It's a well-known fact that Mario Cantone will do anything for a laugh, so the title of his first solo stint on Broadway won't come as a big shock to most folks.
"I wanted something that was catchy and kinda in the vein of some of the, er, 'more provocative' titles out there today. I didn't want to call it Mario! or An Evening with Mario Cantone. People would be saying, 'Oh, let's go. He'll just be delightful.' This way, they'll know they'll get a raging, angry, fun musical show. I wanted to keep the semi-squeamish away. Not that I'm filthy, but I'm not so clean, either."
Hence: Laugh Whore, which opens at the Cort Theatre on Oct. 17 — the first show in a standout season of standups on Broadway (Billy Crystal, Dame Edna, et al.).
Boston-born 44 years ago, Cantone is a veritable Tasmanian Devil of rant, rage and raunch. It comes to him naturally. He just doesn't know where it comes from. "Sometimes, there are lots of things that piss me off," he not-so-grudgingly allows. "Right now, the country pisses me off — and the world — what's going on, how we're handling it. Before this, Cher pissed me off. It's always something." But there's a method to his madness, methodically mapped out by Cantone himself and his director, Joe Mantello. Between the tirades, there are tunes — six so far and maybe more to come — almost all composed by Cantone's partner of 13 years, Jerry Dixon, himself a first-rate performer (Once on This Island; tick, tick...BOOM!). They teamed up with Harold Lubin to do the lyrics.
Mantello was almost a foregone conclusion for Cantone: "I think he's the best director there is. He knows what he's doing, and he knows comedy. When we started talking about the show and what we wanted it to look like, he said something about the design, and I said, 'That's exactly what I want!' We're really on the same page. He knows what the show is. He knows that it's like a one-man variety show and that there really isn't a complete theme to it. The theme is me — my loves and hates, where I'm from, how I grew up . . ."
Also, there's the fact that Mantello is the one who had the taste and instinct to pluck Cantone out of the comedy-club circuit and plop him down on Broadway in the Nathan Lane role in Terrence McNally's Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion!
The two crossed paths when a friend of Mantello's who'd gone to Emerson College with Cantone suggested he check out Cantone's act at Carolines. He arrived for an oversold midnight set where there was not a seat to be had. "This was before he was a director," Cantone recalls. "I had seen Angels in America, and I thought he was amazing in it. I said, 'I will get you a seat,' and I did. I felt like I didn't do well that night, but he loved it, and we became friendly and talked on the phone once in a while. Then, Love! Valour! happened, and I saw it and told him it was brilliant. He said, 'Wouldn't you be great in Nathan's role?' He said Nathan had to leave and do 'The Birdcage,' so he had me come in and audition. He spent an hour with me in front of everybody at Manhattan Theatre Club, then he gave me a break, and I came back an hour later and spent another hour with him. That was followed by a week and a half of torture, waiting — I hate waiting — and, when he finally called to say I had the part, I was on a plane, going, 'What if we crash? I'll never know.'"
Mantello also cast Cantone in Assassins as Samuel Byck, the man who tried to kill Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House. The role reads like a Mario Cantone routine — two manic monologues that begin giddy and grow progressively grim — and the actor had a blast doing it, but his belief in the show was sorely tested: He had to pass up the Carmen Ghia role in The Producers, a role he could have accepted, when 9/11 put Assassins on the back burner for a year. Some solace was found Off-Broadway in The Crumple Zone, in which he hysterically wrestled a Christmas tree to the floor, and in Broadway's The Violet Hour.
But that's show business, and Cantone can live quite happily with his choice. "I waited. I knew." And Assassins was a tough show to say goodbye to. "They had to peel me off the stage," he admits, in a rare understatement. "Last shows are terrible. I just cry at the end."
Well, whaddayaknow? The tiger is a tabby after all . . .