Caroling, Caroling: Carol Burnett Sings Sondheim on Broadway

Caroling, Caroling: Carol Burnett Sings Sondheim on Broadway It's one of the most ridiculous moments captured in any recent documentary film -- and we're not talking about the fictional, satirical “Waiting for Guffman.” In “Moon Over Broadway,” the all-too-real filmic diary of Moon Over Buffalo's rocky journey to the stage of the Martin Beck Theater in 1995, playwright Ken Ludwig and other members of the show's creative staff are seen talking behind the back of their leading lady, a comic genius who they shockingly attempt to scapegoat for the play's shortcomings.
Carol Burnett and the company of Putting It Together.
Carol Burnett and the company of Putting It Together. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

It's one of the most ridiculous moments captured in any recent documentary film -- and we're not talking about the fictional, satirical “Waiting for Guffman.” In “Moon Over Broadway,” the all-too-real filmic diary of Moon Over Buffalo's rocky journey to the stage of the Martin Beck Theater in 1995, playwright Ken Ludwig and other members of the show's creative staff are seen talking behind the back of their leading lady, a comic genius who they shockingly attempt to scapegoat for the play's shortcomings.

The lady in question is the great Carol Burnett, who -- thank heaven! -- did not turn her back on Broadway after stepping in Buffalo dung. Prior to that debacle, Burnett hadn't done a show in these parts since Fade Out, Fade In in 1964. But now she's quickly returned to the fold, lending her comic (and dramatic) brilliance, plus her inimitable singing voice, to Putting It Together, the Stephen Sondheim "musical review" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

"I love all the stuff they've given me to do," Burnett says. "All of our songs are socko, over-the-footlights songs. Everything is an 11 o'clock number. We should just go on at 11!"

An earlier version of Putting It Together was presented at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993. Though it received mixed reviews, that production was a box-office phenomenon -- largely because Julie Andrews, one of Burnett's closest friends and most simpatico partners in performance, was herself returning to live theatre as the show's star after a three-decade absence. Ironically, Burnett says, "I never saw the show when Julie did it; I wasn't in New York then. After it closed, Cameron Mackintosh got in touch with me about doing that version in London, and we had a couple of meetings, but it just didn't work out. Then -- if my memory serves me correctly -- Gordon Davidson talked to me about doing something at the Music Center in Los Angeles. We also have this Reprise! thing out in L.A., and they were talking to me, too. I said, 'Why don't we do a concert performance of Putting it Together?' I think they went to Cameron with that idea, but he said he'd rather mount a new staged version. He and Gordon got together and asked me to do it at the Taper for a couple of months. I thought, 'Heck, yeah!' Then they got Eric [Schaeffer, the show's director] on board, hired [choreographer] Bob Avian, and put Putting It Together together."

Though the show is essentially a revue (as well as a review) encompassing some of Sondheim's greatest songs and musical scenes, it does have a thread of a storyline. "I'm not sure if Steve or Cameron agree," says Burnett, "but I liken the show -- at least a little bit -- to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The young couple comes to visit the older couple, there's a lot of drinking, the evening disintegrates, but there's some sort of closure at the end. You know that, whatever their relationship is, the older couple will always be together." Burnett's appearance as The Wife in Putting It Together isn't her first foray into the world of Sondheim; most memorably, she was part of the all-star cast that brought the master's Follies to life in a wildly successful 1985 concert revival at Avery Fisher Hall. "I also did Company a few years ago in Long Beach," Burnett says. "And, on TV, we did Stephen's songs many times. I can't say anything original about him. His stuff is the most difficult to learn and the most exhilarating to perform." Having played the caustic Joanne in a full production of Company, what's it like for Burnett to revisit the character's bitter aria "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the context of Putting it Together? "I approach the song as if The Wife is singing mostly about herself," she explains. "She's one of these women she's referring to, and she's sad and angry about that. In Company, I did it more as if Joanne was an observer. But, in this show, I feel that The Wife is thinking, 'Who am I? I'm trying to hang on, but I'm this dinosaur, and I drink too much.' "

During the course of the show, Burnett plays drunk both comically and seriously -- sequences which gain special resonance in light of a lawsuit against The National Enquirer that she famously won several years ago: "They said that I was drunk in a restaurant, and I'd gotten into a fist-fight with Henry Kissinger! I can laugh about it now, but I sure was ticked off at the time. My parents had problems with alcoholism, and they died way before anybody acknowledged that it's a disease; there were a few AA groups, but it wasn't as strong as it is now. At one point in 'The Ladies Who Lunch,' I'm actually doing my mother. She wasn't wealthy, and she wasn't a dinosaur, because she didn't live to be that old. But this self-pitying feeling of being caught is her.' "

No doubt due in part to the fact that this production was previously a hit in L.A., Putting it Together had a smooth preview period in New York. Just about the only major change, according to Burnett, was that "we replaced 'Come Play Wiz Me' [from Anyone Can Whistle] with 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' [from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum]." She says that she and co-stars George Hearn, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman, and Bronson Pinchot "have totally bonded. The show is an ensemble piece, which is what I like to do anyway." Given the embarrassment of riches represented by the Sondheim songs gathered for Putting It Together, does Burnett have a favorite moment in the show? "I love doing 'Country House' [from the London version of Follies] with George," she says, "because it's really a scene. It was the toughest song to learn. It is musical, but the average person wouldn't say, 'Oh, gosh, listen to that melody!' George and I thought, wouldn't it be funny if we went to a piano bar and started doing it, and yelled 'Everybody, sing along!' The hysterical thing is, they all would probably know it, because they'd be Sondheim fans."

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Burnett took a side-trip to the West Coast before making her way to Broadway. "I went to UCLA, but I left when I was a sophomore," she relates. "I came to New York not knowing a soul, never having been further east than Texas. But I had no doubt that I would be okay, because I'd seen all of those Judy and Mickey movies. The cynicism that exists today did not exist then; everybody who got off the bus or the train at Penn Station had stars in their eyes, and so did I. I was scared, but not to death. When I left UCLA, my buddies gave me a party, and they asked me, 'Okay, Carol, what are you gonna do when you get to New York?' I said, 'Well, I'm gonna probably have to pound the pavements' -- I really was right out of Mickey and Judy -- 'and then I'm gonna finally get a show, and it's gonna be directed by George Abbott.'

"I had one contact here in New York," she remembers, "a girl who had graduated from UCLA. Her name was Ellie Eby, and she was kind of a star on campus; I had been in the chorus of a scene from South Pacific at school where she did Nellie. When I got here, I was so naive, I didn't even know where I was gonna live. I was walking around with my cardboard suitcase, and I spent my first night at the Algonquin because I'd seen an ad for it in The New Yorker when I was on the plane. It was $9 a night -- but my rent had been $1 a day in Hollywood, so that was nine days' rent! Then I called Ellie, who was staying at The Rehearsal Club. I told her where I was, and she said, 'Get out of there! I'll talk to Miss Carlton about getting you in here.' "

The Rehearsal Club was a boarding house for budding young actresses that had been fictionalized and made famous in the play and film Stage Door. "The movie was way before even my time, but I had seen it," Burnett says. "So I sloshed over in the rain, which is good luck for me, and there were all these girls there -- just like in the movie! Ellie introduced me to Miss Carlton, who was the duenna of the club, and they put me in the 'transit room' for the new girls. It was five of us in one room. We each had a cot, a dresser, and we shared one closet and one bathroom. That's five women and one bathroom. I was the hick; then there was Miss Stanislavsky, Miss Ballet, Miss Kooky Dim-Wit, and Miss Know-It-All. It was a sitcom."

Young Carol Burnett made her first big splash in show business when she sang the comic ditty "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" on “The Jack Paar Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Amazingly, she fulfilled her dream of working with George Abbott soon thereafter when she snared the role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone in Once Upon a Mattress (1959), a big hit off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre and later at the Alvin (now the Neil Simon) on Broadway. Reviewing that musical takeoff on the Princess and the Pea fairy tale in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson described Burnett as "a breezy comedienne who comes brawling into the story about halfway through the first act and gives it a wonderful lift for the rest of the evening…a lean, earthy young lady with a metallic voice, an ironic gleam, and an unfailing sense of the comic gesture."

The star's definitive performance in Mattress was recreated in two separate television adaptations, in 1964 and 1972; both survive, and are in the collection of the Museum of Television and Radio. Does Burnett prefer one version over the other? "If I could take the best of each one, I would do that," she says. "There were certain songs that were left out of each. All of the performances were good, though I preferred Bernadette [Peters, as Lady Larken], because she brought great humor to it." Dare one ask Burnett for her take on the flop 1996 Broadway revival of the musical? "I think they got a bum rap," she says without hesitation. "I saw the show well into the run and, once everybody left everybody alone, they were able to do what they were born to do. Sarah Jessica Parker was absolutely wonderful. I almost wanted to go back and redo the bed pantomime, because she found stuff in it that I never did."

After Mattress came Fade Out, Fade In, a show that folded early when Burnett had to miss performances due to severe whiplash suffered in a taxi accident. Then the budding star left Broadway for 30 years. But, in much the same way that Mario Lanza popularized opera through films rather than live performances, Burnett shared her musical comedy expertise with the masses via her long-running TV variety series. "In essence, our show was like a weekly summer-stock musical comedy review," she says. "We performed it as a theatre piece. All of the cast came from live theatre, and a lot of the crew came from live television, so it had that spontaneity about it. In 11 years, I don't think we had 12 pickups. Unless the scenery fell down and hit somebody in the head, we kept on going, just like it was theatre."

Those who missed the heyday of “The Carol Burnett Show,” or who regret that the shows have not been available in their entirety since they first aired, should take heart: "We're working on releasing 30 of the original one-hour shows to home video, warts and all," the star says. "People come up to me and say, 'I grew up on your show' -- but they actually grew up on the reruns, so they have no idea that we did so much music. We're hoping that we can get all the unions to agree [to the home video releases]; the music had to be cut out of the reruns because of them. Originally, the show was being rerun five days a week, and we would have had to pay 28 musicians their full week's salary five times! There was no way we could do that, so that's why we have very little music in the reruns. Steve Lawrence told me that he and Eydie [Gorme] were stopped in an airport recently and someone said to him, 'Oh, you're that funny guy on “The Carol Burnett Show.”' They had no clue he was a singer! Of course, he loved that. Steve used to say, 'If the show's running long, cut my song; I'd rather do the sketches.' We had him on as a semi-regular -- he and Kenny Berry and Bernadette [Peters]."

Asked about the death of the TV variety format, Burnett again cites what is obviously a pet peeve. "It's too much money now," she says flatly. "You could never have a 28 piece orchestra on a TV show, outside of the Oscars or something like the Kennedy Center honors. Also, there's the music rights. Today, you couldn't do the kind of medleys we did on our show; it would cost probably $50,000 a pop. What they're doing is pricing themselves out of anybody hearing these wonderful songs. It's greed, and it's awful." As to the precarious status of Broadway musical comedy at the end of the millennium, Burnett is more optimistic, insisting that "people still want to see that stuff. If A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum had been written today, I think people would eat it up. There's always hope. All it takes is one show or one person to knock 'em out, and then everybody will want to get on the bandwagon again."

The kind of farcical, over-the-top comedy for which Burnett is famous would also seem to be dead on Broadway, if plays like Moon Over Buffalo are the best anyone has to offer in that genre nowadays. "I never regret making mistakes," she says of Buffalo, "because you learn from them. I know that sounds pat, but I learned an awful lot from doing that show -- and I certainly learned a lot when I saw the documentary! I had no idea they felt that way. When Tom [Moore, the show's director] said, 'Well, you know, she's television,' I thought, 'Wait a minute: I'm from Broadway, and my television show was Broadway. I've done more Broadway than most of these people ever saw!' They also said things like, 'We'll whip her into shape.' Wh-a-a-at? Excuse me?!" Still, Burnett feels that "it all worked out for me in the end." She noticed that Moon's creative team became more appreciative of her when the show had to be stopped for about 15 minutes during the final dress rehearsal due to technical difficulties, and Burnett's off-the-cuff banter with the audience to cover the pause earned about a million more laughs than could be found in Ken Ludwig's script.

If Burnett hasn't been a constant, high-profile presence on stage or screen in recent years, neither has she been sitting around. Some of her time and energy has been geared toward encouraging young talent; she has established performing arts scholarships at her own alma mater of UCLA, at Pepperdine University Center for the Arts, and at the College of Santa Fe. "The students get up every year and present scenes from musicals, and a panel of judges pick the ones to receive the scholarship," she explains. "Susan Egan got it at UCLA one year. You know, I directed Mattress there in February, and that was such fun for me. The kids loved doing it."

Were there any "roles that got away" during Burnett's career? "Well, way back, Mame would have been fun to do," she allows. "But now, I think it's been done to death. It might be fun to try it sometime in stock -- just to do it." She also confirms that she had hoped to play Mama Rose in a stage production of Gypsy with her daughter, Carrie, in the title role, "about a hundred years ago. We're both too old for it now!" Other than that, Burnett can't really think of any big, diva parts she'd like to tackle at this point. "When Gordon Davidson came to me with the idea of doing a project," she remembers, "I thought: 'What is there?' Then I thought, 'Why not do Putting it Together? All those wonderful Sondheim songs. You can't beat them.' "

-- Michael Portantiere