"My agent sent me down to audition for it," he said. "I read it, they liked me, I liked the play, and it gets me out of the house."
George S. Irving—who was in the original casts of Oklahoma!, Irma La Douce, Bells Are Ringing and Gentleman Prefer Blondes, who was nominated for a Tony Award for Me and My Girl and won the Tony for Irene—still has to audition?
The 84-year-old trouper sighs and laughs. "Everybody auditions."
Given his lengthy resume, it's only natural that A Mother isn't his first time working with star Olympia Dukakis. The two co-starred in a little eight-performance wonder from 1974 called Who's Who in Hell, written by Peter Ustinov.
That was only Irving's 23rd show on Broadway. A good number of productions followed. So, how many credits total does A Mother make? Another sigh and laugh. "I've never counted them up. I've been at it since 1943—Oklahoma!." Yes—a pretty nifty first Broadway credit, that. How did it come about?
"I worked at the MUNY opera in St. Louis," Irving told Playbill.com. "The last show of the season was Show Boat. At the dress rehearsal, Oscar Hammerstein was visiting. The guy who sang 'Ol' Man River' was sick, and somebody moved up into that part, and I moved up into his part. Oscar took the rehearsal and we got to know each other a little bit. That was the summer of '42. The following spring, they were starting Oklahoma! and I called him and auditioned. Got in the chorus. I was a kid. It was my first Broadway job. I was happy to be working. We didn't think it was earth-shattering. It was nice."
Oklahoma! was "nice." Makes you wonder how Irving would describe the other landmarks in his long career. So, we asked him.
The Happy Time: "We rehearsed it in L.A., because director Gower Champion lived out there and he wanted to go home at night. We were there for 16 weeks. I kind of liked it, actually."
Me and Juliet, a lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from 1953: "I played the conductor. It was a play within a play. I went into the pit and conducted a number. Richard Rodgers showed me how to do it. He told me, 'The theory of conducting is the theory of the upbeat. You give a proper upbeat and the orchestra will know what the tempo should be.'"
Irene, the 1973 revival starring Debbie Reynolds, which won Irving his Tony: "We had Gielgud as a director. A lovely man and a great artist, but he just didn't have a clue how to put on an American musical. He was replaced by Gower Champion. But Gielgud helped me a lot. I was playing an extravagantly gay dress designer, Madame Lucy. When I auditioned, he gave me the script and said, 'You may be as extravagant as you like, dear boy.' So I pulled out all the stops and got the job.
"We were the first show into the Minskoff. And soon after we started, it was discovered that they hadn't built the stage properly. It didn't have the proper bounce to it for dancing. So, soon after we opened, they shifted us to the St. Louis MUNY opera for two weeks while they redid the stage. One night, it rained. If the rain holds to a certain point in the show, you don't have to give back the money. But the rains came early that night and 12,000 pairs of feet got up and started to shuffle off to the shelters. But Debbie did not want to give back the money. She went back on stage, she grabbed a mop and a bucket and started singing 'Singin' in the Rain.' Well, 12,000 pairs of feet shuffled back in there. She saved the box office that night."
An Evening With Richard Nixon and..., a 1972 Gore Vidal satire in which he played the shifty president: "I did a Nixon imitation and had marvelous make-up man, Bob Smith. He was cooking [Nixonian] noses and I had a great wig. I really looked like him. They came up from the White House to see it. I was on a talk show with [Nixon scriptwriter] William Safire and I asked him if he'd seen it. He said, 'Yeah. It's not a very consequential play.' He was very uppity about it. I remember the next year, we tried out Irene in Washington. Mrs. Nixon and the girls were sitting in Debbie's seats one matinee. Debbie was friendly with the Nixons. I made my first entrance, 'as extravagantly as you like, dear boy'—swishing around the stage. I remember, Mrs. Nixon leaned over to the girls and started talking rather excitedly. I think she told them, 'This creature played your father.'"
And the new play? "It's a funny play. The audiences seem to love it. I play the father of Veanne Cox, who is in constant contention with her mother, Olympia Dukakis. They are extraordinary."
They're in good company.