This month’s selections in the Playbill Readers’ Circle consist of a play and a memoir featuring comic blondes of two very different generations.
"Just Lucky, I Guess" by Carol Channing (Simon & Schuster)
I met Carol Channing twice. Once was at the opening of a theatre on Long Island at which she mistook me for a maitre d’ and asked how to get to the ladies room—even though I was, at the time, the theatre critic for the local newspaper. I met her again 20 years later at one of Playbill’s legendary Spelvin Lunches at which she re-created the audition piece that got her hired for her first show: a funeral chant from Orestes performed in ancient French that required she beat more or less equally on her drum and breast.
This audition is a highlight of her self-described "Memoir of Sorts," filled with oft-told and well-burnished showbiz anecdotes that every performer carries around like a scrapbook of the soul.
There are many new ones, too, including the revelation that her father was a light-skinned African-American, who used one accent to help "pass" in the white world, and another accent around the house, where he sang gospel music to entertain his daughter. The ultimate bleached blonde turns out to be allergic to bleach (and many other things) and therefore must wear a wig. She also complains that everyone everywhere asks her to sing the song "Hello, Dolly!" — but she points out that she doesn’t actually sing it in the show, other than an answering verse to the waiters, who actually sing the song to her. Despite her trademark ditzy persona, poofy wigs, gargantuan glasses and smear of bright red lipstick, Channing turns out to be a thoughtful and a highly engaging storyteller, and not afraid to make herself the butt of jokes. For such an extroverted performer, prose might have been confining because she is unable to deploy her arsenal of mews and yowls that define her live performances. But Channing uses the text form to let her inner warmth and smarts come through.
Her kooky, chatty and very readable autobiography starts out more or less chronologically, but often digresses and eventually turns into a series of stories and sketches of the rich and famous with whom she hobnobbed, including Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, George Burns, Gower Champion, Neil Simon, Beatrice Lillie, the Kennedys, the (Lyndon) Johnsons and her many writers and directors, whom she (mostly) worships. She lingers over backstage stories from her hits, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lend an Ear and Hello, Dolly!, but flits quickly over flops like The Vamp.
She also daintily takes time to settle old scores. Anyone who ever dissed her and thought she forgot about it is in for a big surprise.
Surprising, too, is the peripheral role her husbands (at least three) seem to have played in the story of her life.
Notably, the book makes almost no mention of her last husband with whom she had a pathetic and very public blowup in the late 1990's, when she revealed that they hadn’t made love for decades. The scandal itself is blithely ignored in the text.
Instead she gives us personal revelations, like the fact that she was battling cancer during the original run of Dolly; wacky tips, such as how to eat the inside of a cake without disturbing the frosting; and hard-earned genuine wisdom, such as this reflection on long runs and opening nights: "The question is not how to keep a show alive as it is on opening night. The question is how to get the opening to be as good as all the following shows will be if they will allow us to run."
She also has this to say about the opening-night audience of Dolly!: "They were as stage frightened as we were. This was their opening night, too. Way in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help from nursing them all through opening night—kindred souls going together through the same hell."
Spoken like Dolly Gallagher Levi.
Who Will Buy: Channing fans. People who have heard the Channing legends and wondered if they were true. People who love hearing stories about the backstage shenanigans of the famous and talented. People who saw Dolly! and wondered what was going on past the top of those red stairs.
Wonder of the World by David Lindsay-Abaire (The Overlook Press)
Sarah Jessica Parker, one-time stage star of Annie and Once Upon a Mattress who made herself a household name in HBO’s "Sex and the City," chose this comedy as the vehicle for her return to the New York stage in fall 2001. And there she is on the cover of this published script, cheerfully posing like a tourist and flashing her navel as Niagara Falls gurgles contentedly in the background.
The image captures the blithely nutty spirit of the play about Cass, a woman who flees her marriage after discovering that her husband indulges in a grossly hilarious sexual practice. Don’t even try to imagine what it is. And please, please, don’t try it at home.
Cass sets out on a picaresque journey across America to fulfill a wacky list of life goals, including "Learn Swedish," "Wear a large wig," and "Strike up a conversation with a stranger." The latter brings her into contact with Lois, an aspic-gobbling alcoholic who’s headed for Niagara Falls, which she intends to ride over in a barrel. Cass is on her way to fractured love, fractured reconciliations and fractured friendships, all of which come to unexpected ends.
Like Lindsay-Abaire’s previous Manhattan Theatre Club hit, Fuddy Meers, which he’s adapting as a film, the play is deliriously silly, often blackly so. It sometimes plays like a brightly colored animated cartoon for grownups, but also has a lot to say about the way oddball emotions can glue people together in unexpected ways.
As an added treat, Lindsay-Abaire uses the book’s Introduction to record a funny dialogue he had with a Manhattan Theatre Club subscriber who saw the play and tried to persuade him to get therapy. It’s a fitting reaction.
Who Will Buy: People who want to read a funny contemporary comedy. Theatre groups considering mounting the play. Theatregoers who liked Fuddy Meers. Actors looking for offbeat contemporary monologue and dialogue scenes. Fans who must have everything Sarah Jessica-related.