Bea Arthur is one of those show business creatures who is not easy to define. With a deep voice and a height of 5-feet-9-inches, she was never an ingenue, she admits. She did, however, have a life upon the stage prior to her international exposure in the TV sitcoms "Maude" and "The Golden Girls." Arthur, 78, appeared in the groundbreaking 1954 production of The Threepenny Opera, at Theatre de Lys below 14th Street, which heralded the cultural explosion called Off-Broadway. She was the original Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, and won the Tony Award as the boozy Vera Charles in the musical, Mame, singing "Bosom Buddies" with Angela Lansbury, who would become a lifelong friend. Now, with Billy Goldenberg playing piano, Arthur is starring in Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, a solo show of songs and career stories, currently enjoying an open run at the Booth Theatre. The show traveled the country over the past year, transforming from And Then There's Bea to Bea Arthur on Broadway. Arthur spoke to Playbill On-Line about actress Lotte Lenya, television and the things that are cut from shows on the way to New York.
Playbill On-Line: When this started at the Guthrie Theatre last year in Minneapolis, were you thinking it would come to New York?
Bea Arthur: We only did the tour so that we would be ready for New York and London — I also want to play London.
PBOL: Will you take it on the road beyond New York?
BA: Oh, no, not in the states. We hit, I think, 31 cities. Sometimes we just played the one night or a split week. We only used the tour as a means to work on the project. In the old days — I love that, "in the old days!" — when you did a Broadway show you had the ability to go out of town, you'd try it out before you brought it into New York. We really used that tour to work on it.
PBOL: I love that you sing Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York."
BA: Yes! And nobody does it. That was added for New York. It's a tighter show. We added songs, we deleted songs, we worked with a different director.
PBOL: Mark Waldrop is now the director of record.
BA: Yes, yes, and quite wonderful he is. PBOL: Even now, when you're nestled into the Booth, do you say, "Boy, maybe we can tweak that"?
BA: Oh, yes, absolutely!
PBOL: You seem incredibly relaxed on stage. Is there a side of you that's terrified about live performance, or did you leave that behind years ago?
BA: That's hard to say because there's always the nerves before you go on. I think the only one who never had it was Ethel Merman, who said, "If they don't like it, they don't know what's good" — or something like that. I may have the terrible butterflies in the stomach, but once you're out there, if the audience is responsive, they feed you and you become...not omnipotent, but certainly at ease.
PBOL: In our culture of conventional beauty and celebrity, you were a character actress — you didn't fit in.
BA: No, never. It's a matter of never having been an ingenue.
PBOL: Tell me about the development of Bea Arthur on Broadway.
BA: Billy [Goldenberg] was always after me to do an evening. I said, "Oh, no! Oh no!" The real reason I wanted to do this is that I would get a chance to sing, specifically doing "Pirate Jenny." Ever since I was in Threepenny Opera, when I was doing "The Barbara Song" and [Lotte] Lenya came out and did "Pirate Jenny," I said to myself, "Someday I'm gonna do that!" We started out with a lot of lovely music, but I realized if people were going to come to see me it was because they expected comedy. The only thing I was concerned with was [offering] highs and lows — so that it would be dramatic.
PBOL: So then you added comedy. The specialty songs you sing are so unexpected — like, "What Can You Get a Nudist for Her Birthday?"
BA: There was a New Dramatists luncheon honoring Angela Lansbury and Davis Gaines and I were asked to perform. I thought, I don't wanna get out and do a Sondheim song or a Jerry Herman song in honor of Angie. I knew that she loved British music hall so we found that song. It is so unexpected and ridiculous that we kept it in the show.
PBOL: And you drew a line in terms of the sort of personal information you wanted in the new show. You purposely don't talk a lot of about your personal life, it's about your professional milestones.
BA: Yes. I didn't feel the need. I was going to do something about one of my sons having a baby in May, and we quickly put that aside because we figured, oh, God, the audience would start applauding.
PBOL: In your show, your approach to the story-song, "Pirate Jenny," is so intense and focused, people keep talking about it being one of the most exciting moments on Broadway this season. Obviously Lotte Lenya is an influence in your life.
BA: Absolutely. My influences were Lenya and Sid Caesar. They affected me very strongly. The thing that she taught me was economy: I used to say, "What do you do with your arms?" And she said, "Never do anything unless you can't not do it." If you're focused on something, really into it, you don't have to worry about what you're doing because it will follow through. Years ago, when I was living in New York and first starting out, I worked on [Sid Caesar's TV] show a couple of times, doing small parts — "under fives" they called it, if you had under five lines they didn't have to pay you much money. I just watched the man. Such courage! He would do things nobody else had the nerve to do. I learned, "Yeah, yeah — do it!"
PBOL: When you did Threepenny, were you aware this was a landmark, that you were on the edge of a new thing called "Off-Broadway"?
BA: Oh yes. It had the impact of a Broadway opening. It was a smash.
PBOL: What didn't make Bea Arthur on Broadway? What got cut?
BA: It broke my heart. I was doing the Bob Dylan song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which I loved. And then we realized it was too heavy and too preachy for what we were set to do. It's been a matter of changing things, working on it.
PBOL: You sing "Some People," from Gypsy, in the show. Was Mama Rose a role that got away?
BA: When I was asked, and by many people, I figured it was ridiculous — everybody in the world has already played it. It is an extraordinary piece.
PBOL: Fiddler on the Roof was disappointing for you because they kept cutting your role, Yente the Matchmaker.
BA: When we got to Detroit, [director-choreographer] Jerry Robbins came to me and said, "I'm sorry to say this, Bea, but this is not a play about this matchmaker and we're gonna have to cut it." So he did. And rightfully so. For the good of the show, it had to be done.
PBOL: You make Robbins sound so polite. You have choice words for him in your show.
BA: He was a real s---! Excuse me. Everybody hated him.
PBOL: Mame was the opposite experience.
BA: Of course. It was just delicious from the moment we started.
PBOL: Would you consider another TV series?
BA: Oh, never! That's another reason that we're doing this show. I didn't know what I wanted to do after I left "Golden Girls,'' but I did know that I don't want to do any more series. It's too much. An occasional one-shot, but never another series.
PBOL: Any plans beyond Bea Arthur on Broadway?
BA: [Vaguely annoyed.] C'mon, I'm an old lady! We'll see what happens. I hadn't thought of anything, no. I do want to play London. I've never played the West End.
— By Kenneth Jones