"When I was young, I read a book by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that made a very big impression on me," says Georgia Engel. "In the book, they recommended that actors take the time to tour, because that's where you build the base of an audience. The funny thing is that television has already done that for me. But I love touring. I'm actually more in demand on tour than I am on Broadway because my following tends to be Middle Americans who watch TV."
Engel, who has created three endearing, sweetly addlepated characters on long-running sitcoms — Georgette Franklin on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Shirley Burleigh on "Coach" and Pat MacDougall on "Everybody Loves Raymond" — hit the road last month as Mrs. Tottendale in the national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone, which plays Toronto, Cleveland and St. Louis in October. Engel originated the role in the Broadway production of this musical, which takes place in the apartment of the lonely, sharp-tongued Man in Chair. He puts on the cast album of a little-known 1920s show called The Drowsy Chaperone, and as he comments on the production to the audience, the musical springs to life in his apartment. Bob Martin, who co-wrote the book with Don McKellar, originated the role of Man in Chair and returns to the part in his native Canada (Jonathan Crombie take over after the Toronto run). The show is directed by Casey Nicholaw and features music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.
Drowsy marked the first time that Engel created a role in a Broadway musical. "It's quite thrilling to be part of the process and to have a role tailored to you," she says. "Of course, everything I do has a tinge of silliness to it; I think that's part of my soul."
Despite her long tenure in television, Engel has been a New York resident for more than 35 years. She arrived in the city shortly after graduating from college, and a few months later was playing Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! Her first Dolly was Phyllis Diller, who was succeeded by Ethel Merman. "I loved Merman so much," says Engel. "Her reputation preceded her. Everybody said she would be a little intimidating, but I did not find her to be that way. She must have mellowed by 1970." In 1972 Engel was appearing in Los Angeles in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, and her portrayal of Corrinna Stroller led to a guest shot on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The role of Georgette was written specifically for her. "I was little more than a glorified extra," she says. "What was remarkable was that they kept giving me more little things to do." She returned to New York, received a potted plant a day or two later with a card that said, "Welcome to the MTM family," and remained with the series for the rest of its run.
Her subsequent memorable characters, Shirley and Pat, were older, edgier versions of Georgette. "When television writers are really good, they take from the person they're writing for," she says. "If you're in a comedy week after week and playing a character who's not close to you, it would not ring true. It's thrilling for me to have the privilege of having writers who like to write for me, tailoring stuff to me. People always ask me, 'Do you hate being typecast?' At each stage my experience is a little different, and I bring that to the role. All I care about is that the writing is good. I love comedy. That it happens to be a very specialized, particular kind of comedy doesn't bother me at all."