Love Affair: The One and Only Twiggy Returns to the New York Stage

Love Affair: The One and Only Twiggy Returns to the New York Stage By Robert Cashill
Harry Groener and Twiggy cut the cake at If Love Were All's opening night party.
Harry Groener and Twiggy cut the cake at If Love Were All's opening night party. (Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

By Robert Cashill

By a happy accident, the blastoff of the Austin Powers sequel at multiplexes coincided with the reactivation of Twiggy's mojo off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It's easy to see the face that launched a million Vogues being a suitable subject for Powers' fashion photography in swinging Sixties London. Indeed, given her nightly requirements, it's even easier to imagine her curled up in Austin's king size bed, blissfully...asleep.

"I need 10 hours of sleep per night," she says, in a liquid voice that ranges from a smooth cognac to a sprightly gin fizz, occasionally bubbling over into a delighted shriek. "I don't think I could perform night after night if I didn't sleep that much. I come home, have a bite too eat because I'm usually absolutely ravenous, digest my meal, turn off all the phones, and go to bed." Clearly, Twiggy doesn't need Austin Powers to tell her to behave.

Eminently more sensible than her Carnaby Street-era moniker might suggest, Twiggy is currently playing the brilliant, but not quite so prudent, Gertrude Lawrence in If Love Were All, which relates the lifelong friendship between the actress and Noel Coward in songs and sketches drawn from the Coward canon. It's a role close to her heart: supermodeldom had its perks, and one for the former Leslie Hornby as she tried her hand at acting was meeting the multifariously gifted Coward, who spent an afternoon tap dancing with her as she prepared for her film debut in The Boy Friend. He also suggested she one day play Elvira in his Blithe Spirit. Courtesy of the new show, she struts her stuff in a tap number, and does a turn as Elvira, alongside the Coward of co-star Harry Groener. "He was a genius, and people should know his work. I just loved Coward to bits," relates Twiggy, who slips several extra syllables into all variants of the word "love."

Twiggy practices tougher love with Lawrence. "I've met people who've known her, including her own daughter, who's in her 80s. She told me Gertie wasn't much of a mum, unfortunately -- she was dumped on her grandmother. But Gertie had to look after her career, and in those days actors went on the road for months at a time and you couldn't just drag a kid along. That's not me; I'm a wonderful mum!" Shriek. She continues: "Gertie was a bit ditzy and a bit nuts, and as Coward says in our show, on some nights she could be absolutely wonderful, and on others she'd be so dreadful your senses would reel. I do love all her different sides. But she did terrible things: In one of her plays, her famous co-star had a long speech, and he couldn't work out why everyone's attention wasn't on him over several nights. So one evening he turned to see that she was smoking a cigarette, which she had rigged with a needle, so that the ash just held as she smoked it, riveting the audience. I'd never do that! And, as Coward says, she spent money like a fleet of drunken sailors: She once bought a complete stranger a diamond bracelet at Tiffany's. Can you imagine! Would I do that? Never -- you must be joking!" Shriek. "I'm very practical. Charity begins at home -- especially when you've got a daughter and a stepson to put through college."

Playing Lawrence, Twiggy takes her work home with her. If Love Were All has been directed and adapted by her husband, Leigh Lawson, perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his acting role in Roman Polanski's Tess. "We acted together in John Schlesinger's film Madame Sousatzka, which was great fun," she says. A revue conceived by British theatre critic Sheridan Morley -- a friend of Coward's (and a contributor to Playbill) -- called Noel and Gertie, caught their eye as a followup vehicle. The revue was originally performed in London earlier this decade.

For its transatlantic crossing, Lawson, Twiggy says, "turned it into more of a show, with the songs carrying the story forth from period to period." But he elected not to appear in it, choosing instead to direct the revamped and retitled piece, and letting Groener, a Tony nominee from another Gershwin musical, Crazy for You, interpret Coward (a role far removed from his recent menacing of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on TV). Twiggy likens working with her husband, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, to taking a "master class in stagecraft."

Lawson literally dreamed up a highlight of If Love Were All, Twiggy's heartfelt rendition of Coward's "Twentieth Century Blues," delivered as Lawrence is poised on the brink of despair. "We tried the show out last year in Sag Harbor, but we couldn't find a place for it until one morning very recently, when Leigh woke up and shouted 'I've got it! I finally know where to put it!' It works brilliantly where it is, after she's gone bankrupt and lost everything."

The show crystallizes her empathy toward Lawrence. "I get very into singing it; the lyrics are so beautiful. She lost everything: It must have hit her like a ton of bricks when the stock market crashed. It's like the song says, 'Blues value is news value tomorrow,' which is still very relevant today; something awful happens and you're plastered all over the front pages."

During her front page days, Twiggy says she couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. She says her greatest affinity is for women of the Roaring Twenties, like Lawrence, and her characters in The Boy Friend and her Tony Award-nominated triumph in the Jazz Age-infused My One and Only reflect her continuing fascination with the period. "People always think of me as the Sixties Girl, but I never think of myself that way. Quite honestly, I hated what I looked like in the Sixties; I thought the magazines that put me on their covers had all gone mad! I've always felt that some part of me came from the Twenties and the Thirties, the era I feel most comfortable with. I think my voice suits material from that time, and I just love the clothes."

Scenic and costume designer Tony Walton has given her six outfits to embrace in If Love Were All, one of which she has to change into in 23 seconds. The tramp costume for "Men About Town," which opens Act II, is a personal favorite. "The number is usually performed in tip hat and tails, so when Tony came in with his drawings I couldn't stop laughing. Those giant rubber feet! If you misstep in those, you could end up falling into somebody's lap in the audience, which, come to think of it, might be fun."

"The chanteuse next door" is how Ben Brantley of The New York Times described Twiggy in his review of If Love Were All, and her easygoing sense of humor is part of her appeal. Believe it or not, the woman for whom the word "supermodel" was coined turns 50 in September. "God! I'm middle aged!" Shriek. "But it's a special year for the women in my family, as my daughter turns 21 and my mum turns 90, and I still feel pretty young." Organic food ("I ate like a horse when I was younger, and not very sensibly, though no one ever believes that"), a pre show exercise regimen devised by choreographer Niki Harris, and the rigors of performing ("I tell Harry, who I'm over the moon about, that the show is like a train that runs for two hours before stopping") have kept Twiggy from turning into Trunky as she reaches the half-century mark.

Years ago, Twiggy considered switching her name to Leslie Lawson, "which has a nice ring to it," but realized that her nickname, derived from her skinny legs, has legs of its own where the public is concerned. "When I'm doing drama in Britain, I use Twiggy Lawson, but here, I'm just Twiggy. Everyone I've known says dropping the Twiggy would be pointless, because I would just be 'Leslie Lawson (otherwise known as Twiggy).' It is a silly name, and I'm sort of stuck with it, but I haven't done badly by it."

Twiggy says her most comfortable roles, beyond her career, are "sister, daughter, mum-family keeps me grounded." She and Lawson divide their time between New York and London, and she awaits the arrival of their kids from Britain for "a bit of summer fun. But, you know, they'll come home, drop off their dirty laundry, and pop off with their mates!" Between showtime and family time, she relaxes by sewing; this is one model emeritus who doesn't wait for couturiers to come calling when she needs a new garment.

Trying on Gertrude Lawrence has been a pleasing fit for Twiggy. "It's especially gratifying performing in the Lucille Lortel; she knew Noel and Gertie, and this was the last show she approved for the theatre. I know she's looking down on us from where she is, and I think they are, too. It's a nice vibe to have."