If they ever make a country/rock/gospel version of "The Jazz Singer," it would come out a lot like Linda Hart's life story. In point of fact, the reason the perky comedienne signed up for The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which has its grand opening this month at Dodger Stages, is that the part gives her a chance to tug at all three of her musical roots.
The part is Betty, pure and simple — well, maybe not so pure. She's a bit blunt and blowsy around the edges, as are most of the endearing ditzes in Hart's gallery. Betty operates the Armadillo Acres, the premier trailer park in Starke, Florida — a real place, by the by, and it is said that book writer and director Betsy Kelso drew some of her characters from the still-lifes there.
These include a fading beauty named Jeannie, who, crippled by agoraphobia and OD-ing on "Dr. Phil," hasn't left her trailer in 20 years, causing her tollbooth-collector husband, Norbert, to throw his chump-change on the new gal in court, a stripper-on-the-lam named Pippi. Naturally, she has a boyfriend who won't take this sitting down on his motorcycle.
Betty is the narrator and tour guide for the ensuing mayhem, treating the audience as if they got off on the wrong exit ramp ("I can tell by looking at you that you have never been to a trailer park before"). Along the way, she steps into other roles — a waitress, a talk-show host who goes into the audience and plays Trailer Park Oprah, even a Greek chorus with songs by David Nehls and back-up by "Pickles" (who fancies herself in a perpetual state of pregnancy) and "Lin" (so called because she was born at home on the kitchen linoleum). The cast runs a merry gamut from Kaitlin Hopkins (Bat Boy's mom) to Shuler Hensley (a Tony-winning Jud in Broadway's last Oklahoma!) to Orfeh (of Saturday Night Fever). But Hart is the heart of the meshugaas, and the songs are right up her alley. "I get to use all my upbringing," she trills happily. "How many roles give you that kind of chance?"
Papa was a preacher — still is, at a nondenominational church in Detroit — and when she was seven she graduated from church choir to television studio, joining Mom, Dad and her two brothers in a weekly gospel series called "The Harts." "Looking back now, I see how blessed I was with that upbringing. It's made all the difference in my career. We were like the white Jacksons. Everybody played instruments. Everybody was multi-talented."
She showed an early theatrical bent and was a theatre major at Los Angeles City College, but her plans were put on hold when the family landed a lucrative contract with Columbia Records and moved to Nashville to record a dozen gospel albums — a few of them Grammy nominees, one a Grammy winner. It took time to get back on theatrical track, easing out of gospel and into country.
Her first step in that direction was The New Christy Minstrels. (She was the only female leader the group ever had.) ABC-TV's "The Johnny Cash Show" followed, as did opening-act gigs for Hank Williams Jr., Mel Tillis, Roy Clark, The Oak Ridge Boys, et al. Then, an ad in The Hollywood Reporter changed everything. Bette Midler wanted to replenish her back-up act, The Harlettes ("Must sing, dance and have great attitude"), so Hart answered the ad and got the job, she says, "over 208 girls and two men-in-drag."
Doing back-up for Bette Midler, off and on, for two or three years toughens a girl's hide and makes her Broadway-ready. She came out of the chute, hard as a tack and ready to be loved, in the Tony-winning Anything Goes, playing a brassy gun moll who blew everyone away belting "Buddie, Beware." It won her a Theatre World Award as a New Face of '88.
She has also performed the entire musical-comedy canon of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — both shows: Livin' Dolls, in 1982 at Manhattan Theatre Club, and their next, 20 years later, Hairspray, which is still going strong at the Neil Simon Theatre. She was the Funicello facsimile in the former, a Beach Party movie send-up, and in the latter she bared fangs as a Baltimore bigot circa '62. She first met Shaiman when he was Midler's 17-year-old music man, long before he became arranger-to-the-stars and an Oscar-nominated composer.
The Midler experience, she says, "was like going to school with the best of 'em," and Midler must appreciate the association as well since she extended Hart's Harlette duties to supporting parts in her pictures ("Stella," "Get Shorty") and the CBS "Gypsy." While she was bumping it with a trumpet, she rescued a terrier during an L.A. earthquake and — at the suggestion of her husband, William Forster — dubbed the dog "Mazeppa." It's with her still.
Despite (or, perhaps, because of) her spiritual background, tart is Hart's best suit. She positively revels in raunch — and gave it full vent in the Second Stage revival of Gemini, playing Bunny Weinberger, a brazen, cleavage-baring, man-hungry divorcee. The role allowed Hart license to kill, and kill she did. It's her favorite so far, and, as luck would have it, she got to reprise it in a musicalized Gemini that tried out at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater last fall. The idea of doing this on Broadway has Hart blissed out. "That part was completely a wild woman out of control, and the songs that went with it were brilliantly matched to the pitch of the character. I can't wait to do the part on Broadway."
And, rest assured, her folks will be in the audience — as always — cheering her on. The one major difference in her "Jazz Singer" scenario is that they've always been in her corner. "They are incredibly supportive of everything I have done in theatre. They're my biggest fans."