The elephant in the back room of The Ritz — an old-fashioned, knockabout farce set in a homosexual bathhouse of a long-ago Manhattan (circa the 1970s) — is Horton.
Kevin Chamberlin, who was Dr. Seuss' putty-hearted pachyderm in 2000's Seussical, the Musical, checks into Studio 54 on Oct. 11 (previews begin Sept. 14) and is trying to make himself inconspicuous as a profoundly out-of-town schmo (from clueless Cleveland, yet) who scurries into a gay bathhouse to hide from hit men hired by his short-fused mafioso brother-in-law. His problem here: how to stay chaste while chased — no small feat, with a chubby-chaser around and in heat.
Thanks to a nimble grace camouflaged by a bench-press body, Chamberlin invites sweet memories of the late Jack Weston, who sprinted through the role in 1975 when Terrence McNally's giddy mix of gats and gays first hit Broadway. "Jack Weston was an idol," he says. "I'm stealing lots from him. There's an old saying: 'Talent borrows, genius steals.'"
He didn't see the original show, but fortunately director Richard Lester of "A Hard Day's Night" fame did a film facsimile a year later with Weston and three other original cast members: Jerry Stiller (the mobster brother-in-law), F. Murray Abraham (the reigning queen of the bathhouse) and a Tony-winning Rita Moreno (the chanteuse-in-residence). "I'm a big fan of the movie," Chamberlin confesses. "When I worked with F. Murray in Triumph of Love, he told me how that whole character of Googie Gomez happened. It was a character Rita Moreno had been doing at parties. Terrence saw her do it once and said, 'I'm going to write that into a play.' She got nervous about doing it because it was a very stereotyped Puerto Rican girl, but she really made her mark with it."
The ghastly specter of AIDS that separates the original Ritz and its current revival makes the play very much a product of its time — and resolutely keeps it there. "You can only do it in period," Chamberlin contends. "[Director] Joe Mantello has been trying to get it on for six years. Terrence is overjoyed it's being revived because it really hasn't been back at all. I think he had sorta put it on a shelf because of people being afraid of doing it in the era of AIDS and people associating that behavior with bathhouses. But the truth is those bathhouses which had nightclub performers performing for men in towels don't exist anymore. Enough time has passed that now that scene seems like innocent nostalgia."
Rosie Perez is his latter-day Googie, and manic-for-all-seasons Brooks Ashmanskas is the new yardstick for bathhouse flamboyance. "Brooks and I go waaaay back. We met doing a workshop — an infamous workshop. They called it 'The Moose Murders of Workshops.' It was a James Lapine–William Finn musical called Muscle. Sondheim was supposed to do it as a one-act with Passion — and didn't. Gosh, it must have cost a half a million, and it didn't go anywhere."
Actually, it did go somewhere for Chamberlin: The seeds of his career took root in those ashes. "Lapine came to me afterward and said, 'I know this was a disappointing experience, but I really want to work with you again. I think I might have a project for you.' That was right when he was starting to develop Dirty Blonde with Claudia [Shear]."
The performance that grew out of that project — a nerdy, knowing film buff with a passion for Mae West — won Chamberlin the first of his two Tony nominations.
"Claudia really based it on me, or most of it — he was a wrestler, and I was a wrestler in high school — everything except the cross-dressing. That was the most terrifying thing. I've always been frightened of drag. I don't know if it's the fear of emasculation or what. It's like how clowns scare people. But with the arc of the play, it was inevitable we have to see him in the dress. So it really wasn't drag. It was an homage."
Chamberlin made his Broadway bow among the menagerie of eccentric character actors populating My Favorite Year, and he still stuck out — especially to songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who saw no one but him as a light-footed elephant in their musical of Dr. Seuss stories like "Horton Hatches the Egg" and "Horton Hears a Who!"
Seussical, which had a troubled creative process and an abbreviated run, is a bittersweet memory for him. "The irony is it's the most produced musical in America right now," he notes brightly. "I went to my own high school [in Moorestown, NJ] and saw it done. No one outside of New York knew it was a flop, and when they hear about the hell we went through, it's very eye-opening for them to see that a show they're working on and love doing came from such turmoil."
It ended sadly, too. "I got nominated for the Tony on a Monday, and they announced that the show was closing on the following Tuesday. I missed the last week because four months earlier I had signed on to do this Tom Hanks movie, 'Road to Perdition.'
"Horton was the heart of the piece. It's always fun when you're surrounded by other elements. This is very similar to The Ritz, ironically — a nice, normal, Midwestern guy who has been thrown into this very extreme situation and surrounded by all these colorful characters. He's just bouncing around, trying to make heads or tails of what's going on."
This time he's above title — "a first for me," beams the seasoned team-player and character man who has officially turned late-blooming star.