Three little words, eight little letters, all of them mute - not much to build a career on, you might think, but The Blonde in the Thunderbird now parked at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre has been running 32 years on this spartan tank of gas. The title character is and always will be, to a certain generation, Suzanne Somers, so it's fair and fitting she name her Broadway-bowing musical autobiography after her "American Graffiti" arrival role.
That landmark 1973 film comedy about high-school kids on the precipice of graduation, revving their engines up and down Modesto's main drag, made stars of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron(ny) Howard, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Bo Hopkins, Mackenzie Phillips, Charles Martin Smith and writer-director George Lucas. Somers hitched a ride on that comet, too - with a single line of dialogue - and it took her far in life.
"The line was 'I love you,'" she remembers. She mined and mastered every gradation of meaning and emotion in that phrase. "When time came to film it, I could say 'I love you' a thousand different ways. Then, just as we were ready to go, George said, 'Could you just mouth it?' My first line in movies, and I had to mouth it!"
Nevertheless, she communicated - big-time! - because of the enigmatic, elusive nature of the role. She was a California Circe, whipping in and out of the main narrative, driving the teenage Dreyfuss to distraction with her sexy, unattainable come-on. It was a high-octane, floor-boarded striptease - and it suddenly made her a force to be reckoned with in TV-Series Land. She was tapped to be one of "Charlie's Angels" but got bumped at the last moment by Farrah Fawcett. Then, she hit it big as the ditsy Chrissy (for Christmas) Snow of "Three's Company," a character she based on Dick Clark's wife. At the peak of her media celebrity, Somers asked for a salary hike - from $30,000 an episode to $150,000. She got a horselaugh from ABC and was forced to finish out the remaining season on her contract with her character banished to Fresno to care for an ailing mother, communicating to her roomies (John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt) only in phone calls that required a minute's taping a week. A security guard escorted her to a soundstage behind the set each week to do these since she was no longer allowed on the set with her co-stars. When the ax fell, it came as a mercy killing.
"All this, because I was asking for as much money as men made in television," says Somers. "I was the first woman the network went after. They wanted to make an example of me, and the bigger the hit, the better the example." The salary request was intended to be the opening volley for negotiations, but it pretty much leveled the reviewing stand. "The atmosphere on that show was poisonous. It was set up that you were with them on that side and against me, or, if you were with me, that meant you were against them." Almost 20 years passed before she and DeWitt and Ritter spoke again. It took even longer for her to find the bright side of all this: "My being fired forced me to reinvent myself, forced me to be resilient. Once I got over the grief, I thought, 'Aw, it's just another of those things that bring out the fighter in me. I'm not going to go away.'"
And she hasn't. Like Carlotta, the unsinkable survivalist of Follies, she's "still here." Of course, it has been a curlicue of a career, and it has forced her to (in Stephen Sondheim's well-turned phrase) "career from career to career" - making a bizarre, bumpy, two-steps-forward/one-step-back sort of trip - from features to TV to Vegas headliner to Thighmaster huckster to best-selling author to poet - but she's HERE: on Broadway!
This Carlotta is the kind of chameleon who comes back from a conflict radically revamped. Think Mother Courage with spangles. To be sure there has been a multitude of miseries for her to battle along the way: family alcoholism, childhood abuse, dyslexia, divorce, single mom-ism, public firing, fickle fame, cancer - and it does alter a girl. There may not be songs in all this, but there are books, and Somers has authored 13 to date, everything from anguished autobiography to self-help to diet books to beauty books. There has even been life after "Three's Company" - 20 years of television, in fact, if you total up all of her pilots, cameos and series that did make it off of the network runway.
The Somers of her discontent, onstage, sprints by in 90 minutes, punctuated by a good dozen songs. She didn't realize at the time she was living a musical-theatre piece and didn't know she had one on her hands until Barry Manilow pointed it out to her five years ago when he was trying to pull together an act for her. He came across a funny production number based on Somers' "American Graffiti" adventure. It had been written ten years earlier by a couple of Carol Burnett scribes, Ken and Mitzie Welch, and Manilow urged a creative reunion pronto. The Welches came to dinner and stayed to direct and overhaul.
There is inspirational undertow to all this - and she hopes her life lessons aren't lost on her audiences. "It doesn't matter what happened to you. It doesn't matter where you come from. If you're willing to do the work, you can change your life. I worked real hard on not being self-serving. I want you to know what I went through. In the end, I want you to see the possibilities in your own life. If I can do it, so can you."