DIVA TALK: Chatting with Florence Henderson

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Florence Henderson
Florence Henderson

FLORENCE HENDERSON
Florence Henderson may be known to most of the world as Carol Brady, the loving mom on the TV family favorite "The Brady Bunch," but Broadway fans know that the beloved singing actress created the title role in the original Broadway production of Harold Rome's Fanny. Henderson, whose Broadway credits also include Wish You Were Here and The Girl Who Came to Supper, is currently back in New York, where she recently caught the Encores! production of Fanny at City Center, the Manhattan landmark that was also home to an earlier Henderson triumph, a 1953 production of Oklahoma! that cast her as Laurey. Henderson, however, is not content to rest on her laurels; in fact, the recent host of NBC's "Later Today" is presenting her concert act, All the Lives of Me . . . A Musical Journey, Feb. 12-13 at Joe's Pub. She will also host the annual Broadway Backwards concert — featuring male singers performing songs traditionally sung by women and women singing tunes written for men — Feb. 22 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Henderson, who spoke about her current projects as well as her upcoming, long-awaited return to Broadway; that brief interview follows:

Question: What are your memories of performing in the original production of Fanny?
Florence Henderson: Fantastic. It seems like yesterday I got to work with Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak and Bill Tabbert and Josh Logan and S.N. Behrman and Harold Rome. It was a pretty heady time for me.

Question: What was it like getting to create a role in a new musical?
Henderson: It was wonderful. I really loved the role. I loved the character. It seemed to have an effect on people, the whole show. Cary Grant came to see it five or six times. Bill Tabbert and my dressing room were one flight up at the theatre. There was a knock at the dressing room door as I was taking off my makeup. I said, "Who is it?" He said, "Cary Grant," and I said, "Oh yeah, alright, Bill!" So I didn't get up. [Laughs.] A few more minutes and there's another knock. Anyway, I went and opened the door, and it actually was Cary Grant. It was great.

Question: You started on Broadway in the 50s.
Henderson: Yes. I went into rehearsal in 1954 with Fanny. That was August, and we opened in November. I never missed a performance until 1956.

Question: Were you in it the whole run?
Henderson: No, I got married in 1956. David Merrick grudgingly gave me a week off, after never missing a performance. Question: That was nice of him.
Henderson: Very nice of him. Very generous. [Laughs.] I took a week off, and I came back and stayed with the show another six or seven months.

Question: Was Broadway your main goal originally as a performer?
Henderson: Yes. I just loved the whole idea of musical comedy and musical theatre. I grew up in a very large, poor family, and to go to a movie musical was like heaven on earth for me. Because I could always sing, I thought, "This is what I must do! This is my vocation."

Question: Why do you think your thought was Broadway rather than a movie musical? How did you know about theatre?
Henderson: When I would see the musicals, it always seemed to me that it was live or that they were onstage…[I remember seeing] Jane Powell at the Hollywood Bowl… [and] the first time I got to sing at the Hollywood Bowl I thought, "Oh, my God, my dream has come true." Or Fred Astaire, I knew he had started in the theatre and vaudeville. I just loved that whole idea. I still do.

Question: When did you originally get to New York?
Henderson: I came to New York right out of high school. I got sponsored to study at the American Academy. That was in 1951. In 1952, at the end of the first year, I went to an open call and got a small part in Wish You Were Here and was in the chorus. Of course, Josh Logan directed that as well as Fanny. I stayed with that for a couple of months and then went to another audition and wound up with the lead in the last national company of Oklahoma!

Encores! Fanny star Elena Shaddow with Florence Henderson

Question: And that eventually came into City Center?
Henderson: Yes. I'm so excited about going there [to see the Encores! Fanny.] Question: What other shows did you do?
Henderson: I did Sound of Music, I did The King and I, I did The Girl That Came to Supper, Wish You Were Here, Fanny, South Pacific

Question: Did you get to work much with Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Henderson: Yes. You've gotta come and see my show, Andrew. You're gonna learn so much. [Laughs.]

Question: What were they like?
Henderson: Oscar was this big bear of a man, kind of shy but sweet, I thought. Very meticulous about his lyrics. Richard Rodgers was a real mentor to me. They both were, but Richard more than Oscar… His reputation sometimes was not the man that I knew. He was wonderful to me, and I was just so privileged to know him until he died. We were great friends, and his wife Dorothy was a friend. I adored him. I still think no one writes a melody like he does.

Florence Henderson
photo by Pat Johnson

Question: Getting to your upcoming Joe's Pub show, what's it like playing such an intimate venue?
Henderson: I love it. It's my audience. They come and they just laugh and cheer. It's just wonderful. Question: Tell me about the question-and-answer segment.
Henderson: Well, it comes after a "Brady Bunch" segment. I just do Q&A. We do pass out cards before, but I also open it up. Anybody can ask me anything they want about anything. I get some interesting questions! [Laughs.]

Question: When "The Brady Bunch" originally premiered, did you ever think that it would have such longevity?
Henderson: No. If you told me that it would never be off the air in this country and be in 122 countries around the world, I would say, "You're dreaming." But that's the way it is. It's amazing to me.

Question: Have you ever thought about why the appeal has lasted so long?
Henderson: I don't know, but people loved that show. And now young parents, I hear from them all the time that it's one of the few shows that they'll let their children watch. They buy the DVD… it's really amazing to me. I went shopping with my daughter on Sunday. We walk in, and there's this beautiful woman, who's in charge of the store. She came up and said, "My name is Phyllis, and can I help you… but first, could I just have a hug?" I said, "Of course, you may." I get that all the time.

Question: I would think you must have such good will coming towards you from people.
Henderson: Always affection, and I just embrace it.

Florence Henderson
photo by Pat Johnson

Question: You're also going to host the Broadway Backwards event.
Henderson: Yes! I'm very excited about it. I did it last year for the first time. I was one of the guests, and it was hilarious. It's so much fun to bring down the house. Question: What did you do last year?
Henderson: I did "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." [Laughs.] But it started with about seven hunky guys. It was all over YouTube. Anyway, it's all carefully rehearsed, and this year I'm gonna host it. I'm really looking forward to that. The creative team is really great on that.

Question: What do you think you're proudest of about your career?
Henderson: First of all, I'm very proud of having longevity in my career. I think that having been in a tough business for so long at a pretty decent level, that I've retained my sense of humanity, and that I still love what I do and take such pride in it and work so hard to make it good... I'm proud of that.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works? Will you be taking your one-woman show around?
Henderson: I've been doing it all over the place. I think I'm coming back to Broadway in a new musical.

Question: Can you tell me about it?
Henderson: It's by the Sherman Brothers but certainly different than Mary Poppins. I'm very excited about it. I've been wanting to go back to Broadway for a long time. It's my first love, and I just love the piece.

Question: Does the show have a title yet?
Henderson: It's called MerryGoRound. It's just wonderful. Question: It would be great to have you back. What's the timeline with the production?
Henderson: Rehearsals in July, probably aiming for September.

Question: Last question. When people hear the name Florence Henderson, what would you like them to think?
Henderson: That she really is a nice lady and that she's funny and she makes people laugh and she realizes that what she does is just what she does, nothing out of the ordinary. I don't take myself seriously, but I take what I do very seriously.

For tickets to All the Lives of Me . . . A Musical Journey Feb. 12-13 at 7 PM at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette), visit www.Joe'spub.com. For tickets to Broadway Backwards on Feb. 22 at the Beaumont, visit www.broadwaycares.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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