So what's all the whoop-de-do, Nathan Lane shrugged casually soon after it was announced Whoopi Goldberg would follow him into A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. "My subtext," he stated firmly, "was always that I was a black woman trapped in a white man's body."
Thank God, because a funny thing did indeed happen to Pseudolus on the way to the forum last month: He became a she. Until then, this role of a scruffy, freedom-conniving Roman slave had always been played by a man also, like Medea, it has never been done on Broadway without winning a Tony for its originator (Zero Mostel in 1963, Phil Silvers in 1972, Lane in 1996)‹but now, a woman has slipped into that wine-stained toga, and an Oscar winner at that.
Not that this matters one whit to Whoopi, who takes the longer view of the role: "If you understand what the play is about, you know it doesn't need me to make a gender adjustment. It has to do more with an adjustment in attitude. The play's about a slave trying to get his or her freedom, coming up with all kinds of ideas of how to do that. You don't have to be a man to do that."
One of Pseudolus's convoluted routes to freedom involves the young master of his house‹the dull-witted, dim-watted Hero‹specifically, hooking him up with one of the "Lovely" new acquisitions in the brothel next door. Again, says Whoopi, this is not necessarily man's work. "What Pseudolus is trying to do is find out which girl Hero wants," she contends. "That's why all the girls come parading around. It doesn't really require a shift because the bottom line is that I'm not looking for someone for me‹I'm looking for someone for him."
The production number in which the comely charmers from next door strut their stuff before Pseudolus and Hero gave Lane license to kill with his over-the-top takes and muggings. How would a lady handle the scene? "I play with it," says Whoopi. "I don't understand why Hero doesn't want any of them. They all seem great to me. Also, those things the girls do are pretty remarkable. No ordinary woman can do them, know what I mean? A lot of things they did where Nathan's mouth dropped open, so will mine‹sort of 'who could do this?' take."
The admittedly far-out but slightly inspired idea of Whoopi Goldberg replacing Nathan Lane germinated in the brain of Jeff Hunter, an agent at William Morris. For him, unlike the rest of us, it was a simple spin in the Rolodex from L back to G, since he represents (by another Names) both Pseudoluses.
Director Jerry Zaks, leaping over gender barriers in a single bound, rose to the bait when Hunter suggested his other client. With a pronominal rinse, it became apparent the part could be played by either sex‹instead of "What will we do with him?" it's "What will we do with her?"‹so the offer was extended to her.
Whoopi didn't pounce. "I thought about it a couple of days. I guess that I didn't know if I wanted to open myself up to the kind of criticism you get when you replace somebody‹particularly the great performers who have done this part before me. Then I thought, 'Well, you've been criticized before . . .'"
Is she surprised to be doing a musical on Broadway? "Honey, I am floored! Singing wasn't something I was really looking forward to doing. When you see people like Patti LuPone or Patti LaBelle, you think, 'Why bother?' Fortunately, one of my predecessors is Zero Mostel, and I felt like, if Zero could master it, so could I. When I listened to him do Fiddler or Forum, I realized, 'Oh, there is a way to do it where I don't have to worry about sounding like Jennifer Holliday, where my character sings.' I can do that." Her favorite number in the play is not‹you might have guessed from the above‹the show-stopping, if perhaps no longer politically correct, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" (sweeping out, sleeping in). "'Free' is my favorite," she admits. "It speaks to so many feelings that people have‹you know, 'when I'm free to be whatever I want to be.' I think that we all sort of live by that."
Playing Pseudolus as a man was an option Whoopi never entertained‹but she might have. The first time she set foot on a Broadway stage‹the Lyceum in 1984‹was as an androgynous druggie named Fontaine, crooning "Around the World in 80 Days," careening around Amsterdam as if it were a pharmaceutical candy store, accidentally stumbling into an attic that had been Anne Frank's.
The gender of the character was never nailed down‹nor will it be, she says, "because it doesn't have anything to do with what is being said. Whether Fontaine is male or female doesn't affect his attitude or her attitude about what's said."
The screen career that she subsequently carved out for herself gives the impression of doing one of everything, regardless of race, color, creed or gender. She has played lesbians, both knowing (Boys on the Side) and unknowing (The Color Purple); domestics (Corrina, Corrina, Clara's Heart); detectives (The Player, Fatal Beauty); civil-rights activists (Ghosts of Mississippi, The Long Walk Home); a medium who channels Patrick Swayze to Demi Moore (her Oscar-winning Ghost) and a night-club chanteuse-turned-singing nun (two Sister Acts).
Her role choices have not been bound by rules or stereotypical considerations. But not everyone has such vision. She waved her hand frantically for the part of the doomed dipsomaniac in Ironweed‹only the role went to Meryl Streep. Privately, she harbors a hope to play the Maid of Orleans. "I think Joan of Arc is the perfect person for me to try. Diana Sands did it, and my goal is to be as good as Diana Sands. She led me to believe there is nothing I can't do." Sing out, Whoopi. Sing out.