Frick 'n' Frack, Harrigan 'n' Hart - show biz has seen its share of alliterative odd couples. Now, meet Beach 'n' Bart. While Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick occupy the center ring at the St. James Theatre in The Producers, Gary Beach and Roger Bart fill the parallel universe next to them.
"We're a partnership," declares Beach. "In spite of the fact that Matthew and Cady [Huffman] get together, I think in a funny way we're really the love interest throughout the entire play. It's fun to track an audience sometimes. On Wednesday afternoons, they really don't know what to make of us. He comes out, looking and doing what Roger does, and I come out wearing an evening gown that looks like the Chrysler Building, and . . . " Bart jumps in to finish the sentence: "By the end, they want to go out to dinner with us."
Beach plays Roger DeBris, a fey director who cross-dresses for what meager success comes his way. An impressively ill-informed mannequin of-the-theatre ("I feel it's a very important piece, drenched with historical goodies. I, for one, never realized that the Third Reich meant Germany"), he seems the perfect person to send Springtime for Hitler to an early grave. Bart is his ever-lovin' Carmen Ghia, a shadowy figure hovering around him like a hummingbird-in-heat, ready to play helpmate, nursemaid, housefrau or, should the occasion arise, shrill cheerleader ("You're going out there a silly, hysterical, screaming queen - and you're coming back a great big passing-for-straight Broadway star!").
In the musical book that Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan have fashioned from Brooks's Oscar-winning screenplay of 1968, the occasion does arise - at last. It was the idea of the show's original director, the late Mike Ockrent, that the chronically effete DeBris be allowed to go on as Hitler when the originally scheduled Adolf (in the play edition: the unrepentant Nazi author, Franz Liebkind) hears the backstage edict to "break a leg" - and does. Ockrent's widow, director-choreographer Susan Stroman, aggressively pursued that notion - and Brooks added the final flourish in rehearsal when he, detecting a Garland echo in Beach's delivery, suggested he do it at the lip of the stage like Judy at the Palace. Beach won a Tony for all of the above as last season's Best Featured Actor in a Musical. And, notably, he did it the hard way - in direct competition with Bart (and Brad Oscar, who plays the role of Liebkind that Bart originally went out for). Theirs is a marriage made in hilarity - but, for all of its exaggeration, a certain humanity clings to it, validating the comedy. One suspects - and they insist - the rapport is real.
"There's no one in my life right now that I have an easier rapport with than Roger," admits Beach. "Like any good couple, we have no secrets. It's the most fun I've ever had. In the evenings, when I'm leaving the theatre, I usually knock on his dressing room door and say, 'That was fun. I'll see you tomorrow.' It's wonderful!"
Bart seconds The Fun Factor: "Sometimes friends come up to us and ask, 'Are you getting tired of it?' We just look at them: 'Are you mad?' Both parts are so much fun to visit every night. It worries us, what we could do next."
The relationship seems years old when, in fact, it's only about 11 months. The precise date is written in fire in Bart's brain. The day the show began previews in Chicago was the day he helped deliver his baby daughter in NYC. He got back to Chicago just in time to go on. She wears a show biz name (Eller, after Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!), as does his first daughter, 15-year-old Alexandra (named after the character in The Little Foxes).
Beach, who is 53 and from Virginia, and Bart, who is 38 and from New Jersey, met for the first time rehearsing The Producers - but, Broadway-wise, they come from the same broad-stroked place: Both earned their highest marks musicalizing cartoon characters.
Bart did a high-flying, Tony-winning Snoopy in 1999's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown - and did it so well you never noticed how self contained the character was. "It was a real challenge, but I looked forward to talking to someone onstage. I didn't want to scratch. I didn't want to walk in a circle before I sat down. I just wanted to interact."
Beach breathed life - and song 'n' dance - into three cartoon characters: Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, Rooster Hannigan in Annie and Lumiere the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast. The latter won him a Tony nomination and a chance to sing the hell out of a signature song ("Be Our Guest") and a wistful waltz cut from the original film ("Human Again").
"I really did think I'd probably never do another Broadway show after Beauty and the Beast," he confesses. "I went back to Los Angeles, and I thought, 'Well, that was great. I'm glad I did that. I got to stand center stage at the Palace Theatre, with a hat in one hand and a cane in the other, and sing a great old show tune, and the audience would go crazy, and then there would be a lot of fireworks. That's a great way to go out.'