanesque central character carrying the evening from 1943 to today, employing Newman's character songs along the way to illuminate the personal and political upheavals of the period.

"The arc of it is, I learn that life is not so bad," said Newman of the show. "Which actually is something that I learned. I think I was a lot more unhappy at 24 than I am now. Maybe I'm just not paying attention.”

Not that he's disavowing his body of work—just that he's got more perspective about its rich, unsettling blend of misanthropy and compassion.

"I never had a horrible, bleak view of the world—I always knew that people were kinda decent. The people in the audiences who hear my songs are better than the people in the songs—they're exaggerations, I know that. I know it from talking to individual people—they're just not bad. It isn't like the world is a cesspool.

"I watched, on public TV years ago, Emile Zola's Nana, and it was the bleakest—it was like where you would go when you die. It was the worst, most depressing thing I've ever seen—way worse than life is, way worse. I just sort of knew that. It's that bad if you're a junkie; it's that bad if you're in love with someone who doesn't love you. But basically it's not."

Mixed Revue

The association with South Coast Rep, Costa Mesa's regional theatre powerhouse, began when Michael Roth, who had music-directed a straight revue of Newman’s songs, Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong, in the mid-1980s at the La Jolla Playhouse and Off-Broadway, suggested to SCR artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes another Newman revue. They were fans, and so was Jerry Patch—but he saw the possibility of more than a simple evening of tunes.

"I listened to a lot of his songs, and I had the notion that there something bigger than a revue here—that you coud tell a story with this material," said Patch. "Then the question became, How do you do that?"

Patch thought of The Education of Henry Adams, the 1918 classic by the Quincy Adams-descended historian—a droll third-person autobiography about the forces that shaped the 19th century, filtered through the unreliable but witheringly insightful lens of Adams’ experiences. With Newman's approval and editorial input, the South Coast team set out to weave some of his best songs into a narrative thread which, like Adams' biography, would not give an accurate portrayal of his life per se ("the details would be overwhelmingly boring," Newman quipped) but would present his uniquely alert, jaundiced point of view on his times.

His unique sensibility, both musically and thematically, is the product of his upbringing, mostly in Los Angeles but also, for a brief but significant period, in New Orleans, from whence his mother hailed. "I remember the ice cream wagon with the signs marked 'colored'—which was misspelled—and ‘white,’” said Newman. "I only lived there up to age three, but I went back every summer till I was 12." The new show extends this Southern sojourn a bit, in part so some of his Faulknerian songs about racists and con men and working-class anti-heroes can be included, and in part, as Newman explained, "so my character sees things which presumably give me my acute sense of social justice.”

Actor Scott Waara plays this Newmanesque central figure, and the rest of the cast—an illustrious troupe that includes Jordan Bennett, Gregg Henry, Sherry Hursey, John Lathan, Allison Smith, and Jennifer Leigh Warren—plays other characters who embody the personal and political upheavals of the past 50 or so years, in a sung-through evening directed by Myron Johnson.

"In many ways it's the most ambitious show we've ever done,” confessed Patch, who helps maintain SCR's deserved reputation as a bastion of literate new American plays. Indeed, while SCR has previously staged Happy End and Sunday in the Park With George, it is not part of the nonprofit regional theatre's Broadway tryout circuit, like its counterparts to the south, La Jolla and the Old Globe. In the context of SCR's literary bent, then, the collaboration with Newman makes perfect sense.

"Randy really speaks to us, 'cause he's dramatic writer," said Patch. "He brings aspects of theatre to everything he does. He's clever, witty, smart; he's got craft to burn. If we're going to do a musical, he's the guy to do it with."

Play the Playhouses

Indeed, as inevitable as it was that Newman would follow his illustrious uncles Alfred, Lionel, and Emil in the trade of writing and conducting Hollywood film music, it also seems inevitable that this master of character writing and narrative would set his sights on the musical theatre. And so he did, with 1995's Faust, a joyous if ungainly vaudeville pastiche of Goethe's immortal story which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse and went to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with a possible Broadway run in mind. (That hasn't yet materialized, and plans for a staging at the Kennedy Center went away with its outgoing president, Lawrence J. Wilker, who apparently still wants to mount it somewhere.)

Newman learned a lot from Faust—giving the audience a reprise or two, and giving songs a big finish so that actors can make a graceful exit, were two big technical lessons. He thinks it was misunderstood: "I believe I got too much credit for the songs and not enough credit for the book. The score wasn’t maybe as good as they said it was, and the book wasn't...I mean, compared to what? We weren't doing Shakespeare; it had a beginning and ending, more or less. And I didn't care: If I wanted to do a Busby Berkeley number—I really did—I did it, even if it didn't pertain to the plot.”

Above all, Newman seems to have learned to trust stage craftsmen with his material, especially the actor/singers who bring his narratives to life.

"| noticed with Faust that the actors made it better than it was on the page,” said Newman. "In Education, a number of the songs—the context and the performance is better than I can do; it's more effective.

"It’s like, movie actors you meet sometimes, they're disippointments somehow. It's not their fault, it's just that they're not 40 feet high and they're not real smart and graceful and everything. But these stage people—they sing, they sing in tune, in five-part harmony, they sight read. They do stuff I can't do. Besides being able to do a backflip and dance."

And he understands the value of working in theatre in an essentially pragmatic way: "One thing I did find out was that Faust, and I think definitely this show, played to people I could not play to. They wouldn't come to see me, and I couldn't keep 'em. Here you've got pretty people to look at, they're dancing around, some nice voices. Mv voice offends some people—music lovers—and once I get past 'You've Got a Friend in Me,’ Bug's Life, ‘Love To See You Smile,' and ‘Short People,’ I'm in trouble. But with Faust in San Diego and Chicago, they had kids, old black ladies, who liked it and sat through it, who I couldn't play for, really."

Of course, he dues play to an even bigger mass audience with his second career as a G-rated bluesman and film composer. But he clearly understands his place as a hired hand: "Every Disney movie I've done, I could have written the same song for: If we all pull together, things will work out." And film scoring lets him obsess on the craft of writing for orchestra, which he learned at the feet of his three composer/conductor uncles in Hollywood.

A show like Education, on the other hand, puts a new frame around some of his best songs for a mostly uninitiated audience. As SCR's Jerry Patch said, "Anyone in the Broadway business, or in music, knows how good this guy is. But to the general public, he's the guy who goes on the Oscars and sings the song from Toy Story. If this show can reintroduce his best songs to our audience—I think it will hit baby boomers right between the eyes."

It's Money That Matters

Still, Newman is not in any rush to write more for the stage. Not because he felt burned by Faust—his joy in that project shone through the score and still shows when he talks about it—but due to a more familiar dilemma.

"It takes years and there's no money—I can't afford it," he said matter-of-factly. "If I could earn a living doing it, it would be a good thing to do, 'cause I could use everything I know: I can write dialogue, I can orchestrate, write songs, write jokes."

The musical theatre might not want him, either, given his frank disdain for it: "It hasn't been the forum the best composers have gone into for quite a while; the best songwriters have been pop songwriters, for the last 30 or 40 years, mostly. Carole King and Paul Simon, people right there from New York, didn't go into it. There's Sondheim, but he's a lonely figure; everyone always has to say, 'Except for Sondheim.’”

His admiration for Sondheim is tempered by a slight but telling disagreement over rhyming.

"He was going to see this workshop of Faust that James Lapine was doing, and he said, ‘I hope you won't be nervous,’ and I said, ‘Well, I hope you don't mind a couple 'girl and 'world' rhymes.’ And he said, 'Well, I do, and you don't come from that [pop] place, either.’ And I said, 'Yes, I do. With the diction I have, I don't have to feel you can't rhyme...well, ‘girl' and world' is particularly egregious, but I've done it. Fats Domino rhymed 'New Orleans’ and 'shoes.' I don't mind that stuff, and Sondheim does. I don't agree with him.

"And sometimes I think he'll rhyme things out of boredom—just to show he can rhyme. He'll do a show about assassins or a murderer just because he has such virtuosity as a lyricist that he can do it. And yet, he's all we've got."

Newman, in person a sharp, funny, youthful personality at 56, stopped himself to realize: "I'll never get to Broadway—I've said so many bad things about things they love. It's like trashing someone's house before you see their house."

Indeed, after Paul Simon's famously contentious mounting of The Capeman in a hostile Broadway environment, Newman's comments may not get him a hero's welcome there. South Coast's world premiere of Education has no co-producers lined up to ensure it further productions; Patch said that the rights to the show remain mutually held by Newman and South Coast.

But while it's unlikely that the entire oeuvre of this songwriter's songwriter will ever get a huge popular embrace, South Coast audiences are likely at least to get a good survey course—an education in Randy Newman, if you will.

Jan 9, 2023

Samuel L. Jackson & La Tanya Richardson, 1994 Edition

Note: Sam Jackson is wearing a hat for the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League team that played 1920-1960. 

Tonight I'm headed to the TCG "Our Stories" Gala honoring Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, whose long and often interconnected careers in theatre, film, and television have culminated in the current Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson, which Richardson Jackson directed and in which Jackson appears as Doaker. It's something of a full circle moment for both of them: Jackson originated the lead role of Boy Willie in the play's Yale Rep production in 1987, then understudied it on Broadway (Charles Dutton starred), and Richardson Jackson has directed a number of plays by August Wilson over the years, though this is her first staging on Broadway.

Nearly 30 years ago, in one of the first issues of the actor's magazine I founded in L.A., we featured a long "actors' dialogue" with the couple, who had only fairly recently settled in L.A., ostensibly for her TV career, though they ended up staying to support his then-about-to-explode film career. This was well after Jackson was a regular presence in films, including in a few memorable roles in Spike Lee films, but about 7 months before Pulp Fiction's release made him a film icon.

As this frank, wide-ranging conversation makes abundantly clear, though, these were at heart two veteran theater artists still figuring out the ropes of Hollywood, with clear eyes and no illusions but a real openness to the next turns in the road. I think it's safe to say these two figured it out, but it's also great to have them both back on the stage (I say both because while Richardson Jackson has been no stranger to the theatres as an actor, both regionally and on Broadway, her husband hasn't trod the boards for more than a decade.)

And btw, if you haven't seen Piano Lesson on Broadway, what are you waiting for? I commend to you Helen Shaw's rave review to get a sense of what you're missing.

Here's the whole dialogue as it appeared in 1994.

Oct 20, 2022

The Review Files: 'Topdog's' Fire Last Time

Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau in "Topdog/Underdog" at Center Theatre Group in 2004.

It's been a very Suzan-Lori Parks week for me; a few days ago I published my lively Q&A with her at American Theatre, and tonight my review of the new Broadway revival of her 2002 Pulitzer winner Topdog/Underdog went up at Vulture/NY Mag. I didn't catch this play in its original Broadway run, but I did see it when it came to L.A. a few years later. Below is my review for the Downtown News.

February 16, 2004



A 'Topdog' in Top Form

Actors as Seductive as the Street Cons They Portray

By Rob Kendt



From the simple raw materials of three-card monte—a few crates and a board, cards creased like small tents and placed in a row—a seasoned hustler can turn his streetcorner into a kind of open-air palmist's den, as seductively intimate as a confessional or a peep-show booth. He might as well be stroking a crystal ball as he looks into his mark's eyes and unspools his hypnotic, reiterative patter.


Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks manages a similar sleight-of-hand hustle with her brilliant two-hander Topdog/Underdog, now in a stark, stunning, roof-raising production at the Mark Taper Forum. Dealing with a seemingly small, stacked deck—two brothers, suggestively named Lincoln and Booth, reminisce and recriminate over a few nights in a tatty walk-up flat—she appears to show us her hand, all the while spinning out tangents and tricks that divert us from the high stakes on the table.


"There's just so much in the cards," marvels Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), a former three-card virtuoso drawn inexorably back to the street after trying to leave it behind. It's equally true of Parks' deceptively lean play, the best to grace the Taper stage in years; there are untold riches in its hilariously profane badinage, in its impish horseplay, in the unforced but undeniable mythic suggestiveness of its iconography.


Indeed, at times director George C. Wolfe's staging, with a bare bulb splashing tall shadows onto Riccardo Hernandez's stagey cutaway set, explicitly references the disreputable pleasures of the minstrel show. Political incorrectness doesn't begin to describe the giddy spectacle of Perrineau's Lincoln—whose macabre day job is to slather on whiteface and dress as his ironic namesake at an arcade shooting gallery—as he mimes alternative versions of Honest Abe's last moments in his Ford's Theatre seat. What annoyed theatergoer, after all, could argue that unwrapping a crinkly candy or taking a phone call in the theatre should be capital offenses?


Roll and Rock

Even when the staging isn't so openly presentational, there's an undercurrent of competitive showmanship in the tale of two brothers, abandonded in their teens by parents who just couldn't be bothered with family responsibilities anymore, who each turned to a variety of the hustle to get by: Lincoln to a three-card racket that ended in senseless violence, Booth to creative, even impulsive shoplifting ("I stole generously," he says at one point, laying out an impressive spread).


As these two stake out territory and settle old scores, Parks gets at one of the theater's great themes, perhaps its one great theme: the ways we all try to be the playwrights and directors of our own lives, to make sense of their alternately cruel and wondrous randomness by dramatizing them, by making scenes or games of them.


There's no scripting the vagaries of real life, though. And as this playful fraternal scrimmage inevitably turns to a life-or-death struggle, Parks tightens her grip and doesn't let up. It's here that Topdog/Underdog, for all its boasts and toasts, acquires a kind of primal tragic gravity. Parks turns a pedestrian political point—that there's no winning for these no-longer-young black men unless The Man allows it—into a universal whoop of despair worthy of Beckett.


Wolfe has a knockout pair of performers (somehow the word "actors" doesn't cut it) who handle Parks' virtuosic, free-ranging monologues, and lock into a believably well-worn camaraderie. As the older, wearier Lincoln, Perrineau hangs fire masterfully, keeping his cards close to his vest until he comes clean, and gets down and dirty, in the second act.


The strutting, fretting bantam Booth has the opposite arc, from manic to depressive. Larry Gilliard Jr.'s almost scandalously enjoyable performance in the role is indelible, and—like much about Topdog—is deceptively endearing. Gilliard is both a freakily dexterous, scene-stealing physical comedian—watch him apply cologne, or clear an elegant table setting—and a master of the scary slow burn. Not many performers have the range and control to play us like Gilliard—milking hysterical laughter one minute, then giving us a disturbed reverie of pin-drop intensity the next.


But then, that's also a signature trait of Topdog/Underdog. A good playwright can give us a great time at the theater; a great playwright can rock our world. Parks does both: She gives us a good roll before she rocks us.

Dec 30, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Rupert Everett & Richard E. Grant Dish and Declaim

photo by Gary Leonard

As I mentioned last week, going through old copies of Back Stage West, the actor's trade I ran from 1993 to 2003, I stumbled across this rollicking chat between two very funny, prickly Brits. The concept of the Actors' Dialogue was to facilitate an Interview magazine-style conversation between two subjects. Sometimes they required prodding. Though I was on hand for this exchange, these two were quite capable of prodding each other, as you'll see. Enjoy!

Back Stage West 

January 12, 1995 

On Hustling, Hubris, and Improvisation

Actors’ Dialogue: Rupert Everett and Richard E. Grant


Two Brits who appear in Robert Altman's fashion world send-up Ready to Wear met poolside at the Westwood Marquis Hotel to dish and declaim.

Rupert Everett, who plays the scheming son of a designer, made his first splash in film and stage versions of Another Country, since appearing in The Comfort of Strangers, Inside Monkey Zetterland, and The Madness of King George. Richard E. Grant, who portrays a preening dress designer, made his film debut in Withnail and I and has since appeared in Mountains of the Moon, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Henry and June, L.A. Story, and The Player.

Rupert Everett: Were you in Henry and June—the one about Anais Nin?

Richard E. Grant: I played Anais Nin's boring American husband, who had a huge penis, apparently.

Rupert: I must have walked out by the time you were on.

Richard: I’m not going to slag off your films—the few that you have made. You come from a very, very rich family, you're upper class.

Rupert: So are you!

Richard: And very well-bred.

Rupert: And you used to have a plantation of slaves in Swaziland.

Richard: You went to the Central School of Speech and Drama and got yourself kicked out. The legend was that you got your first job at the Glasgow Citizens Theater by doing an audition for Hamlet playing Ophelia in a pair of pajamas, which so overawed us—

Rupert: It was Nina in The Seagull.

Richard: And you've never looked back, have you?

Rupert: I've looked back several times.

Richard: Meanwhile, I was very studious. I went to university, I got my degree, I fulfilled my father's requisite that I get educated as well as informed about how to become an actor. You just tchotchked straight onto the London Stage and won every award for Another Country.

Rupert: And now you're doing good and I'm hanging on by my fingernails.

Richard: Exactly. That's what I just said.

Rupert: Everyone gets their moment.

Richard: And you had 15 seconds.

Rupert: In America, you get huge fame and huge money, and I want it. And in England you get no money and infamy.

Richard: That's right.

Rupert: I mean, God forbid you should be successful in any shape or form. That literally is hubris.

Richard: But I think when you fail, it's much more heartening; they like that. Then you can come back broken-winged. If you fail in America, it's like having leprosy: People run away from you, because it may be contagious.

Which is why you hear talk about Julia Roberts at the age of 24 making a comeback.

Rupert: When did she do that?

Richard: Oh, a couple of years ago, when she took a year off.

You weren't cast in Ready to Wear, as I was, having worked with Robert [Altman] on The Player. You live in Paris, and you said, "If I am not in the Altman film, I will never be able to wear a frock and walk down the Champs-Elysee with my head held in pride ever again." So you literally badgered and cajoled and bribed your way—short of the casting couch—into this movie, built up your part, and have been ruthless and relentless about it ever since.

Rupert: I'll be very fair. You're the best thing in the film.

Richard: You're only saying that to try and stop me talking about your slanderous, philanderous way of needling into the film.

Rupert: Yes; it's been very effective. An actor has to hustle, I’ve realized this year. If you don't hustle, forget it. Because this was a film, I was told, I couldn't be in; it was cast. It was so important to me. I had this flat in Paris, and I couldn't possibly go on living in Paris if I wasn't in this film. It would be the end of my career.

Richard: Such as it was.

Rupert: I started hustling my agency, which is a very embarrassing thing to do, because you have to call them up every half hour. Well, [my agent] got me the interview, but only after I rang him for a week and a half.

Richard: Well, obviously, that's what I should be doing.

Rupert: It's so embarrassing, though. Because then they get so bored that the only way to make you stop calling is to get you a job.

Richard: Or fire you.

Rupert: Or fire you. But that's more work. They can't fire you for making 20 phone calls.

On American Actors

Rupert: Los Angeles actors can't do anything but skateboarding, really.

Richard: Considering that so many actors turn into directors, and everybody knows everybody, to hear you denigrate the rest of this honored profession as little more than skateboarders is something that—please, do not assign to me, but entirely at the door of Mr. Rupert Everett.

Rupert: No, I don't think all actors can skateboard; I certainly can't. London is world famous for its theatre; Hollywood is not at the cutting edge of theatre, is it? It's a place where movies are made. You can't have everything.

Richard: That's very diplomatic.

On Working With Robert Altman

Richard: You're given a character idea of who you're supposed to be, and what the scenes will be. And you also know in advance in the script who your character knows, doesn't know, likes, doesn't like. Then you're put into a given situation, and then react, and you come up with your own dialogue, and it's then left to—

Rupert: Your stuff is excellent. Especially, "Pret-a-go-go-go." That's a fantastic line.

Richard: "What lava lamps were to the ’70s, you are to the '90s. Go-go-go, pret-a-go-go."

Rupert: Very good moment, that.

Richard: Thank you, Rupert. In The Player, Bob said, "If you want to improvise and do stuff..." It's a combination. The writer has to give you the set-up to do it, because otherwise it would be complete free form. But once the sort of coat hanger, if you like, of the scene is set up, then you are encouraged, and given the responsibility to dress it accordingly. In other projects, you have to stick to the dialogue, and if the dialogue's not wonderfully written, you are desperate to improvise, and jig it up a bit, but sometimes people get very precious and think that they've written something in stone which you can't change. Sometimes, that's less than productive.

Why don't you wear socks? Don't you have very sticky feet?

Rupert: I was just rushing.

Richard: Where are you going?

Rupert: Nowhere.

Richard: Right.

Rupert: Where are you going?

Richard: To have lunch with Steve Martin.

Rupert: What are you talking about with Steve Martin?

Richard: He wants me to do his play [Picasso at the Lapin Agile] in London.

Rupert: You're going to do a play in London?

Richard: Yeah. It’s an hour and a half long, and it is by Steve Martin, so... 

On Approaches to Acting

Richard: Everybody wants to work, everbody wants to act. However they do it is such an individual thing.

Rupert: Nobody pays the blindest bit of attention to anyone else anyway.

Richard: Well, you're the quintessence of the self-obsessed thespian.

Rupert: All thespians are self-obsessed.

Richard: You have to be, just to survive.

Rupert: An actor could be being mugged while on his porta-phone with his agent and not notice.

Richard: It's true, that.

Rupert: We have egos like dogs colons. Which is, as opposed to human colons that go wrapping around like that, a dog's colon is just like a little squeeze box harmonica that goes "phew." That's what an actor's ego is like: huge and simple. And all-engulfing. So it doesn't really matter if you're using the Wang Ho method or Kabuki theater; nobody's going to notice except you.

What I think is irritating about actors is that basically they're exactly like prostitutes.

Richard: That's a boring thing to say, though.

Rupert: It's true. They always go on about "actor's sensitivity." For sensitivity, read: egocentricity. It's ego-sensitivity. They just want people to fancy them, basically.

Richard: It's a chronic case of, "Watch me, Ma."

Rupert: You want to be fancied; you want to be attractive.

Richard: You want to be watched, acknowledged.

Rupert: Attractive.

Richard: Well, speak for yourself. You were born with all the chiseled cheekbones; I wasn't.

Rupert: You know what this is going to come across like?

Richard: What?

Rupert: Two Portuguese hairdresser's assistants in Lisbon yappering away about their dismal prospects! I am going to write us a cop series.

Richard: Yeah, but you won't cast me.

Rupert: Why? 

Richard: Because you're so treacherous. Lauren Bacall called you "the wickedest woman in Paris."

Rupert: I asked you to be in a play [The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore] with me this winter. It was like offering Al Pacino a job: It took four weeks for you to say no. Unbearable! 

Richard: I had a part, a lead, in a movie, very well paid, in Prague for two months. Your offer was 175 pounds a week to do a play in Glasgow. Now, tell me which one you would have chosen in my place? 

Rupert: That movie will go straight to video, I predict.

Richard: It has about as much residue as doing that play in Glasgow.

Rupert: Darling, that play in Glasgow's going to come to London, it'll be off-Broadway, it'll be a movie before you can say—

Richard: —In your wildest dreams. It's an unknown—and quite rightly so—Tennessee Williams play.

Rupert: That's not true. It's a very, very good play. And you would have been magisterial in it.

Richard: You wanted me in drag.

Rupert: Not drag; she-man.

Richard: Who did you end up casting for it?

Rupert: An actress called Georgina Hale.

Richard: Exactly! Thank you very much.


Dec 23, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Mrs. C and Mrs. G

photo by Gary Leonard

I happened to have recently been going through old copies of Back Stage West, the actor's trade I ran from 1993 to 2003. This far-ranging and fascinating piece was in its very first free-standing issue, in February 1994. I was on hand to guide this conversation between two remarkable performers whose work I grew up on, but it's all their words. What a blessing to rediscover this. Enjoy!

ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae 

On the Middle West, Middle Children, and Acting Naturally 

Back Stage West, Feb. 10, 1994

For Back Stage West's first Actors' Dialogue—in which we get two professionals together over lunch to discuss their craft, their business, and their lives—we chose a pair of unassuming television icons, Mrs. Cunningman and Mrs. Garrett.

But as Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae discovered over a recent lunch at Alice's Restaurant on the endangered Malibu Pier, they have more in common than red hair and world-wide fame via syndication. For one, they've both starred in Happy Days: Rae in Beckett's, Ross in Garry Marshall's.

More importantly, over the years, they've built careers on the stage as well as the tube, raised families, been divorced, and sought out professional challenges even as they've settled into the security of success.

Marion: Didn't you do a musical with some of those Monty Python guys? What am I thinking of? A musical that you did, here in town. That was the first time I was aware of you. Before Into the Woods.

Charlotte: Was it Cole Porter's Out of This World, which they called Heavensent? That's the first time I came out here; I played Juno.

Marion: I don't think so. Because you are a musical star, right?

Charlotte: No, I'm an actress.

Marion: Or did you start in music?

Charlotte: I really have always sung. I started out in New York doing cabaret for a brief period of time. And that was wonderful. Everyone would come and see me—Jerome Robbins and everybody, they would come. It was the days of cabaret.

Marion: You mean in the Village?

Charlotte: Well, the Village Vanguard is where I started. Max Gordon—I'll never forget—I was there 14 weeks and I said, "Gee, Max, you think maybe, um, maybe I could have a little... raise?" I was making $150, that was my first thing. He said, "You know, I was thinking of changing the bill." I said, "Never mind, never mind."

Marion: I started under contract to Paramount when I was 22, and I got paid $150 a week. I'd been making $35 a week filing pieces of paper at Bullock's. This was in 1952. Here I was, a college graduate, San Diego State, with all kinds of honors and stuff. I had no skills, no way to earn a living, but I knew the alphabet. You knew the alphabet, you could file.

Charlotte: That's what I did. I worked filing and typing at this management consultant company on East 38th, and at night I worked in a saloon called the Sawdust Trail. That was my very first job, with Theresa Brewer; we used to stand on the bar and sing every half hour.

Marion: And what would you wear? A little Western outfit?

Charlotte: A gown. And right on the bar, they would roll in from the street, sawdust on the floor and ex-vaudevillians performing, singing waiters. My father came and started to cry because the cigarette woman tried to hustle him. And I had to reassure him that I wasn't a bad girl, that I was a reflection of him.

Marion: Where were you raised?

Charlotte: In the Middle West. Where were you raised?

Marion: In the Middle West.

Charlotte: Wisconsin.

Marion: Minnesota.

Charlotte: Well…

Marion: Well, there we are, isn't that something?

Charlotte: We're Middle Western girls.

Marion: Now, did you go to college?

Charlotte: I went to Northwestern.

Marion: Who all went to Northwestern when you were there?

Charlotte: Oh, there was Patricia Neal. And Jean Hagen—remember Jean Hagen?

Marion: Sure I do.

Charlotte: I always try to remember to mention her, because she's been gone for a while.

Marion: That's right, and that was a tragic story. 

Charlotte: Yes, but I'll tell you, she was so wonderful in Asphalt Jungle. And in Singin' in the Rain, when she played the silent movie star: "I can't staaaaand him." And Cloris Leachman, Bonnie Bartlett, Florence Stanley.

Marion: I was the only one from San Diego State that went ahead and made a career out of it.

Charlotte: You sure did.

Marion: Haven't we worked hard? It's very hard.

Charlotte: Yeah, and everyone thinks it's easy.

Marion: At my age now—I’ll tell you my age, I’m 65—I could quit. Not that I’m going to quit, but I could take the pressure off myself. Not that I’m tired, but it's a milestone that I think I have to get through. Part of me wants to quit. I’m giving myself permission to say—I won't, of course, but it's like, "Gee, I've worked hard." I’ve driven myself.

Charlotte: I find now that I'm at this point in my life, I just do the things I really find a challenge, that I really want to do. I want it all, I'm greedy. I want the work, but I want my relationships with my family and my friends. I don't wanna give it up anymore for just the work, although the work helps keep you alive, it's very important for the brains and the spirit.

Marion: Paul [Michael] and I just did Love Letters to raise money for the Pierce College Philharmonic Chorale. So, we had that little project to do. We're in business, the store is open, and stuff is goin' on. You create the business. It's quite an accomplishment to do what we've done. And we don't think about it.

Charlotte: We have to try to acknowledge it ourselves.

Marion: And give ourselves credit for it, and say, Whew, now you could ease up. Please enjoy what you've done. When I first had my children, I was so busy thinking about my career, and this baby was—not in the way, but a friend of mine said, "Don't miss this," meaning the baby. I thought, "Uh oh, I hear this."

Now, to have a life and have a home—I’m like you, I want it all, too. Early on in my career, down at the La Jolla Playhouse I was understudying Ricki Soma, who turned out to be the mother of Anjelica Huston. This was the first professional thing I'd ever done, and there was an old man who was having a lot of trouble remembering his lines. It was embarrassing and frightening to see that. Then I talked to other actors, and I found they lived in hotel rooms. It was like a cold wind to see what a price these actors had paid. I didn't want that. I made a choice right then—no, no. I'm not gonna be... What a price.

Charlotte: When I was in New York, the thing that made up my mind to come out here was the last play I did there, Morning, Noon, and Night, for Ted Mann on Broadway. It got brilliant reviews and very few people came, and I saw a woman in the front row fixing her lipstick before we finished the play. And I said, "What am I killing myself for? I wanna reach masses of people." I love the theatre, but to give up so much…

Marion: Now, let's talk about TV. So here we are, you and me. You must be known all over, everywhere—

Charlotte: The world. You, too.

Marion: Me, too.

Charlotte: It's amazing.

Marion: I went to Italy two summers ago, and people stopped me on the street: "La Mama de Ricki! La Mama de Ricki!" I think, how can they recognize me?

Charlotte: I was in China, and people from Malaysia said, "Oh, hello, Mrs. Garrett." I go to Israel—"Mrs. Garrett! Mrs. Garrett!"

Marion: How many years were you on Facts of Life?

Charlotte: Seven. They wanted me to go on and renegotiate after my seven years, and I just didn't wanna do it

Marion: You could walk away from all that money? Charlotte, did you ever regret that?

Charlotte: Never. It doesn't mean that much to me. When you come to my house, it's very cozy, very simple.

Marion: Plus, we don't do this for the money, do we? We don't, literally, do this for the money?

Charlotte: Oh, television, yes.

Marion: But it really still is not the goal, I don't think. Sylvie Drake said of your performance in the play Happy Days by—

Charlotte: Beckett, Samuel Beckett.

Marion: She just couldn't say enough wonderful things, how wonderful you were in that. I didn't see it.

Charlotte: It was a challenge. It’s called a Hamlet for women roles.

Marion: Was it difficult to learn?

Charlotte: Yes.

Marion: I would think so.

Charlotte: But I think Beckett will someday go alongside Shakespeare, I really do.

Marion: That's an interesting thing.

Charlotte: And people think that Beckett is so depressing, but first of all, he has great empathy and understanding—for a man, his feeling for women is quite wonderful. I felt that Winnie, even though at the end of play she's up to her neck, somehow her gallant spirit, her noble soul—she’s filled with hope. I was really glad to do that. You've done those things, too; you've done challenges.

Marion: I did that whole one-woman show about Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Lovely Light. I learned that in '88 when we had a strike and I had nothing to do. I would walk around the garden with the script in my hip pocket and learn it.

Charlotte: I saw it originally with Dorothy Stickney. There was group in New York called the Players' Club—it's still there—and they invited me to dinner there. Dorothy Stickney was so nervous; she was married to Howard Lindsey, and he showed me around the club; he looked a little like Teddy Roosevelt.

Marion: Was it the Players' Club that Edwin Booth started?

Charlotte: In Gramercy Park.

Marion: Now this is theatre talk! Oh! The only play I ever did on Broadway in my early days was Edwin Booth with Joe Ferrer. And we were taken to the Players' Club. I played Asia Booth; I had only one line: "How was John Wilkes killed?" "A bullet." As the weeks went on, on the road, going from La Jolla to San Francisco to New York, it got to be “booollet”—I would get more into that one word. "Booollet."

I went to New York and met Dorothy Stickney. She's like 92 years old. I went to her townhouse, and when you go in on the very bottom level, there's a little chaise and a loveseat that apparently was given to her by Lynn Fontanne. And when you go upstairs there's a portrait of her over the fireplace, a huge painting, as Mother in Life With Father. I was so moved to be there, that I was almost in tears—I was embarrassed, because I was so touched, meeting her. Photos of her friends are in the house—Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell—I mean, it was the theatre that I wanted to be in, and it's an era that's gone. It was the days of the Theatre Guild. I remember my first year—I used to read Theatre Arts magazine cover to cover while I was at Northwestern University, and even in high school. 

Marion: So would I. I would go to the library in Alben Lea, Minnesota, and read the Theatre Arts magazine. There were schools listed, and I found a school in Minneapolis: Mcphail's School of Music and Drama. After the tenth grade. I got my mother to say, OK, I could go to Minneapolis. I worked for a family, took care of their children, so that I could take lessons at Mcphail—drama lessons. And I never wanted to go back to Albert Lea. The family said I could stay, and my mother let me. I didn't have any nice clothes, I didn't have any cashmere sweaters like the other girls did. And I never wore makeup and I never smoked cigarettes in the gym like the other girls did, cause I was gonna be different—I was going to be an actress. Isn't that something? Jesus.

Charlotte: When I was 16 I went as an apprentice to the Players in Milwaukee, and Morton Da Costa—they used to call him "Teke"—and Eileen Heckert were there. And I would go to classes, and then I would play small roles, like Dead Body, or Maid, something with a couple of lines.

Marion: Now how did you get that way? Was it your mother's dream? How did you get like you are?

Charlotte: I come from Jewish middle-class parents. My older sister was an opera singer, but she gave it up to marry a neurosurgeon. My parents probably couldn't afford to do anything except earn a living. But my mother had a wonderful voice. I don't know.

Marion: You had to have a tremendous drive to do this, or you can't stick it out.

Charlotte: I just felt that it was the only thing I could do. When men proposed to me my senior year in college, it terrified me because I wasn't ready for that son of thing. I didn't even know who I was. I really had to get to New York to sort things out—my values and so on. I think if I had lived in Milwaukee, I would have probably ended up in a mental institution, because I'm just not middle-class, I can't conform to that. Don't get me wrong, I go home and I visit my family, my friends. But if I had to live there, I'd go nuts. I really would. It's not my cup of tea. And they're so lovely. It's not that they're dull; it's that I would be bored. Of course, today they have a wonderful performing arts center in Milwaukee. They have a lot going on there now. So maybe, if the weather were better, I'd reconsider. 

Marion: Our little town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, which probably has 18,000 people, now has an Equity Summer Theatre, the Minnesota Festival of the Arts. Paul and I went back last April and did Love Letters and raised $13,000 in three performances for their theatre. The whole town stopped. There were billboards all over the banks, "Welcome, Marion," computer printouts across the windows. I said to Paul, "We gotta go in here, and we gotta get out as fast as we can." It's funny, but my whole goal in life was to get out of that town. I don't know where that comes from. 

Charlotte: Maybe it's because you wanted to survive.

Marion: My mother was a Canadian, a teacher, and she was quite an inspiring kind of person. I was raised with her saying, "You can be," "You can do," to have a large appetite for life, and to become somebody. Occasionally, I’ll talk to somebody and say, "Weren't you raised like that?" I was quite compelled to become somebody, and it was a mixed blessing. Part of me could sit down and cry any minute just thinking whatever it was I had to do. Even now, it's like, "Do I have to do this?" And yet I'm programmed for it. It's too late now; it’s a habit. "You can be." "OK, I will. I will, Mama. I will." And I’m the middle child, and I was the second daughter. So it's like, "Hello? Hello?" to get any attention.

Charlotte: Tell me about it. I’m a middle child too.

Marion: Yeah, so it's like, "Please look at me. Hey! Hey, guys." You know?

Charlotte: Yeah, you sound like me.

Marion: We have a lot in common, don't we, considering we don't know each other at all.

Charlotte: Not just the red hair and the Middle West. Being the middle one is quite something, 'cause you're not captain of the ship, like my older sister, and you're not darling cute.

Marion: Plus, my brother, who's 18 months younger than I, was a little crippled boy. He had a bad leg. I now realize I was the well child. Now I have great sympathy for the well child. Like when a family come would come to Happy Days with a child in a wheelchair, and the other sibling was standing there so politely and so quietly, I would say, "What's your name? How are you?" because I have a lot of empathy for that. My parents were wonderful, but I had no place for my needs.

One day I had my brother come out and we were painting this wall together with this roller, and we got kinda drunk on wine, and I finally told him my ambivalent feelings toward him. And I said I've finally gotten through all that, because if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be me, and now I'm so crazy about me, and what I am—if it weren't for you, this wouldn't have happened. I had to compensate. And all those emotions I use when I work.

Charlotte: One of my sons is handicapped, and I was very careful to have the one who was not handicapped get a lot of attention, and kind of separated them a lot so he wouldn't have to go through some of the bizarre experiences he would have to go through. I’m glad I did that, because now, he says, "He's my brother." I feel lucky that I didn't lay too much on him.

Marion: We've worked hard raising our children, building beautiful homes, sending them to college. Part of that was the motor for the career, as well as the loving of acting. I love acting, and acting is relatively... easy. You understand what I'm saying? Easy to do, because it is a natural thing to do. Even Brooklyn Bridge wasn't hard, although I loved concentrating, working so concentratedly on her. But once I found her, then it wasn't hard at all, it’s like something you love. I love to act. Right now, though, TV doesn't interest me very much. Does it interest you? I'm not very interested in being on a series, I'll tell you that.

Charlotte: No, I don't want another series. I'd like to do guest shots, or an in-and-out character once in a while.

Marion: I love the rush I get out of acting, I love the place I go inside me when I work. It's like having 20 different levels of yourself, like a complicated chess game, all going and all clicking at the same time. And you're alert and you're aware and you're in control, and all your techniques are working and you're trusting them, and you can pour that same coffee on that line from this angle—it's kinda thrilling to make all that work at the same time.

That's why, as maddening as film is—"Cut, please"—I think, "I can do that. You can say 'cut' to me a hundred times and I can do it. I can hit it in the same place and I can do it." And then sometimes when you're on stage, survive, now you've got a run going, and nobody's gonna be saying cut to you. But you've got other problems to accommodate, and it's taking all the problems like a giant puzzle and feeling all that wonderful stuff rush through your body.

Charlotte: I did a master class once, and the first thing that students say is, "How long did it take for you to make it?" It reminded me of when I was very young. I thought when I left Northwestern if I didn't become a successful working actress in one year I wanted to die. It's so funny, how young people have this concept that they've got to make it, but fast. I don't know what they mean by "make it," but I think they mean, you know, start getting to be 

successful. A lot of them have no technique, they just have a naturalistic way about them. I think it's good to develop a technique, and I think it's good for television series people to get on the stage. I think it's vastly important, because you can't just act natural all your life. There are other things to consider.

Marion: I'm very different from Mrs. C. I'm a professional woman, you know? I'm divorced. I'm a total opposite. I used to love to go to work on Happy Days, because that was the period in which I was raising my children. I was handling so much: divorced, alone, didn't have any money. I would go to work just to rest.

Charlotte: It was a vacation from life.

Marion: But it was hard at work, because there's a dynamic in doing a series. It looked like we were all playing; we act like we're playing. But underneath there, it's a tough, hard game. If you spoil your joke, it's taken away from you and given to somebody else. In fact, on a Monday morning they'd say, "Marion, read all the girls' parts." You know, we're all scruffy, we look terrible, it's Monday morning, but my heart would go bubba-da-bubba-da, because I was auditioning always for those writers. I would be as good as I could be reading these parts, and these guys would die. So gradually they would write my part better, because I would show 'em what I could do.

Charlotte: I was conscientious, too. There is no such thing as sloughing it off. You'd always get the script the night before, and you'd look it over so that you had a concept of how you were gonna work it, because that's what you do.

Marion: And you want to be the best you can. Occasionally, you will work with somebody who isn't prepared, and you think, what's blocking them? It's sometimes fear—not temperament, I see fear.

Charlotte: Remember Nat Hiken? He did The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? I was Sylvia Schnauser, this emotional Bronx housewife, married to Leo Schnauser. She was a riot. The thing was, Nat Hiken once said to me, "I love what you bring when we come to work. First of all, you know your lines. Second of all, you do such detail work, and very seldom do I see that." And he said, "Why is it that actors are dying for a part, they cry and cry, and then you give 'em a part, and then they don't know their lines, they don't come prepared?"

Marion: I used to tell kids who would be on Happy Days, not the stars, but some of the others who had lesser parts, and they'd wimp around about the size of their part, they'd pout a little bit—and I'd say, "You're here. You're in here. Make friends, be cute at lunch, be cute on the stage, be cute hangin' around—don't be sitting over here poutin'. You're in here! You got in the gate. If you don't belong, the policeman doesn't let you in that gate."

Charlotte: They didn't have any perspective.

Marion: At Paramount one time—this was like 1952—one morning in makeup, somebody introduced me to this lovely young lady, and she stood up, and up, and up, and up, and up, and she was so charming. It was Audrey Hepburn, and she was there to do Roman Holiday. I went right home—I bought two candy bars first and got right on the bus. I was always plump. And I wanted to kill myself. It's like they say the three things an actress must pay attention to are, Watch your figure, watch your figure, and watch your figure. It's sweet revenge to come to this age and have that not matter and still be here, isn't it?

Charlotte: I have photos of me where I’m beautiful and thin, and then I have photos of me where I'm beautiful and fat. Right now, for health, I really wanna take it off. And then the byproduct is that you have more energy. I’m sure it's been the same with you as it is with me, that weight has never kept us from getting work, because thanks to God and the talent we have worked with and crafted, we were always fortunate enough to be working, to try out for stuff and we'd get it.

Marion: My manager, Barbara Best, who has been with my career all these years, she would say, "When you feel that you're successful on an interview or something, what is it that people buy? What are they buying? What is it about you?" Like if you're a young actor, you'd say, "I have many sides," but if you could start to hone in on the one that sells well and show that that day. 'Cause an actor—part of the fun that I feel is to be able to lose myself in many roles, but if you're going to be a star, sometimes you're going to take that one saleable part and concentrate and develop that to the exclusion of the others. We don't wanna see Cary Grant or Clark Gable any other way, we want to see them just this way.

Charlotte: Or Spencer Tracy—they're wonderful actors, but they are persona actors. I find when I do my one-woman show, although I do many things with it, the narration is my persona.

Marion: Did you write this show?

Charlotte: It's a long process. It would have been much easier if I had taken the life of one person, but it’s not. It's my stuff through the years.

Marion: From the cabaret on?

Charlotte: Mostly theatre, cause I've done a lot of new theatre, a lot of stuff.

Marion: You're going to do it in March at Northwestern. How many performances?

Charlotte: Two performances—one for faculty and students, and one for them to raise money.

Marion: I would love to take Love Letters on a cruise. I’m ready. We have wonderful lives, don't we, Charlotte? Rich, wonderful lives.

Charlotte: Like I'm having my poker club on Saturday night. We put down a $10 ante.

Marion: What's the most you've ever won?

Charlotte: Once I won $17. I won't even put a nickel in a slot machine, but this is money well spent.

Marion: I would not gamble—I have never—I just gamble with my life.