Megan Mullally has a thought. "You know," she says, "every time I'm on Broadway, O.J. goes back to jail."
How's that again? "Well," she says, "when I was doing How to Succeed in Business... [in 1995], the whole O.J. trial was on." And yes, on the day we're speaking for this story, the newspapers are filled with stories about Mr. Simpson's Vegas break-in. Coincidence? Destiny? You decide.
Any conversation with Megan Mullally has a strong undertone of screwball comedy. The good news is, Mullally has vacated the world of TV sitcoms to star on Broadway in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' musical monster mash, based on his 1974 film classic. She's joined by a rollicking collection of cutups, including Roger Bart as mad doctor Frederick Frankenstein; Shuler Hensley as the monster in top hat and tails; Sutton Foster as Frederick's lusty, yodeling assistant, Inga; Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher, the prototypically sinister housekeeper; and Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor, the inevitable hunchback.
Mullally takes on the role (made famous by Madeline Kahn) of Elizabeth, Frederick's frigid fiancée, who learns from the monster that size really, really matters. Out-of-town critics raved about her delivery of three numbers: "Please Don't Touch Me," which sums up her relationship with Frederick while making clear her extensive experience with other men; "Surprise," when she discovers Frederick conducting the wrong kind of lab experiments with Inga; and "Deep Love," a title that needs no explanation. "Yes, she's quite a girl," Mullally says, snickering. "A popular sort of girl. The first time I heard 'Please Don't Touch Me,' I laughed out loud."
Elizabeth was described by Variety as "a self-worshipping WASP tart," a description that places the character firmly in Mullally's range. This is, after all, the actor who, for eight years, presided over the NBC hit "Will & Grace" as Karen Walker, the boozy, bitchy, multiple divorcee, with a titanic sense of entitlement and a hyperactive fashion sense.
This raises a delicate question: since Karen and Elizabeth are each the kind of woman who, in real life, would probably end up with a drink in her face, how does Mullally make them seem like so much fun? "You know, I think it's two things," she says. "These characters are really happy. They have a lot of joy, even if they're putting it through a filter that you or I wouldn't use.
"Also," she says, "when I went to college, at Northwestern, I got cast in A Little Night Music as Petra, the maid. But I didn't know how to act! Susie Plakson [now a working TV actor] played Charlotte; I had a big talk with her, because I didn't know what I was doing and I was freaking out. She said, 'Make friends with your character.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'You'll figure it out.'"
Clearly, Mullally did just that. It's harder to credit, however, that there was ever a time when she felt acting-challenged. As she describes her upbringing, one feels that it was the only possible career option. Her father, Carter Mullally Jr., was a contract player at Paramount Pictures in the 1950s, who, when his career ended, moved the family to Oklahoma City.
"He was very flamboyant, eccentric, and funny, and he influenced me more than anyone," says Mullally. "There was nobody like him in Oklahoma City. He literally drove around in a Rolls Royce Phantom II, wearing an ascot!" She starts to laugh. "I mean, people were passing him in pickup trucks! He did not fit in." Meanwhile, she adds, "I was the only one in school who had creative leanings and I couldn't let that be known. My mom encouraged me to take dance classes. I was in a ballet company."
At the same time, Mullally picked up a hard core of Midwestern cheerfulness and common sense that made her a bit of an outsider in her oh-so-dramatic college theatre department. "I tried to take an acting class at Northwestern," she says, "but I was mortified by everyone's behavior. You know, in Oklahoma City, nobody rolled around on the ground pretending to be a melon. People were screaming and crying, and I thought, 'Wow, you need to pull yourself together!'"
Something must have taken, however, because Mullally kept herself busy in Chicago theatre for six years. Next came New York, where she appeared as Marty in the 1994 revival of Grease, then landed the role of Rosemary, the marriage-minded secretary who pursued Matthew Broderick, in How to Succeed in Business.... After that, she was off to Los Angeles, where she did TV guest shots and movie supporting roles until Karen Walker came into her life.
At the time "Will & Grace" premiered, was Mullally worried about how a sitcom featuring gay characters would be received? She pauses and sighs, "Everybody else was, but I didn't think it was that big a deal. I just let other people worry about things like that."
Does she mind the recognition the show brings? "If that's what people know me from, it's nice," she says. "It's a great character, a really funny show." She stops, then says, almost confidentially, "It's on so much! [She's not kidding; you can see four episodes a day in New York.] I really notice that when I'm at the airport. And, you know, some people are starting to watch it for the first time."
But now, it's good-bye Karen, hello Elizabeth. Given her ballet training, can we expect to see her kicking up her heels onstage? "I'm not in any of the big production numbers," she replies wistfully. "I hung around while Susan Stroman was staging 'Puttin' on the Ritz' but she didn't bite."
Otherwise, speaking of her director, she has nothing but praise. "Susan is so warm — she literally has not had one moment of temper. That's remarkable, because this show is gigantic, it's such a spectacle. The staging is pristine." As for Brooks, she adds, "Mel's been really sweet. He's such a character. People undervalue him as a composer; the songs are just great."
In the meantime, Mullally is settling into her New York digs with her husband, Nick Offerman, star of the Comedy Central series "American Body Shop." She has a small role in the new animated film, "Bee Movie," coming out this month. And she has her own singing group, The Supreme Music Program, whose third album, "Free Again!," is just out. Connected to that endeavor is a Web site, SupremeStoryProgram.com. "I just launched it recently," she says. "I raise a topic, and other people send in stories related to the topic. It's a fun idea."
Still, the major event in her life right now is Young Frankenstein. What's it like to be in a show that is as close to a sure thing as anything that ever opened on Broadway? "There's a weird feel to it," she concedes. "It's like it's going well and was supposed to go well. For me, it's probably even more fun, because, even though I've done two Broadway shows, I'm the outsider. I don't know anything — I don't even know who the critics are! It's just like a vacation."
(This piece originally appeared in the November issue of The Insider's Guide, Playbill's new monthly listings and features publication distributed in and around New York City.)