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A salute to high crime this month: Grand Theft Libretto, if you will. For April, we take a look at some of the slickest villains around, the scene stealers of Broadway. In honor of the new CD "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men" hitting stores April 3, we rounded up some of the suspects to discuss their thieving ways.
Released on the Broadway Masterworks label and created in partnership with Playbill, the CD — the first in a series of "Editors' Choice" compilations — unearths 12 original cast recordings, songs that provided major showcase moments for minor players. Sometimes, as you'll read, the songs were dashed off last minute, or were written to give the star of the show a little rest, but these songs somehow transcended their origins and, in most cases, remain ever associated with their original performers.
I only wish I could transcend time itself — first, to actually see all of the performances in person, and second, to be able to speak to all of the performers on the CD. As it is, here are four chats with four great gentlemen of the stage: Leonard John Crofoot, André De Shields, Ron Holgate and Austin Pendleton.
* * * * The Scene Stealer: Leonard John Crofoot
The Show: Barnum, 1980, St. James Theatre
The Song: "Bigger Isn't Better"
The Story: Just as General Tom Thumb is a scene-stealer in the actual life of P.T. Barnum, it was appropriate that a person of smaller stature should steal some stage time from the larger-than-life Barnum portrayed by Jim Dale on Broadway. Enter Leonard John Crofoot.
Question: Do you remember auditioning for the role of Tom Thumb?
Leonard John Crofoot: It's sort of ironic. I sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the George M. Cohan song, at the audition, and then I got the job. It was about three auditions, and I'm playing Tom Thumb, and [lyricist] Michael Stewart comes over and says, "You know, you helped me out with the lyrics. I didn't have the beginning of [this song], but now we put it into the lyrics." You know, "I'm General Thumb, just come to town, a Yankee Doodle Dandy." Now, I'm at the Follies here in Palm Springs, and I'm singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" — just the irony, you know.
Q: When you heard the song, did you think it was going to be a song that really won people over the way it did?
Crofoot: I just thought, "My God, this is great. Great! I'm singing a song!" At the time they wanted just the song, so [director] Joe Layton worked out a plan of getting the dancing into the show. We didn't have any dance music, so Joe worked out the count in just chords. He did all the chords, and he called me in, and we worked all night long — put together this thing with [assistant to the director] John Mineo and Joe and me, and we showed it to [producer/composer] Cy Coleman the next day. Joe went to Cy and said, "I want to show you the Tom Thumb dance." And Cy said, "You don't have any music, what do you mean?" And Joe said, "Oh, we did it to chords." And then he told the pianist to play the chords, and Cy made his way over to the piano, and he's looking at the chords, and he wrote the dance music right then and there based on the chords that the pianist had given him. Right on the spot!
Q: You came into Barnum better known as a dancer.
Crofoot: Ballet trained, actually — ballet trained since childhood. I was crippled, I was in a wheelchair, and then I got to move and started taking ballet classes. And the three years in a wheelchair really got me moving, and I've been a dancer ever since. I could [do] ballet basically first, then I went into jazz and some soft shoe, but not much, and then I kind of caught that as I went along. When it came to Barnum, I was pretty seasoned as a singer. I felt okay, but I didn't read music. I thought that might be a drawback, so I tried to get better at that. I had a lot of songs by the time that I auditioned, so I felt fairly comfortable as far as [being] a singer. But I've always considered myself a dancer, actor, singer, in that order.
Q: Do you remember recording the Barnum cast album?
Crofoot: It was in New York, and it was a very quick affair. In-and-out kind of thing. I had about three takes — then they took one bit of one take and the whole other take and that was it, we were done. It was very fast. I loved it because Cy was there, and he tweaked the dials, and he'd say, "Give me a little up on this, a little down there." He knew exactly what he wanted. It was great. He was in heaven, and I was in heaven watching him.
Q: Did you realize back then that "Bigger Isn't Better" would take on a life of its own?
Crofoot: I knew that it was a standout. It was the one number that allowed Jim Dale to have a rest. He could rest during Tom Thumb. He was onstage for every other number, but not for "Bigger Isn't Better." It gave him a breather. It showed what I do. Joe Layton knew me well because I worked with him and Carol Channing. I knew Joe, and he knew that I had the lyrical sense and that I would be able to hit the marks very briskly, and he used that in the choreography. He really catered it toward me, the movement. It worked so beautifully, and I loved working with Joe, and I miss him so much. I really, really enjoyed working with Joe Layton.
The Sequel: Crofoot is currently doing a gig through May 20 with The Follies in Palm Springs. He choreographs any chance he gets, "to Daft Punk, all kinds of music," he says. He recently choreographed a play called In Earth as it is in Heaven at the Loyola-Marymount University Theater in LA. Crofoot also has a one-man show he's been performing since 1995 called Nijinsky Speaks, which you can learn about on nijinskyspeaks.com.
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The Scene Stealer: André De Shields
The Show: Ain't Misbehavin', 1978, Longacre Theatre
The Song: "The Viper's Drag"
The Story: André De Shields says his forte is what he calls "extreme performance" — playing characters with the power to break the fourth wall, challenging the audience and shaking up their complacency a bit. He certainly made an art of it in his career-making performance of "The Viper's Drag."
Question: What do you remember about your first encounter with "The Viper"?
André De Shields: [Laughs.] I remember first when Ain't Misbehavin' had its birth at the Manhattan Theatre Club when it was still on 73rd Street on the East Side in what I think was originally a Ukrainian social club. What I remember is how permissive and how accepting that whole concept that a badass character like a viper could be embraced by a Broadway audience as representative of the kind of music they would enjoy. Beause this guy is exhorting the attributes of being a pothead. And, being an unreconstructed hippy, I thought, "Could this fit me any better?" Like a kid glove. And, mainly, with the help of Luther Henderson, who was the orchestrator of Fats Waller's music and is no longer with us, but who was the real deal, we were able to refract it through a lens that made it absolutely accessible to the contemporary audience of 1977–78 when you could walk from Broadway to Eighth Avenue on "The Deuce," as it was called at the time, and you could buy anything and anyone you wanted. You could literally go down to 42nd Street and buy a doobie for a dollar.
Q: So, The Viper was not very far from his home…
De Shields: Exactly. But it also gave me an opportunity to sing that song in a style that I probably still do better than anybody: monstrously slow, which is what my style is. That's what the Viper was about, being so high on weed that he could hardly move — he was moving through molasses going uphill on a day in February, that kind of thing. And doing this graceful hypnotic Balinese coiled-cobra-coming-out-of-a-basket kind of dance, which was all the stuff that I did naturally. It was one of the high points of my career.
Q: Did you know upon hearing the song that it was going to be amazing?
De Shields: I knew it was going to be memorable. It's the quintessential vaudevillian performance, and it's also quintessentially André de Shields in that it's idiosyncratic. Exquisitely unique to my talent, and being included in this album speaks to that, I hope. I think!
Q: How much fun was it to perform?
De Shields: In the live performance, it is one of those archetypical illustrations of how to break the fourth wall because once the Viper is high on the Mighty Mezz (that's what it was called in the thirties, named after the guy who provided the weed to all the jazz greats), I got a chance to swivel down to the edge of the stage and step off of it. The stage was designed so it spilled like a waterfall over the apron into the first aisle of the audience, and I could come down beyond the proscenium and offer the joint to someone sitting in the first row; and nine times out of ten, some poor fool would reach for it, and, of course, I would snatch it back and laugh at them, and the whole audience would [crack] up. It was a marvelous opportunity for me to make a mark in the Broadway canon, and obviously we did, because that year, 1978, the show which was initially attempted to be dismissed as a revue [ended up winning] the Tony as Best Musical.
Q: Did you feel like you were stealing the show?
De Shields: It was never my intent, and it was never the intention of the creative team that any one of us would be stealing the show. It was simply my turn, as it were, because each of the five of us had a turn. I knew that in order to make it believable and accessible and memorable for the audience, I had to give them — to use a phrase from Fats Waller — I had to "find out what they liked and how they liked it and let 'em have it just that way," and that's what I did. And that's what each of us did.
If you know the show, you know that Ken Page, when he does "Your Feet's Too Big," made an indelible impression with his star turn. And you know that Armelia McQueen, when she does "Squeeze Me," that was her star turn, Charlaine Woodard, when she does, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," that was her star turn. And, of course, Nell Carter, "Mean to Me," that was her star turn, and my star turn was "The Viper's Drag," and every one of us stole the show during his or her star turn. By the same token, when we did our ensemble numbers, we committed to that also, but it was never the intention for people to steal the show. But because nothing like "The Viper's Drag" had ever been seen before, and nothing like it has ever been seen since, it falls into that category of scene stealers.
Q: Were you ever inspired by a scene-stealer you had seen?
De Shields: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it happened when I was maybe nine years old. I'm so glad you asked me this because my performance in Ain't Misbehavin' is inspired by this man's performance in the film "Cabin in the Sky." When I was asked to do Ain't Misbehavin', I immediately went back into the rolodex of my mind and brought right to the forefront this performance by John Bubbles. When I saw him do "Cabin in the Sky," he was resplendent in white from head to toe — three-piece white suit, white spats, white cane, and, of course, he's the villain that everybody loves to hate, and he spins into this tavern into the swinging doors and dances up a flight of stairs. To a nine-year old mind, it looked as if he was consumed in a glittering cloud, and my eyes were as wide as saucers, and that's when I knew, that's when that epiphany exploded inside of me, and I knew, "André, that's what you're going to do."
The Sequel: André De Shields, who has since been nominated twice for a Tony, just returned from Barbados where he performed his R&B cabaret show, Black By Popular Demand. He teaches master classes across the country and will soon be on his way to Dubai to perform a show based on the life and times of Louis Armstrong called Ambassador Satch.
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The Scene Stealer: Ron Holgate
The Show: 1776, 1969, 46th Street Theatre
The Song: "The Lees of Old Virginia"
The Story: Ron Holgate had just one number in 1776 as the indomitable Richard Henry Lee, but he made such an impression that he won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical just seven years shy of the Bicentennial.
Question: Do your recall your first encounter with the "The Lees"?
Ron Holgate: When I auditioned for 1776, they asked me to come back and sing something else that I hadn't prepared. They wanted me to sing "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye," and I thought, "Really?" It made me so curious as to what their song was all about in a show about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Anyway, I came back the next week, and I sang "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye," gave it my all, and there was silence out there, and they said, "Yeah…you know what? Uh…what else can you sing?" And Stuart Ostrow, the producer, came running down the aisle yelling, "You know what I wanna hear? I wanna hear 'Blue Skies' in an uptempo!" [Laughs.] I said, "What the hell is this song anyway? Give it to me, I'll sight read it." And, they all looked at each other and Stuart said, "You can't. It's at the copiers. We don't have the copy of the music." I finally was hired for the thing, and the first day of rehearsal was the first time I heard that song. As soon as Sherman Edwards was going through the score singing all the songs and he sang that song, and I listened to it, and I said, "That song is 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm.' That's what I should have sung [at the audition]!"
The first time I heard it, I knew I could do a lot with it. I just had a gut feeling it was going to be a successful thing.
I'll tell you another story about the song. When we went to Washington, DC, for tryouts, we had a heck of a time with the show. The show wasn't a success in Washington. We opened it, and it got a lukewarm review. It said the show went downhill right after I left the stage, and that number was the only standout number in the show. So when I came into rehearsal the next day, they called me aside and they said, "Ron, we want you to do something tonight. We want you to sing the song, but don't do any of the staging that you do." And, I thought, "Why am I being singled out like this?" I was very upset, of course, and I went to Onna White who was the choreographer, and she said, "Just do it tonight, okay? Just do it tonight." So I did it that way, and, of course, it didn't have the impact, and they realized it was a stupid way to do it, and they put it right back in the next night.
Q: They thought you might be overshadowing the rest of the show?
Holgate: It's kind of like, "What is this number in the show for?" Either it's too good, or it's too different, let's put it that way. Too boisterous. I already had one thing taken away from me from in the first Broadway show I did, which was Milk and Honey. They had taken away a big scene that I had that had gotten great reviews and gave it to Mollie Picon. I said, "What is this? Every time I do something good, I get punished for it?" [Laughs.]
Q: In the end, you were rewarded with a Tony.
Holgate: And to round out the story, when we made the film of 1776, the first thing they filmed was my number, and it was because they wanted to show Jack Warner that the musical wasn't just a bunch of guys sitting around talking about the Declaration of Independence. Q: How was doing the film?
Holgate: I enjoyed it. I'm a great movie fan, but not working in movies. What you go through to do a movie these days is pretty torturous. When we filmed that, the Santa Ana wind conditions were pretty prevalent in Los Angeles. It was 115 degrees when we filmed that number, dressed in those wigs and costumes. It was really rough. They had huge canisters of tea and water and juice around, and you'd be drinking stuff all day long, then you'd go home at night and drink like a quart of beer and go to bed and wake up at two in the morning with a horrible thirst and go to the refrigerator and guzzle down a quart of water. It was really rough.
Q: How did the reception of the movie compare to the show?
Holgate: It did go through an odd history. When we did the Broadway show, people thought it was being iconoclastic in the way we treated the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson, and [John] Adams especially. Then, when the movie came out, a lot of people thought it was kind of jingoistic, flag-waving and that sort of thing. That's how rapidly the writing of American history changes.
Q: What have been your favorite roles since then?
Holgate: The show I did most often and every opportunity I could was Lend Me a Tenor. I did the original production, I did it in London, I did it on the road, I directed it, I acted in it. You might be interested to know there is a musical version of Lend Me a Tenor that's going to be done this summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I don't think I'll get out there, but I talked to [playwright] Ken Ludwig about it. He talked to me about doing it, but I'm too old for that now.
The Sequel: Ron is now living in Saratoga Springs, NY. In recent years he has toured in Urinetown, and is currently preparing a Civil War musical called Reunion, which he co-created for the New York State Theater Institute in Troy, NY. Next fall, he will return to his hometown in South Dakota to be inducted into the Aberdeen Central High School Hall of Fame.
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The Scene Stealer: Austin Pendleton
The Show: Fiddler On the Roof, 1964, Imperial Theatre
The Song: "Miracle of Miracles"
The Story: Recognized more now for his numerous cinema ("What's Up Doc?," "My Cousin Vinny," "A Beautiful Mind") and television ("Oz," "Homicide," "Law and Order") character roles, Austin Pendleton kicked off his career in a big way by creating the role of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof. Stealing a scene couldn't have been easy with Zero Mostel in the cast, but Pendleton's unbridled joy in "Miracle of Miracles" puts the number right up there with some of the show's more famous standards.
Question: How do you remember the song coming into your life?
Austin Pendleton: We were on the road with that show, and [composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick] were trying to find a song that would work for Bert Convy, who was playing Perchik, and I had a song called "Now I Have Everything." They adapted the song I had for him, and I would sing it in the first act, and he would sing it in the second act. Of course, that made no sense to the audience. But they liked that song for him, so they decided to write another song for me. So this was almost at the end of the out-of-town tryout, and all of a sudden, they just overnight wrote that song for me, and they played it for me and we put it right into the show three nights before we ended the out-of-town engagement in Washington. We had a handful of previews on Broadway, like four or five previews, and then that was it. So, it was pretty last minute. It was all because they couldn't find a song for Bert.
Q: So that worked out well for you.
Q: Do you remember the first time you heard it, thinking, "Hey, this is not bad."
Pendleton: I remember thinking exactly that. They had a real feel for the character I was playing. I heard a lot of songs they had written for Motel over the year that I was in the show before we opened, and they just wrote very easily for that character. I think it came very naturally for them.
Q: When did you have a sense that it was going to be a standout?
Pendleton: On the night we put it into the show, I'd only rehearsed it for a couple of days. We always rehearsed in the afternoon when we were out of town. And that afternoon they brought the orchestra in, and they played it, and I sang the song onstage, and the cast came up onstage and said, "You bastard! You have one of the best songs in the show!" And, this is right at the last minute. The show, other than that, was essentially completely frozen, so we had a lot of fun about that.
Q: Was Mr. Mostel cool with it?
Pendleton: He was very generous. He was always very supportive of me and a lot of other people in the cast, too. He was delighted.
Q: When did you record the song for the original cast LP?
Pendleton: On a Sunday — that was in the days when the day off was on Sunday. Maybe a week or two after we opened, and it was when you recorded an album in this big room with the orchestra there. It wasn't like the orchestra did one track, and you came and recorded a separate track at a different time. It was all in a sort of cruder day of recording. So, you had to do a lot of takes to get everything exactly right because the orchestra was being amplified and all that. . . . I remember this quite well: We'd had two shows on Saturday, so by now the voice was getting a little shredded, so on the tenth take, we finally got everything right — it was going alright, and right toward the end of the take, someone in the room accidentally kicked over a Coke bottle on the floor, and you could hear it, so we had to do the 11th take! I always thought the tenth take was the brilliant one, but then, of course, you always think that. You think it in movies, too. "Oh, see the take when it was really great, something got screwed up, so now we have to do another one not as good." But that's just actor paranoia.
Q: Since then, you haven't been known as much for musicals…
Pendleton: I've done a few since then. In fact, the only show I ever won awards for was a musical a few years later Off-Broadway called The Last Sweet Days of Isaac by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, and that ran for about a year and a half. That was my biggest thing in terms of awards, and that was a musical with actually a lot more singing. I was in a musical a few years after that by Arthur Miller and Stanley Silverman from Arthur's play about the Book of Genesis. The play is called The Creation of the World and Other Business, and the musical is called Up from Paradise, and that's a beautiful score, and of course the script is terrific, but that just played like a month at the Jewish Rep on East 14th Street in 1983, and then it disappeared from view, and I don't think there's any recording of that or anything. That's too bad.
Q: You direct a good deal for the stage. Are musicals something you enjoy directing?
Pendleton: I have directed two musicals. Each of them was a new musical. Neither one of them really worked, but I'm up for doing it any time. That idea just thrills me. It's a really difficult form. And Jerry [Robbins], who directed Fiddler, he was the master at it of all time, I think. We all learned a lot from him of how to direct a musical. I would love to keep at that, absolutely.
The Sequel: Pendleton teaches acting at the HB Acting Studio in New York, which he says keeps him together. He's involved in a couple of showcase projects and continues to write and direct for the stage. Of recent stuff, he recommends a film he acted in now out on DVD, called "Bad City," in which he gets to play "a really bad human being."
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Also… An inveterate record fiend from youth, my first encounter with the song "Joey Joey Joey" was about 20 years ago at a thrift shop in Northern Indiana. It was on an EP 45 rpm record I found that included that song plus "Big D" and a couple others from The Most Happy Fella. I recognized "Standing on the Corner" from the Four Lads hit version, but Art Lund's performance of "Joey" blew me away, so it is nice to see it set apart as the scene-stealer it must have been. Also included on "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men" are Ben Wright, performing "Giants in the Sky" from Into the Woods, Paul Wallace doing "All I Need is the Girl" from Gypsy, John Travolta with "Dream Drummin'/Soft Music" from Over Here! , Lonny Price doing "Franklin Shepard, Inc." from Merrily We Roll Along, Swen Swenson singing "I've Got Your Number" from Little Me, Cyril Ritchard performing "Captain Hook's Waltz" from Peter Pan, and Barney Martin as "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago.
To purchase "Scene Stealers" online right now visit www.playbillstore.com.
For more information visit www.sonybmgmasterworks.com.
Tom Nondorf is a publications editor for Playbill Classic Arts. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
To read about the women featured on the new CD "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women," click here.