By Mervyn Rothstein
17 Aug 2007
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
For Harvey Evans, it was love at first sight.
"When I was very young, in my hometown, Cincinnati, my parents took me to see a road company of Song of Norway," Evans recalls. "And from that moment, I knew that the theatre was what I wanted to do with my life. My entire childhood was spent waiting to graduate from high school so I could go to New York and be in a Broadway show."
Evans (he was Harvey Hohnecker then) made it to New York in 1955, at age 17, and for 50 years, a half century of Broadway history, he has been a dancer, singer and actor — hardly ever in a lead role, but always part of the action.
Indeed, few performers can offer resumes like Evans', with credits that include the original productions of some of the finest musicals in Broadway history: West Side Story, Gypsy, Follies and Hello, Dolly! And then there’s also Anyone Can Whistle, Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, Redhead and Barnum.
"When I look back," Evans says, "I think I've had some kind of angel on my shoulder, leading me toward the best shows of Broadway's golden years. I didn't pick and choose them — they just came around that way."
In Cincinnati, Evans' parents enrolled him in dance class when he was four. "They thought I was shy," he says. His dance teacher, Pep Golden, "was an old vaudevillian who instilled in his pupils the thrill of performing — we would go out every weekend and dance for various organizations, Masonic groups and the like."
Before Evans moved to New York, he visited. "My parents did a smart thing — they let me come in the summers after the 10th and 11th grade, so that by the time I graduated I knew New York a little. A dancer I had danced with in Cincinnati, Ken Urmston, took me under his wing when I first got here and told me what auditions to go to."
Evans had read a Life magazine article on the making of Damn Yankees. "I was in love with Gwen Verdon, and I said that I would love to be in Damn Yankees. And the first show I got in New York was as a dancer in its national company."
It was there that he met Bob Fosse. "If a choreographer or director liked you, they would use you for their next show. I wound up in several Fosse shows. He sort of mentored me." Evans' first musical as a dancer on Broadway was New Girl in Town, which starred Verdon and was choreographed by Fosse, who also cast Evans in Redhead, with Verdon, and the movie of "The Pajama Game."
While Evans was in New Girl in Town, two of its producers, Harold Prince and Robert Griffith, were casting another new musical — West Side Story. "They told us we couldn’t audition, because they wouldn’t take us out of New Girl and put us as dancers in West Side Story. When I saw the first run-through, though, I thought that West Side Story was the most fantastic thing. So I went to Hal and asked him if I could audition for the first replacement cast — and he said yes. And I became part of that show."
Then came Gypsy. "I was lucky. Jerome Robbins" — the director and choreographer of Gypsy and West Side Story — "liked me and asked me if I would audition for the role of Tulsa. I came very close to getting it. But then they needed a replacement, and I went in." Robbins also cast Evans in the movie version of "West Side Story."
It was in a different movie — a 1962 film called "Experiment in Terror," directed by Blake Edwards and starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick — that Harvey Hohnecker became Harvey Evans. "I was the boyfriend of a girl played by an actress named Taffy Paul. She said she wanted to change her name before the movie came out, and I said I also wanted to do it. I became Harvey Evans, and she became Stefanie Powers."
Back on Broadway, Evans went from one legendary musical to another. First was Anyone Can Whistle, the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents nine-performance flop that starred Angela Lansbury. "I was in Los Angeles doing a TV show and Herbert Ross, its choreographer, asked if I wanted to come back to Broadway for Whistle. I never dreamed it would be anything but a success. Out of town in Philadelphia, Laurents kept telling us not to worry, that Philadelphia will not understand this show but that New York will get it. Then, when the New York reviews came out, it was a big, horrible shock. We closed on Saturday, but then we recorded the album on Sunday, so at least we got an extra day out of it."
Then there was Hello, Dolly! Evans portrayed Barnaby in the national company, with Carol Channing, and then took over the role in New York. "So I got to do it with Channing, Betty Grable and Eve Arden. They all were just fantastic."
In the original cast of Follies Evans portrayed the young Buddy. "The entire company knew we were in something incredibly special — another really, really good Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim show. But no one knew it would turn out to be as monumental as it was. These days, if people know me at all, it's because I was in Follies."
In 1980, Evans was chosen as the standby for Jim Dale in Barnum. "It was a long time before I went on for Dale," Evans recalls. "He was a tough cookie. Several nights he was on the verge of losing his voice, and I was waiting in the wings, but he finished the show. When I finally did go on, it was late in the run, and it was the middle of the first act. He couldn't continue. There's a scene at the end of Act One where Barnum sings while walking the high wire. I had practiced it in rehearsals, but never with the costume or with the experience of how the lights would be. It was totally frightening, but I did it. And I got to do the national company too."
Evans' more recent shows have included Sunset Boulevard, The Scarlet Pimpernel and the 2002 revival of Oklahoma! "I've had my name above the title and I've had it way down low," he says. "It doesn't matter to me. It's just wonderful to be part of this community."
Looking to the future, Evans says what he would like most is to act again in a play — no singing, no dancing, just acting. In 1969, he says, "I played George Gibbs in an incredible Broadway production of Our Town, with Henry Fonda, Margaret Hamilton, Mildred Natwick, Ed Begley Sr. and John Randolph. Opposite me as Emily Webb was Elizabeth Hartman, who had been nominated for an Oscar in 'A Patch of Blue.' After the first reading, I felt that I wanted to get everybody's autograph. But the experience of just acting was fantastic. I've always felt that I would like to do that again.
"I guess you could say I'm still waiting for another good acting role to come around."