Gettin’ the Band Back Together and Taxi Star Marilu Henner’s 5 Most Memorable Nights Onstage

Diva Talk   Gettin’ the Band Back Together and Taxi Star Marilu Henner’s 5 Most Memorable Nights Onstage
 
Henner recalls sharing the stage with Richard Kind, Judy Kaye, Hinton Battle, Patty Andrews, and more.
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Marilu Henner Joseph Marzullo/WENN
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Marilu Henner Robert Ascroft

Marilu Henner, the beloved TV star and Broadway veteran, returns to The Great White Way July 19 when previews begin for the new musical comedy Gettin’ The Band Back Together at the Belasco Theatre. The five-time Golden Globe nominee—known to fans around the world as Elaine Nardo, the single mom with a heart of gold, on the Emmy-winning comedy Taxi—is cast as Mitch's mom, Sharon Papadopolous, in the John Rando-directed production, which will officially open August 13. Henner, whose numerous credits also include two national tours, 50 films (including movies for television), and the long-running sitcom Evening Shade, has previously been seen on Broadway in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Chicago, Social Security, Pal Joey, Over Here!, and Grease.

I recently asked the actor and New York Times best-selling author to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow (and, yes, this is the first time in Playbill history that anyone has ever provided us with the exact date and day of a memory!).

First national tour of Grease

My first performance as a professional actress would be memorable enough, but what happened to a fellow castmate is something I don’t think any of us will ever forget! It was Wednesday, December 20, 1972, and the first preview for the very first national company of Grease. I had been in the original production of Grease in Chicago, before the show even went to Broadway, but this company had Jeff Conaway as Danny, Jerry Zaks as Kenickie, John Travolta as Doody, and Judy Kaye as Rizzo, so it was really top shelf! So here we were in Boston, setting up our dressing rooms, when all of a sudden, there was a blood-curdling scream coming from Judy’s dressing room! (Years later, Judy won a Tony for playing Carlotta in Phantom, so you can imagine what that scream was like!) In setting up her room, she had confused her contact lens solution with...nail polish remover! Thank God one of our crew guys had been a fireman and knew enough to throw Judy on the ground, break open the fire hose, and basically waterboard her eye. When sufficiently hosed, Judy was immediately rushed to the hospital where they gave her an eyepatch and told her to rest for a few days. Annie Travolta went on until Judy was back to normal in time for opening night. And since that day, I’ve never used a liquid on anything without smelling it first!

Over Here!

April Shawhan, Ann Reinking, and Marilu Henner in <i>Over Here!</i>
April Shawhan, Ann Reinking, and Marilu Henner in Over Here!

My first Broadway show was Over Here! starring the Andrews Sisters, and some of my other castmates were Ann Reinking, Treat Williams, and John Travolta (again), so you can imagine how much fun we had! We opened on Wednesday, March 6, 1974, and a month later, Saturday, April 6, was my 22nd birthday. Patty Andrews, who felt I was a kindred spirit—maybe because I, too, was the third girl in my family—announced at the curtain call that it was my birthday and asked the entire audience to stand up and sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Pretty heady stuff for a girl from Chicago making her Broadway debut.

Broadway revival of Chicago

Marilu Henner
Marilu Henner

Wednesday, January 14, 1998: I had replaced Ann Reinking as Roxie in Chicago for six months at that point with three months to go on my contract. It was Hinton Battle’s second performance replacing Jimmy Naughton as Billy Flynn, and during the number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” I noticed that Hinton’s right hand was on my left knee. This was not the normal placement of Billy’s hand, and I wondered how I’d free myself from his grip without losing my focus. Well, in the plink of the music, where our characters usually separate from one another, I went right, and he went left, but he took my knee with him! I saw Tweetie Birds and Stars but managed to regain my composure enough to finish the show. I went for an MRI immediately after the curtain went down and found out that the meniscus on my left knee had been torn! I knew the show well enough, so I was able to finish my last nine weeks with physical therapy and a well-taped knee. I had surgery a year later, and, truth be told, my left knee is now better than my right one! Once again, my number one theory, “The key to your life is how well you deal with Plan B!” rings true!

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

I’ve been lucky to play the mysterious and fabulous Lee in Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife in three different productions: on Broadway with Rhea Perlman (2002); at La Mirada with Caroline Aaron (2010); and at Bucks County Playhouse with Marsha Mason (2013). In each production, something crazy happened onstage, from props gone missing so that Marsha and I had to ad lib an entire page of dialogue, to Caroline’s sweater dress being put on her upside down during a quick change—an image that still makes me laugh to this day! But the funniest mishap was when Richard Kind as Ira—who usually made his first entrance wearing jogging togs, fanny pack, headband, Walkman, and headset—missed the cue, causing Rhea Perlman to ad lib onstage until Richard realized from his dressing room what had happened. He scooped up all of his props and rushed onstage, heart pounding, and screamed, “Can you believe it! I was mugged not a block from here! Thank God I was able to get most of my stuff!” Richard is one of the funniest people ever, so you can imagine that every single person, onstage and off, was down for the count!

They're Playing Our Song at Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre
But I definitely lost total control during my final performance (Sunday, June 26, 1983) of They’re Playing Our Song at Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre, one of my favorite theatrical experiences ever! Not only was the part of Sonia magical for me, but Burt’s place in Jupiter, Florida, has a magic all its own. During the number “Right,” my character is packing to go away for a romantic weekend with the new man in her life, and her three alter egos are singing with her questioning her decision. Usually I was packing summer wear and a nightgown while I sang, but for this final performance, the three Sonias and the fabulous apprentice assigned to me had filled the drawers and suitcase with a stripper outfit, crotch-less panties and sex toys! Needless to say, not a lyric of that song was sung onstage that afternoon—not by me or anyone else—once I opened that first drawer!

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