Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Treasured Replacements

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Treasured Replacements Liza Minnelli did great business taking over for Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria in January. Whoopi Goldberg is having a personal triumph as Nathan Lane's successor in the revival of A Funny Thing..... Last week I saw Faith Prince, whose reputation has been built on her gift for comic brassiness, take on what was for her an utterly uncharacteristic role, that of Mrs. Anna , in the wonderful revival of The King and I that recently began its second year.
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Liza Minnelli did great business taking over for Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria in January. Whoopi Goldberg is having a personal triumph as Nathan Lane's successor in the revival of A Funny Thing..... Last week I saw Faith Prince, whose reputation has been built on her gift for comic brassiness, take on what was for her an utterly uncharacteristic role, that of Mrs. Anna , in the wonderful revival of The King and I that recently began its second year.

I always enjoy returning to long-running musicals to catch replacements (and it is sometimes even possible to catch them in short-running ones--I saw both Roger Rees and Steve Barton play Lermontov in The Red Shoes). So it may be as good a time as any to reminisce about some of the most notable replacements I've seen in musicals over the years. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm talking only about replacements in the same production, or in a tour or London reproduction; I'm not comparing performances in original productions of shows to those in revivals of the same show.

The queen of all replacement shows must be Hello, Dolly!, and that's convenient for me, as Dolly! was the first show in which I witnessed multiple replacements. It may be obvious and boring to state it, but no subsequent Dolly was ever as ideally suited to the musical role as was its originator, Carol Channing; her combination of warmth, eccentricity, and zaniness, coupled with her mastery of clowning and comic timing, proved ideal, and her galvanic, larger-than-life presence was a perfect match for the style of Gower Champion's staging. My second favorite Dolly would have to be that of a woman who so offended Jerry Herman offstage (as he relates in his autobiography) that he never witnessed her performance in the role--Martha Raye. Raye's brand of broad comedy worked surprisingly well, and it is often forgotten what a wonderful singer and emotional performer she was; I never saw anyone match her moving "Before The Parade Passes By."

Even though I saw (and was knocked out by) Ethel Merman in Gypsy (twice) and the 1966 Annie Get Your Gun revival, it wasn't until she took over as Dolly in 1970 that I was old enough to fully appreciate that I was seeing the greatest-ever star of musicals, and that she might not be back in many more (in fact, Dolly! was to be her final appearance in a musical). So I went to see her Dolly seven times, from her first preview and opening night through to the closing (it helped that most of her run was on "twofers," with an orchestra seat at the St. James going for $4.95, and many of them empty even at that price). No, Merman was not exactly Dolly as written, lacking the eccentricity and zaniness required, but it really didn't matter: She managed to transform the role into her usual take-charge dame with a heart of gold, and to see her perform those musical numbers, especially the two new songs added for her, was reason enough to go again and again.

Pearl Bailey was a divine Dolly, perhaps the funniest ever, when she wanted to be, and I'll never forget seeing her closing night at the St. James (the audience made her perform the title number twice) the same day I attended the just-opened Dolly! film (and was still in shock from it). But Bailey was out too often (producer David Merrick later stated, "Pearl Bailey did the show for two years and missed three years of performances"), and tended to fool around on nights when she didn't want to be there. She also did a riotous "third act," a 20-minute post-show performance that I walked in to catch several times after attending other shows in the neighborhood. I wish I had seen Mary Martin's Dolly, but she never played nearby; she looks wonderful and very starry on the NBC TV special about her tour in the show to Vietnam, Tokyo, and London. Phyllis Diller would have been fine for a stock production, but was a bit over her head coming in between Bailey and Merman on Broadway. Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable provided a lot of movie-star glamour, and they both sold tickets, even if neither one was completely satisfying in the part. I saw a tacky national tour in which Yvonne de Carlo was a moderately amusing Dolly with an unfortunate Irish brogue. The less said about stock Dollys Betsy Palmer and Jane Morgan the better, although I wish I'd caught Ann Miller when she did it (and added a tap routine to "So Long, Dearie").

Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway the same year as Dolly!; while it was impossible for anyone to really replace Barbra Streisand in a show that was as much about her as it was about Fanny Brice, Mimi Hines did a fine job (and, more surprisingly, kept the show running for a season or two when few thought it would survive without Barbra). Fiddler had numerous Tevyes, with Hershel Bernardi and Harry Goz outstanding among Zero Mostel's successors. While Man of La Mancha was almost as big a hit as Dolly! or Fiddler, its later Quixotes and Aldonzas were an unprepossessing lot. If no other Sweet Charity was--or ever will be--Gwen Verdon, Helen Gallagher did a fine job succeeding Verdon, and Gretchen Wyler, an underrated performer who spent most of her career following Verdon and Chita Rivera in various shows, was a terrific Charity taking over for Juliet Prowse in London.

The next big replacement show was Mame, but, unlike Dolly, the replacements for incomparable Angela Lansbury were not particularly stellar. Janis Paige had looks and some good line readings, but tended to sing flat. Jane Morgan, at the time a major nightclub and recording artist, had strong pipes but was not really up to the task (although it should be stated that the material in Mame is to some extent foolproof). The final Broadway Mame, Ann Miller, was great fun, though, with a solid belt, lots of campy glamour, and enough warmth and zest to make one overlook the fact that she lacked the requisite sophistication (her Mame tap was in "That's How Young I Feel"). I saw Celeste Holm, who headed the national tour, fill in for Lansbury on Broadway, and while her singing and dancing couldn't match Lansbury's, she was terrific in the dialogue. In the London production, Ginger Rogers gave a fine performance, even if her singing was not especially worth preserving (no cast album was made), and I saw Juliet Prowse step for the vacationing Rogers in London as well (she was excellent, and continued to play the role on and off for the rest of her life). All in all, though, the producers were never quite able to come up with a musical Mame to match Lansbury (and what wouldn't I have given to have seen Judy Garland take over the role, as proposed!).

Melissa Hart, Anita Gillette, and Penny Fuller were all fine successors to the very erratic (but sometimes just fine) Jill Haworth in the original Cabaret, but you had to go to London to see the best of all Sallys, Judi Dench, who was brilliant (this was well before she became one of Britain's most acclaimed actresses, and a Dame). The Promises, Promises replacements were not as good as the originals, although Tony Roberts did well in the male lead on Broadway after starring in the London production, Lorna Luft was a decent Fran, and it was fun to see Jenny O'Hara take over for her sister, original Fran Jill O'Hara.

The next great replacement I saw was Anne Baxter in Applause. What might have been no more than a gimmick--Baxter played the title role in the source film All Above Eve and was now taking on the role of Margo Channing, succeeding Lauren Bacall--proved to be a thrilling star turn. Baxter's acting was more detailed and original than Bacall's (who, admittedly, was absolutely the right star to open the show with); Baxter was surprisingly good in the musical numbers, too, and provided a great deal of glamour. Following Baxter was Arlene Dahl, who was barely summer-stock level. I've never gotten over my disappointment that the star originally announced to follow Bacall--Rita Hayworth--was unable to do so because she was already suffering symptoms of what would prove to be Alzheimer's Disease.

Because the role of Joanne in Company was written for Elaine Stritch, it never worked as well with anyone else. It was fun to see a big name like Jane Russell, who had never before been on Broadway, taking a crack at it, and she wasn't bad, although she did refuse to sing the line "And Jesus Christ, is it fun" in "The Little Things You Do Together." The third Joanne, Vivian Blaine, sang "Ladies Who Lunch" powerfully, but was not really sophisticated, sardonic Joanne. On tour, Julie Wilson was closer to the mark, but no one got the laughs that Stritch got, and no one made the small role seem so dominant. Leading man Dean Jones' Company successor, Larry Kert, ranks to this day as the only replacement to be nominated for a Tony Award; while he did a fine job, I always preferred the warmer, more appealing Jones.

When Debbie Reynolds left the 1973 revival of Irene, Jane Powell took over, and while she wasn't quite the draw that Reynolds was, she was actually closer to the simple Irish girl she was playing than was Reynolds. A Chorus Line had, of course, hundreds of replacements, and it's not an exaggeration to say that the original cast was never successfully matched; still, I recall the strong Cassies of Ann Reinking and Wanda Richert, the superb Sheila of Kathrynann Wright, and the stellar Zach of Eivind Harum (I never saw a decent Morales replacement). In general, later Chorus Line performers were better dancers than they were singers or actors, while the originals had everything.

None of the replacement Miss Hannigans came close to Dorothy Loudon's turn in Annie, but Alice Ghostley was suitable, and I still can't believe that Betty Hutton, once a top movie star, later reduced to scrubbing floors at a rectory, actually returned to Broadway to sub for Ghostley for a month (she was fairly good, and certainly an unmissable check-out). And I can always boast that I went twice to see Angela Lansbury's lovely Mrs. Anna when she stepped in to the 1977 King and I revival when Yul Brynner vacationed (her King was Michael Kermoyan). Lansbury's performance of "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?" ranked with her "Rose's Turn" of a few years earlier.

Stepping into On The Twentieth Century to replace Madeline Kahn a couple of months into the run, Judy Kaye made a stunning star debut, the promise of which has never quite been fulfilled, at least on Broadway. (As was the case with Cabaret, one had to go to London to see the best musical Lily Garland, Julia McKenzie.) Broadway replacements Tony Roberts and Stockard Channng and West End leads Tom Conti and Gemma Craven admirably filled the shoes of originals Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz in the enjoyable They're Playing Our Song, and Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn were luxurious replacements for Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd.

The next Dolly/Mame-type check-out series for me was Evita, and I have to state right off the bat that no subsequent Evita came close to Elaine Paige's creation of the role in the West End. On Broadway, Patti LuPone sang magnificently and put on quite a show, but she was severe, and didn't allow herself to have as much fun with the role as Paige did. Of her successors, the best was Florence Lacey, the least interesting was Derin Altay, and Terri Klausner, Loni Ackerman, and Nancy Opel all had their points. In London, Paige's replacement Marti Webb sang the role excitingly. Valerie Perri, who was in the original Los Angeles and Chicago productions in the early '80s and continues to play Evita to this day, is a good all-arounder in the part.

Tammy Grimes' many successors in 42nd Street included such interesting performers as Millicent Martin, Elizabeth Allen, and Dolores Gray, the latter offering a very gritty interpretation (and singing "I Only Have Eyes For You" in place of "I Know Now" by the time she joined the Broadway company after touring with the show). Even more fun was the late Georgia Brown in the ragingly successful West End 42nd Street, which for some reason was the most exciting of all versions of that show. But it must be admitted that Dorothy Brock never quite qualified as a check-out role.

The role of Tess Harding in Woman of the Year attracted three top ladies, but the part was so tailored to original Lauren Bacall that it never made much sense with the others. Still, Debbie Reynolds sang wonderfully and was a lot of fun to see; Raquel Welch somehow received rave reviews for a performance that lost most of the laughs and was never remotely believable. None of Jennifer Holliday's successors in Dreamgirls came close, although Linda Leilani Brown was a glittering replacement for the superb Sheryl Lee Ralph's Deena. Nine didn't really work without Raul Julia--Sergio Franchi and Bert Convy weren't great replacements--and the original parade of divine ladies. Another Tommy Tune show, My One and Only, also failed to work without its original leading man, Tune himself, and even Twiggy, in her only Broadway musical to date, was hard to replace.

La Cage aux Folles had a considerable parade of men in its two star roles; indeed, Albin was perhaps the greatest diva part since Dolly or Mame (all three were, of course, musicalized by Jerry Herman). Keene Curtis was a fabulous Albin on Broadway and on tour, and Keith Michell was a terrific Georges (after Broadway, he starred in the Australian production). I didn't catch Van Johnson's Georges on Broadway because I'd seen the show so much by the time he came into it.

None of the successors to Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park With George came close, but Stockard Channing offered a vocally disappointing but extremely well acted Angel as Liza Minnelli's replacement in The Rink. For the last six weeks of the Broadway Song and Dance, Betty Buckley offered an amazing vocal display. In the Sweet Charity revival of the '80s, Debbie Allen's performance began to look better and better after seeing her replacement, Ann Reinking, and her road successor, Donna McKechnie, in the production. And James Brennan and Judy Blazer were quite good in the roles created by Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett in the Broadway Me and My Girl.

While The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon have had countless replacements in their many roles, it was with these shows that, for me at least, the days of checking out replacements began to wind down. Is it really worth the time and effort to see a new actor play The Phantom, a role that has about 40 minutes of stage time, most of it with the face so covered that unless you're in the first few rows, you can't tell who you're really seeing? And is it really necessary to see every Valjean, Javert, Fantine, and Eponine when the staging of Les Miz will always be the real star of that show? Nonetheless, Davis Gaines' Phantom was grandly over-the-top and worth attending.

Leslie Uggams couldn't match Patti LuPone's zest and sex appeal in the Anything Goes revival, and Phylicia Rashad was a disappointing Witch in Into The Woods. Linda Lavin should have been a more interesting Rose in Gypsy than she was, but then she had to follow Tyne Daly's brilliant performance. Cyd Charisse wasn't great in Grand Hotel, although John Schneider was a good Baron, and Brent Barrett (on tour and in London) an excellent one. Howard McGillin did fine work replacing Mandy Patinkin in The Secret Garden, as did James Brennan, on tour and on Broadway, in Harry Groener's role in Crazy For You. Sarah Brightman brought a lot of glamour to Aspects of Love when she succeeded Ann Crumb, making the story (in which just about everyone, male or female, is in love with her character) a bit more credible. And Larry Gatlin was a big surprise in The Will Rogers Follies.

The original leads of Kiss of the Spider Woman were perfect, but Brian Mitchell's replacement Valentin was as good as or better than Anthony Crivello's. Vanessa Williams was perhaps the most acclaimed replacement in recent history, but I can only assume that those who raved over her had forgotten Chita Rivera's performance, next to which Williams seemed to me pallid. Nor was Howard McGillin really believable as Molina, but then no one has approached the level of Brent Carver's work in that part.

Blood Brothers became an amusing, revolving-door pop-star festival, and Petula Clark, David Cassidy, and even Carole King were worth seeing. Jerry Lewis went out of his way to avoid his trademark, manic style when he went in to Damn Yankees, and the result was disappointing, but he did keep the production alive on Broadway and on the road. Matthew Broderick proved a difficult act to follow in the How To Succeed... revival, with John Stamos on Broadway and Ralph Macchio on tour failing to do much business, but Sarah Jessica Parker was enchanting when she took over as Rosemary.

Which brings us to the Dolly-Mame-Evita show of the decade, Sunset Boulevard; even those who didn't like that musical found it hard to resist seeing it more than once to check out at least one or two of the ladies who took on Norma Desmond. As I wrote in my opening night review of the show, Sunset was Andrew Lloyd Webber's gift to show queens everywhere, a gift that continues to give wherever Sunset still plays. This one is a tough call, especially in terms of Broadway, as I wouldn't argue with anyone who chose Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, or Elaine Paige as the best. Close was the most imposing and overwhelming, Buckley was beautiful and touching (her delivery of the two big songs remains the most haunting), and no one solved the problems of the show better than Paige, who brought the role down to earth, was a real hoot, and, of course, sang brilliantly. New York never got to see the Normas of Patti LuPone, Diahann Carroll (wittily acted), or Petula Clark (somewhat too sweet), but I would imagine we had the best of the lot. It's entirely possible that there will never again be a show to match Sunset's star parade, but that doesn't mean I won't run to see Raquel Welch in Victor/Victoria.

THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK:
Debbie Gravitte's second solo Varese Sarabande disc, The MGM Album, is, naturally, devoted to songs heard in Metro extravaganzas. But the recording is still pertinent to this column, as several of these songs were first heard on Broadway, and the singer has many stage credits. While the new album is occasionally overly arranged, and while the familiar material is not as fascinating as that on Gravitte's Alan Menken recital for Varese, Gravitte continues to possess one of the most impressive theatre voices around, and she's especially good here on torchy items like "Love Me or Leave Me." And the "Theme From 2001" track.is something to hear.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
In which Broadway musical mentioned above was Betty Comden briefly a replacement for a principal lady?

Answer to last week's quiz: Karen Mason was the original woman in Hey, Love at Eighty-Eight's.

-- Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com