Two seasons ago, it took a cowgirl from Chockie, Oklahama to calm the qualms some actors have about following other actors into roles. But then you couldn't plop Reba McEntire down on Broadway and expect a citified "chantoosie." The country clung to her like a calico dress — and that was a good thing, seeing as how she was doing Annie Get Your Gun, and doin' it "natur'lly" with countrified authenticity.
McEntire erased any stigma that may have been preventing big-name stars from following other performers into Broadway roles. The result? A starry payoff for audiences and extended runs for some lucky shows.
Anne Heche, for handy example, stepped in a Tony-winning role in Proof with such personal vulnerability that some critics thought they were seeing a new play. "That's the amazing thing about an incredible piece of writing," Heche says, passing the buck back to the author. "David Auburn's genius is that different girls can come in and have a different interpretation, and it can be valid. I didn't see any of the other women do it. By the time that it came for me to do the part, Dan [director Dan Sullivan] and I were pretty clear that I'd better just put myself in it and not see another performance. But, now, I sure wish that I had because I have heard that all the girls who have done it have been so wonderful."
One thing that was particularly miraculous about this performance was the fact it was the only stage acting Heche had done, short of a dinner theatre when she was a teen-ager and a 99-seat house about ten years ago. The critics never noticed. "I was blown away by my notices," she admits. "Broadway welcomed me, and I felt very honored and respected."
Producers Barry and Fran Weissler, who kept their Grease! on the Broadway griddle for years by stoking the stove with stars and out-of-the-blue Broadway debuts (including a thoroughly exorcised and domesticated Linda Blair), have worked comparable miracles on rebuilding their Chicago. The late Robert Urich got his one and only shot at Broadway as that show's shyster lawyer, Billy Flynn. Other first-timers who have paraded by as the fast-talking Flynn have included George Hamilton and one of the Backstreet Boys, Kevin Richardson. The Broadway newcomer now residing in Chicago is R&B star Angie Stone, who is giving lessons in "Class" as jail warden Matron "Mama" Morton. They will be joined July 11 by Melanie Griffith, who's moving into the Ambassador in the Roxie Hart role. Her hubby, Antonio Banderas, happens to be in the neighborhood — across the street at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, making his Broadway debut in Nine — and it can't hurt to be around when your husband has sixteen women crawling all over him eight times a week.
The next R&B headliner hitting Broadway is Toni Braxton on June 30. She made her Main Stem bow in 1998 as Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and now she's resuming her residency at the Palace as Disney's Aida. "Ever since I was a little girl, I have been a fan of Elton John's music," she said. "To be able to sing the wonderful score he wrote with Tim Rice will be a terrific challenge both as a singer and as an actress."
On her 56th birthday last November, Patty Duke got around to her Broadway musical debut. She would have made it sooner, she admitted to one reporter, but Andrea Martin landed the role. However, when Martin exited, Duke had no problem moving into Oklahoma! from Idaho. Her recent history prepared her well for reentry: "If I'd played this part years ago, I'd have been unable to imagine that kind of connection to the earth, but now — after 12 years in Idaho — I get it. We have horses and sheep and goats and donkeys. In North Idaho where we live — my husband, Mike, and our youngest son, Kevin — it's not exactly a pioneer village, but I saw more people in two days up here on the streets than there are in our whole county."
Save for eight days spent on the quick-sinking play Isle of Children, it was her first time back on Broadway since she started there at 12 in The Miracle Worker — that's right: a gamut from Helen Keller to Aunt Eller.
Sally Field left her two Oscars on the other coast and came East to make her Broadway bow replacing Mercedes Ruehl in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? An inspired choice to follow this Tony-nominated original, she got her laughs and brought an emotional resonance to the role all her own.
"I think if it bothers an actor not to originate a role, his ego is getting in the way," contends Rosie Perez, who had no problem at all following Edie Falco into Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Falco previously made her Broadway debut as the volatile Terry of Side Man, a role she actually originated Off-Broadway but couldn't introduce on Broadway because "The Sopranos" made her an offer she couldn't refuse. That decision might have wound up costing her the Tony — but it won her two Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards (to date).
Despite her success in that other medium, Falco is a theatre enthusiast — and, evidently, something of an evangelist about it on the "Sopranos" set when you count the number of her fellow cast-members who tried The Great White Way while the series was on hiatus.
Joe Pantoliano, who had his head handed to him on the show, wound up partnered as Johnny to Perez's Frankie. The series' overtaxed shrink, Lorraine Bracco spent her time-off seducing The Graduate. And — a tribute the witness-protection program: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, mob princess, hid out in the Disneyland of Beauty and the Beast.
Meadow Soprano turns out to be a lyric soprano, and Sigler rang out Belle with easy conviction: "I don't know if it was just natural in my understanding of Belle and the way she needed to be played, but I didn't really find myself having to compromise any of my personal instincts with what they wanted. We seemed to be on the same page about that.
"I grew up in musical theatre, so this was really my dream come true. The first goal I set for myself as a young girl was to star on Broadway, and I couldn't have asked for a better role or a better company to have shared my debut with. It'll be a hard experience to top."
Another perfectly 'NSYNC Broadway debut was racked up when Joey Fatone went bohemian in Rent. Playing the Anthony Rapp role of Mark, he brought a new audience and vitality to that Tony-winning show. Eleven blocks north, youth is served again in Rent's source material, La Bohème. Almost all the cast is Broadway-debuting and coming from opera.
How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've sampled Broadway? You aren't. All of the above are vowing to come back for seconds. Pantoliano is emphatic on that score: "I think this should be an inspiration to any actors who have hesitation about coming in second. The success we had on a creative level should inspire other actors to let their egos stand aside. I would have done this play if I had been in the 15th cast.
"Joe Mantello, the director, told Rosie [Perez] and me at our first meeting that the only reason he would want to do this again is to do a new production with us and see where we took it. He was pretty loosey-goosey about that. On a blocking situation, he knew what worked. Some of that is done in the struggle of the first production. You know if something works it works. The same thing with acting. You know that you're touching an audience, and you're not going to not do that tomorrow night. You're going to lock it. You're going to set it. I don't know the tradition of Broadway — and I don't care to know it. I like to take the path less traveled. This is the way I work. If there's an Equity way, a Broadway way — that ain't my way. My way is: the curtain goes up, and it's a new experience every night, and you try to find the play. I enjoy that process a lot. It keeps it fresh for me."
Perez approves of the process as well. "I have never felt more in love with acting than now. I liked it, and it was fun and challenging and blah blah blah, but I never realized that I wasn't in love with it. Now, I'll do everything and anything to get back to the stage."