Twenty years ago, two Cincinnati kids came to New York for their first-ever Broadway audition and won out over hundreds of other young actors to make their Broadway bow in The Innocents, a theatrical adaptation of Henry James's novel The Turn of the Screw, which was directed by playwright Harold Pinter and starred Claire Bloom.
Since then, Sarah Jessica Parker and Timothy Britten Parker have carved out distinguished careers in theatre, television and film. In addition to The Innocents, the Parker siblings have appeared simultaneously on the New York stage three other times: in Annie and Runaways in 1978, The Substance of Fire and The Visit in 1992 and currently in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (through July 14) and Rent, both Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals.
Their saga actually began when their stepfather, Paul Forste, and mother Barbara loaded up the Volkswagen van and drove Sarah Jessica and Timothy Britten into New York for that fateful audition. Sarah Jessica was 11; Timothy Britten, called Toby by his friends and family, was 13. "She was cast as Flora, and I was cast as an understudy for Miles," Timothy Britten reminisced. "Although I did not do every show, I made my Broadway debut with her. Our stepfather Paul also worked with us, both as the assistant stage manager and an understudy in the play. They really got a package deal with us."
It was one of many joint ventures by the Parker/Forste troupe. Sarah Jessica and Timothy Britten Parker are the second and fourth oldest of eight children who range 18 years in age. There are four Parkers from Barbara's first marriage and four Forstes from her second marriage to Paul Forste.
Sometime after The Innocents and before Annie, the entire family relocated to New York. As Timothy Britten described, "After being cast on Broadway with our first try, we figured that New York was a piece of cake."
By this time, most of the family was involved in the theatre. Seven of them did the national tour of The Sound of Music with Shirley Jones in 1977: Sarah Jessica and Timothy Britten and three other siblingsAndrew, Rachel and Megantogether with their stepfather Paul, who both acted and stage managed, and their mother Barbara, who signed on as a dresser and hairdresser. The newest member (Aaron wasn't born yet) of the family, three-month-old Allegra, went along for the ride, and when the hotel lacked a crib, she slept in a bottom dresser drawer lined with a pillow and blanket.
But what truly inspired this troupe of young thespians? Mom Barbara thinks it was a matter of thrift and cultural exposure. "To be honest, when I was in graduate school, it was cheaper to take them all to the theatre than to hire a baby-sitter."
"When we were growing up," Timothy Britten says, "the family priorities were not academics but the artsalthough we all did fairly well academically. As children, we all studied ballet and took creative dramatics, and we were taken to the museum, ballet and theatre, but, indeed, it was my mother's influence that gave us the opportunity. "The first show that we ever saw," Timothy Britten said . . . "was A Chorus Line," Sarah Jessica chimed in, finishing his sentence. "We saw it before it opened on Broadway. Our parents got three seats in the mezzanine and three standing-room seats, and we all switched places during intermission. We felt like we were part of that show because we had the first record of A Chorus Line that came to Cincinnati, a promotional copy for the record store. They finally gave it to us because we went every day and asked for it."
In 1978 Sarah Jessica was cast as an orphan in Annie and later took over the lead. "When I got into Annie, it was like coming home. To be part of a Broadway musical was like a dream to me."
Most people feel the same way about the smashing success of Rent, in which Timothy Britten plays four different characters. "I was an old friend of Jonathan Larson, and I had the great fortune of being offered the show without an audition because I'd worked with him before in Superbia at Playwrights Horizons. When I showed up for the first day of rehearsal, I hadn't read the script, didn't know the story at all and hadn't heard the music. After we sang through "Seasons of Love," I went home and started calling people about how glorious the music was."
"He called me," Sarah Jessica remembered, "and said, 'I'm an old man. I don't fit in here at all, but I love the music.' I remember Toby saying, 'There're some voices in this show that will knock your socks off.' But Toby has one of the most glorious voices you've ever heard, so he was being modest."
Sarah Jessica is equally modest about her own career and especially about her Broadway performance as Rosemary in How To Succeed. . . opposite her boyfriend of four-and-a-half years,
Matthew Broderick, who won a 1995 Tony Award for his performance as J. Pierrepont Finch.
"You know, it's not hard to work with Matthew, but it's complicated. We had to develop a new way of talking together about work. When there are problems, how does he tell me without hurting my feelings, or how do I tell him? Or maybe he's used to the show in a certain way, and I'm not doing that rhythm. It's tough, but it's wonderful and thrilling."
This fall, Sarah Jessica Parker co-stars with Peter Falk and Woody Allen in a television adaptation of "The Sunshine Boys." She is also scheduled to star in the Broadway revival of Once Upon a Mattress. In addition, she has five new films coming out, including the screen version of The Substance of Fire.
Timothy Britten Parker is still very active with Naked Angels, a theatre company that he co-founded ten years ago with twelve others, including his oldest brother Pippin, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis, Jon Robin Baitz, Fisher Stevens and Joe Mantello.
"Now there's talk about a movie version of Rent," he said. "I've decided that only Martin Scorsese should be allowed to direct it. He grew up on the Lower East Side. He won't compromise any of the griminess; he won't sell out. He'll be great.
"I love Broadway," Timothy Britten enthused. "We came to New York, and the first thing we ever did was a Broadway play."
"We were in love with the city from the first day we saw it," Sara Jessica continued. "It's a real community, a tight-knit loving group of people, don't you think?" She turned to her brother, who nodded in agreement. "People care about each other. You want your friend's show to run, so you have someone to go out to dinner with every night, and talk to and laugh with and root for and pooh-pooh the same things. There is a genuine love and respect and devotion that we have not found
-- By Starla Smith