Her Emmy-winning role as the charming, man-hungry Southern belle Blanche Devereaux on the classic sitcom "The Golden Girls" may have ended in 1992, but actress Rue McClanahan is as busy as ever. After delighting audiences in the 2001 revival of The Women, the Oklahoma native is back onstage in one of Broadway's biggest hits, Wicked, at the Gershwin Theatre.
Though she made her name in television, McClanahan is no stranger to the theatre. The award-winning actress has appeared in productions of Annie, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music as well as two productions of Nunsense. "The reason I took Nunsense," she says, "was there was one scene in it where the Mother Superior is given some glue the girls have been sniffing in the basement. She doesn't know what it is, and she starts sniffing it to see what it smells like. She gets high as a kite and very, very goofy. It's a solo monologue that goes on with a lot of physical humor. I wanted to see if I could choreograph that and [make it seem] spontaneous and yet have it meticulously worked out, and I succeeded!"
Early in her career McClanahan, a breast cancer survivor and animal rights advocate, studied with the legendary Uta Hagen. "She taught me so much that I had not been exposed to in college or by any summer-stock director," says McClanahan. "I did my first scene for her, which was from The Importance of Being Earnest. I was the one who enters across the lawn holding a parasol. She asked me, 'What kind of ground was under your feet? Was it pebbles? Was it dirt? Was it wood chips? Was it grass?. . .' I said, 'Son of a gun! I thought I knew acting. I don't know acting. This woman is going to teach me how to act!'"
McClanahan is currently dazzling audiences with all she learned from Hagen — as well as her own extraordinary five decades in show business — succeeding Carole Shelley in the role of Wicked's Madame Morrible, the headmistress of Shiz University, where the two witches — the misunderstood, green-faced Elphaba and the golden-locked Glinda — first meet. McClanahan says she has been allowed to develop her own portrayal of Morrible, a woman whose initial behavior belies the evil nature of her character. "She starts out so likable and apparently trustworthy and good, and then by the end she's an absolute daughter of Satan and gets dragged off to prison. She goes crazy — she has always been a little crazy, but she covers it up because she wants power. She's power mad. . . and is the brains behind everything." McClanahan admits she's unable to choose a favorite Morrible moment. "I have 12 scenes, and I love them all. This whole experience is just a little piece of heaven." She has especially high praise for her co-stars, Ben Vereen (as the Wizard), Shoshana Bean (as Elphaba) and Megan Hilty (as Glinda). "Those glorious voices those girls have," McClanahan raves. "And Ben is an absolute darling, just a darling to get along with. And his performance is superb. So I just feel this is an awfully good job."
One might think eight performances a week of a big Broadway musical would be enough to keep her busy, but McClanahan also has two other projects in the works: a new musical, Cobra Island, that she's writing with composer D.J. Bradley, and her first autobiography. She has titled that upcoming tome "My First Five Husbands" and says, "I'm writing it after I get home from the show at night or between shows on matinee days. I work in long hand on a tablet in my dressing room." (For the record, McClanahan has been married to husband number six, Morrow Wilson, since 1997, and the happy couple currently reside in Manhattan with their cat, Bianca.)
Though she says she would love to star in a "brand-new play that we don't know the name of yet," McClanahan is thrilled with her current witches' brew. "I love live theatre. I'm at home here," she says. "I've come back home. It's wonderful."