She's done half a dozen Broadway shows, a dozen record albums and ten dozen movies, served as head honcho of a cosmetics company and battled enough ailments to kill a weaker spirit. And she's still here. Not only that, but Polly Bergen is here on Broadway, bringing down the house in Follies with Stephen Sondheim's classic rouser, "I'm Still Here." The Tony Awards nominators have responded with a Featured Actress nod for Bergen, who, less than a year ago, was essentially retired and beginning her senior years in Montana. The actress was certainly entitled to a rest; she began her career in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy "At War with the Army" back in 1950. Though she'd appear in two other Dean n' Jerry flicks and would continue her theatre and television career for the next four-plus decades, Bergen's onstage career proved brief. Her last musical was First Impressions in 1969, an experience so unhappy it took 30 years to bring her back to the stage. Judging by her current joyous feelings, however, Follies may be just the beginning of Bergen's return to live theatre.
Playbill On-Line: How do you like being back in show business?
Polly Bergen: I look forward to doing the show every night, I love the cast. It's a ball. And I'd given it all up years ago. But eventually I got tired of sitting in a room with 15 other women—all of whom were major, major names—to audition for one scene in a movie. And then some twerp says, "What have you done?" So I retired in 1993 and moved up to Montana where I had other friends in the business. (Of course, that's when I started getting all these offers for TV.) But for years I was out of the business. I worked for this cosmetics company as head of marketing, research and development of new products. It was quite exciting, but the hours got too long, waking up at 6 AM and getting home at 9, 10 PM at night. Then they wanted me to go on the Home Shopping Network. I told them I was too young, but they thought it was a good idea, so I ended up doing that and going to the office. Even though Home Shopping was very big revenue for the company, and I was earning a lot of money, it was just too much, especially when a series of medical problems came up. It was all quite scary. I'd been a smoker for fifty years. I tried to stop a number of times but was never successful. I loved smoking more than anything in the world. Suddenly, I had all these medical problems, all appearing to stem from smoking. Two years ago I decided to quit; I woke up the next morning and never had another cigarette. About that time, I got tapes from my godchild of me singing on variety shows in the 1960s, the last time I sang professionally. I heard myself singing along with the show, and I was stunned, because I had never sung another note after I quit. My last was 1969, and my last public appearance onstage was in 1965. I had never sung a note since then. I hated the sound of my voice; and the smoking had done a lot of damage. But on the tape, I sounded really good. I was kind of amazed, and I thought about it for a few days: "You earn very good money on Home Shopping, but what do you want to do with the rest of your life, however long or short that might be?" I decided I'd like to see if I could sing again, since singing and working onstage brought me a lot of joy. So I went to a singing coach, Trish McCaffrey, to get my vocal equipment back. She told me, "You sing as well as you've ever sung, no damage." A throat doctor checked out my vocal cords. "You smoked for 50 years? Your cords are in wonderful shape," he told me. It seems by not singing for 35 years, through all the abuse of smoking, may have saved me. So I started working seven days a week with Trish. Since my manager had been trying to get me to sing again for years, she called and said they were looking for a name to headline a one-night-only AIDS benefit of Company. I remembered the show, I saw it once in 1971. And I remembered the role of Joanne. So I said yes. I bought the score and almost fainted. I had no idea that it was so massive! But I went down and did Company thinking, "This is a test for me. If I love it again, like I always have before, then this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to finish my life the way I began it, on stage."
PBOL: I'll drink to that.
PB: Well, I had the time of my life, and all sorts of people were down there from New York. I came back to New York City, and a buzz started. Rex Reed called; he was putting together a tribute to Comden & Green at the 92nd Street Y. I said okay. Then there was an AIDS benefit in L.A., and all of a sudden, every club in New York was saying, "When are you gonna come in?" So I made the greatest decision of my life: I hired Richard Jay Alexander to help me put an act together. I opened at Feinstein's last October. It was received as well as, I guess, anybody could ever hope to be received by all the critics. I did one-night only at Merv Griffin's hotel in Beverly Hills. It sold out and could have sold out two more times over if I could've stayed in town. Meanwhile, I had auditioned for Follies. I told them, "I'll play whatever part you want me for." They gave me the role of Carlotta. Three days later, I went into rehearsal and opened. And this has all happened since last October.
PBOL: What about the medical problems?
PB: Oh, that's all over. I had vein surgery. I almost could not walk, so they replaced two veins leading to my legs. Then I had double pneumonia, which was quite scary. I was on oxygen for three months. It really knocked me on my fanny. I'd worked out my whole life and was never not in good shape. But three years of these serious nagging leg problems stopped me from doing anything. So when I went into Follies, I was terrified as to whether I'd have the stamina to do it. The next thing I know, I'm in a dance number saying to Kathleen Marshall, "I can't do this." "Oh yes, you can!" During rehearsals, Carol Woods and I would be, like, "Can we have a break please?" We were rehearsing at Radio City Music Hall rehearsal studios — 37 stairs up and 37 stairs down every day. I counted. But my strength got stronger and stronger, and now in Follies: I am dancing and wish I had more to do in the second act. I have the stamina to do twice what I'm doing. It's brought me back to life again. And it helps that I'm with the most loving, wonderful, supportive group of people it's ever been my pleasure to work with. My last musical had been First Impressions, a musical adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," with Farley Granger and Hermione Gingold. I swore I'd never do another one; it was not a happy event. But Follies I look forward to every day. We all love each other, and I know it sounds corny. Every person in the cast has more talent than you could imagine. Wonderful singers, wonderful dancers, wonderful actors. We did not have the greatest reviews, but the audiences come in and love the show. Standing ovations every performance. It's incredible.
PBOL: As someone who jumped from Broadway in the 60s to Broadway in 2001 with almost nothing in the middle, to your eyes, what's changed about the Great White Way?
PB: I don't think I have enough experience to make that observation. I saw A Country Girl with Uta Hagen and Paul Kelly when I first came to New York; I was 18 or 19. I was stunned. I'd never seen a play on stage, ever. I was born in Tennessee, raised in the midwest. My family weren't stage parents. I sort of came out of nowhere, really, in terms of my background. My father couldn't read or write, my mother stopped after the third grade. My learning started in my late teens. Reading everything I could read, seeing everything I could see. Studying, imitating. I was already under contract at Paramount and came to New York to work the Paramount Theatre with Martin & Lewis. Eight shows a day, with 8,000 people around the theatre; they were the biggest stars in America at the time. But I watched myself in three Martin and Lewis films and came to the conclusion that I couldn't act my way out of a paper bag. So I got out of my contract and went back to New York to sing. I opened at a little club in New York and then decided to study acting. The few shows I did were done early on in New York. I did John Murray Anderson's Almanac when I was 23. Then I did a drama with Ralph Meeker that stayed out of town. Then the comedy Champagne Complex, which I enjoyed. It ran, but I left the show because of medical problems. Then it was First Impressions. And for that show my vision of Broadway then was that I didn't wanna do it. I preferred going to Vegas and being responsible for what I did, being in control of what was going on. If I fail, it's my fault, rather than depending on other people to deliver the goods for me. But when you go into a Sondheim musical, the goods have already been delivered. It's up to you to see that they work. PBOL: Since you re-entered musical theatre by doing a benefit of Company, it's almost too tempting to draw parallels to the famous Elaine Stritch sequence, where she nearly implodes trying to nail "The Ladies Who Lunch."
PB: I never saw the film, but Elaine is a friend of mine, and I've been told about it. It's a part of a Sondheim score that is not vocally friendly, to put it mildly. His songs start at the bottom of anybody's range and go to the top, and a couple of notes beyond. And they're the most intricate lyrics known to man. I thought I'd never learn "I'm Still Here." Elaine once said to me [imitating Stritch's gravelly voice] "I sang that song in concert in London, and I had this really tough time with one part of the lyrics. So I called Stephen, `cause I'm prone to do that. `Stephen,' I said, `I'm having a really hard time with the lyrics: "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp..." Stephen said, `That's because you've never been another sloe-eyed vamp!'"
PBOL: What makes the lyrics so tough to remember?
PB: It isn't the rhymes, It's the "ands" and the "buts" in the song. One time it's "and,' then "but," then "so," then "still." And a Sondheim lyric you don't want to mess with. So I thought I would never learn the song. I'm a good maker-upper of lyrics. I don't fumble; I think of filler that makes sense, that sounds like it belongs there. But it's tough with Sondheim, because everybody knows every word he wrote. Just before I go on, I do a fast-gallop run-through of the lyrics. Never would I walk out onstage without doing those lyrics. I'd never seen Follies or listened to the album. So I approached the song as a brand-new song, which makes it really an acting challenge. For me to recreate that life in that song as it's done in the show, the words have to fall out of my mouth. If I have to think for one second about the lyrics, I can't do the number. They have to be a memory ingrained in my head. And it requires total concentration. After the first week of previews, I had it down, and the minute I started to get cocky, I relaxed and screwed up the last two sentences.
PBOL: Speaking of screw-ups, any funny or embarrassing moments of your early theatre years that you wouldn't mind recalling?
PB: The snap on my undergarment came undone during First Impressions. I was center stage singing, and I felt it drop to the floor. I'm wearing a long period dress, so the audience isn't aware of what's going on. I restaged the number and slowly shuffled my way over to the wings. I stepped out of it, kicked it offstage while I was doing the number. It was one of the silliest, stupidest things that's ever happened to me. Of course, as a cabaret singer, I was dealing with audiences all the time. I remember opening at a room in Vegas, and seated ringside was this old gentleman with a very young girl, both outrageously drunk. They were basically making out at ringside while I'm in the middle of my act. At 19, I wasn't really that accomplished at dealing with an audience. Now I'd go right to the table and do the rest of the show right there, but then I didn't know what to do. Afterwards, I called the maitre d' over. "Why didn't you do something about that man?" He said, "If I'd said anything to that gentleman, he'd have bought the hotel and burned it down." By and large, though, I love working in front of a live audience. I have a kind of secret antenna that connects me to an audience and then to me. I know exactly when one person gets restless. And it's up to me to make them pay attention. Always. If I can't do that, then I shouldn't be in the business. There are ways to handle any situation. I always blame myself, never ever blame the audience. They come to be entertained and see me at the very peak of what I'm able to do every single performance. That's my job.
— By David Lefkowitz