STAGE TO SCREENS: Broadway Legends & a Chat with Champlin

STAGE TO SCREENS: Broadway Legends & a Chat with Champlin This month's column features documentary filmmaker Rick McKay and actress Donna Lynne Champlin.
Donna Lynne Champlin.
Donna Lynne Champlin.

This month's column features documentary filmmaker Rick McKay and actress Donna Lynne Champlin.

Rick McKay's "Broadway: The Golden Age by the Legends Who Were There" offers a history of the Great White Way, as told through interviews with over 100 talents—literally, from A (George Abbott) to Z (Karen Ziemba)—and is to stage what "That's Entertainment!" was to MGM movie musicals. One participant is Carol Burnett, who followed her Broadway success in Once Upon a Mattress with TV stardom. Now, Burnett's turned her autobiography, "One More Time," into a new play, Hollywood Arms, which she wrote with her daughter, the late Carrie Hamilton. Opening Oct. 31 at the Cort, Burnett is played by Donna Lynne Champlin.

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After editing his documentary to two hours, Rick McKay plans to use the remaining footage for a television series that profiles Broadway talents: "Think of '[Inside the] Actors Studio,' minus an unctuous host." Many people spoke to him for over an hour, and a lot of choice material didn't make the cut. The project began when it was suggested that McKay make a short film about an artist who'd done a mural featuring Broadway legends. When that wasn't green-lighted, a friend proposed a film that featured some of the stars depicted in the mural. As he began filming, McKay would ask: "Was Broadway really as great as has been claimed?" He says, "Without exception, all of them said, 'You have no idea!'" So, McKay's spent the last five years making a film "about a piece of history that has never been truly documented."

"Why has no one done this [before]?" asked Gwen Verdon in what turned out to be her final interview. Verdon told McKay, "We didn't have microphones [during her prime]. I don't have a big voice, but I could be heard in a 1,500-seat theatre. People leaned forward and they paid attention." In recalling what was said to him, McKay often slips into the person's voice, making the quotes even more enjoyable. Camera equipment in tow, McKay has tracked down his subjects in several places. "I found Jeremy Irons on a bog behind his cottage—next to his castle in Ireland." Irons' agent gave directions to McKay, who was in England at the time. "It was a two-hour drive from the airport in Cork. I thought I was lost. I knocked on a door and heard, 'Mister Mack-high?'"

On many occasions, McKay's thought, "Some divine God is guiding an insane documentarian, who is trying to preserve this history." One of the questions he asked was "What was it like when you first came to New York?" He says, "Carol Burnett talks about coming here with no money, and breaking down in tears the first night, but refusing to go home. Barbara Cook recalls getting up at 7 AM just to walk the streets —'I can't believe I'm here! No matter how tough things get, I'll never go back.' Robert Goulet remembers living in a room that cost seven dollars a day, and stealing silverware from Horn and Hardart [the Automat]. Shirley MacLaine would go to Horn and Hardart and use lemons, water and sugar to make lemonade. I think those stories are inspiring for young people."

The documentary is divided into chapters, one of which deals with the legendary Laurette Taylor. "Uta Hagen talks about her and gasps. She says she saw Outward Bound [with Taylor] ten times. I said, 'Was she . . .?,' and before I could finish, Hagen replied, 'She was everything you have heard—and more!' Marian Seldes praises her. Kaye Ballard says, 'I saw [Taylor] and thought: "She's like anybody." It took me a while, but I learned it takes a lifetime to be good enough to be like anybody.' Charles Durning talks about her screen test. They didn't hire her, because they didn't think she could act. I found the screen test, and am praying I can get the rights to use it."

Tenacity has helped McKay on more than one occasion. "Angela Lansbury said, at the end of the interview, 'I'm sorry. I think I turned this down once.' I said, 'No, Miss Lansbury, you turned it down four times.' She spoke an hour-and-a-half about her passion for theatre, and her deep pain about not doing Mame on the screen: 'I've never done anything to top that.'"

McKay had written to Stephen Sondheim, but received no reply. At a party at Barbara Cook's home he saw Sondheim "standing in a corner, surrounded by his posse. I realized he's standing in front of the maid's entrance to the kitchen. I've known Barbara for years. I went into the kitchen and opened that door. 'Oh, Mister Sondheim. . .' He claimed to know nothing of the film. Finally, he asked me to write him a letter and promised to answer. He did and said he could only give me a few minutes. We did an hour and 20 minutes. He talked about being on the road and having to come into New York by a certain deadline. 'Why do you think all those great shows have weak second acts? They didn't have time. Newer shows can preview forever.'"

There have been fund-raising parties at the home of Jamie de Roy, who's a co-producer (with Al Tapper) of "Broadway: The Golden Age," and McKay has used numerous other ways to finance the film. "One day, I looked around my apartment, saw the piano in the corner, and thought: 'I could sell that.' I made some calls. I was offered $300, but finally someone said they'd pay $1,700. As it was being moved, a neighbor said, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' I said, 'I'm not. This will get me through a month of shooting.' That was about three years ago."

He recalls Julie Harris talking about the first time she saw Ethel Waters, with whom she'd later appear in Member of the Wedding. "Julie was 14 when she saw Ethel Waters in Mamba's Daughters, in which she played a slave who meets her daughter for the first time, and the daughter's white, because her father was the slave owner. An emotional Julie says, 'I never saw anything like it in my life. It changed my life.'"

According to McKay, a lot of the participants became very excited in talking about theatre. "Charles Nelson Reilly said that the night before [the interview] he had watched Julie in Member of the Wedding, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in The Four Poster, Larry Olivier in The Entertainer and Laurette Taylor in Glass Menagerie. He said, 'They're clearer than my tape of 'All About Eve,' because they're up here,' and he touched his head. 'That's what you must tell people—that they will never forget what happens to them in the theatre.'"

At one time, says McKay, "Real artists all came to Broadway. Alec Baldwin speaks about how today's young actors would rather not work than work on the stage. He asks them, 'Why don't you do a play in between movies?' He claims they'd rather go to the gym." While time didn't permit discussing everyone in the film, a few came readily to McKay's mind. "Bobby Morse is so funny, passionate and sincere. Chita Rivera and Elaine Stritch both talk about standing in the wings and watching Ethel Merman. [Rivera was in the chorus of Call Me Madam, in which Stritch understudied the star.] Stephen Sondheim recalls how he and Leonard Bernstein had to play the score for West Side Story at people's houses [in hopes of finding backers]—and no one would give them a penny. Jerry Herman says there was applause during the overture for Mame because the whole country knew its hit songs before opening night. Audra McDonald believes that there are more shows being done now than ever."

One section is on touring. "Kim Hunter says it was a different life [back then]. 'You toured because it was your responsibility. It's not New York that keeps theatre alive. It's tours that go to all the small towns. Then, those people come to New York to see theatre.' And she talks about Streetcar: 'The most terrifying, wonderful work I've ever done in my life.'"

It took McKay five-and-a-half hours by bus to reach Maureen Stapleton's New England home. "I called her three days in a row. 'Just confirming.' She'd say, 'What the hell do you want? I said yes.' I got there at five to 12 for a 12 o'clock interview. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. I kept knocking. Finally, she said, 'Who the fuck is that?'" When she opened the door, McKay says that it was apparent he'd awakened her. He suggested that he'd go to town, have some lunch and come back. Could he leave his bags? "Bags?" asked Stapleton. "What the fuck? Are you moving in?" He explained that it was his camera equipment; Stapleton said, "No way. I'm not doing anything on camera." After letting McKay in, she sat at a kitchen table, lit a cigarette and started doing a crossword puzzle. He said if she didn't mind, he'd unpack his equipment. "She said, 'I don't give a shit what you do.'" Refusing to move to the couch ("too soft"), or a chair ("I hate that chair"), Stapleton said, "If I do anything, I'll just sit here at the table." McKay suggested that she might want to change from her nightgown. She finally pulled a housedress over it and began the interview. "Then, she was perfectly agreeable," says McKay, who's stayed in touch with her since then.

"Broadway: The Golden Age" ends on a positive note: "No matter what happens, we'll always have theatre." Rick McKay also concludes in a positive vein. There have been offers from film festivals, and the documentary will be released in 2003. "Then [hopefully] comes the DVD, video and a TV series."

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Describing the people involved with Hollywood Arms, Donna Lynne Champlin says, "It's like a walking classroom: Carol Burnett, Hal Prince, Linda Lavin, Michelle Pawk, Frank Wood. I go to rehearsals even when I'm not called because I'm afraid I might miss something. Everyone is very generous, very aware of what the others are doing." What Champlin is doing is playing Carol Burnett. Well, sort of. Although the play is based on Burnett's autobiography and was written by the comedienne and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, the Burnett character is called Helen Melton.

Says Champlin, "The only names changed are Carol's and her sister's. Carol just thought it would be easier to accept the play if you weren't hearing, 'Carol, Carol, Carol.' As an actress, it takes a lot of pressure off me [to be called Helen, instead of Carol.]" To further confuse things, Champlin had to dye her auburn hair brown, because Burnett, whose hair used to be brown before she colored it red, didn't want Helen to be a redhead. (Maybe when one sees the play, it will make more sense.)

This is Champlin's second time working with director Harold Prince. While she was doing the musical 3hree, Prince suggested that Champlin might be right for Hollywood Arms. "In rehearsals [for the musical], I was in awe [of Prince] and terrified at the same time. One day, he put his arm around me. I thought: 'I'm fired.' But he said that he was working with Carol Burnett on a play and needed someone to play her in her twenties. Would I be interested? I said, 'Am I hallucinating? Did you just ask if I was interested? Absolutely!' He didn't mention it again for eight months, and I wasn't going to bring it up. "Right before we opened in L.A. [with 3hree], Hal came up to me and said, 'Oh, Carol's here with her husband and some producers from the Goodman [where Hollywood Arms later tried out]. I'll bring her backstage after the show.' She came back and only vowels came out of my mouth. Finally, I came out with 'My mother loves you.' Carol said, 'Well, I love your mother, too.'"

While Champlin admits to having "an inside edge," getting the part of Helen "wasn't ever a sure thing." What did she do to audition? "Drink heavily," she says with a laugh, the answer being a darkly humorous reference to the alcoholism of some characters in the play. "I was told to look at four scenes—one of which has been drastically rewritten." A tape of auditions was sent to Los Angeles, "so Carrie Hamilton could see it in the hospital. That way, she was part of the casting process. We had no idea that she was ill. She died January 22, and we started rehearsals for the Goodman in March."

This is Champlin's third Broadway appearance, but first non-musical. She made her debut as Mary Jane in James Joyce's The Dead and later played Honoria Glossup in By Jeeves. She also was Daisy, the maid, in the Encores! production of Bloomer Girl and toured as Ruby Keeler in Jolson, playing opposite Mike Burstyn.

Champlin claims, "I owe my Broadway debut to Emily Skinner, who's a dear friend from college. She told me that when The Dead moved to Broadway [from Playwrights Horizons], she and Alice Ripley would need a cover for their roles. My agent called, but since I had no Broadway credits, they wouldn't see me. I took a chance and called Emily. She told the director, Richard Nelson, that he had to see me, and he went to the casting people. At my audition, I sang 'The Parting Glass,' which is an Irish song, and read a scene. Three hours later, Emily called and said, 'You've got the job.' When Emily left to do The Full Monty, I took over."

Growing up in Rochester, New York, the Champlin family (including Donna Lynne's older brother) watched two shows together: "'Disney' and 'The Carol Burnett Show.' Carol was a big deal in my house. I remember how much we all laughed." At a very early age, Donna Lynne knew that she wanted to perform. "My earliest memory is being about three and watching a dance class of tappers. I so wanted to be part of it. I had a huge fit. For a long time, I couldn't enjoy watching shows; I always wanted to be in them."

While attending Carnegie Mellon University on scholarship, Champlin got her Actors Equity card by performing as Dorothy in a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of The Wizard of Oz. She also appeared there as Peron's mistress in Evita. Other regional work included Fame, The Threepenny Opera, Dreams from a Summer House, Dorian, and No, No, Nanette.

She's happy to be working with Hal Prince again. "It's a learning experience. He speaks his mind, doesn't waste time and is very sensitive." And Champlin has praise for Sara Niemietz, who plays the young Helen. "She's fantastic! It's her first play, and she's going to be the next Lee Ann Rimes." At the beginning of the play, notes Donna Lynne Champlin, "I come out as Carol [she means Helen] about age 35—to set the scene. Then, Sara takes over, and I come back for Act Two." And, as our interview ends, one almost wants to sing, "It's so nice to have this time together...."

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STAR GAZING: Tammy Blanchard, who won an Emmy for "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," and is scheduled to play the title role in the upcoming Gypsy, plays a nanny on the Nov. 10 "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

END QUIZ: Carol Burnett starred in two TV versions of Once Upon a Mattress: a 1964 black-and-white special and a 1972 color adaptation. Which of the following pairs of actors appeared in both TV shows: a) Jane White and Jack Gilford; b) Shani Wallis and Elliott Gould; c) Bernadette Peters and Wally Cox? (Answer: Next column, Nov. 24)

Answer to the Sept. 29 question—Which TV character was created by Pert Kelton, the original Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man on Broadway and in the film: a) George Burns and Gracie Allen's neighbor, Blanche; b) Alice, wife of Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason); c) Peg, wife of Chester A. Riley (Jackie Gleason)?—is B. Kelton played opposite Gleason on the Dumont network; when the show moved to CBS, Alice was portrayed by Audrey Meadows.

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.