The last time Broadway saw Kaufman and Ferber's comedy The Royal Family, it was 1975, and actress Rosemary Harris was in it. Now, 34 years later, Manhattan Theatre Club has brought the 1927 play back to Times Square, with Doug Hughes directing. And Rosemary Harris is in it again.
Not in the same role, of course. The play famously pokes fun at the Barrymore clan, who actually were called "The Royal Family" back in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1975, Harris, already a stage veteran by that time, played Julie Cavendish, the character modeled after Ethel Barrymore. (Ethel was not amused by the play; she engaged a lawyer. Moreover, the part was hard to cast. Most prominent actresses turned it down either out of deference to Ethel, or because, being competitive, they didn't care to implicitly advertise the Barrymore brand.) This time Jan Maxwell has that part. Today, Harris essays Fanny Cavendish, the role played by the legendary Eva Le Gallienne in the 1970s. Harris talked to Playbill.com about why it's fun for an actor to play an actor.
Playbill.com: You did this play in 1975. Why made you want to do it again?
Rosemary Harris: I adore the play. The memories of it are wonderful. Why wouldn't I do it, if I had the opportunity to relive it — from a different perspective, a different generation?
Playbill.com: You had a good time the first time around?
RH: Oh, yes. The play is irresistible for actors. Because there's nothing more fun, for actors, than making fun of actors, when you are one of them. Kaufman and Ferber, they really understood actors. What is lovely is it revitalizes an actor's love of the theatre. It's in your blood. I think of myself as a circus pony or something; or, pulling a cart, that I'm back in harness again. Or like a sledge dog, I think. We're a dog team! And it's wonderful for someone to say "Mush!" and off we all go. Playbill.com: You're playing the role that was played by Eva Le Gallienne in 1975. Do you still remember her performance?
RH: Oh, of course. It's indelible. In a very small way, I'm trying to fill her shoes. I do have a memory of her in my mind, the wonderful fun she had with it and her strength as the matriarch.
Playbill.com: The play satirizes the Barrymore acting family. Do you think the Barrymore name means much anymore to today's public?
RH: Today, I don't think it means a lot. Drew Barrymore, of course, people know her. The talent pool obviously went down to her. But I don't think it matters at all. Even in 1975, people didn't really think a lot about the Barrymores. I think it meant a lot in 1927, from what I've read. Actors didn't want to be in it, because they didn't want to upset the Barrymore family. A season or two before the play, all three of them were playing on Broadway simultaneously, the sister and two brothers.
Playbill.com: The 1975 production was directed by Ellis Raab, who was your ex-husband at the time. Did that make things difficult?
RH: No. Not in the slightest. And Doug [Hughes] is the son of actors. So I can't think of any director who would understand the play better. He was a child of the theatre, and not really movies. His parents didn't do many movies. I think their whole life was theatre. He gave a wonderful talk at the beginning, when we all got together, about the magic of theatre. Fanny has a line when she says, "It's work and play and meat and drink. They'll tell you it isn't, your fancy friends, but it's a lie. They love it, they love it. They'd give their ears to be in your place, make no mistake about that." He conveyed that joy he felt as a young lad, seeing his parents go off to this magic place through a stage door. And there was Wonderland on the other side of that door. It gave us such a wonderful burst of adrenaline. It was like Henry V, a rallying cry.
Playbill.com: With your daughter, Jennifer Ehle, do you sometimes feel like you have a little royal family yourself?
RH: Who knows? (Laughs) She's just given birth to a little girl, so who knows? Who knows if she'll tread the boards or not? Who knows?